Rebuilding Consumer Packaged Goods From the Ground Up


NewCo Shift Forum

Launching today, Brandless is rethinking everything about CPG, from its purpose to its pricing, distribution, and value proposition

Technology and mobility have redefined a huge swath of our lives, but when it comes to the brands we use every day — from laundry detergent to toilet paper — not much has changed. Sure, you can order online, but consumer packaged goods, or CPG as the category is called, are still run on a business model of mass media advertising and mass market distribution. Long time entrepreneur Tina Sharkey is on a mission to change that, and rethink CPG from the ground up. Her company Brandless launches today, but we had Sharkey at the NewCo Shift Forum back in February, where she gave an overview of her new company’s purpose.

Tina Sharkey: I’m going to give you an overview of what we’re doing and hopefully you’ll understand that we think we’re starting a revolution. Steve Jobs said in ’84 — I know he set the bar really low — he said mainframes, PCs, it’s all going to change. It absolutely did change, and we never looked back from that moment.

I don’t think they thought at that moment that this would happen. They thought merging music player and a phone was a great idea, but I don’t think they thought that you were going to hail taxis. I certainly don’t think they thought they were building a remote control for your life.

I don’t think they understood that the disintermediation that had happened between every consumer company and every person could actually be re-intermediated when you’re walking around with this kind of a device.

You started to see a bunch of new companies emerge, whether it was Warby Parker, whether it was Casper, even Dollar Shave Club like, “Wait, we can have direct relationships with people, with consumers.” People were booking hotel rooms. People were talking to their drivers. People are doing things that we all do every day.

We said, “There’s some laggards here.” A lot of industries have come apart and been sewn together in new and different ways. If you look in the Midwest, if you look at the industrial core of America, CPG is a gigantic business that has not changed in 100 years.

We think that’s going to change because what we’re trying to do at Brandless is completely wipe this slate clean and start again. What do we actually mean by that? We did say this to one reporter and talked about setting the bar. I did not write that line, so yeah. [laughs] No pressure. Just rebuild Procter and Gamble.

I don’t know that we’re trying to do that because we don’t want to do that. That’s not the intention at all. In fact, the intention is actually do something that works directly with people because for those of you who know me, a lot of people say and I guess my bio might suggest that I’ve built a lot of brands.

I love businesses, but I’m really not as much a brand builder as I am really more of a cultural anthropologist. I love people. I love tribes, and so whether it’s iVillage or Baby Center, or even being a VC, it was about investing in people. No longer can you build a brand the way they were built once before because now, it’s just when a friend helps a friend.

For all the time, money and billions of dollars that I know from being inside J&J, that we spent just on a commercial for shampoo, building that emotional connection between you and a product doesn’t happen anymore, because we turn the cameras on ourselves. We’re building in ourselves and we’re talking to each other.

Is it totally different relationship? That has to make you say, “What is a brand anyways?” You go back to the very essence of when the brand got defined. I know Jennifer Aaker’s in the room. I don’t know if David’s here. Jennifer, you here?

Hi. Jennifer, the esteemed professor who will be talking to you later from GSP, her dad, David Aaker, defined what it meant to be a brand.

At the core of what a brand is, it’s a trust mark. If we’re not talking to the companies anymore, if we’re talking to our friends, you have to build relationships the way you build relationships with friends.

Those are based on trust, but a different kind of trust. A different kind of conversation has to start to happen because the establishment, the brands we knew, the governments we knew, the institutions we knew, they don’t exist the way they existed three weeks ago.

If everything is being disrupted, how do we go to ground zero of that and start again? It starts with relationship building. We nominated ourselves to something we call consumerists. What does that mean?

From our perspective, it means that we’re advocates. We’re advocates ultimately for consumers. The way that we want to advocate for them is to say that maybe they’re not consumers at all, like, “Stop segmenting us. Stop cohorting us. Stop grouping us. Stop making us into some kind of a digital dot and putting us into a box and targeting us in a certain way.”

That’s fine. We think that it doesn’t actually get to the soul of who is that person. We have different gender, we have different income, we have different interest, we have different political bearings but at the end of the day, we’re just people.

If we could strip the idea of even using the word consumer and go back to the essence of just being a person, that’s where we feel like you want to start. If brands are what a friend tells a friend, and you’re building a new relationship, then you have to go to the essence of what it means to be a human.

It means to be authentic, to have a real conversation, to build a real relationship and not to put someone into a box or into a segment, which is to say we’re people. At the end of the day, if you strip away everything, it’s just humans. What do we think people really want?

At Brandless, we started with the idea before we started figuring out what products we wanted to do, and how we were going to price them, and how we were going to distribute them. We wanted to understand what Brandless was going to mean to everyone.

People say, “How could someone like you who’s like Ms. Brand, start a company called Brandless? Are you anti-brand? Are you against brand?” I’m like, “No, no, no, no. We’re redefining what it means to be a brand because all the terms have changed. Brands aren’t built the way they were built before. We’re going to build a brand that’s completely people-first.”

Here at Brandless, we say it’s people first. It’s not about our products. It’s not about our cohorts. It’s not about our distribution. It’s about people. That means if we’re going to build a company that puts people first, we’re going to take value, which is price and accessibility, the democratization of access, and values like who we are.

Who are those humans? Me, you, everyone, giving, giving back, living with intention, understanding what it means to transact and to give all in the same idea, because why wouldn’t we?

Giving is not an annual event. It’s not something we do when our friends ask us to, or when we have to rally around a cause. It’s something we should be doing every day. We need to teach that to ourselves. We attract people who work at Brandless who believe that. We definitely want everyone to act that way because that’s how we really feel.

We’re going to build a company that’s for purpose and for profit. We’re not a 501(c)(3). We are totally for profit company funded by great venture capitalists. We are for purpose in every piece and essence of our being, which means our values stick together.

The stuff that we offer is of the same to value to people who live in this zip code as to people who live in a food desert and don’t have access to quality goods and services. Same prices, same access.

Enough of this food deserts and enough of Whole Foods and zip codes that fall into one of those cohorts. It’s got to stop. We can’t wait for someone else to make it stop. We just have to act like entrepreneurs and do what’s right because no one’s going to do it for us.

We know how to get this done, and we will, and we are. For us, it starts with better stuff. We’re launching (July 11). I can’t say what we’re launching with but it’s everyday essentials.

It’s a whole bunch of stuff that you’re going to use in every part of your life. It’s all non-perishable, but it’s not just stuff that you ingest. It’s stuff that’s in your life. It’s really affordable. It’s no bullshit. If the product is organic, you will know it. If the product is attribute you care about, we will tell it to you.

Everything else, go live your life. We don’t want to make up narratives. We don’t want to charge you a brand tax for something that you shouldn’t be paying because industry has reinvented itself and you’re paying 300 times more than you should.

Organics don’t need to cost more than everything else. Access can be for everybody. Everybody deserves better.

With that, this is what you’ll see on every one of our packages. We are putting people first. We are fusing the concept of value and values. It’s going to be better stuff, definitely less dollars and no bullshit, no nonsense.

Hopefully, whatever happened with from mainframe to PC, in our humble way along with people like Hint and other amazing companies in the space, we just want to pursue fairly priced everything. We want to do it for everyone. We’re coming in the spring.

Join us. Give me your email or put it there, we’ll definitely let you know when we’re live. We’re stoked.

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