Models posing while wearing Thinx activewear.
Pandemic-fueled trends have led companies like feminine hygiene disruptor Thinx, along with Clorox and Zenni Optical, to innovate products and processes in order to yield sales. — Thinx

Why it matters:

  • The pandemic accelerated the rise of e-commerce which surged 21% in 2020 and is expected to reach over $1 trillion in U.S. sales this year.
  • It also changed how consumers dressed, turning comfort and athleisure wear into the best-selling segment of the apparel business.
  • Brands like Clorox’s Brita, Thinx and Zenni Optical leaned into the pandemic-fueled trends, crafting innovations to meet the demands of the new normal.

If necessity is the proverbial mother of invention, the pandemic has been the mother lode of innovation, forcing businesses to make quicksilver pivots — like adding touch-free payment options for safety-minded consumers — to meet the moment’s needs.

Indeed, the crisis hastened innovation, nudging brands to serve macro consumer-buying trends and niche market demands, from churning out anti-fog eyeglasses for mask-donning shoppers to building a DTC arm as consumers retreated from stores, executives from Zenni Optical, The Clorox Company and feminine hygiene disruptor Thinx told CO—.

Their moves mirror the heightened pace of change rippling across business sectors, as companies launched digital products and services, for one, “to maintain and accelerate their customer engagement, and help them reach their revenue growth targets,” according to a Gartner report.

[More here on why innovation must be a routine function in any business.]

The Clorox Company: E-commerce boom prompts Brita’s DTC debut

Due to the pandemic, Clorox accelerated plans to sell a handful of its brands online, including Brita water filters, which made their DTC debut this month.

“We know more and more consumers have adapted to e-commerce shopping at a much faster rate than expected prior to COVID,” Jackson Jeyanayagam, vice president and general manager, DTC, for The Clorox Company, told CO—. He’s not wrong: Online shopping surged 21.9% in 2020, and is projected to reach over $1 trillion in U.S. sales this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Brita is the latest in a string of legacy brands from Pepsi to Nike that are taking a page from DTC startups like Harry’s and Warby Parker by selling directly to shoppers online to forge more intimate customer relationships and get instant feedback on what sells.

With the brand’s move online, Clorox also saw an opportunity to appeal directly to eco-conscious customers. “More and more consumers are thinking about how to shop with the environment in mind,” he said. “What makes Brita such a fun brand to work on is knowing the positive impact that we can have on the environment. For example, if a consumer switches to a Brita system, they can replace up to 1,800 single-use plastic bottles per year,” Jeyanayagam said. “These two factors made it clear to us that launching a Brita shopping experience made a lot of sense for the brand.”

While the DTC site has uncorked a new revenue stream for Brita, more importantly, he said, the platform yields invaluable data on consumer shopping behaviors that it can apply to the other parts of the business. “Whether it’s innovation, marketing efficiency, or driving [business] to retail, DTC allows us to better understand our consumers’ interests and figure out how to best deliver a unique and personalized experience that we know will resonate with them regardless of where the purchase happens, even if it’s offline at a partner’s retail store,” Jeyanayagam said.

“For instance, we are already learning what type of content our customers want most from a brand like Brita — a combination of educational impact on how buying Brita helps the environment, and SKU-specific info that helps dimensionalize the products in the respective product description pages — and what types of products [they are] more likely to buy with it.”

[More here on five key steps to developing a content strategy.]

Their moves mirror the heightened pace of change rippling across business sectors, as companies launched digital products and services, for one, “to maintain and accelerate their customer engagement, and help them reach their revenue growth targets.”

Gartner

Thinx: COVID pushes brand expansion into activewear and paves path to 200% wholesale growth with launch of Thinx for All in Target

The pandemic presented an opportunity for period-proof underwear brand Thinx to promote more consumer trial of its products, Courtney Newman, director of product design, told CO—.

“While traditionally consumers were hesitant to try a new period product for fear of a public leak, through our marketing efforts we were able to reach new consumers at a unique time when they were willing to experiment with our product in the comfort of their own home.”

As COVID spurred newfound demand for casual apparel, Thinx seized the moment, launching its Activewear line of leggings to running shorts by putting its own spin on a category that saw sales surge 10% in 2020, and outperform total apparel sales, which fell 19% last year, according to The NPD Group.

“Our Activewear line is designed for working out or hanging out while on your period, which extended to working from home too,” she said. “While Activewear is a natural extension of our period support technology, we also saw how activewear sales spiked during the pandemic, so this was the ideal time to introduce our own innovative range of products to meet consumer demand.”

Separately, its Thinx for All line rolled out to Target in March, marking the brand's debut in national brick-and-mortar stores.

Thinx’s strategy to tether innovations to consumers’ COVID-informed inclinations has paid off for the brand.

“As we carry on in this time of uncertainty, Thinx is fortunate to be experiencing tremendous growth; we are projecting our DTC business to increase 25%, and our wholesale will see growth around nearly 200%,” Newman said. “We believe our growth is due to COVID accelerating online adoptions and consumers willing to try new products from the safety of their couch,” she said. “With so many of us spending the last year at home, we were able to attract new customers and now people have realized our product works, and our product education efforts have started to pay off.”

Zenni Optical: Pandemic innovations, like anti-fog and blue light lenses, help retailer exceed sales projections by 45%

The pandemic fueled record eyewear sales for Zenni Optical, fast-tracking innovations like anti-fog lenses for newly masked consumers, Courtney Fadjo Biro, vice president of growth marketing, told CO—.

The e-tailer also zeroed in on ways to improve the customer experience to serve consumers glued to their screens. “People were spending 10-plus hours a day on their devices,” she said. “We needed to do a content audit.”

Amid the crisis, Zenni moved to take the pulse of shoppers grappling with uncertainty and newfound stressors by ramping up customer service support via live agents by phone and chat, generating feedback that revealed customer needs and concerns, like fogged eyeglasses and obstructed vision while wearing face coverings.

“We discovered through customer feedback loops and social listening that we could help solve a prominent problem for glasses wearers through anti-fog solutions,” which sped the launch of its anti-fog lenses, Fadjo Biro said.

What’s more, customers complained of tired eyes and blurry vision. “We knew portions of the population were experiencing side effects from increased digital device consumption, with remote learning for children as well as an increase in work from home, where adults were spending more time in front of devices than in the traditional office setting to stay connected,” she said.

So Zenni amped up promotion of its Blokz lenses after a customer survey found that shoppers reported symptom relief from wearing the blue-light-blocking eyeglasses.

It also played up influencer-curated “style shops” to ease shopping the site’s 3,000 SKUs. Zenni style shops showcase looks handpicked by its social media “tastemakers,” from “classic” to “artsy” to “street style” and more.

“As a result of COVID, we leaned into this more as we realized non-traditional e-commerce shoppers may find it easier to select glasses this way when the online optical buying experience can sometimes be overwhelming to know where to start otherwise,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of new customers engage with those curated pages.”

All told, pandemic-informed innovations helped Zenni surpass its pre-COVID 2020 sales projections by 45%, Fadjo Biro said.

That success has sparked “a lot of reflection on how we can plan differently with our business.”

While pre-pandemic, three- to five-year business plans were the norm for the retailer, now, she says, “we’re creating these bite-sized plans that are six months to a year to be more agile.”

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Published April 28, 2021