Julian and Cody Levine went on a mission trip with singer Lenny Kravitz and a team of dentists to provide dental care to those without access. Through this eye-opening trip, the trio decided to launch Twice, a cause-driven oral care business. From developing 40 prototypes of toothpaste to running an ambassador program, Julian Levin of Twice shares what it’s like to run a cause-driven consumer packaged goods company.
A charitable partner and a cause to support
Felix: Tell us about the inspiration behind the business.
Julian: My brother and I, who are two of the three co-founders of Twice, are the children of Dr. Jonathan B. Levine and Stacey Levine, who have really dedicated their whole lives to oral health and oral care and creating companies. And one of the most amazing things they did was start a nonprofit, which is called the GLO Good Foundation. And the GLO Good Foundation is set up to bring dental professionals to communities that don’t have access to care. And in 2015 we joined 30 other dental professionals as well as Lenny Kravitz, the musician who has been a patient of our dads for a long time, who has a community of people in Eleuthera in The Bahamas that really don’t have access to care. And so in 2015, Lenny brought us down about 35 volunteers to set up at a full-service dental clinic in the middle of his town. And over five days we treated 400 people for full-service dentistry, root canals, extractions, dentures, cleanings, whitenings, education. It was an incredibly moving and life-changing experience. I’m one of the lucky ones who has never needed to have braces or have any medical issues as it relates to my mouth. For the first time, I saw how life-changing and transformative dental care could be for someone who really has been lacking access to care for their whole life. And this mission that we went on was just extraordinary. We’ve now gone back on that same mission, five straight years. And really the second year we saw all the inspiration we needed to want to create a brand and oral care that could give back, and that could really try to upgrade the standard of products.
Felix: What are some of the ways that your business gives back?
Julian: we are tied to the GLO Good Foundation as they are our charitable partner. We donate our product on all of their missions so that the hundreds and thousands of patients that they see go home with Twice toothpaste. We also donate our time. So we are there on all of the missions educating the patients there and providing them with our product. And beyond that, we also donate 10% of our company’s profits to that foundation. So we’re able to really make a difference for them and help them grow. And it also gives us the opportunity to tell stories and to share with our customers really what we’re doing to make a difference.
Felix: What do you have to set up logistically?
Julian: I would definitely recommend putting yourself out there and searching around because the opportunity to give back very likely exists no matter how niche your category or product. It’s very close to us as it’s kind of a family foundation. But beyond that, it’s finding a foundation and charity that you aligned with from a value standpoint and who in our standpoint or in our belief that we can really help grow. And so it’s building that relationship with the people behind that foundation and finding an opportunity to give back in our circumstance logistically we are always setting aside inventory to be donated, and we’re making sure of course that we have the proper paperwork and authorization to do so. And that’s really what usually it takes very often the nonprofit is able to coordinate logistics so that really what you are donating is your time and your product or resources.
Felix: Are there certain requirements that you see nonprofits have before they consider taking on a brand partner?
Julian: They definitely have to align with the values and the more aligned the product or service is with the delivery of care or product from the foundation, the better. So I don’t think that there can just be for lack of a better word, random connection. So in our circumstance, there was complete alignment, not only in a shared mission to want to deliver better oral health and oral care to people in need, but also the product itself. Toothpaste is something that all of these patients need to go home with. They need to be educated as to how to use it. And so there is complete alignment from both, an ethos standpoint as well as a product standpoint. So looking for that is best.
Felix: How do you balance things like priorities between the commercial aspect of your business versus the priorities from a nonprofit?
Julian: We haven’t run into that issue and I think it’s really about making sure that what you commit to is something that you can fulfill. So in our circumstance, 10% of profits and donating products on all of their missions is something that we’re able to stand behind.
Felix: When it comes to making sure that the message and the mission that you’re business has alongside with a nonprofit, how do you make sure that is clear or visible to your customers?
Julian: For us, part of when we created our business and our website, we had a video that showed us and the founding story and how we give back and partner with GLO Good. As a result of that video. Of course, we had copywriting and sections of our website really just dedicated to telling our story and showing them the impact. I think customers are hit over the head with brands that donate a dollar to this or buy one, give one. So to try to go a step further and really show the work being done in action so that they can vividly understand and imagine what goes on. For us, that was really important. Similarly to the extent, you can, letting your customers know how their purchase makes an impact directly from a quantitative standpoint, from a measurable standpoint is something that we’ve continued to try to do and get better at.
Felix: Do you find it as a message that will resonate with customers that will lead to more sales?
Julian: Yes and no. Is it a reason customers buy? Yes, but it’s a small reason. At the end of the day, you need to have a product that really speaks to the consumer, and showcases to them how it’s going to improve their lives. The element of the social give back in our story has really been a great I guess benefit in terms of retention, and people wanting to support Twice, and people wanting to tell their friends about Twice because of the work that we do because we’re not just a typical toothpaste company. But in terms of that initial purchase, that is less of the reason that people make the leap.
Felix: What are some ways for you to use the mission to keep up the retention rates for a customer to keep them coming back and buy more and spread your business via word of mouth?
Julian: So the mission comes through in a couple of ways. Through email, email marketing, when we go on our missions we do recaps of the missions share before and after share stories. Share how they’re supportive Twice was able to make a difference in addition. And of course those emails go out to all of our purchasers and we’re also sharing on social media. So our Instagram profile, which is our main focus, gets a good amount of love during that time to really show the mission and the work that’s getting done. And so those are really the two ways that consumers will see it. Outside of that, and almost a little separately, we have been building an ambassador program of dental professionals because we have found that we are very aligned with their mission to provide better oral health to their patients. But also from a formulation standpoint, they love what we’re doing and they’re able to also share with their patients and their friends and their communities our story. And because they are such a service led group of people and community, they really attach themselves to our mission. So whereas you or another consumer myself may say, Twice as a beautiful story, but I’m not going to buy them because of their story. Dental professionals are actually really clinging to that because they know how big of a problem oral health is, and how far mission work can go. So that was a pretty interesting development that we’ve had over the last six months.
Steps that were taken prior to launch
Felix: So once you came back from this mission, what were the next steps that you took to get this off the ground?
Julian: In 2017 we said enough is enough. If I go on another one of these missions and don’t start an oral care company, I’m just gonna cry my way out of it. These stories are so moving. And we dove headfirst into the market of oral care products, and we said, what can we make unique? What can we make different? And when we looked at toothpaste, even as sons of a dentist, we weren’t loyal to any toothpaste. We didn’t know what was in our toothpaste. We didn’t know what products we needed, really when we looked at the category overall, we were hit with more like, okay, you’ve got this multibillion-dollar category that I’m not loyal to a brand. That purchase decision is confusing and I don’t even really know what’s inside of it. Yet I’ve been using it every day, hopefully, twice a day since I can remember. So for us, we identified that category is one that we wanted to go into. From there we did a lot of research, manufacturers of toothpaste, ingredients that should be in toothpaste, ingredients that shouldn’t be in toothpaste. And this was no quick experience. This was an 18-month experience, 11 months of which Cody and I slept on our parents’ couches in their living room. We just absolutely immersed ourselves in everything, toothpaste, ingredients, manufacturers, and did our research and reached out and spoke to folks and partnered with the right people thankfully, and 40 versions of toothpaste later, we arrived on our products and while we were formulating our products we really identified part of our value proposition, which through our research we found out in a fact that 100 million Americans, one in three people don’t brush their teeth twice a day. And so that lent, that helped us figure out our name Twice and helped steer the creation of our products, which was an awakening and a calming toothpaste. One to use in the morning, one to use at night or really just to inspire you to actually brush twice a day. So it was a long process filled with a lot of research. And a lot of the getting comfortable being uncomfortable and patience.
Felix: Why was this important for you to identify a category that does not have brand loyalty as an opportunity for you to go into?
Julian: We wanted to really try to create or we are trying to create something special, something memorable, something iconic. What better category than a product that you have to use every day, twice a day in your life. For us, it just so happened that the oral care category as we saw it through toothpaste was one that was really big, but that didn’t have loyalty. And we liked that specifically because of the storytelling and brand personality and the brand first approach that we could take to creating the business, which we hoped would translate into loyalty.
Felix: Now as a brand, when you do recognize that you are going in a category where the purchase decision is confusing, how do you come in and take advantage of that fact, and what do you do to make it easier for your customers?
Julian: When we were formulating and going to purchase a product to test frankly, the idea of toothpaste for sensitivity, and gum health, and teeth whitening and cavity prevention, there was an option for every need. And what we learned through manufacturing was that it’s, you’re very capable of creating a product that is healthy and effective at doing all of those things. And so the idea of taking this approach to say, we’ve got the formula for you, right? This isn’t a bandaid for one specific thing. This is like the elixir. This is the recipe for your oral health and overall health. And so for us, it was really important to try to create a thoughtfully made formula that really combined both health and efficacy and delivered a multi-benefit product to our consumer.
Developments of a consumer packaged product
Felix: How did you identify what benefits you should make sure to include in your formulation?
Julian: It was a mix of both market research in terms of what’s out there competitively from a benefits standpoint as well as working with our chemist, frankly and our dad as well who is a dental advisor for our company, leveraging their decades of expertise, catering to patient’s needs and oral health. There’s nobody better to talk to about that than the professional that’s at to cure a lot of problems and help try to create healthier patients.
Felix: How do you make sure that you don’t fall into that realm of being overly complicated to your customer?
Julian: It’s a matter of not going too deep but deep enough to know that there is a level of thoughtfulness in creating the product to establish trust. One interesting fact is that a lot of the same products that have now been widely publicized to not be included in products, whether they’re personal care products or products around the house or food and beverage are also in toothpaste. And so you’re a lot of the same familiar names that have been removed from your shampoos. But guess what? They should also be removed from your toothpaste. So it’s a matter of showcasing the degree to which we made the product clean and also being relatable by helping them understand that, Hey, these ingredients that you no longer use in your shampoo is also now not in your toothpaste.
Felix: How did you guys come up with the packaging for your product?
Julian: When we created the brand, and I’m sure everybody can relate to this when you create the brand versus a year and a half in when we created the brand the idea was to really create these two formulas that were used for morning and night to inspire better brushing habits. And so one tube was white and one tube was black to represent morning and night and the white tube has some elements of blue to reflect the mint flavor and the evening flavor, called Twilight has some elements of lavender to reflect the lavender flavor in that. So we wanted the brand to be more modern to still reflect the benefits of the product and to really look good on your countertop. I think a big complaint as it relates to toothpaste was that I hide it when my friends come over. I don’t want anybody to see my toothpaste.
Felix: How did you get that information on people?
Julian: It was really about what we were doing before launch. Of course, post-launch we’ve had a good amount of reviews and people talking about that benefit, but prelaunch. It was a matter of vocalizing what we’re doing and you would be surprised when you open up to people and you tell them about what you’re building with the passion that you have, where the story goes. We have so many people coming back to us and telling us, yeah, I hope you make it look good because I always hide my toothpaste, or it would be great if I had a good looking toothpaste tube because I always put it away or put it in the drawer. So it was really anecdotal feedback from consumers or potential consumers as to ways to upgrade and make the product better, which was ultimately our North star.
Felix: How did you decide that those are the three leading benefits that you wanted to stamp on your product?
Julian: It’s funny because we literally are just undergoing some evolution in terms of our packaging as we’re evolving the business. So I love it. Those three benefits are really the three biggest benefits that consumers look for as judged by the leaders in the category. The largest growth category for all of oral care has been teeth whitening, which has been told to us from retailers and is available and in industry research. Beyond that, the number one ingredient that dentists recommend to be in your toothpaste is fluoride. And fluoride is an ingredient for cavity prevention and enamel strength. And so there’s your cavity prevention and you got a billion-dollar brand built on having sensitivity relief toothpaste with Sensodyne. And so for us, we wanted to make sure that we were able to tap into all three of those benefits with our formulation.
Felix: At what point did you decide to lead with these benefits because that is what consumers care about?
Julian: In the beginning, our own twist was this idea of morning and night toothpaste. Your beauty routine is different in your morning and night. Why should you use the same toothpaste? You feel really good, you feel a little sick, you feel a little low, thinking about using different toothpaste products for different moods. So that was the original spin. Really as we evolve the business, we saw more and more that the degree of care that we put into this formula is really what sets us apart. We would have dental professionals telling us, why is this any better than crest? And when we would tell them about what’s inside and what’s not inside and how it’s made, they were like, wow, they were blown away. And so for us, that really evolved to become how we could put our own spin on it. And so now we are really hanging our hat on having these clean and effective formulas that marry both the best of nature with the best of science led formulas to create something unique and different. And so it’s taken a while to get there and to how we talk about ourselves. But knowing that at the core, our philosophy was we want to create a formula that’s the best of both worlds. That was really what helped guide that.
Felix: So you’ve mentioned a couple of times now about the redesign with the packaging that you’re coming out with. So with the details, you can share, what led to the focus now on let’s improve our packaging.
Julian: I think in the beginning when we started our company, the product pipeline was really exciting. We had met a lot of people in the industry that make a lot of different products, and we were already starting to work on prototypes of different products. But as we continued to business, we saw that we really can create something special in toothpaste and focus on toothpaste. And one of the key ways that we can differentiate, which was really shown to us a lot through our customer feedback and reviews was how much they loved the flavors of our toothpaste. And so when we think about growing Twice and as we’re growing Twice, one of the ways is going to be by expanding flavors. And so our existing packaging is really white and black. And so the future of Twice is going to be a lot more colorful. As we think about, Twice in a year from now has six different flavors of toothpaste versus our current two. And so as a result, really to show the energy of those flavors, we’re going to become more colorful.
Product testing and consumer feedback
Felix: So what is that like when you are trying to formulate a product like this and what was happening during those 18 months?
Julian: A lot of back and forth the toothpaste product that you apply to your toothbrush and brush your teeth with has so many intricacies. The texture, the color, the degree to which it foams when you start brushing, the degree to which it foams while you’re brushing, the aftertaste, the after effect, the different sweeteners that can be used. Every little ingredient plays a very big role in the overall experience of the toothpaste. And so we had in mind what we wanted it to be like and feel like. And so it was just a constant tinkering back and forth, of trying to create that with the ingredients that we wanted to use.
Felix: How did you test you were on the right track?
Julian: Yeah, I mean we definitely had our friends and family a lot of people coming over to brush their teeth, which was pretty fun. But that was it. It was anecdotal. It was believing in ourselves and in our ability to create what we wanted to. But yes, we absolutely leaned on friends and family to make sure they were coming by and get their perspectives. I think the little bits of feedback that you can get from people really can’t be dismissed because if one person says it, good chance there’s a thousand voices or more behind that. One of the big changes or evolutions of the product was how much it foams. Again, that SLS detergent, that bad ingredient is the reason why toothpaste foam so much. Unfortunately, it’s in almost 99% of products out there. And so everybody expects their toothpaste to turn their mouth into a bubble bath when they brush their teeth.
Felix: What kind of feedback were you getting when you felt confident in going to market with it?
Julian: I think if we went to 41, either I would’ve killed my brother, he would’ve killed me. We had narrowed down our ingredient list. We had just a list of product attributes that we wanted the product to deliver on, and we were zeroing in on the flavor and it got to a point where we were really happy with it. Specifically, our morning toothpaste, which is wintergreen and peppermint was flavored in a way where you really could taste both of those mints and it wasn’t just like this mix of a hodgepodge of mint like you’re used to. So we love that. Our evening toothpaste, which is peppermint vanilla and lavender had a nose of lavender and it tastes like peppermint vanilla. And so those were really big efforts to try to get the taste, which of course can be so subjective into a place that we were comfortable.
Attracting the initial wave of customers
Felix: How did you guys get your first customers?
Julian: We gifted the product to almost every person we know and we threw an event. I think the event was… I don’t know how many people have thrown launch parties or events like that, but they’re typically not profitable endeavors, but they were certainly a nice celebration of the launch and a good way to get the name out there. We had invited a lot of friends and friends of friends and some folks who are influential voices and they were able to help us introduce the product. At the same time, we had some PR efforts in place to help introduce the product. We were tapping as many friends and professionals that we knew to help us really try to explain our story. Lenny was also very helpful. It definitely does not hurt having a rock star, an amazing human as your co-founder. And so he was helpful in getting our story out there and we really wanted to lead with our why, and really explained to people who Twice is by talking about why Twice exists. And so that was the initial, the first three to six months.
Felix: Was it just a start that’s still required a lot of legwork?
Julian: It absolutely required a lot of legwork. It’s exhilarating when you can launch a business and when you have a lot of people talking about it, especially in your inner circle, but my goodness then the real fun starts. Then you’re really operating a business. So for us as first-time entrepreneurs, it was a lot about planning and how to sustain growth and how to really plan out our marketing schedules and what the business looks like now, and how to make sure that we’re responding to changes and feedback. Where we are today as a business in terms of our outlook and how we’re marketing and distributing the business is vastly different than what it was when we started.
Felix: Tell us about the process of sampling?
Julian: The gifting that we were doing would be also sampling. We were gifting products to our friends and they were using the product and posting on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram about their experience with the product. More traditional sampling, like going to a fair or a farmer’s market or doing a sampling program with another company. It wasn’t exactly what we were doing. We were a little bit more I guess scrappy with it, relying on our friends.
Felix: What does it mean to you to have one core customer?
Julian: I think that’s probably one of the biggest learnings for myself. My brother would probably be nodding his head as he’s the marketing brain of the business. But for us, there’s an interesting challenge in which we’ve created toothpaste, which is a product that everybody needs. But like every entrepreneur learns either the easy way or the hard way. You can never speak to everybody and you can never build a brand for everybody. So for us, it’s about really understanding who we’re creating Twice for, who’s going to appreciate the thoughtfulness of the formula and the responsibility that we take in growing our brand. So our one customer is who we speak to. It’s who we communicate with. It’s how we communicate with them on our various channels. It dictates the tone of voice that we use, the words that we use, the content that we put forth focusing on really that core customer.
Felix: How do you communicate with your core customers?
Julian: For us, the core customer that we want to win with is the conscious consumer. It’s someone who’s aware of the fact that the products that they’ve been using for the last number of decades are probably not that healthy for them. They’re effective, but they’re out there looking for other options that provide similar benefits but with a healthy alternative. And so really a big trend is clean ingredients. And so a lot of our content and our brand positioning is around clean ingredients. And the reason behind the importance of that, the connection of oral health and your overall health, and continuously reinforcing these beliefs that we have as a business so that that customer who adheres to those starts to attach themselves to us.
Managing the intricacies of an ambassador program
Felix How does your ambassador program work?
Julian: We went to a dental trade show in Dallas, Texas. We’re based in New York. And we set up our little booth, myself and my mom, and we had the most amazing experience. We had all of these dental hygienists coming up to our booth saying, “Why do I keep hearing about your oil toothpaste company? Why don’t I know about you guys?” And we would tell them about our mission and our founding story and how we give back. But then we would go into our formulation and our flavors and our approach and our philosophy. And it was so clear that what Twice represents is also what these ambassadors or what these hygienists and dental professionals represent. So we left the trade show like, Holy cow, we got to get these people on our team. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about what an ambassador program could look like. I think you look at a company with an ambassador program, and if you looked at 10 of them, you’d find 10 different ways to run an ambassador program. I think for us, we really wanted to build a passionate community, a community of people that are more interested in being together. And being a voice for the movement of better oral health and oral hygiene versus profits. But at the same time, we really wanted to create another income opportunity for all these people. And so for Twice there’s an opportunity to have dental hygiene ambassadors promoting our product, our brand, our mission on social media, in the office to their patients, to their friends, their family on a daily, weekly basis. So what we do is we supply them with content, photos, videos, infographics. We made content with them. We ask them what things they’re looking for and we supply them with them so that they have basically ammunition to talk about Twice.
Felix: How do you get, how do you actually do outreach to get an ambassador into your program?
Julian: You know, we live in a very interesting world and for us, an ambassador is somebody who’s in touch from a social standpoint. And so we do direct outreach on social channels, Instagram, Facebook again, the community that we want to align ourselves with are very passionate. They’re very vocal. In fact, a lot of their usernames and handles is their name and then their title, which is registered dental hygienist or RDH. So again, as we’re being scrappy and as we don’t have tons of budgets to work with, we are doing direct outreach to them through social channels and saying hi and sharing with them what our values are and our mission is, and getting them to come on board and join the community.
Tools and apps that help Twice’s operations
Felix: Awesome. What would you say is the most important page on your website?
Julian: Having to pick one is like your favorite child I guess. Probably the homepage, it’s so funny when you create a website two months later you want to change all of it. You get people that look at your website, they think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world or they point out 1,000,001 problems. You create the website to be different than you learn. You should create the website for conversion and it’s a constant fine line that you tow between the two. For us, we really wanted to try to share what’s different about our product, what the story is behind the product. And it’s so hard when you have a lot to talk about, to nail that succinctly and passionately through a website. Cody and I, we’re still working on the website and we plan to do a V2 of it later this year.
Felix: What about what apps do you rely on as a business?
Julian: The app world is incredible, and we learn about new ones every day. It’s a little overwhelming at times. For some good news in the morning, I typically check and see what our customers are saying and how they’re reviewing us to have a hold on my finances and understand retention. Outside of Shopify itself, I use Glue. As we’ve built a subscription business, which we launched really like last March we use recharge to understand our upcoming command and a couple of little fun tools FOMO, which is a little plugin that shows some social proof and previous purchasers on the website experience, which asks exit questions after you’ve purchased the product. So we’ve been able to survey customers and ask them what company they’re switching from or how many people they’re buying products for, and ways to just learn more about our customers.
Navigating the market during COVID-19
Felix: Tell us a bit about how the current COVID-19 outbreak has affected your business?
Julian: Really what a time to be alive right now. A lot of speculation as to what the next six months, 12 months, 24 months and beyond looks like. How Coronavirus will fundamentally change consumer behavior, how businesses operate, which industries are thriving, which are dying. For us, we have definitely benefited from the fact that people need to brush their teeth and health and hygiene are two categories, basically the same category that is emerging victorious. If you can even say that from these times, people are really prioritizing their health and hygiene. So from a business standpoint, we’ve actually been, we’ve been pretty stable. This toothpaste is not a product that if you’ve got a month left of product that you’re going to stock up on like toilet paper. So we haven’t seen any 100% paused increases in revenue. But it stayed steady. It’s a consumer staple and it’s really shown that through this, for us in terms of distribution will, of course, remain an exciting Avenue for growth. But knowing that a lot of consumers that were buying oral care products at retail no longer may want to do that. If they have the option to, we’re going to push getting our business on to Amazon sooner than later so that we’ll have that ability to really try to increase our net as it relates to being online and being present. So looking at a lot of different online channels that we can get our product onto.
Felix: Which is, what has been the biggest lesson from the past year that you are applying, moving forward?
Julian: I really think it’s a matter of listening to your customers and not being afraid to change. When you start driving the car, it’s a whole lot different, every month after. So for us, the biggest lesson is to be patient, to be a great listener and learner, and be prepared to act quickly and evolve. Because success is waiting. You just got to find the right way to get there. And more often than not, it is not immediate.
This article originally appeared in the Shopify blog and has been published here with permission.