Otherland founder Abigail Stone on how storytelling & nostalgia fuel her brand narrative

May 13, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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I’ve always been a lifelong believer in the power of routine.

Every morning I wake up, do my Headspace meditation, and light a candle. And after a long day at work, I plop down on the couch, exhausted and light a candle. I began to notice I felt transformed after completing these routines. All that stress just melted away.

And it wasn’t just me. I spoke with my friends, and like me, there was an identical element to our routines: The lighting of a candle. But we all felt there wasn’t a perfect brand for people like us. 

Sure, there were luxury brands with great fragrances available, but they were so expensive. I was too scared to burn them. They’d sit there on my table, unused. 

And the cheaper options have a sickly saccharine smell and lackluster design. I began to think there might be a space on the market for a great-smelling yet financially accessible candle. 

And just like that, Otherland was born. But let’s start from the beginning.

The spark that led to a business

I always knew deep in my heart I wanted to run a business.

Even when I was a kid, I ran all the typically “businesses” you see kids running. I walked dogs; I made bracelets—you name it, I did it. And then, I grew up and went to college, where I fell in love with art.

However, I was never exactly sure what type of business I’d run. My love of art led me to work as an art buyer for Ralph Lauren for a while. I also started Young Folk at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC. That became my first real adult business-founding experience, and I loved it. We fostered a great community and hosted terrific events. This experience gave me the courage to take the next steps in my career, business school.

An MBA isn’t required to start a business: In fact, I know lots of great people who have done exceptionally well without one. But my experiences in NYC opened my eyes to the power of a strong business education foundation. I recognized that an in-depth educational experience, coupled with networking, would open so many doors for me in the future. I was accepted to business school at Columbia University, and it was an incredible experience.

After my time at Columbia, I worked at Founder Collective for one year. The connections I made in the startup community and what I learned about DTC filled me with the confidence to step into the CEO role, which before felt so beyond my reach.

It was around this time I realized I was burning candles every day, but the ones I wanted I couldn’t afford. So I put my MBA to use, dug into market research, and realized something more to this. There was a real opportunity here.

I felt like I had the opportunity to bring art into people’s homes with candles. When people buy our candles, they’re usually buying them online and can’t smell them. Artwork and visuals play a huge role in getting customers to buy.

There are lots of ways we try to catch our customer’s attention with visuals: our packaging, the candle design, our website, and social media channels. We try to convey our story in every aspect of our brand—from browsing our candles online to that first lighting.  

The nostalgia of design

Every Otherland collection tells a story.

I get my inspiration from going through personal memories or dreams I’ve had. 

For example, our beach collection has an ‘80s beach club vibe. One scent in that collection, Stone Fruit, is made with notes of plum, peach skin, and brown sugar. It was inspired by a trip to Nantucket with my family when I was younger. My mom would always buy two jars of beach plum jam—one for now and one for January when she needed that little slice of summer to get through winter. 

These stories show how powerful and personal scent is to our experience. To me, Stone Fruit isn’t just a plum candle. It’s nostalgia. 

Another scent inspired by familiarity is Matchpoint. It consists of a tennis ball (I know, it’s weird, but people love it!), cut grass, and cucumber. Even just thinking about those scents triggers memories for a lot of people. 

The link between scent and memory is fascinating. For me, Matchpoint is all about my first job in NYC, working as a ball girl at the U.S. Open tennis competition. But for our customers, these smells could trigger different memories.

New scents, new collections

When it comes to developing new scent collections, I tend to be an overzealous mood board maker. When brainstorming ideas for a new collection, I dive into Pinterest boards, Instagram, and past mood boards to find inspiration. I also find inspiration in the seasons and what unique smells are typically found as the weather changes. 

Then we find an illustrator—usually on Instagram. From there, we cull the mood board down to a few images and scent identities. I love seeing it all unfold and take shape: The emotional context and scent story weaving together to create a unique piece of art. 

Our goal is for customers to be excited and look forward to our next drop when these limited editions run out. By generating lots of social media buzz and FOMO, we engage and build our customer base. 

Investing in art

When I founded Otherland, I knew I wanted to invest in custom packaging. That’s a risky investment to make, especially when you’re just starting. But I felt that we couldn’t afford to miss out on this opportunity to stand out as a DTC eCommerce brand.

Several different custom surfaces on our product and packaging act as a canvas for artwork and storytelling. Upon that, candle artwork and stories can be printed and displayed. When I talk to my designers and illustrators, we focus on creating expressive packaging and a beautiful and functional product that excites our customers and encourages them to share on social media We want our customers to feel inspired to tell their stories as they discover and burn our scents.

It was an expensive decision, but it was a critical move for us as a new company. It’s all in the details: The matchbox, the lid, the label. These are all essential layers of discovery for our customers. 

These details are super important for establishing our brand. That’s how we continue to evolve and tell our stories. 

Increasing average order value

From the beginning, we’ve incorporated bundles into our marketing strategy, but many of our customers like building their own. They can save $19 on a bundle of three candles. People love to mix and match candles and find a scent that speaks to them or even try a new fragrance. 

Our collections typically include three signature scents, but now some of them have six. 

From a UX perspective, we added an option allowing customers to purchase all six in the collection at once, which has done tremendously well. Our customers trust our perspective and want to experience the whole collection. This trust has driven our average order value significantly.

Expanding into DTC and beyond

We launched Otherland as a direct-to-consumer brand, but we’ve always wanted to take an omnichannel approach. Last year, we launched in Nordstrom department stores right as COVID hit. And with people spending a lot more time at home, we did very well there. 

Last fall, we then expanded to Sephora as the first-ever DTC candle brand offered at the beauty retailer. It’s been so rewarding to see Otherland expand its audience while reaching existing customers where they prefer to shop.

I see our candles as straddling the line between homeware, beauty, self-care, and wellness. Whether our candles are sold in a department store or online, we’re all about reaching our customers.

While candles will always be our flagship product, we’re always thinking of ideas and considering potential areas for expansion, like:

  • Soaps
  • Diffusers
  • Functional sprays
  • Bodywash
  • Perfumes

There are many opportunities out there, which is super exciting for us (and our customers!).  

Fireside chats

Just after the lockdown hit in NYC, everyone was panicking. As a business owner, I was wondering, “How should we connect to our customers? How can I make myself visible and available as a CEO?” 

That’s when my business partner said to me, “I dare you to go on Instagram Live.”

That’s something I’d never done before, and I admit that I was nervous.

But, times were tough, and we needed to do something. So, challenge accepted.

That initial foray into IRL social media broadcasting was our very first fireside chat. Instagram Live became a great way to start a conversation with our customers. 

Plus, it wasn’t hard to do and offered built-in social distancing. I could hop on for twenty minutes and chat with a special guest about self-care, all from the comfort of our own homes. 

I got the opportunity to speak with several fantastic people about how they got started in business and sparked their careers. It was a great way to grow our community and connect on a deeper level.

We had so many strong, famous women on the show—Ariana Huffington and Nina Harris, to name a few. These are women I have so much respect for, and I might not have had the chance to connect with had it not been for these fireside chats. 

Taking this leap has been one of the most incredible things I’ve done this past year. 

The influence of a great scent

Influencer marketing is a big part of our strategy. We tried a couple of paid social media posts, but it didn’t seem like the greatest use of money for us as a startup. We wanted to work with influencers who were passionate about us and our products. So everything is ‘gifted.’

Micro-influencers are our sweet spot. They’re building their communities by sharing an authentic perspective that connects with their followers.  Authenticity and honesty are key to unlocking influencer magic. And with their help, Instagram has been our top channel for sales by far.

Moving forward

There are so many things on the horizon for Otherland that I’m super excited about. 

We haven’t launched a new collection in a year due to COVID slowing everything down, so we’re releasing one soon. We also have seven more collections in the pipeline, with sneak peeks coming up.

I’m thrilled to see how Otherland can continue evolving, serving our customers, and remaining a critical part of the self-care rituals for so many. 

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