Griffin Thall of Pura Vida on leveraging creators for DTC growth
In 2010, I started Pura Vida—a handcrafted bracelet and jewelry brand with my best friend and business partner, Paul Goodman.
Pura Vida means “Pure Life” in Spanish, and last year was our 10th business anniversary.
On our graduation trip, Paul and I went to Costa Rica. While surfing and exploring the town, we met two guys on the beach, Jorge and Joaquin, making bracelets by hand.
They struggled to make ends meet with their current wages and lived with their families in one room containing three beds. We walked up to them and asked if we could buy 400 bracelets and take them back to San Diego—and they did.
We bought these bracelets, put them online in a couple of stores, and built a website. Both of us were completely unaware of what we were doing as we didn’t have any knowledge or experience in this area, but we figured it out.
The brand quickly took off, and we started getting orders from different retail stores and surf shops, along with online sales from almost every state in the US.
Every purchase helps us provide sustainable income and employment to artisan communities in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and India. It also enables us to give back to charities and protect the planet.
Here’s a peek into what we’ve been up to at Pura Vida, where we started, the obstacles we’ve faced, and how we leveraged creators in our marketing mix.
Early days at Pura Vida
We weren’t funded and started with a hundred dollars each, so we didn’t want to take many big-sized marketing risks at first—everything was very calculated and bootstrapped.
Some skills and strengths that helped move the business forward, especially in the early days, included:
- Our content marketing and photography branding
- How we narrated a story for such a simple product—appealing but also authentic and organic.
- Transparency with marketing—how much we were donating, who we were working with, and different things within our supply chain
- Working with creators
Creators: Reaching out, building relationships, and their role in the marketing strategy
At Pura Vida, I usually oversee the recruitment of top-tier creators and maintain those relationships as well as bringing on bigger talent to the brand and initiating either branch-brand collaborations or licensed deals.
Next month, we have a big campaign launching with Disney and Harry Potter. In March-April, we also did a massive campaign with Charli D’ Amilio from TikTok—that’s the kind of stuff that gets me excited.
So...how does it work?
I mainly go to the creator’s Instagram, get their contact details and shoot them an email saying, "Hey, my name's Griffin. I'm the founder of Pura Vida. I think you have a personality, skill, or look,"—this depends on whatever angle we're trying to go for and how the creator aligns with it.
By doing this, I initiate a relationship at the most authentic level. These emails are mostly handled by managers (since these are primarily A-list celebrities) who reply by saying they are interested and would love to know more. We set up a phone call and then discuss how we've worked with multiple influencers over the years and what we have in mind for them.
Our first creator partnership
In 2011, we started working with creators. We struck a deal with Lauren Conrad—the actress on the TV show, The Hills.
Paul and I met her manager at a tradeshow somewhere and decided to take a risk. It was $8,000-$10,000 per post, and we didn't know what we were doing because this was before influencer marketing took off—thus, we were lost about rates.
However, we took a risk and got 4X the amount we paid as returns on our website within 24 hours.
That's when we realized the power of influencers was real, so we signed up for another three months with her, and each one of them was successful. We then extended the contract to another year, where almost nine of them worked well, and in the last three months, we maximized our audience base.
Between the time we started and stopped working with her—Facebook ads and influencer marketing took off, but we had already leveraged them before they gained momentum.
The role of creators in our marketing mix
We use creators to create photos and videos for content creation rather than direct response and sponsored posts because we wanted to find another way to build awareness for the brand outside the world of social media advertisements.
We use these images on ads, email marketing, homepage banners—and that's really how the creator marketing view looks from the Pura Vida valley.
From when we started working with Lauren Conrad in 2011 to today in 2021—the effectiveness of a social media post has gone down drastically. This is because many people on the platform are posting, and there are more paid ads in a user's feed than organic posts.
Creator trips: The heart of Pura Vida content
We have very strong and secure relationships with our creators. One of the main reasons we love to work with some of our creators is that they're a true extension of our brand—they live a carefree and surf-inspired lifestyle. They live at the beach, mountains and all they want to do is be outside and be creative—that's who we are at the root of it.
We have five to 10 amazing photographers who are not technically our employees but are a part of these trips that consistently contribute to our content flow. We haven't been doing them because of COVID right now, but earlier, we made eight to 10 trips a year with influencers.
Apart from strengthening creator-brand relationships, the main focus of these trips is creating solid social media content—the Pura Vida style.
These have been as small as a brunch with 12 people to launch a bracelet pack at a trendy restaurant or as extravagant as a trip to Hawaii we recently did in March where we rented an Airbnb and went skydiving—that's pretty much our extreme end. These trips accounted for 1% of our brand's annual marketing budget and gave a significant ROI.
What’s ahead for Pura Vida in 2021?
We're launching an extensive campaign with Disney. I'm excited about it because I'm currently approving the final video assets for the commercial. They're turning out to be great because Disney gave us access to their artboard where we could play around with characters.
This will be a “Mickey and friends” collection with six or seven characters, and we're planning to launch it on National Best Friend's Day. The entire campaign and its messaging revolve around the theme of friendship and positive vibes.
On top of this, we're also opening our first retail store in San Diego UTC Mall—one of the largest malls in San Diego. We'll be next to Forever 21, Nordstrom Express, and the main food court.
We plan to use our brand ambassadors and influencers to drive traffic to the store to launch our exclusive products. Here are a few elements we're planning for the store:
- An engraving station so people can buy jewelry and engrave their name or someone they're gifting the jewelry to.
- An Instagram section with a big plant wall.
- Tons of seating, phone chargers, and good music.
- Collaborations with different people and brands to bring in iced coffees, and snow cones, etc.
- Events spotlighting and featuring smaller brands.
We want the store to be an experience in itself—a Pura Vida adventure—so you feel you're walking in our social media feed when you walk into the store.
Obstacles in our Pura Vida journey
We're not a perfect brand.
There have been instances where we were excited about a campaign, and it didn't perform well, or we bought deep inventory which didn't sell, so we had to come up with a different way to sell, move or deconstruct the jewelry pack.
Also, between now and 2020, the Instagram organic reach has dropped by 50%, which has nothing to do with our content strategy, influencers, or posting cadence. Every brand, including us, has had to re-strategize their social media because we were getting half the impressions and had worked so hard to build our fan base—so that's pretty frustrating.
If Instagram takes its focus away from organic reach and ad prices go up, it will be challenging to figure out what we're supposed to do:
- If we want to hit numbers, should we keep growing our budget?
- How can we buy back impressions if we have a strong brand and good products but the impressions have dropped by 50?
At the moment, brands are at a headwind of lower organic impressions and higher ad costs, which is difficult to address.
However, there are two ways to look at this:
- You lower your ad spends, and go towards a slow growth where profitability still holds.
- You don't care about profitability and want your top line to grow. In that case, you plow through Facebook ads at an inefficient speed.
The second one is not a strategy, I agree, but those are the only two options if you want to focus on Instagram and Facebook.
Tiding over the social media headwinds
Our wholesale business is booming—this year, we're going to grow more than double of last year and over 50% of the year before.
Over 5,000 stores carry Pura Vida products, and the repeat purchase order rate and order value are exploding. So we're not looking at the social media situation as something that's going to solve anytime soon—we'll continue having a strong presence in wholesale because that's been working well for us.
Pura Vida is the number one jewelry brand at Nordstrom, a top brand at WholeFoods and Tilly's, and larger gift stores like Hallmark.
These stores are now doubling, even quadrupling the presence of our products by giving us sections and walls instead of one-square-foot counter space by the register. So, we're starting to generate revenue from these too.
One lesson for someone launching a brand today
If you're starting a brand today, don't focus on being just a DTC brand. Be an omnichannel brand consisting of retail stores, online stores, and a wholesale front.
For this, you need a strong staff to facilitate all three channels instead of just building a Shopify store and raising money to spend on Facebook ads and influencer marketing. This DTC-only model is bound to bring burnout, but if you bring in customer data like phone numbers, email addresses, and transactions from wholesalers along with a brick and mortar plus online store—it'll be great.
For the past nine months, Paul and I have also been writing a book we plan to launch before the year ends.
The book is about the past ten years of growing a brand from my bedroom floor with a hundred dollars each, how two college graduates used their marketing degrees instead of looking for 9-5 jobs, and what we learned each year in business—hiring, funding, shipping, etc.
It will walk the readers through the most common questions around creating an eCommerce business in a storytelling format, and dig deeper into the making and running of Pura Vida.