How Oddbox grew its brand on a startup’s budget

By investing in media beyond Facebook and Instagram, shifting its messaging and moving towards integrated campaigns, Oddbox was able to boost brand awareness and salience, and achieve its best month for customer acquisition.

For startups and smaller companies, building a brand can be hard. Securing large budgets to invest in award-winning creative and broad-reach media from the off is almost impossible when the business’s primary focus is on driving as many sales as it can, as quickly as it can, to fund future growth.

Founded in 2016, Oddbox is a subscription service that delivers customers a weekly box of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste due to their size, shape or being surplus to requirement. The B Corp’s mission is to reduce the approximately 3 million tonnes of fruit and veg that goes to waste each year.

Elisabeth Yates joined the business as head of growth in January 2021. Like many direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses, the subscription brand had grown considerably over the previous nine months of pandemic lockdowns. However, subscribers were still heavily concentrated in and around London, and both brand awareness and salience were low.

“Hardly anyone knew who we were outside of London,” Yates said on a panel at ‘Brand: A one-way ticket to sustainable scale’, an event hosted by Channel 4 Ventures and What’s Possible Group this week.

“In terms of brand salience, when we asked people who had heard of the Oddbox brand to pick from a list of food subscription businesses which ones they thought help make a difference for the planet, four times as many people selected Hello Fresh. Which, when you’re a B Corp and a mission-led business, was really disappointing to see.”

Most new customer growth was organic and “very circumstantial”, Yates added, while 90% of Oddbox’s paid media budget was going into Facebook and Instagram.

“Going in, I was very clear there were three things we really needed to focus on for the rest of the year,” she explained.

It takes a long time to build a brand and if you stop doing that, it’s going to be very hard to get going again, and all that investment you’ve already done is wasted.

Elisabeth Yates, Oddbox

The first was to diversify the brand’s media mix to reach new and existing audiences in places outside of social media. The second was to rethink the brand’s messaging and approach to storytelling, as it “clearly had a problem” landing its message around its mission to fight food waste.

“We not only needed to be much more singular minded in being out and empowered in our eco messaging, but we also needed to leverage formats that were longer and enabled us to actually tell our story,” Yates said.

Finally, Yates wanted Oddbox to begin running integrated campaigns and recognising that “the sum is greater than its parts”, she said. While running a campaign over different channels at the same time makes measurement and attribution more challenging, “you generally have a much bigger impact”, especially when aligned around seasonal peaks, she added.

Oddbox kicked off its first big brand campaign push in September last year with a test using out of home media, chosen for its low cost and quick execution. The brand spent just £500 on the creative, and saved money by working directly with the media owners.

“The other thing we did was really think about what’s the minimum viable spend that we need to invest in this channel to actually see an impact, because I’ve definitely been there before where we’ve just not put enough spend behind it,” Yates added.

For that reason, Oddbox started its campaign in its top 15 London postcodes, so it could invest in a “heavy media rate” and test a variety of formats, some of which included coupon codes. Crucially, it also gave the brand a control group to compare other regions and activity against.

“Being able to look over a period of time to see what happened across all channels and what was my incremental uplift from my activity was really important, and certainly through out of home we saw that for every coupon conversion we saw coming in, it was actually driving six conversions overall,” Yates said.

Oddbox spent £90,000 on the out of home campaign overall. Over the same period, it tested podcasts, influencers, direct mail and a variety of other media, which “worked really well”, Yates said.

That activity was therefore extended into January 2022, which became one of the brand’s biggest ever acquisition months, up 40% on the same month in 2021. Website traffic also doubled compared to March 2020, the month when the UK’s first lockdown was announced and panicked consumers turned online to investigate their food-buying options.

Brand awareness nationally grew to 25%, meaning one in four people in the UK have now heard of Oddbox. “Most importantly”, when people who had heard of Oddbox were asked to pick from a list of food subscription businesses which ones they thought help make a difference for the planet, “more people are now selecting Oddbox”, Yates said.

“So it was incredibly successful for us,” she added. As such, the brand is now building up to its first TV campaign, which is due to launch on 28 December.

“I have spent on TV in the past and I can testify it is like pressing a magic button for sales,” she claimed.How Bloom & Wild is using TV to drive brand fame

Pivoting around the cost of living

However, with the cost of living crisis squeezing consumers and their discretionary spend, Oddbox has had to rethink elements of its approach. A few months ago, the business surveyed consumers to understand how the economic situation would impact buyers and potential buyers of its product.

“On the surface of it, an average Oddbox is £15 a week and people have to eat fruit and veg on a weekly basis. And we have a very affluent customer base – our average household income is £150,000. No doubt everyone has been impacted by cost of living, but can these people afford £15 a week for fruit and veg? Probably,” Yates said.

However, the survey data revealed 60% of respondents said they are less willing to pay for sustainable products, a 180 degree turnaround compared to six months prior. Two-thirds (66%) said they want to cut back on subscription payments.

As long as you educate those stakeholders and manage expectations, they feel much more comfortable investing in the brand.

Elisabeth Yates, Oddbox

But 70% of people said they would be cutting back on eating out and takeaways, and as a cooking from scratch product, Oddbox saw an “area of opportunity”, Yates added, which required a rethinking of its “single minded” environmental messaging strategy.

“We started thinking about price and how we compare to the supermarkets, and it might not be surprising to hear that supermarkets benefit from economies of scale. So we can’t offer the same prices, and we have our delivery cost,” Yates explained.

“So we thought, why are people paying slightly more for Oddbox? Obviously people want to do good, but we know that’s going down in the list of priorities. And then we realised it all comes down to the feeling you get knowing you’re taking action against something like climate change. Even though it’s a really small step, it’s quite empowering and brings you a bit of joy knowing you’re doing something.”

With the current news cycle already filled with “doom and gloom”, it didn’t feel appropriate for Oddbox to continue to go out with a message around food waste, she said. The brand is therefore leaning into that emotional payoff and “small moment of joy” it believes consumers get when they open their subscription box.

“That’s the main thing we’ve done, changing our messaging to lean into the emotions more,” Yates said.SMEs on reaching the brand building ‘tipping point’

On the media side, Oddbox is continuing to invest behind its brand and advertising. Yates points to the 2008 financial crash, when evidence indicates that those brands which invested less, grew less.

“It takes a long time to build a brand and if you stop doing that, it’s going to be very hard to get going again, and all that investment you’ve already done is wasted,” she explained.

“Are we going to be spending as much as we initially planned? No, I don’t think many businesses are. But are we still investing? Yes.”

Yates added that there are many opportunities at the moment for brands on a smaller budget to take advantage of. For example, Oddbox has been able to secure double bus panels in London last minute as other advertisers pull spend – though the deal did leave Oddbox only three days to turn its creative around, she admitted.

Managing stakeholders

Asked how a marketer in a startup or smaller business with a limited budget can manage pressure from stakeholders and secure their support, Yates advised brands not to go straight out with a national campaign and “put all your eggs in one basket”.

“The beauty of geo-testing and having a control group is [we can] very clearly see, even if you don’t see many direct conversions, a huge uplift in the regions we were running out of home activity,” she explained.

“By starting with geo-testing you only need a much smaller amount of money and you can achieve the heavy weighting on your media plan you need to see impact.”

While Oddbox’s first out of home campaign cost £90,000, which Yates admitted can seem a lot of money for a smaller business, it was less than the £100,000 the brand had previously spent on influencer activity. “So it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility,” she said.

Are we going to be spending as much as we initially planned? No, I don’t think many businesses are. But are we still investing? Yes.

Elisabeth Yates, Oddbox

For its first TV campaign later this year, Oddbox will be starting with an initial six-week push, she added.

“Definitely start small, start with AB testing, and give your stakeholders a really clear view of what your AB testing plan is and what metrics you’re going to look at,” Yates advised.

Marketers also need to ensure they manage expectations, she added. With Oddbox’s out of home campaign, Yates warned her stakeholders there wouldn’t be instant results, and success would have to be evaluated over at least three months.

Those brands with a longer sales cycle should also work out what their early indicators of success are beyond direct conversion, she said. For Oddbox, that measure was website traffic.

“Think about what your early indicators might be, and as long as you educate those stakeholders and manage expectations, they feel much more comfortable investing in the brand,” she said.