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Radically Personal S1 E3

Building a Brand That Feels Like a Friend

For many women, buying a swimsuit has always been an uncomfortable experience. Andie founder and CEO Melanie Travis knew it was time to change the swimwear shopping experience forever. On this episode, Melanie shares how the Andie team has created a thriving brand and a team of Fit Experts that connect with their customers like a trusted friend. And how, as a result, Andie has increased repeat business, created a deeply engaged social media community, and is growing more than 600% year over year.

“When a customer reaches out to customer support, that’s such an opportunity to create an evangelist, not just make a sale.”

Melanie Travis
Andie Founder and CEO

Joseph: Welcome to the Radically Personal Podcast, where the people behind the most beloved brands share how they put their customers at the heart of everything they do. I am Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly. On today’s episode we sit down with Melanie Travis, the Founder and CEO of Andie, the leading direct to consumer online swimwear retailer. Melanie knows that for most women, buying a swimsuit is unlike any other shopping experience.

Melanie: When a woman is wearing a swimsuit, it’s the most naked she will ever be in public.

Joseph: And she’s forever changed the way women shop for swimwear, with an experience that is radically personal.

Melanie: I mentioned that swimwear shopping is such a vulnerable experience, and so I wanted to create a brand that really felt like your friend, someone that you could lean on and trust and talk to.

Joseph: We’ll dive into how Andie is more than a name. It’s a brand promise that guides every customer experience.

Melanie: When a customer reaches out to customer support, that’s such an opportunity to create an evangelist, not just make a sale, but create someone who’s going to stick with the brand for life and be loyal and be part of our community and all of that.

Joseph: This is Radically Personal. What is always a great way to start this is actually to tell the Andie story. I would love to hear it.

Melanie: Sure. I started Andie about three years ago. I started it because I’ve just always struggled to find a swimsuit that fits well, is easy to wear, easy to shop for. It’s an incredibly frustrating category. I do think it’s a category that’s a bit different between men and women. I think women experience unique pain points that men don’t necessarily have with swimming. They’ll just throw on a pair of shorts, I guess, or trunks or whatever you call them. But it’s just a really difficult category for women. The whole shopping experience, frankly, it sucks. You have to go into tiny dressing rooms in stores, which are often in fluorescent lighting. You have to get completely undressed to try on a swimsuit. It’s an incredibly vulnerable experience, and I always hated that.

Melanie: And online it’s just not much better. I just wondered why there wasn’t a place that got it, just like a go-to destination for good swim that feels good, looks good, and is a sort of accessible price point. And that problem was really nagging at me for, well, for years. And so finally started Andie. Frankly, it was a thing for me and my friends, and it turns out I wasn’t the only woman who had experienced those problems. So here we are three years later, it’s been just unbelievable growth. I think we hit something sort of right place, right time, right product, right category, got lucky in many ways. And we’ve had over 600% year over year growth, which has just been amazing. I never used to own any swimsuits, because I hated shopping for them so much.

Joseph: Is that right?

Melanie: Now I have like 47 in the closet, so that’s never going to be a problem for me again.

Joseph: That’s great. What’s the story on the name? Where does it come from?

Melanie: I mentioned that swimwear shopping is such a vulnerable experience, and so I wanted to create a brand that really felt like your friend, someone that you could lean on and trust and talk to. I wanted a name that that felt like it could be your best friend. Andie is your best friend, that person that you can lean on her shoulder and cry or have a good laugh with or go swimsuit shopping with. When a woman is wearing a swimsuit, it’s the most naked she will ever be in public. And so therefore when she’s shopping for a swimsuit, it’s really wrapped up in a lot of psychological issues and traumas. Of course, there’s things like lingerie, and direct to consumer lingerie startups are a dime a dozen right now. But lingerie is quite different from swim, because typically that’s worn behind closed doors, and so that’s what I think makes swim a sort of unique challenge in the shopping experience.

Joseph: When you think about that, that it is so personal, how do you think about customer care, customer service, customer relationships? What’s your approach to that? Because I think when you started you took one approach and then it changed.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly. Good customer service is just a core brand pillar for us. It’s really the most important thing. I do think generally that that has to be true for anyone creating what they hope to be a best in class brand. You need best in class customer support. But I think that for swim, it’s uniquely important given everything we’ve discussed about the shopping experience. However, when we first started, I was in the mode of, okay, how do we get all the expenses as small as possible and the profits as big as possible? And so I used an agency out of the Philippines for customer service, a good agency, and we requested only women as our agents, because it’s a woman’s brand for women. I mean frankly, it’s just a lot less expensive than using full-time agents based right here in the United States.

Melanie: So we were doing that. We were doing that for about a year, and I started to notice as we went into peak season that we were spending all this money and energy and effort on creating a brand that felt like your friend and that felt like a trusted advisor to you in the swim shopping experience, that really resonated with women. And that was working. Those efforts were paying off, because then women were writing to us and telling us their deepest, darkest fears about swimwear shopping, or they were sending us selfies of themselves, intimate selfies in their bedrooms and in their bathrooms, trying on a swimsuit, feeling insecure about it and asking what we thought, because they really trusted us.

Melanie: When I saw that, I was extremely proud that we were creating a brand that women trusted enough to send that. And then I was feeling like they’re writing to these people in the Philippines that I’ve never even met. I don’t know them.

Joseph: They’re your brand advocates, and you don’t even know. Yeah, right.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly. And I realized that that was a problem, and we needed to put our money where our mouth is and bring customer support in-house to really truly live and breathe the brand experience. We let go of the agency, and we started building up an in-house team. Now the team is basically a third of our staff, and they sit right in the room with us. Not only does that deliver a much better customer experience for women shopping for swimsuits, and our customer support team are our customers also, it also helps us develop a much more robust customer feedback loop, because they’re sitting right there.

Melanie: If there’s ever anything, a trend they’re starting to see or a particularly moving customer story, they’ll just stand up and say like, “Oh my God, guys, look what just happened.” It keeps us really close to the customer. We try to create a product where women can just forget that they’re wearing it and truly live in the moment and have fun. That sort of feeling is what we try to extend all the way through, from the first minute before a woman even hits our website, when we’re just first starting to communicate with her over social media or our paid marketing strategies. Basically, from the top of the funnel all the way through to the post-purchase, we want her to feel just so comfortable with us, with the product, with everything.

Joseph: You also talk a lot about trust, and you were commenting about how your customers, she was sharing very intimate things. Trust is part of that. How do you layer in that component of trust and trustworthiness?

Melanie: With a lot of trial and error in some cases. I think it’s a few different things. One is, frankly, hiring. Both on our customer support team but across the entire company, we’re really careful and slow and diligent with our hiring to make sure that we’re hiring women who really get it. I mean, we are our customer, so we understand the pain points and we can commiserate with women. And often we do. The women on our customer support team, if a woman writes in and says they had this or that experience, often one of us has had that experience too and we can have a nice conversation about that. So that’s one of the ways that we work to establish trust.

Melanie: And then really in the whole way that we do the brand, the way we present the brand, the way that we come up with everything from our copy to our brand images. Historically, swim is a category where women have just been objectified in advertising and marketing. And still now, if you do images.google.com and you search swimwear ads, you’ll see women in skimpy bikinis on a rocky cliffside. Just ridiculous stuff that does not resonate with me or any of my friends.

Joseph: Well, it’s just not real life.

Melanie: Exactly. We’re really trying to change the conversation about swimwear shopping and show women empowered and living their best lives and not objectifying at all in any way. We put fit at the really forefront and invest a lot in developing suits that really fit well across many different body types. And because we’ve developed such an expertise in good fitting swimsuits, we translated a lot of that knowledge digitally and created a proprietary fit quiz on our website. It’s really smart, and it gets smarter every time a woman goes through it. You answer a number of questions, which a lot of this is informed by our customer support team that says these are common questions, and so we can feed them into the quiz.

Melanie: It’s some basic measurements, but also what you like to do in your swimsuit and how you like to feel and more sort of emotional questions too. And at the end of the quiz, we recommend what we believe will be both the best style, color, and size for you. It’s really smart, and often we find women will write in and say they ordered one that they wanted from the site and then one that was recommended from the fit quiz, and the fit quiz result was just much better. And so we do a lot with that.

Joseph: You touched on people, your team. Thinking about hiring and training, how do you take what’s in your head and you’re sort of like, hey, here’s how we want to engage with our customers, here’s how we want to treat them, here’s how we want to go and feel, how do you hire for that? How do you then train the team for that?

Melanie: It’s tough. As CEO, I often say I have three jobs. One is fundraising, two is hiring, and three is managing. Hiring is something I spend a lot of time on. For our customer support team, it’s really extensive. We do written tests for them. We obviously do a lot of reference checks. And what we look for is people who understand the importance of positivity, look for people who not only could have a knack for upselling, who also really understand the importance of deepening customer connections with the brand. And when a customer reaches out to customer support, that’s such an opportunity to create an evangelist, not just make a sale, but create someone who’s going to stick with the brand for life and be loyal and be part of our community and understand where we fit inside the market and what our true value propositions are and all of that.

Joseph: One of the things you said is you have them do written things. Tell me more about what that is. I mean, is it like a quiz, or is it just writing how you would communicate?

Melanie: Yeah. We’ll take some common questions that we get from customers, both via email and over social, and some are softballs and some are trickier. We’ll put them in a Word doc and we’ll ask them to draft a reply. What would they say to this customer across different channels? Because sometimes your responses can be different. A good example would be, there’s a comment on social, how would you reply to it in the visible feed and then what would you do if you were to DM that customer directly or that pre-customer and be able to engage longer with her?

Melanie: That’s kind of what it looks like. There’s usually five or six common questions, and we just see how they would approach the response. We need customers to understand that we’re just a real group of women right here in the Garment District of New York, and we want them to feel like they’re truly part of our community and that it’s not just some sort of anonymous internet site, because that’s certainly not how we feel.

Joseph: You know, one of the things that we thought a lot about, part of the reason we started Gladly, was this idea that the way you think about customer support historically has been like a workflow problem, right? Someone contacts you, it creates a work item, you assign that work item to a worker, you track how long the worker did the work, and you give them more work. We have this view, especially in the world, especially direct to consumer, people are more buying online, this is your touchpoint to customers. In the same way, like your best little local coffee shop, you walk in, they know who you are. You don’t have that same experience anymore in a digital world. How do you think about support with regard to revenue, loyalty? They seem to be so much more important today than ever before.

Melanie: Oh yeah, for sure. We have found that when women interact or when customers interact with our customer support team, they buy more product. They come back and buy again more frequently, and repeat is obviously an important metric for direct to consumer e-comm. They tell their friends, they repeat purchase more frequently, and they have higher basket orders. That’s what we want to encourage, and so now we do things along the entire funnel where we encourage shoppers, potential customers to reach out to our customer support team and engage with them, because we just know from looking at the numbers that if they do, they’ll become a sort of brand evangelist and frankly just a higher value customer.

Joseph: But it is interesting to get people through that mind shift about that, where if you can really transform the way you think about support. We do a survey every year, this consumer expectation survey, where we interview like 1,500, 2,000 consumers in the US, all different age groups, demographics, et cetera, and we ask them all these questions about expectations. And one of the questions was, what’s more important for your decision for engaging with a brand? Is it their marketing or their support?

Melanie: Oh, interesting.

Joseph: And 75% of people said, I actually value support way more than any marketing promotion that they give to me, if they treat me well.

Melanie: I believe that, yeah. We had an example just last week where a customer wrote into us because they wanted to return a swimsuit that they’d purchased. She had just come to our site, bought a swimsuit, it didn’t fit or whatever the issue was, and wanted to return it. She reached out to our customer support team. They were happy to process the return, but they engaged with her, learned a bit about her, and suggested some alternative suits that might work for her. This actually was maybe six months ago or so, and she got that exchange, loved her new swimsuit, and has since then ordered six swimsuits from us. The last one was a couple of days ago. And so there you go. That’s support creating a customer that keeps coming back and back.

Joseph: Yeah. You also try to drive a lot of loyalty and affinity upstream, like social, just watching what you do. And what’s amazing is actually what your customers do. Talk about the impact of that. Was that a surprise? Is that planned, like how to think about building loyalty and affinity through social, social media, social sharing, imagery?

Melanie: Yeah, that’s hugely important. I’d say there’s sort of two pieces to that. One of the best things that I love seeing online is when a woman asks a question underneath one of our ads, for example on Facebook, say like, “Hey, ladies, what do you think of this brand?” Sometimes we see it and we wait, because we know at this point that our customers will start responding and they’ll just pile on and be like, “Oh my God, love this.” Or they’ll just be honest and say like, “I’ve tried three swimsuits, two of them worked really well, one of them didn’t work so much.” There’s been plenty of studies that show this, but a peer review can go a lot farther than someone at the company saying how it is.

Melanie: So that’s something that I love seeing. I remember when that started happening at BarkBox. There was this sort of shift. And Bark has also built such an engaged community. It’s sort of known for that. And I remember when BarkBox customers would be doing that and we would all talk about it. And when I started Andie, I was like, one day I want to be the type of company where our customers are responding to other customers unprompted. They don’t get anything out of it. They just really love the brand and they want to share that. And now we are at that point, and it’s just such an unbelievably good feeling. I think we’ve done something right.

Joseph: The name of the podcast is Radically Personal. Obviously, specifically for you and your whole business, it’s a very personal business for your customers. Are there any favorite radically personal customer service experiences that you’ve seen happen here that you could share?

Melanie: We get a lot of inbound from breast cancer survivors, because our suits have a bit more coverage than others. We offer styles that have more coverage than many suits that you find on the market or whatever, and so that can work well if you have recovery scars. We’ve had women who word of mouth, I think it’s gotten around that these suits are great for recovery scars. They’ll reach out and say, “Which suit do you recommend? Which style do you recommend?” We’ve had a lot of interactions where maybe the first style that they selected didn’t quite work or didn’t cover what they wanted to cover. And by the way, that’s not to say that we encourage covering scars, but they’ll write to us and we’ll recommend suits that we now know work well for different types of scarring.

Melanie: And those interactions always turn into just really such heartwarming, frankly like ongoing friendships, where women feel like they’ve really been helped beyond just buying a swimsuit, but being able to sort of talk about what’s happened to them. And yes, they become customers for life, and they buy more and more swimsuits, which is great, but more importantly than that, it’s developing these really meaningful connections with women. If you’re having a bad day at Andie and you want to feel good, you literally just scroll through that Love for Andie Slack channel, and it is the best thing in the world.

Melanie: One of our employees yesterday posted a screenshot of an email that a woman had written where she’d had a number of back and forth with someone on our team. It started with an exchange, and then we had helped her with a few different issues, and then she had said that she’s just been diagnosed with cancer and she’s going through chemo. I think someone sent her a nice package of free things, including we have these water bottles that stay cold, and there was some back and forth about water.

Melanie: I was not in the email, but the final email that was screenshot was the woman saying, “I just wanted to thank you so much for this experience. I haven’t told many people, including my closest friends, that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I’ve only told you. Being able to talk to a customer support person who’s going above and beyond their job about my condition has been the most therapeutic thing I can do.” And I couldn’t believe it. We’ve created this brand and this team where we’re helping women way beyond just their swimsuit purchase. That was just really incredible.

Joseph: But we’re going back to the beginning, where we were talking about your goals and Andie being your best friend.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly.

Joseph: Tell me about the first time you saw someone in an Andie swim suit.

Melanie: The first time I saw someone in an Andie swimsuit was the highlight of my entire year, possibly my life.

Joseph: Is your wife going to listen to this?

Melanie: Oh yeah. I think she’d agree. I would not stop talking about it the entire trip. She’d move on to another conversation, and I’d just be like, “Do you remember when we saw that?” So she knows. Over Christmas break, we went down to The Bahamas for a couple of days for vacation, and we had actually just arrived. We were on the beach looking out at the water, feeling the warmth. And my wife taps me, and she’s like, “I think that’s an Andie swimsuit.” And I looked up and sure enough, there’s a woman walking down the beach with her boyfriend, her husband, and she appeared to be wearing an Andie.

Melanie: Now, we make sort of classic cuts, and so it’s not always obvious that it’s an Andie, but it looked exactly like one, same color and everything. So I was like, “Oh,” and I got up and I started following behind her to look closer to see if it was. And she stopped suddenly and turns around like they were going to walk back the other way. I was right there, so it was a little bit of an awkward moment.

Joseph: “Hi, how’s it going? Yeah, just checking out your swimsuit.”

Melanie: And so I said, “Oh, I love that swimsuit on you. Where does it come from?” And she said, “Oh, it’s from a company called Andie. It’s spelled A-N-D-I-E.” And I was like, “That’s so cool.” I could barely… And she was like, “Yeah.”

Joseph: Did you tell her who you were?

Melanie: No, I didn’t. She immediately said, “Yes, it’s great. They have great styles. It’s only online, though,” which still sticks with me as like, oh, interesting. And I said, “Oh, that’s so great. I’ll go check them out.” She was like, “Okay, thanks,” and walked on. I just like haven’t been able to get over that. I could not believe that I saw an Andie in the wild.

Joseph: It’s going to happen more and more.

Melanie: It was such a moment, and it just made me feel like my whole life had just come to that moment where a woman was on the beach wearing something I had made. So that was awesome.

Joseph: Melanie and the entire Andie team, thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your journey, your story, and how you’re forever changing the conversation and experience around swimwear for women. I’m Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly. Thanks for listening to this episode of Radically Personal. If you enjoyed the podcast, please be sure to subscribe and rate it on Apple and Google Podcast, Spotify, or visit us at radicallypersonal.com. We’ll see you next time.