By the time my second shipment of tea arrived, I had arranged to have my stock stored at a third-party warehouse. The warehouse I contacted wasn’t in the business of order fulfilment, but they agreed to test it out. They allocated a member of their warehouse staff to pack orders when they had downtime from their other work. Third-party fulfilment is great for many reasons. For a few dollars an order, I no longer had to think about rubbish or worry about whether the courier company would turn up to collect orders, or spend hours of my time packing orders each day. Aside from the marketing and the customer service, the business was on autopilot. While third-party fulfilment is great for smaller businesses who can’t justify the expense of a warehouse and fulltime staff, it does have its drawbacks. Something as simple as adding a new product to a range can completely throw off the packing fees, bag sizes, and the shipping costs associated with fulfilling each order. These problems are much easier to manage when you are handling stock each day and you can physically manage inventory. When you have a third-party worker making judgement calls, problems invariably arise. It can be challenging managing the relationship with the fulfilment agent over an extended period of time. Since sales are unpredictable, the fulfilment agent has to have the capacity to handle anywhere from $80 worth of orders in a day, right up to $80,000 worth of orders.
It gave me more time to think about and address all of the deficiencies in the business. By nature, ecommerce websites are static. Once word content and pictures are uploaded, a website could look the same for years. That’s a problem for search engines, social media platforms, and consumers — they like fresh content. While brands are static, people are constantly moving. So, how does a business go about combatting the static nature of ecommerce? My solution? Create a personal voice to accompany the brand. I was envious of other companies that were started by people who weren’t afraid to put themselves out there as founders. It gave the owners the opportunity to have a direct relationship with customers. These people become the faces of brands. When customers have that personal connection with a brand, it changes the way they interact with the company. I first noticed this when I was looking at the Facebook page of a very popular company that sold exercise guides. When the company released an app and a major issue arose, the company went to Facebook and Instagram and said that they were working to fix the issue as fast as possible. The company wrote the posts in the first person and did a great job at making it seem like it was a small business, run by this one person. In reality, they had over 30 people working for them and were generating tens of millions of dollars each year. The customers all responded in the same way: “That’s ok babe. We know you are working as hard as you can. It will be ready when it’s ready, so we don’t mind waiting.” Without a voice, the reaction would have been very different: “This is such a scam! Give me a refund! I’m going to report you for fraud!”
There were several reasons that I didn’t feel comfortable coming out as the face or voice behind the brand: firstly, I felt like my appearance would make me a poor fit, and secondly, I had no desire to build up a presence on social media. In fact, other than my business accounts, I didn’t use social media in any capacity as an individual. It was much easier to create a pseudonym and a voice, so that I could operate in their world without detection. It was my Sacha Fierce. I came up with a shortlist of names that I thought my customers might respond to. Before we meet anyone new, we always make an assumption about the person based on their name. If it’s a Kim or a Britney or Paris we might make the assumption that that person is a bit stupid or vacant. If it’s a Jude or a Maude or a Margot we might make the assumption that that person is going to be a much older. Everyone’s reaction will be different, every name will carry with it some sort of stigma that, depending on the name, could be difficult to shake.
Since it would never be more than a name for me, I wanted to avoid as many negative associations as possible. I came up with a shortlist of names that I would expect to see in most private girls’ schools in Auckland: Olivia, Sophie, Charlotte, Amelia, and Emily. I then set up an email alias for each one of those names and operated as that person for a week. For instance, any email I received in week one would receive a reply from an Olivia. Any post in the same week would have the same sign-off. I got in the habit at this point of using a personal sign-off for most of my posts and every social-media-based interaction with customers. I always found it off-putting when a company would sign off with their company name, rather than as a person. If someone named Jess at Bambi Clothing replies to a comment on Facebook, the sign off should be from Jess, and not “the team at Bambi.”
At the end of the five weeks, I went through and looked at the responses I had received from customers. It was by no means scientific or quantifiable, but I certainly noticed a difference when I emailed customers as “Sophie”. For whatever reason, it felt easier to build rapport. My customers seemed to be more open to forming a connection and thought of me more as a friend than as a business owner. From that moment on, I became Sophie. Gender reassignment complete.
I took the decision very seriously. It was like naming a child and I knew I only had one shot at it. Get it right, and they will be successful and have an amazing and prosperous life. Get it wrong, and they are destined for failure. For a time, I felt a tinge of guilt. It wasn’t my intention to trick or otherwise catfish customers. It was simply a way to connect with them and build more of a personal following. I didn’t feel like a complete fraud, however, because there actually was a person behind the pseudonym and it was my voice, rather than the voice of an imaginary character.
Many other companies use personal pronouns in brand names to trick customers and reinforce a legend or a story built around a brand. Customers would be horrified if they knew that Frank’s Hummus, wasn’t actually started by a man named Frank. I decided to position the entire brand around the Sophie character. I reached out to a graphic designer in San Francisco who agreed to create a Sophie character drawing for $100. The brief was simple: the character should look like Jessica Alba, wearing leggings, a sweater, and training shoes. I wanted to tap into the athleisure movement that seemed to have captured the imagination of so many consumers. I wanted customers to think that Sophie drank green juice and shopped at Lululemon and went to spin class. The active feel of the character reinforced the message that I was trying to get across to customers. If you want to lose weight and look like Sophie, don’t just drink a weight loss tea and expect results. Instead, make changes to your diet and exercise more and you will experience a lasting change. The idea was that, while the tea may work in reducing bloating and water weight, it should also serve as a catalyst for change.
Sophie was, in many ways, a fantasy. Having a physical representation of Sophie made it a lot easier to make her a central part of the brand’s story. It’s the same reason we see physical representations of Jesus and other religious figures — it’s easier to believe the story when we have a face to go with a name. If we couldn’t rely on the visual representations of Jesus on a cross, we would have a much harder time believing the message and the story behind Christianity as a religion. While not all religions rely on visual representations of religious figures to push their narratives, it is a powerful storytelling aid that is utilised to great effect by the Catholic Church.