TrueStart Performance Coffee was founded by husband and wife duo Simon and Helena Hills nearly three years ago. The brand now boasts a global community and its products are sold through Holland & Barrett, Selfridges, Wiggle, Ocado, and through TrueStart’s online store.
This interview with co-founder Simon reveals why TrueStart has decided to ditch the spreadsheets and embrace authentic community outreach.
Simon, why is community outreach such a big part of your brand strategy?
Well, put it this way - we’ve never done any traditional advertising. We’ve done a few small facebook ads but that’s it. Our entire brand has been created through word of mouth via our community. We started with just an idea in 2014, with zero followers and now we’re exporting TrueStart products to 14 different countries.
How do you work with brand ambassadors?
We have three tiers of ambassadors, just to make things extra complicated! The tiers are; regional ambassadors, pro athletes and extreme adventurers.
- Regional ambassadors are often personal trainers or owners of independent gyms. We help them put on sporting events in their area and in turn they help spread the word about TrueStart to their community.
- The pro athletes we sponsor are obviously busy competing at lots of different events all over the world. They’ll be seen either with our products or with our logo on their gear. In return we use our platforms to raise their profiles.
- Extreme adventures are the ones usually doing crazy challenges. For example we’re working with special forces legend Dean Stott, who is planning to break a world record by cycling the entire length of the pan american highway to raise money for Heads Together. For these ambassadors, as well as offering them product and branded merchandise we try to use our platforms to tell their stories on an ongoing basis which helps them reach their fundraising targets.
Out of those groups, which do you see as the most important?
They’re all equally as important as each other. Different customers respond to different things. Say for example we had a huge star like Mo Farah who was photographed eating a TrueStart bar; some customers would see that as a huge endorsement and would be influenced to buy TrueStart products. However some customers might be aware that professionals tend to have sponsorship deals with brands and therefore they might assume it’s not a genuine endorsement. The second type of customer is perhaps more likely to respond to a recommendation from their friend or a personal trainer. In a way the regional ambassadors are most on brand for us because we’re all about supporting the local community. They may only have 10 people attend an event but those 10 people will have had one to one interaction with our ambassadors and therefore are much more likely to become brand advocates themselves.
Do you get your ambassadors involved in your own brand events too?
We do but it’s not really part of the programme. They’re always willing to help but often they’ll have other things on and can’t make it. We do meet up once every quarter but it’s not really an event. It’s more of a relationship builder. We’ll meet at a cafe, catch up and then go for a run or a cycle together. We can keep them up to date on what’s going on with the brand and discuss the partnerships but it’s in a really relaxed way.
You and Helena are obviously really immersed in the cycling and sporting scene. Do you think that has given you an advantage when it comes to recruiting ambassadors?
Yes because we understand the sports and the industry so it makes complete sense to us. You’ll notice our ambassadors tend to fall within the three sports associated with triathlons. We could reach out to athletes from other sports but that is not our area of expertise, so it would make it much harder for us communicate with the ambassadors.
How did you go about choosing athletes for your team?
When we first started, we would recruit everyone and anyone! We literally supported people that were attempting their first 5K runs, just to get our name out there. You have to start somewhere! Now we have to be a bit more selective because it would just be too time consuming and costly to sponsor everyone that approaches us. Many of our current ambassadors were people we met at events or simply customers who genuinely had a passion for the products and the brand. We’ve noticed that the ambassadors we met face to face first, were usually the most pro-active ones, compared to those we just had a an email or phone call with.
Now that you’re expanding, how do you see this impacting your strategy?
Expanding into international markets is a bit of a game changer really. We’re still going to continue what we’ve been doing with our existing ambassadors and that will remain at the core of what we do. However it’s unrealistic to expect we’ll be able to roll out the same set up in 14 different territories. So we’re currently in the process of looking for someone who has an international presence… basically a world champion triathlete. We have someone in mind but it’s not a done deal yet.
How will this approach differ?
There will be a contract in place so it is a more formal approach however the activity itself will be much the same. We’ll be supplying product and merchandise and we’ll be expecting them to use their platforms and outlets to promote our brand to their fans. For us it’s key that they genuinely believe in the products, irrespective of whether there is a contract in place or not. All of our ambassadors must be authentic.
Smaller businesses sometimes struggle to justify the cost with activity like this. Have you found that to be the case?
Well yes, and as a spreadsheet guy it is quite tough for me! In the beginning we actually tried to work with our ambassadors in a more commercial way. They’d essentially be selling product and getting a percentage. But to be distributing product in your spare time when you have a job and other commitments is tough and the minimal return they’d get was just not really worth it. So we decided to change the way we did it. Now we make sure our ambassadors are having fun and that they feel like they’re part of a community. We believe if we give them value, then the money will come. It’s a pain the arse. It’s always difficult. And it’s pretty much untrackable. But it’s the most important thing we do.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for brands looking to start building a community?
I think the best thing you can do is simply form good relationships with your ambassadors. Keep them in the loop with new developments and ask them for opinions on new products. In return do what you can as a brand to support them online by raising their profile. Above all, don't force things otherwise they quickly become un-authentic which is the worst outcome.
We hope Simon’s insights were useful. If you’ve not seen our interview with fashion blogger Style Lobster, check it out here.
Give us a shout if you want to chat about online influencers or growing your community.