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How Vitaly Grew Their Business Without Relying On Ads


This episode of Shopify Masters is the first in a collaborative series with our Learn with Shopify YouTube channel. Over the next few months, we’ll release a bonus Shopify Masters Podcast each week, hosted by Adam Levinter, the Founder and CEO of Scriberbase—a firm that helps companies thrive in the ecommerce subscription economy. 

Each episode will feature an inspiring business owner sharing their knowledge on the best ways to grow an ecommerce brand on Shopify. Listen as usual in your favorite podcast app, or visit the Learn With Shopify YouTube channel to watch a video version of this podcast series. 

If you buy and wear a pendant, ring, or bracelet from Vitaly, your accessory might include remnants of machines, skyscrapers, or car parts. Launched in 2011 in Toronto, the direct-to-consumer brand makes futuristic, genderless accessories with recycled stainless steel. Joe Cornfield, who began at Vitaly as a web developer and rose to be the company’s President and Chief Marketing Officer, has seen the rise of the business up close and crafted its growth strategy to match a shifting digital landscape.

Two models look upward while wearing Vitaly accessories and jewelry and black clothing.
Vitaly produces future-focused designs using stainless steel.

Despite the brand navigating everything from the fall of organic social media reach to the diminishing returns of paid ads, the company has forged a marketing path forward. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Joe shares how he’s formulated a marketing framework that curbs the company’s dependence on paid advertising, while diversifying into emerging strategies with subscriber SMS texts and TikTok videos. Below he shares five tactics for building a resilient marketing strategy that’s less reliant on Facebook and Instagram ads. 

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1. Prioritize long-term brand building over short-term sales

Vitaly embraced what they now refer to as the “paid media era.” Over several years, Vitaly used Facebook and Instagram ads to spread the word about their innovative accessories and win new customers. But in 2020, their marketing strategy took a blow: Apple released iOS 14, which included a privacy update that allowed iOS users to opt out of tracking, making personalized Instagram and Facebook ad targeting less effective.

In this setback, Joe realized that Facebook and Instagram ads can keep companies focused on short-term wins. Now, Vitaly is also optimizing for the future by building a strong, recognizable brand that customers love. 

“We're entering the era of focusing on brand [and] going back to a traditional approach to marketing, where you get to know your customer and take the strategic reins back from the black box of Facebook.” 

Six models stand together facing forward waring Vitaly accessories and jewelry.
Vitaly’s SS22 Glyph collection includes pieces that symbolize evolution, progression and experimentation.

“If you talk to brand operators and marketers, they might tell you that we're definitely in a transformational time,” says Joe. “We're entering the era of focusing on brand [and] going back to a traditional approach to marketing, where you get to know your customer and take the strategic reins back from the black box of Facebook.” 

In 2022 they decided to rebrand the company—releasing an entirely new creative campaign, product line, website, and logo.“We've struck a fine balance between performance marketing in the short term and brand building in the long term,” says Joe. “That's a long term play, we're not expecting sales to spike overnight.”

While the impact of focusing on brand can be hard to measure and quantify, Joe asks qualitative questions and tracks qualitative KPIs to gauge the impact of Vitaly’s rebrand:

  • Are customers tagging us on social media with the logo facing forward and representing the brand? 
  • Are people buying products with the new logo on it?
  • What is the feedback from engaged social media community members?
  • What is the feedback from customers?

Another key ingredient of long-term brand building is knowing who your customers are. With Facebook Lookalike Audiences and other targeting tools, this was less necessary. But it’s increasingly important for marketers and entrepreneurs to intimately understand their target audience and customers. Vitaly has prioritized customer research surveys to get a better sense of their customers and reacquaint themselves with core demographic data and “human data.”

The neck of a model is shown wearing two Vitaly chains layered together and their fingers are shown wearing four rings.
Part of the Glyph collection, The Origin necklace (top) juxtaposes pearls against industrial cable-link chain.

“We're actually sitting down with our customers and having one-on-one conversations with them,” says Joe. “If we find that our market is shifting more into a kind of rock and roll world or a pop punk world, that's certainly something we'd investigate in terms of potential collaborators, and just knowing the customer really well.”

2. Rethink the strategies behind owned channels

Vitaly is focused intently on growing their owned channels. “In this world, where we can't necessarily reach them via paid anymore, [we’re] definitely prioritizing getting them onto our own lists,” says Joe. For them, this has meant growing their email marketing list and SMS list. Vitaly moves prospective customers through a traditional marketing funnel—first, getting people into the top of the funnel through awareness campaigns, and then, selling to them more directly through carefully crafted emails and texts.

A model faces to the side, wearing a blue-grey turtleneck and wearing Vitaly jewelry.
Vitaly doesn’t create separate jewelry and accessories for men and women. Instead, their pieces are genderless and meant to be worn by anyone.

Despite a return to speaking more directly to customers on owned channels—rather than through algorithmic intermediaries on social media—Joe and his marketing team are finding creative ways to grow their lists and engage prospective customers. They once hosted a giveaway to win a free custom Harley motorcycle. This contest drove 55,000 email signups and 35,000 SMS signups. This particular campaign saw a 10X ROI—six months later, those contest sign-ups led directly to half a million dollars in sales. 

While not every up-and-coming DTC company can afford a motorcycle giveaway, Joe suggests leaning into both “guerilla marketing” and “scrappiness.” “[We’re] getting old school, getting scrappy, getting creative…” says Joe.

3. Experiment with SMS marketing to get up close and personal with your audience

While more and more entrepreneurs and marketers are catching on to the importance of owned channels like email marketing, SMS marketing remains an untapped frontier for many businesses. In 2020, Vitaly started experimenting with SMS marketing—sending subscribers messages over text messages. After 6-8 months, the revenue from their SMS marketing efforts had reached 80% of the revenue generated from email marketing, despite their SMS list being just one-quarter the size of their email list. 

A model with blonde braids and a netted shirt wears a Vitaly necklace and rings.
Part of the Glyph collection, the Integer bracelet is a heavy-duty piece with a 1-inch link and features the signature Glyph buckle clasp.

“If you can get someone to opt into SMS, that relationship is worth its weight in gold, because you can reach out to them like they're a friend.”

Joe attributes the success of this activity to the high open rates associated with text messages. “Doing conversational things, mixing up your messaging and using MMS and SMS, as well as more conversational tactics to drive conversions, it's working really well,” says Joe.

“If you can get someone to opt into SMS, that relationship is worth its weight in gold, because you can reach out to them like they're a friend.”

4. Build organic, not transactional, relationships with niche influencers 

Before 2016, Vitaly was investing heavily in influencer marketing on Instagram. Their strategy involved scoping out and signing contracts with popular and brand-aligned influencers and bloggers. These paid influencer marketing campaigns included specific brand deliverables and significant oversight. It worked for a time and was a significant growth lever for Vitaly; A single partnership with an influencer or blogger would garner 10,000 followers and tens of thousands of dollars in sales. But this peaked in 2015 and by 2016 things had changed. The ROI from Instagram influencer campaigns dropped as big money and established brands flooded the photo-sharing social app and they shuttered influencer marketing altogether. 

A set of hands shows wearing Vitaly rings and bracelets.
Viraly crafts a range of accessories from rings like “Proxy” to bracelets like “Keshi.”

Six months later they revisited their strategy, revising it to work on overcrowded social networks. “We decided to take another look at influencer marketing and approach it from a 100% organic perspective,” says Joe. “We decided to start gifting our product to influencers, no questions asked, completely organically, and just seeing what would happen.”

Rather than working with creators to generate specific campaigns, today they simply find niche creators and give them products for free. This “no questions asked” approach, where creators can feature Vitaly’s products or not, has been effective. 

The secret? Finding the right creators. With the reduced efficiency of ad targeting, it’s harder to find niche consumers. But finding and working with niche influencers can serve as an entry way for unlocking access to specific kinds of customers. “[We] really go after a niche by finding the influencer or content creator who has a strong affinity in that world and collaborate with them directly,” says Joe. 

5. Explore new social media, performance marketing, and sales channels 

Despite Vitaly’s embrace of tried-and-true marketing strategies, they still have their eyes fixed on emerging platforms and new marketing tactics to bring the accessory brand to more customers around the world. 

Bottom half of model’s face shown donning red lipstick with a Vitaly chain on their neck.
The Encode chain mixes industrial cable links with unique stones that vary with each piece.

Here’s what Joe had to say about three different channels the company has been experimenting with:

  • Trying out TikTok: “We're just entering the era of TikTok…I would focus on finding an organic TikTok strategy that really worked and finding content that resonated and was getting a lot of reach on that platform. Then I'd funnel it straight into TikTok paid and start experimenting. Traffic is very cheap, and a lot is possible.”
  • Testing out Google Performance Max: “Where we're seeing a lot of performance recently is on Google…They have a new product that we are in love with called Performance Max, which basically takes all of the best elements of, of Google—whether it's video on YouTube or shopping, or search or display—and it's taking all of those together and running it in a single Smart Campaign…We’ve found that it's really kind of cracked open our ability to scale on Google.” Note: Google Performance Max campaigns are currently only available in select geographical regions. 
  • Building out their brick and mortar stores: “We've already proven the retail model in Toronto and a bunch of other cities in Canada. Now we're looking at brick and mortar internationally, especially in the States as a way to build a brand but also build robust sales channels that are impervious to the vicissitudes of the digital marketing landscape on a day to day basis.”

Taken together, these strategies have helped Vitaly build a resilient marketing strategy that’s focused on buyer understanding, customer retention, and long-term brand building. 

Building a resilient marketing strategy through traditional and experimental growth tactics is just one of many subjects covered in this week’s Shopify Masters episode with Joe Cornfield. Tune in to learn more about the following topics:

  • Why Vitaly has adopted “scrappiness” as one of their core company values and how this manifests in their marketing efforts. 
  • The approach that Vitaly takes to customer retention and why there are no “tricks” for keeping customers coming back. 
  • The community generated content strategy that Vitaly employs across their social media channels. 

Want to share your experience on Shopify Masters? Submit your Shopify store for consideration.

This originally appeared on Shopify and is made available here to cast a wider net of discovery.
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