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How do you build trust as a small business and sell yourself a size larger? Reagan from Vaer Watches shares how they are able to get the content they create into film festivals ⤵️
This is the third and final article in the series with Reagan Cook from Vaer. The previous two articles covered how their choice of product and way of doing business built their initial community, how Reagan and Ryan nurtured and scaled that community that by expressing their interests.
In this article, we speak about content. How Vaer focuses on creating high quality content and media even as a small business, to really prepare for the future by crafting and expressing the story of what they want the brand to be.
Vaer has produced documentaries, invested in high quality photography, built their network of up and coming creatives in Los Angeles, and has succeeded in selling themselves many sizes larger than they are as a small, two-person founder-run business.
Let’s get into it ⤵
What does your content strategy really look like?
We’ve had a lot of admiration for brands like Patagonia, and we’ve always tried to have some artfulness to our content.
We’ve had beautiful product design, and a beautiful design style and a website that’s clean, minimalist and sophisticated. And then we blend that with best-in-class imagery.
There’s such a huge advantage for us to be located in Venice Beach, California, and being connected through cool friends and secondary connections with some of the greatest content creators in the world — some of the best filmmakers and photographers, and that’s been a real blessing.
That’s why I think places like LA, New York, London or Paris have such an inherent advantage in starting brands because you have such an incredible creative community that you can tap into and create things that really inspire people and show the big picture of the brand.
And you can do that on a budget, because you can work with someone who’s maybe not a superstar yet, but was the production assistant of a superstar, and who wants to make their first documentary, or film, or whatever.
We’ve leaned into that strategy to make ourselves look bigger than we are.
The shift towards organic, TikTok-style content
What’s been an interesting inversion of that is to see a shift away from selling a lifestyle that looks better than it actually is. We’re moving away from the falseness of Instagram, with photoshopping and retouching.
People, particularly younger people, have shifted, into a more TikTok mindset — peeling back layers of that superficiality. It’s no longer retouched, colour-graded for 2 hours, gone through 20 people, before reaching the eyes of a customer. It’s no longer a 6-month long production or content plan.
Today, you get more impressions with someone opening up their phone, filming it live, with barely any editing or editorial elevation. And I think that’s refreshing for a lot of people. That’s been an interesting revelation that we’ve made.
Creating great media is always gonna be critical to us, since we see Instagram as a channel to create that mood board, or a look book. And if we ever ran a billboard or other print materials, we will raise that bar to do the best possible thing we can do.
But that doesn’t mean that a billboard shot by an award winning photographer is going to be any more or less effective than a TikTok video of someone shooting in their bathroom. That will very likely outperform professional content, actually.
And it also allows us to not worry so much about being selective of content, and that way, just allowing a wide breadth of customers or influencers or otherwise, who maybe don't have the the newest camera, don't have great staging, but they can at least present the ownership experience, and their honest experience in their authentic way.
Using UGC as ads
Thanks to Ubu, I basically take a bunch of user-generated content, and I stitch it up. I didn’t have to shoot any of it. I didn’t have to produce anything.
I just take a bunch of hastily put together wrist shots, stitch it into a slideshow sequence, and even though it’s the least aesthetic thing we’ve ever run, it does like 4x return on ad spend. That’s crazy.
But it also comes full circle. I wouldn’t put UGC as product photos. It’s an interesting mix of being ad hoc and casual for that initial prospecting and acquisition, through an ad that doesn’t seem like an ad.
And then when you retarget that customer, when they come to our website, and they say “wow this looks like a $100m business”. That’s because of the way it’s designed, looking at the sophistication of the photography, the videos.
That’s what’s great about being small and dynamic and agile. We can see the impact of UGC and we can say that if we have $50,000 to spend on content, sure let’s create some of these Patagonia style documentary films, but let’s maybe do just one and spend the rest of the money around other kinds of more casual producers, because ultimately impressions are what lead to sales and customers.
Selling one size larger
There is a way of selling a certain size and scale. For example, having a SoHo, New York brick and mortar location improves your conversion rates because then people know that yours isn’t a fly-by-night brand that will disappear the next day. People will believe that “this is a big business” and will increase trust.
It’s the same psychology with producing a quality documentary, great media, product photography, working with celebrities, all those things. It’s a little bit of a smoke and mirrors dynamic, but you know, as a small brand, you got to lean into those types of advantages.
Vaer’s Documentary Series
Vaer has released 4 mini-documentaries so far, and they continue to work on more to release very soon.
I would say our new documentary raises the bar significantly. It’s a surf film set in Iceland in the winter. That was really cool to produce, and it’s just awesome from a storytelling perspective, and as you know, it’s a fun thing to do as a brand.
I really enjoy that I get to kind of act as executive producer, and let really creative people do these amazing things.
That’s like one of the more rewarding aspects of it, being able to produce what I think is great quality content that stands apart and what we can submit to film festivals that people can just watch for entertainment, even if only 2000 people view it. I’m fine with that.
As a small business, we’re always looking for examples of what other brands are doing, that are bigger than you, and we can inspiration from these other lifestyle brands that are doing a great job of telling diverse stories.
And we’ve submitted these films to film festivals too, and it still says “Vaer Presents” on them. So it’s kind of a weird way of thinking that you have all these brands and businesses that are creating media, and you wouldn’t really assume that there’s like a corporate interest there.
But obviously, it shouldn’t be immediately seen as a Vaer watch advertisement. We’re kind of just putting the story together. And if the guy’s wearing a watch, so be it — it’s just a very very very subtle advertisement.
Seeing the customers as stakeholders, and keeping them closer
We can always justify creating documentaries like that because as long as we’re ultimately proud of creating it, chances are that our community of 50,000 customers will hopefully also find it cool.
We see our watch owners as stakeholders. They are our early backers — the people that have put $100, $200 or even $1000 on the line, and they wear our brand on their wrist every single day.
And there are so many other options — they could be wearing an Apple Watch, they could be wearing a Rolex, they could be wearing other watches in their collection.
So the more they understand what Vaer represents, the closer they’ll feel to our brand, and the more likely our watch will stay on their wrist, and that they’ll buy more watches and so on.
That’s the responsibility of a lifestyle business, it’s making sure that the brand is always growing in strength, and is always creating more magic and more value just by telling these cool stories and showing exactly that we’ve got a bigger vision.
When we share the vision of a half billion dollar business to our customers, with retail shops in major cities and custom watch manufacturing in their own home towns, our customers would love hearing that. That’s because they know that if this ever came to pass, the Vaer they’re wearing today would be even more valuable.
All of what we’re doing is serving that mission — the goal to reward stakeholders that bet on the brand at an early stage, so that they can say “holy crap, I got into this early”.
What is good vs. bad content on Instagram?
There’s this kind of duality on Instagram. On the one hand, you want to give the people what they want. But at the same time, you also have a responsibility to lead the customers and create a larger narrative that is bigger than individual posts.
You could post something that shows up in the feed every single day that looks good individually. It will trigger the initial serotonin response of like “oh, I like that”.
And you could also just say that you’ve mathematically determined that images with just a black background and a close up shot of the watch do the best, and you can always just post photos like that.
But then you go to the feed, and see it as someone that’s just discovering the brand, and they’re saying “what’s this?” when they see a feed of identical shots. What story is this brand telling?
For me what’s interesting is that I can tell you today that I know that when we post something, a lifestyle, a guy, a model, a customer wearing a watch and doing something interesting, that will perform less well. And that’s fine.
But ultimately, when you look back at the post six months from now or a year from now, it fits into a bigger narrative and a bigger feed. And that feed itself tells a wider story. So I think it’s a balancing act of that.
Definitely give customers what they want. Create posts that generate 60 or 70 comments, and you want that discussion. But I think it’s also important, at least for our brand, to use any channel we are on to also kind of put a stake in the ground to say “this is what we believe in” and share the wider image of the brand.
It’s the same way as if you’re an artist doing an exhibition. Yeah, you can pick one photo which might be great. But it’s not about finding the one most popular photo that will sell the most — it’s about picking 100 photos that fully represent the kind of wider vision of your brand.
Thanks a lot to Reagan for his time, his sharing, and for the wonderful insights that he’s allowed us to document here on Selling Social.
If you enjoyed this series, let us know in the comments below. And make sure to check out Vaer at vaerwatches.com and have a look at what they’ve been able to build!