truff hot sauce bottles
Throughout COVID-19, Truff's co-founders found with so many consumers eating at home, a new hot sauce or condiment provided much-needed excitement for those repeat meals. — Truff

The path to building a successful brand has become less linear than ever. Media companies can evolve into retailers, creative agencies can develop their own line of products and social media accounts can go from Instagram to grocery store shelves. Truff Hot Sauce, launched in 2017, now stocked in every Whole Foods store in the U.S. and a top selling condiment on Amazon, is one such success story.

The brand began as @sauce, an Instagram account dedicated to food content, with an edge inspired by co-founders Nick Guillen’s and Nick Ajluni’s love of streetwear and hip-hop culture. Once the account hit over 10,000 followers, Guillen told CO—, “we knew that we wanted to take it a step further, and we didn’t just want to be an Instagram account.” The pair surveyed the food space for an untapped niche, ultimately landing upon the condiment and specialty hot sauce category.

Driven by a growing immigrant population, adventurous millennial foodies and eaters seeking out new ethnic flavors, the hot sauce category has seen major growth in recent years. According to 2019 research from Fortune Business Insights, the global hot sauce market size was $2.29 billion in 2018, and is forecast to reach $3.77 billion by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.5%.

Despite hot sauce becoming a major food trend, Guillen and Ajluni found that there was still a void in the market for a condiment that could offer an elevated, luxury hot sauce experience. Truff differentiates itself in several ways, beginning with its trademark truffle flavor, as the name suggests. “That not only helped elevate the brand and the flavor profile, but it allowed us to really separate ourselves from anything that had been done in the market before,” Guillen said.

There’s a huge opportunity for a lot of these traditional brands that have focused heavily on physical retail to now shift gears and take e-commerce a little more seriously.

Nick Guillen, co-founder, Truff

A direct line between customer and company, ‘like friends and family’

As a digitally native brand, Truff is able to build and leverage direct relationships with its customers. By contrast, traditional consumer products brands are disconnected from their end customers by the process of selling to a distributor that then sells to a retailer, which is largely responsible for the brand’s presence on store shelves.

“We’re trying to not only communicate that Truff is a lot different than a lot of other hot sauces on the market, but that the relationship you build with our brand emotionally is much different from one you would build with a traditional hot sauce brand,” Guillen said. “We treat [our customers] as friends and family.”

To further build these relationships, Truff has developed a dedicated app for fans of the #TruffLife to find recipes and cooking tutorials, shop for new products and collect rewards points that can be exchanged for discounts and other perks.

How naïveté and keeping an open mind inspired innovation

A more seasoned entrepreneur may find Truff’s strategy naive: start an Instagram account, hope it goes viral and somehow your product ends up on the shelves of every Whole Foods in the country. According to Guillen, however, “the naïveté of not really knowing how to start a condiment business was a real advantage,” as it allowed them to keep an open mind rather than just follow established channels.

“For example, if you talk to any traditional hot sauce brand owner, the first place they would look [for distribution] wouldn’t be direct-to-consumer digital channels,” he said.

Yet the period Truff spent as an online-only brand was key to building awareness and hype around the product itself. After two years, brick-and-mortar retailers came calling. Truff’s first accounts included icons of luxury retail like department stores Neiman Marcus to high-end Los Angeles health food chain Erewhon.

 truff cofounders
Truff co-founders Nick Guillen and Nick Ajluni. — Truff

Truff’s biggest break thus far came in 2018, with a spot on Oprah’s holiday Favorite Things list, requiring every item be sold directly on Amazon. Despite being initially resistant to selling on the proverbial “everything store,” Guillen explained, the value was undeniable. “There was such a massive opportunity for us at such an early stage to drive trial and revenue to our product from this exposure.” Despite the focus on direct sales and consumer-centric operations, Truff has managed to remain among the top-selling hot sauces on Amazon, he said.

Adding excitement to homebound cooking

As a food product easily available online, Guillen recognized the opportunities for the brand sparked by COVID-19. With more consumers eating at home, a new hot sauce or condiment provides much-needed excitement for people who have been cooking the same meals for several months now.

However, he said, “we’re really not taking an opportunistic approach on the current environment.” Truff has avoided directly weaving the pandemic into its marketing and social content. Instead, it’s continuing to leverage that personal connection with customers to speak to them in an authentic voice and reach them where they are: shopping online from home.

“There’s a huge opportunity for a lot of these traditional brands that have focused heavily on physical retail to now shift gears and take e-commerce a little more seriously,” Guillen said. “I think it’s a great time and a great opportunity for brands to double down on digital,’ he said. In e-commerce right now, “high tides raise all ships, as they say.”

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Published July 21, 2020