Lillie Sun of Three Ships on marketing with transparency and education in mind
When I graduated college in Ontario last April, I was fully prepared to start my career in management consulting. My life was going to be all corporate all the time.
The last thing I expected was to fast forward eight months and find myself running all aspects of DTC efforts as the Growth Marketing Associate at a small, bootstrapped skincare brand called Three Ships.
But ask me now and I truly can’t imagine anything better than working for a thoughtful, transparent, community-oriented, woman-owned-and-run small business.
Let’s talk about what makes Three Ships such a special brand.
Three Ships’ number one priority: transparency
Three Ships is a natural, effective, and affordable skincare brand, founded by Connie Lo and Laura Burget, two people who wanted to bring transparency to the skincare industry. Making sure their customers knew exactly what they were getting had to be the foundation of their company.
“We were sick and tired of being lied to and sold over-priced, greenwashed products that don't work."
Part of being transparent has meant defining our terms. Natural, effective, and affordable can all mean different things to different people.
Three Ships understands them as follows:
- Natural: By natural, we mean 100% plant-derived, free of chemicals, and guaranteed vegan and cruelty-free.
- Effective: When we say effective, we mean our products are developed and tried and tested over the course of 8-10 months. Rather than white labeling, a practice that involves slapping a label on a pre-made formula, we make all our products from scratch in conjunction with our chemists, choosing ingredients we believe will have the most impact based on actives.
- Affordable: To us, affordable means all our products, of which there are eighteen currently, are under $40 US and always will be. We keep that price point in mind right at the start of product development to ensure we stay in that range.
What we value above all is transparency, and we reflect that in our products, our marketing, and our customer interactions.
Communicating directly with customers is relatively new for us, since in our first initial years as a brand, Three Ships was focused on retail. Connie and Laura literally knocked on store doors one by one on Queen Street in Toronto to get the brand into as many boutiques as they could.
It worked, and each store they got into led to another.
It wasn’t until I was hired last year that we started investing in our various DTC channels. And despite not having had much of an online presence, our years in Canadian retail built up a loyal customer base, one we’ve been excitedly establishing in the states. On the retail side that has included being picked up by Whole Foods in Northern California and over five hundred Targets throughout the US.
SMS marketing: building an intimate customer experience
Since becoming the first hire at Three Ships, my work has centered on growing our online presence and building out our DTC marketing channels. When I heard about brands using SMS marketing to text their customers I was intrigued.
I’d been looking for a more intimate channel to use to relay educational information to our customers, and I realized SMS marketing could serve us well in two main ways:
- Transparency and education.
When thinking about how to best communicate clarifying and illuminating information about Three Ships, like telling our customers about why we might have to raise shipping prices, SMS texting was the perfect way to go.
It’s connective, intimate, and personal, which is exactly the sentiment we want when offering our customers transparent and educational information about our business decisions.
- Customer experience.
If our customers have questions about something, we want to answer them immediately. We think about their journey from the beginning, paying attention to the most important moments and figuring out how we can make them better. One of those moments is right before they check out their online cart and a last-minute question springs into their minds. The other is right after their package is delivered and they don’t know quite how to get started with the products.
SMS is a great tool to help with both of those situations.
In the first, the customer can text us their question and expect to receive a prompt response from our customer experience team. In the latter, we have automations set up for post-purchase so when an order is delivered it triggers a text message alerting the customer that their order has arrived. This message would detail where to store the products, when to start using them, and how to use them most effectively.
Running our community-oriented affiliate program: The Fleet
Something we always want to do is to listen to our customers and let their experience with our products help direct our growth. A good illustration of this is the development of our community affiliate program, The Fleet.
An affiliate program wasn’t something we had originally envisioned for the brand, but so many customers reached out to us wanting to share products with their friends and asking for discount codes that we decided to put a system in place to serve that need. Because of customer demand, we changed our original plan and made it happen.
The result has been incredibly rewarding. The affiliate members’ feedback is encouraged and greatly valued by Three Ships; it’s what we use to gauge what our customers want the most, and often, we don’t know what that is without asking them.
Our partnerships manager communicates with all of the members and relays their questions, concerns, and hopes to me, and I think about how to apply them to how we market our products.
Our Defence Bundle, for instance, was developed solely because so many affiliate members were asking about which three products we’d most recommend for dry winter skin. We went ahead and put a seasonal bundle together for deep hydration to solve their problems.
We’ve found the bundles helpful not only in differentiating the online experience from the retail experience but also in how it makes shopping easier. Oftentimes customers on our site have a vague idea of what they want to purchase, but they don’t know which products they should go for specifically. Pointing them in the essentials or double cleanse bundle direction makes that clearer.
Tips on how to market your brand and expand your online presence
Four years ago, Three Ships started with a mere $4,000 and a couple of founders who knew what they wanted to create and were willing to work hard to do it. But even though we’ve developed a loyal customer base, a retail presence, and a growing online community, Three Ships requires daily hustle and grind to keep it going.
First and foremost, it’s important to love what you do.
A few more tips from me to you on how to market effectively and expand your customer base:
1. Make sure your marketing reflects your brand’s core values.
Be intentional with it. For Three Ships the marketing we do across all channels reflects our core values of transparency and education on natural skincare. We use SMS to send customers detailed information about our brand and our products, and on Instagram, our founders make weekly IGTV’s about how they went about building the business. Both of those marketing initiatives are centered around how we can pull back the curtains on our brand and bring the customer along on the inner workings of the brand and the products they’re using and loving.
2. Ask your customers for feedback and use it.
The people who can give you the best feedback on your brand are the ones who love it the most, so don’t forget to take advantage of your customers’ insights. Not only will this improve your brand, it’ll also strengthen your connection with customers and build their trust in you. At Three Ships we consider our affiliate program members an extension of our company, and we treat them as such by listening to them and implementing their requests.
3. Be on the lookout for new technologies or business trends you can use to build on your customer connection.
When I heard about SMS marketing, I realized it was a perfect solution to enhance our customers’ experience with the brand and deliver educational content straight to them in an intimate setting. You don’t have to use every technology available to you, but if you think it might fit with your brand and more effectively communicate your messaging, try it out.
4. Clearly define the words you market with.
Every brand has a different take on what it means to create natural or affordable skincare products. Make sure you define those important words you market with so your products are consistent and your customers know what to expect. Affordable to Three Ships means we will forever make products under $40, and that might look different from another brand’s determination.
Looking ahead: The future of Three Ships
A specific goal of ours for the end of 2021 is to even out our revenue split. Right now about 60% of our revenue comes from retail and the other 40% from our website, and I’d love to see that split equally by year’s end.
So many dreams are ahead of Three Ships, but at the center of all of them are our core values of transparency and community education. As the years go on, I see us continuing to be open with our customers in how we grow and market our brand. I’m looking forward to creating more products and finding new ways to build on the connection we have with our customers.
From what I’ve seen in the last eight months alone, the intentionality we bring to our business decisions and the care and attentiveness with which we make our products and listen to our customers is a recipe for success.
I’m excited to be along for the ride.