Branding with Soul: Q&A with Tina Sharkey, co-founder & CEO, Brandless

Tina Sharkey is an entrepreneurial force. Since the days of the dial-up modem, she has been building communities, companies, and brands “with soul.” Today, she’s co-founder and CEO of Brandless, a fast-growing startup that’s putting everything from gluten-free hand cream to healthy snacks into the hands of more people at affordable prices. Sharkey says she’s “so done” with false narratives. Instead, she’s focused on scaling kindness. On the podcast, she explains the DNA of Brandless and how its success is rooted in trust, transparency, and community.

On any given day, if you were to visit the Brandless headquarters in San Francisco, you will see something unexpected for a fast-growing e-commerce startup: employees in every department at their desks, hand-writing a thank-you note to a customer.

“I want all of us to have a relationship with the people we serve. We don’t even track the thank-you notes because it’s not a marketing initiative,” says Tina Sharkey, co-founder and CEO of Brandless. “It’s meant to be a personal connection from one of our teammates or myself to one of the people in our community. There’s something special to get away from your screens and send something on paper to somebody to say one simple thing: ‘Thank you.’”

Brandless was ranked by Fast Company as one of the top 10 most innovative retail companies in 2019. (Brandless also manufacturers all of its products.) The company began by offering everything on its website — things like packaged snacks, hand cream, and housewares — for $3. It has since modified its pricing model, while expanding its product lines. The Brandless mission, however, remains the same: make “better stuff accessible and affordable for more people.”

Sharkey is a social media and online community pioneer, with a string of successes throughout her career. In the 1990s, she co-founded the women’s online community iVillage, then moved into senior leadership roles at AOL and Johnson & Johnson, where she led its BabyCenter community.

Now Sharkey is applying her expertise in community building to the CPG and e-commerce space. She’s building Brandless around customer relationships, transparency, and trust. Sharkey recently visited the Outside In podcast live at the National Retail Federation 2019 “Retail’s Big Show” and talked to host and Interbrand Global CEO Charles Trevail about the DNA of Brandless and why brands need to fundamentally change “for good.”

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

At Brandless, you’re taking on everybody: retailers, manufacturers, the advertising world, and anyone who builds brands. Would you say that’s true?

I actually feel like it’s the inverse. What I’ve taken on is the observation that in the U.S. last year, 90 of the top CPG brands were in decline. I’ve watched the rejection of government. People are losing trust in industry and in brands — brands are trust marks, but we’ve lost trust. The numbers speak for themselves: most Millennials are saying, “Wait a second. I don’t want to buy the stuff that my parents bought.” And most of this country says they want to do business with brands that reflect their values. There’s got to be a better way to build a company, to create manufacturing, to have a direct relationship. There’s got to be a better way to build a brand — one that is rooted in truth, trust, transparency, in community-driven values. One whose complete focus is scaling kindness more than transacting on any individual product or service.

You’ve said that Brandless is “unapologetically a brand.” How so?

We don’t have a team of people who are making up names. What I love about the discipline of the Brandless brand and the rigor around it is that things are what they are. Lentil soup is lentil soup. Almond butter is almond butter. We’ve turned Brandless into an attribute, because it stands for something.

For example, we sell a hand cream that’s gluten free. Now, why do we say that? People aren’t eating our hand cream! However, this is a very important insight. When we first got questions about whether or not some of our non-food products were gluten-free, I said, “Good Lord, I hope they’re not eating this stuff!” But it turned out that these people had celiac disease. For them, just touching things that have wheat in them can trigger a reaction. It’s very hard to find out if non-food products are gluten-free, so we said, “We need to tell people — on the website, in our search results, on the product.” Not only does the community ask us for the products they want, they give us the insights around a lifestyle choice or the way in which they’re navigating the world. It’s direct to consumer, which means a relationship. We’re redefining what it means to be a brand — one that is in partnership with the community it serves.

How do you ensure sure that that sense of community and purpose is infused into the Brandless brand and culture?

It starts with our team. As a team, we set intentions for our company, to make it better, to be all-in on the values. I write every single employee and I ask them to set an intention, and I tell them what mine is. We ask, “Why did you set the intention?” And, more importantly, “How can we support you in living that intention this year?” Then everyone in the company signs it, and we place it on the wall. We tell our community that we’re setting intentions, and ask if they want to do that with us. I believe you can’t achieve an intention unless you set one. The most important thing is to remember that everyone has community around them, and people ultimately are good. That’s why every time you check out at Brandless, we donate a meal in your honor — because tangible acts of kindness are something everyone wants.

What sets Brandless apart from other retailers who already offer their own-label brands? What’s the need for Brandless?

The better-for-you stores right now are mostly boutiques, but most people from a price point perspective are not invited to that party. We’ve blown the front off of that building, and we’ve made it a festival. I am planning on changing the idea that better has to cost more. Everyone deserves better, and better shouldn’t cost more! Most importantly, everyone deserves to be seen and validated for who they are. This false narrative that you have to be or represent something you’re not — that’s not true. It’s just not fair. I’m so done with that.

You’re a well-known entrepreneur with VC backing who’s building this human movement. But surely people are going to say, “She’ll be in it for five years, then she’ll sell it.” That would break all the trust you’ve built with your community. Should people have this fear?

Whether it is a global public company or a small startup, people are reimagining what it means to be authentically good. And people want to be good. Again, there’s this sense of a loss of trust in institutions. These are the institutions that are rebuilding and re-imagining themselves. The ethos that we’re building at Brandless is not our movement. It’s a movement owned by the people. We just hope to play a small part in it. So, I don’t see that going anywhere. In fact, I think it will scale. We don’t have any intentions to sell, but that fear is one that I appreciate coming from the outside. But if you understood the DNA of this brand, it would be impossible to break that bond, our connection to the people we serve.

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