Backed by LeBron James and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ladder is a sports nutrition company dedicated to creating high -performance supplements. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Luke Droulez the co-CEO at Ladder to chat about the importance of brand identity, content marketing, and celebrity partnerships.
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Since the recording of this episode, Ladder has been acquired by Openfit, one of the fastest growing digital nutrition and fitness platforms. For more information visit: https://www.openfit.com/ladder-by-openfit.
Marketing a premium product through education
Felix: The idea behind the business came from a need that LeBron James has. Tell us more about that and the origins of the business.
Luke: The origins of the brand can be traced back to 2014. During the NBA finals, LeBron James experienced issues with cramping. Following that season, he teamed up with Mike Mancias’ trainer to identify protein powders in the market. He hadn’t taken a lot of supplementation up until that point. The diet was there, the exercise was there, and obviously, the work ethic and skills. When they surveyed the market, they weren’t able to find a protein powder that suited their needs in terms of purity, performance, and safety. They then worked to create their own. They brought in a team of scientists and experts and produced the first products of Ladder over the next couple of years, which were protein and pre-workout. Through connections, a longtime friend Arnold Schwarzenegger became involved in the business as well.
He’s a seven-time Mr. Olympia and a huge advocate for both health and fitness. He had experienced in the past working with supplement brands but also saw firsthand the issues that can occur within the space because things aren’t fully FDA regulated. You can make a lot of claims without necessarily having to back it up. When he saw what LeBron was doing, he was really excited to get involved and be a part of a brand that aligned with his interest and his advocacy. With that, they built out the next product, which was greens, a superfood greens, an everyday product, and all of that came together when the brand launched in November of 2018.
Felix: At what point did you get involved in the business?
Luke: I became involved with Ladder in September of 2019. A little less than a year after it started as the co-CEO.
Felix: Awesome, and what’s your background?
Luke: Before Ladder, I worked at Parachute, the home essentials brand. Also based out of LA for nearly six years. I was the first employee and was with the company in various roles, most recently as the CMO. What was fortunate in that experience is I got to see everything that went into building a business from scratch in terms of building customer-centric processes, where to invest across operations, marketing, and tech and it’s been great taking those experiences and those opportunities and applying them to Ladder. Getting the ability to start closer to the beginning and being able to shape those elements of the business.
Felix: What were some of the key skills or attributes that you brought from Parachute to Ladder?
Luke: The big thing is having a clear sense of brand identity. Ladder is similar to Parachute where the product is really great. Before I joined the company, I started using it before my early morning workouts, before bike rides, runs, weightlifting sessions and I could tell it made a difference. It was really cool to see the traction that the company already had within professional sports teams and athletes. The big thing I learned from Parachute was the idea of building a community and telling a story around a really high-quality product. Ladder is a more premium brand. And so as a more premium brand, it’s important that we really focus on all the different ways in which we can help customers along their journey from the first time they hear about us, which could be through our founders, Arnold, LeBron. It could be through our athletes, our ambassadors up until the point that they purchase. And for our subscribers, ensuring that deliveries are on time, the packaging and unboxing experience is good, and that the product quality experience is consistent throughout their time being a customer.
“The big thing is having a clear sense of brand identity.”
Felix: You touched on brand identity, can you give us your definition of brand identity?
Luke: Ultimately product-market fit is everything. For Ladder, the higher quality ingredients, the third-party certifications, the way that we manufacture the product tends to cost more. Because of that, it is for a more premium audience. The shoppers are a little bit more sophisticated. They’re more knowledgeable about the supplement space and the nutrition space. And it’s important for us to know that on the one hand, they know a lot, but on the other hand, they’re also inundated with new information every day. When it comes to communicating with that customer, we have to use the right balance of statements that validate their previously held beliefs as well as information and education that adds new dimensions to their knowledge. We want to be that trusted source of content and products that fit within their already regimented diet and exercise.
Felix: Are you finding education is more important when you’re marketing a premium product?
Luke: I would say so. NSF Certified for Sport. Only 1% of supplements are NSF Certified by Sport. What that means for your listeners is that every single batch of our product is tested to ensure that there are no toxins, banned substances, or heavy metals. More importantly, everything that is on the ingredient list is actually in the product. It’s surprising to hear it the first time you do, but getting more people to understand how important NSF for Sport is, is great. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to care about what you put in your body. And increasingly, consumers want to know. It’s like what farm is this from, who’s behind these products and who’s making them, and what makes them special and unique. We found it really important to go that extra mile to explain that because at the end of the day we sell supplements. We don’t sell substitutes. Our products are meant to take what you’re doing and make it better.
Felix: How do you find ways to educate the customer on details that they might not think they need to be aware of?
Luke: Yeah, it’s a good question. It depends on the customer’s needs. Certain people will reach out via customer support and we do have live agents who help with chat, phone calls, and with emails. People ask questions a lot on social media, whether it be direct messages or comments. It’s about meeting the customer wherever they are. For some, they’d rather just know that there is a resource. For us, it was going beyond an FAQ and building out our blog. We have over 50 pieces of content on our blog and we’re looking to always expand that knowledge base so that anybody can access it, whether or not they are a Ladder customer. One of the easiest ways to build trust with people is to demonstrate that you know about the product space or the product environment and that you care about it. That passion translates into more passionate customers.
“One of the easiest ways to build trust with people is to demonstrate that you know about the product space or the product environment and that you care about it.”
Felix: How do you ensure that your messaging is clear, achieving its intended purpose, and reaching your customers?
Luke: You can do it a couple of ways. Obviously, speaking to your customers is always great. The direct way in which we solicit feedback is CSAT, customer satisfaction score. Every time somebody has an interaction with us, we ask for that feedback. Product reviews, every time somebody buys one of our products, we ask for their candid feedback and that has allowed us to make changes as we see fit. We look at metrics around ship times. Are our products being delivered in a timely manner? We’ve done in-person tasting for new flavors. For existing products, we’ve done events and activations. Obviously, this was pre-COVID in terms of seeing how people are interacting with the product and the brand. In more native environments asking all the pro-teams that we work with, what they think about the product. Be engaged. You can use surveys, you can use reviews. Oftentimes, the most valuable feedback you’ll get is just in speaking to the customer themselves.
Felix: When speaking to customers, what questions gave the most value, in terms of the direction of the business?
Luke: When it’s in an interview context, you have to adhere to best practices, where there’s no bias being introduced into the question. Generally, we try to ask either questions that you can answer very simply, yes or no, or questions that are more open-ended. Obviously, when it comes to structuring that data becomes a little bit harder. At the end of the day, it’s really about having the people to sit there and listen and take in the information and then communicate it to the rest of the team.
Felix: When you came into the role, what are some of the biggest changes that you were most excited to start implementing?
Luke: The big ones are just really leaning into our identity as a sports nutrition brand. Given the performance and the pedigree associated with the brand – the founders are these two big performers knowing the certifications, the ingredients, and who is using the product – it was clear to me that’s where the white space existed. What’s been interesting as the brand has grown and as we’ve started to gain more attraction, is seeing the ways in which we can communicate with people who are not necessarily doing a sport. If I’m a CrossFitter, If I run, if I swim, if I’m a triathlete, our products fit perfectly within those needs. If you have different goals like weight loss or maintenance. Just because a product is designed and formulated for pros doesn’t mean that you’re withheld from using it.
If anything, when somebody uses Nike Pro equipment and when you wear LeBron’s, it’s to elevate your game. Sometimes it’s for style, but when it comes to technical apparel, the reason that whole space has exploded is people want to be able to perform at the highest level, no matter what level they’re at. If you think about your health and fitness journey as a Ladder, we want to support and get you to that next level. Once you get to one rung, we support you so you can get to the next one. That’s the exciting part. Having a brand that can equally appeal to someone who is at the absolute top of their game and someone who is really starting to invest in that journey.
How to bridge the gap between target audiences
Felix: How have you handled bridging that gap between pro-athlete and someone just starting their journey? How do you make sure that the target market is also included when marketing a premium product?
Luke: It really comes down to education. Making people understand. For example, this year we kicked off the new year with a campaign called rituals over resolutions. It was really all about mindset, where we interviewed professional athletes, entrepreneurs, nutritionists, fitness and health gurus, trainers, the whole gamut. We didn’t say, “how do I become you?”, but rather “how do you set goals and how do you approach overcoming obstacles and challenges?” People really liked it. That content resonated because a lot of the hard work is just getting into a routine.
It’s getting to a point where working out isn’t a chore or exercise in any form, whether it be yoga, Pilates, etc. Whatever it is, it’s something that you look forward to, it’s something that motivates you, it makes you happy, the endorphin rush because when you get into that flow state, that’s when our products come in and help you get even more out of that. Especially right now, where people are at home, we’re trying to encourage people. If you only have 30 minutes, how can we help people with stretches or with workouts that are easy to do with the items around you? Because the context is changing and we have to be able to adapt and change in order to go with it, be with the times.
Felix: How did you develop your content strategy to build this community of potential customers?
Luke: A lot of it is set by what is going on at a broader level. If sports are going on, inherently there’s going to be more content that you can produce around those ecosystems, in not only athletes but the trainers they work with, the nutritionists they work with, the physical therapists they work with. But when sports weren’t at the forefront of people’s consciousness, it was more about starting at the home. It’s what are things you can do at home that are easy and safe and still effective. For us, when you mix our protein product with greens, it’s a pretty good meal replacement. If you want a super nutritious shake that’s not going to be hard on your waistline, thinking about ways in which you can incorporate our product into cooking and baking and easy snacks and pre-workout, post-workout routines.
A lot of that is really important because at the end of the day, people’s behaviors are changing. You used to have to go into an office. If you were going to go into an office, then you’d have to wear certain apparel. If your workspace was remote, maybe it’s more of the same for you or if you used to have to commute somewhere. What happens when you no longer have that commute, can you take that time and reinvest it in yourself or are you putting it elsewhere? We try to be conscious of the fact that everybody’s in different situations right now. Some people are in cities, some people have a little bit more space, some people have families or other types of obligations. The question that we’re always trying to ask ourselves is, is the content that we’re creating relevant to the moment?
“The question that we’re always trying to ask ourselves is, is the content that we’re creating relevant to the moment?”
Felix: Using COVID as an example, can you tell us more about how you guys maintain flexibility and adapt to the times as a brand through your content?
Luke: Fortunately, we have a pretty lean, nimble team and we work with some pretty great freelancers and agencies. So people are neither comfortable with the idea. We’re at a startup. Part of the fun of being here is the ability to make changes quickly and react to your environment before it becomes a bigger or more widespread issue. I can remember in the middle of March, it was clear that things were not going to continue as expected. We had all-hands meeting and initiated that conversation where we said, okay, we’re all going to work remotely. There is no pressure to come into the office. We’re going to have to do things differently because we have to run the business and as lean of all manner as possible. And we’re not going to get access to things like big creative shoots or marketing events and activations.
We’re going to have to change the way that we do business because customers, our customers, and where they’re going to be is going to change. Similar things happened in June where I was thinking about what was going on, and increasingly athletes were using their platforms for good and for social good. And how are we aligning our brand with that of our founders and with other athletes and ambassadors, to make sure that we are on brand and on message? The biggest thing we want to avoid is pretending that things are normal and that consumers’ behaviors are normal because I can understand if you have to make adjustments in your life. Our products might be one of the products that you cut back on. But what we think about is that, for us, health and fitness is vital, almost independent of context. It’s helping people support those journeys in spite of everything that’s going on is where we like to be.
Felix: Tell us about your content creation system. What are the channels that you distribute your content on?
Luke: It’s our blog, and then we use social media as a way to amplify blog content. You’ll find it on Instagram, Facebook, at times LinkedIn, and Twitter. We’ll try and put it in our newsletters that we send out each week as well as any emails that you’ll get as a part of on-boarding into the brand. We’re looking for ways to incorporate it more into the customer service experience in terms of, “Hey, you reached out about this. Why don’t you read out this useful article that can give you more context on the response that I’m giving you?” Ultimately, it is opt-in. Not everybody wants a multiple paragraph response as to the question that they’re answering. But we like to provide that additional depth for those who seek it.
Felix: Is the blog the main source for content? Everything on social media funnels back to the blog?
Luke: Or site. It’s dependent on the messaging goals. If you look at our social feed, sometimes it points to the blog, sometimes it points to product pages, and then sometimes the content on social is just meant to live on social. It’s a fair expectation that if you’re scrolling through Instagram, you may not want to leave Instagram. So we have to think of what content we can create around workouts where you stay within that ecosystem? So it varies. The landing page or the destination if you will is very much dependent on the creative and the messaging goals.
Obviously, you always want to drive people back to the site, but you also have to be cognizant of whether it makes sense in light of the nature of the content? In a lot of ways, we’re equally as interested in content that can stand on its own and doesn’t need to have a destination. If you could learn something new and interesting and continue about your day, that’s a positive brand interaction. The goal is over time, you build up enough of those positive brand interactions that someone will be willing to potentially buy from you.
“You always want to drive people back to the site, but you also have to be cognizant of whether it makes sense in light of the nature of the content.”
Felix: How do you determine what content can stand on its own, and what content is meant to drive a user back to the site?
Luke: It’s just about aligning on what your KPIs are. How are you going to measure success with what you’re doing? And therefore, does it make sense relative to the content that you’re producing? So for me, it’s working with the different teammates to figure out when we post this or when we do this, what’s the end goal? In cases where it’s building community or building deeper connections, deeper brand relationships, the KPIs are going to be different than if it’s to get someone onto a product page and get them to buy.
Knowing your funnel and segmenting for lead conversion
Felix: What does your strategy look like in terms of converting leads?
Luke: It’s interesting. Every time we’ve looked into it, there’s no magic formula per se. For certain people, the gateway into the brand is our founders. They see Arnold and LeBron talking about it or maybe it’s our brand ambassadors. They see Alex Toussaint or Bec Wilcock or Johnny Hooper talking about the brand and then they want to learn more. It could be any of the network of affiliates that we work with. It could be a press piece about the brand. Then from there, it’s almost depending on what they do on the site.
I want to try and help that customer with whatever their next step is. Maybe they’re not ready to buy. Then the goal is maybe to get you to join our email list. For someone who’s definitely in the market, what do you need to know about this product or what do you need to know about the brand in order for you to purchase? If you’re comparison shopping, what are your hangups? How can I address those pain points in your life? For comparison shoppers maybe the blog articles are useful or maybe you didn’t get enough information on our product page where that’s okay.
For people who are subscribed to email, we test different types of content so then we can learn like, okay, for certain days of the week, certain content is going to do better than others and so we’re going to increase. As the list grows, you can segment and personalize. The ultimate goal for any brand is personalization. For us, we’re continuing to learn about these kinds of different consumer preferences and bucketing customers into these bigger groups in terms of where they’re at in their purchase journey.
“The ultimate goal for any brand is personalization.”
Felix: What are the segments that you like to break things up into?
Luke: It’s the big ones that you will always hear in terms of “awareness,” “consideration,” and then “purchase.” If somebody is in the “awareness” stage, the biggest thing that I want them to know is that Ladders is a supplement brand or a sports nutrition brand that sells premium protein, superfood greens, pre-workout, and hydration that also produces content from experts for consideration. It depends on what angle they’re coming in, but it’s just about addressing specific pain points, whether it relates to the products or any element of the brand that they want to learn more about. Some people want to know why it’s called Ladder. Some people want to know how the founders became involved. Some people want to know more about NSF Certified for Sport. What do these things mean? So we’re there for that.
For the “purchase” stage, that’s more of the boilerplate stuff. You know that somebody is going to buy or wants to buy at that point. What is that final thing to get them over the hump? Or is it just knowing that they’re going to purchase and just letting them make that decision on their own because everybody’s reached that point where they buy something and then they end up getting retargeted by that brand after they bought something with ads. We try to avoid those situations where you’ve already taken the leap, you’ve already made that purchase and yet it still feels we’re trying to get you to do more. So that’s what I try to focus on.
“We try to avoid situations where you’ve already made the purchase, and yet it still feels like we’re trying to get you to do more.”
Felix: Is this segmentation easiest through email, or are you doing it through paid advertising?
Luke: It can happen across the board. It’s really a matter of defining why somebody would fit in that bucket and what are the key KPIs within each of those buckets?
Felix: When someone is in the “awareness” stage, what kind of emails are you sending them?
Luke: You always want to give somebody a sense of the content that they can expect if they were a customer or if they stay on the newsletter. For us, it’s a lot of the content that you’ll find on our blogs, like recipes, nutrition, fitness, lifestyle, health, athlete profiles. Those are the main buckets. You’ll see that throughout all of our organic social, very similar things. To know that you’re getting the most out of the supplements you take, you have to consider the other factors in your life. Just because you take Ladder protein doesn’t mean you are going to gain muscle as quickly as you want to, or lose fat, or maintain your weight, or beat your PR, or set new goals with endurance. The outcome is defined by the individual and we just try to help people achieve that outcome in terms of pointing them where we see is the right direction in those different content buckets.
Felix: Do you employ certain incentives to encourage repeat purchases from customers?
Luke: For first subscribers, it’s making sure that they remain happy. For people who like to buy a la carte when it suits them, it’s trying to make sure to give them best practices in terms of using that product, sometimes showcasing other products that they might like. Those tend to work quite well. The hard thing with personalization is just not trying to over personalize if you don’t have the data to do it. Everybody wants to have that perfect email that has everything you would expect a customer to want, but you also don’t want to run into situations where someone gets an email in their inbox and it says, hi, first name or it’s sharing content that’s completely off-topic.
It’s a constant state of improvement. We’re getting better at segmenting. We’re getting better at personalizing. But it’s something that we’ll always continue to work on. You’re always getting more information about your customers directly or indirectly. The goal is to try and use that in ways that are helpful because, at the end of the day, you are your own customer. I get emails. I buy products from other brands. I shop at retailers. I shop online. I’ve shopped in-person. You’re exposed to a lot of the same tactics that you yourself are using. So at the end of the day, the big thing we always ask ourselves is how would I feel if I was the end-user or the end consumer.
Felix: What does the product development process look like for you guys?
Luke: That’s a good question. It’s working with our suppliers, with our experts, and then also with our customers, to see what’s happening at an industry level. Is there any new science or research that we can incorporate either into our existing products or into new products and what do our consumers say? Product reviews, in-person interviews, where are the places where we can either make our products better, introduce new product variants, or introduce new products altogether. That’s how we look at it. Then making sure that we have enough time to make the product fit with our quality standards. Because we’re a sports nutrition brand and not a protein brand or a greens brand we don’t want to be known by one product, but rather the quality of all of our products. So we try to stick to pretty strict standards there.
Felix: How do you determine direction? Do you do any market testing throughout the development process?
Luke: We start internally in terms of taste testing and trying the product out and then we’ll usually expand it in terms of bringing in people within our network. From there, once they’ve cleared those hurdles, we’ll open it up to more consumer testing and use that feedback to inform what moves we make.
Felix: How involved is LeBron and Arnold in the business?
Luke: It’s a good question. They’re very passionate about the business. We have either weekly or biweekly calls with people on their team. We’re in the heart of the NBA season. LeBron’s focused on winning a championship with the Lakers and we understand and appreciate that. As a Lakers fan, I’m excited to watch that quest. The good news is they’re incredibly savvy. They care about the product. They’ve built businesses independently and together. They’re great sounding boards in terms of high-level strategic decisions that we need to make. And in getting to work with their respective teams, we get a good insight into what they’re looking for, what they want, and making sure that as we continue to build the brand, they’re happy with the direction that we’re going in.
Navigating brand ambassador relationships
Felix: For other businesses with brand ambassadors, what are some of the best ways to use this model as a resource for guidance and direction?
Luke: Good question. It starts with making sure that your brand ambassadors like the product and the brand, independent of any sponsorship deal. We’re really fortunate the people that we work with believe in the vision of the brand and again, use them. Similar to LeBron and Arnold, use the product on a daily basis. It feels less of an endorsement or influencer play and more like a partnership. We think of it that way. Look for partners who are people that you want to still be working with at one year, two years, three years, four years.
Different brand ambassadors are going to have different size profiles at the time that you work with them. Think about it as a longer term relationship. Who are the people that you want to invest in their brand and they want to invest in yours? We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Alex Toussaint or Bec Wilcock, who are passionate about our success and we’re passionate about theirs. It’s a lot easier to do photoshoots or video shoots with them. Mike Mancias, LeBron’s trainer, has been a huge brand advocate and hugely passionate about the brand and it makes working with them that much easier.
“Think about it as a longer term relationship. Who are the people that you want to invest in their brand and they want to invest in yours.”
Felix: Was the website built in house, or did you use an agency to build it out?
Luke: Initially it was built by an agency, but increasingly we’ve brought those capabilities in-house.
Felix: Because you wanted to make certain customizations or be more agile with the website?
Luke: As with a lot of things that are brand-centric, the people that represent your brand will generally tend to know more about the little ins and outs of it. We like the idea of bringing in our core competencies in-house. We’re fortunate that our tech team is tiny, but mighty in terms of what they’re able to do. They do a good job of blending the art and the science when it comes to what our brand should look and feel like and then trying to use the data to figure out what our next steps are.
Felix: Have there been any changes or adjustments you’ve made to the site recently that has made a big impact on improving conversions?
Luke: The big ones in some of the earlier days of my tenure were thinking about what information needs to be on every level of the site. It’s what information should be on the homepage? What information should be on PLPs or the product listing pages? What information should be on PDPs? The about page. Telling that origin story the right way. Then within the blog, and thinking through how these pieces fit together. Then using the data from Google Analytics to figure out how people are navigating through the site, where are the potential choke points, and how are you going to address those potential choke points.
Felix: What have you learned about what information should be featured on specific pages of your website?
Luke: The homepage is basically your storefront. We like to think about it in terms of if you just heard about Ladder or maybe saw an ad. Independent of how you got there, does the homepage allow you to get the high-level information you need to know about the brand, and then, in a lot of cases, more importantly, does it direct you to where you need to go. That’s been a guiding principle in terms of how we design that specific page. For a lot of companies, your homepage is your most heavily trafficked landing page for marketing, and so it’s how are you going to design it accordingly.
“Does the homepage allow you to get the information you need to know about the brand and does it direct you where you need to go?”
Felix: What about the product listing page, how do you decide what goes on there?
Luke: That’s a level deeper. We’re fortunate we have a pretty simple assortment and that’s by design. There are so many thousands of products, maybe even hundreds of thousands of products in the supplement space on product aisles, whether it’d be digital or in-person. For us, simplicity was the key. It was showing what the products or product combinations were and then giving enough information so that if you were to click on any of them, you know what to expect when you land on that product page.
Felix: On the product page, what kinds of things have you either added or removed from there that made a big difference?
Luke: Just making sure that the product page had enough information to answer different levels of questions. At the basic level, a product page needs to be: What is that product? How much does it cost? And then how can I purchase it? For us, you can buy our product and multiple flavors in bags and in packets and you could subscribe or buy at one time. That’s your base level. That’s the most important information we need to communicate because that’s the thing that will narrow down a lot of purchase making decisions. From there, it’s about answering relevant questions around, certifications or flavor and taste or obviously, product reviews are really important for a lot of people just having those content blocks available.
Then, it’s testing the ordering, it’s testing the language within any given section. With everything, you can ask consumers and they’ll give you a certain amount of information. But we also like to test things. If we make certain decisions for the consumer or if we change the way that they see it, does their exhibited behavior match what they say? It’s what you do versus what you say you’re going to do. A lot of the testing that we do on our site is in relation to those two ideas.
Felix: What about the apps that you use for the website? Are there any apps or tools that you rely on?
Luke: The one nice thing about working with Shopify is the app ecosystem is pretty robust. Over the life of the brand, there’s been a lot of different apps that they’ve used and for different things. We’ve enjoyed working with Klaviyo for email. We use Privy for email capture. So that’s created a nice loop in terms of that flywheel. Google Analytics is still really important for us for user behavior and for seeing general site analytics. We use ReCharge for recurring orders. Those are the workhorses. Then where we’ve seen fit, we’ve tried to customize things and build them in-house.
“One nice thing about working with Shopify is the app ecosystem is pretty robust.”
Felix: What are some of the big goals that you want to achieve this year with a business?
Luke: Just getting more people to know about it and helping more people in their health and fitness journey. This has been a very unique year and I think it’s especially important within the company’s original mandate to deliver on that promise. Whether or not there are sports, whether or not the way that you exercise or played or did exercise has changed. Ladder is here to support you with expert advice, premium products, and a community that’s equally passionate about what they do.