Casper is a startup that provides “outrageously comfortable” mattresses sold directly to consumers — eliminating commission driven, inflated prices. Since its launch in April 2014, the brand has grown rapidly, generating $30 million in revenue over a 10-month period and expanding its team from five to 70 people.While Casper has always powered an on-brand, on-domain blog, the brand made a surprising move in June 2015, announcing its launch of Van Winkle’s, an off-brand, independent editorial venture.
Per Casper’s announcement on its branded blog, Van Winkle’s is an “independent editorial venture, staffed by an award-winning team of journalists. Van Winkle’s’ original features and stories explore all aspects of sleep, from science to pop culture.” Luke Sherwin, Casper’s Co-founder, explains the editorial strategy further, saying the site will publish “weekly in-depth features, hard-hitting investigative pieces, columns, explainers, and relevant product reviews.” Reporting will also cover cultural topics and issues “through a lens grounded in rest and wakefulness, like the societal implications of Benzodiazepine, experimental interrogation techniques, or the limitations of quantification.”
The brand is clearly putting the mission of providing quality content at the forefront of its strategy, staffing experienced journalists from Maxim, Travel + Leisure, Salon, Mic, Gawker Media and Men’s Journal. The team will be led by Elizabeth Spiers, a former editor in chief of the New York Observer and a founding editor of Gawker.
While we’ve seen unbranded content marketing endeavors before (ie: L’Oreal’s Makeup.com), it’s typically a move done by brands that a) are trying to disassociate from a negative brand perception, b) are trying to repair trust issues with customers, or c) have a house of brands rolling up into the same parent company. Casper fits none of these cases.
Instead, it seems the reason for the site was simply to fulfill a journalistic gap for an area of existing interest. As Sherwin explains it, Casper sees itself not just as a seller of mattresses but as a lifestyle brand at a time when people are concerned about work-life balance and are wearing fitness bands to track not just their activity but how much sleep they are actually getting. It seemed that if it wasn’t up to Casper to fill this void, then who?
While the site is funded by Casper, Van Winkle’s maintains its independence in terms of its branding, online identity and budget. The site is not designed to be a marketing vehicle or to drive traffic to the Casper site. It isn’t even part of Casper’s marketing budget. Van Winkle’s has no indication of its association with Casper, with the exception of a small “Published by Casper” disclaimer at the footer of the site. Van Winkle’s online identity is also separate with independent social accounts and an unassociated URL (vanwinkles.com instead of something like casper.com/vanwinkles). Finally, it’s interesting to note that the goal of the site is to be “as self-sustaining and independent as possible. There will not be any shoppable links or e-commerce.” Most brands that choose an un-branded strategy will typically still include shoppable links sparsely throughout their content.
Why It Will Work
Undoubtedly there will be many skeptics and naysayers of this seemingly risky endeavor, but there are several factors in this site’s strategy that have set it up for a successful future. First, the site is powered by an experienced team of journalists who know how to create compelling content. Regardless of the topics they write about, they’re staffed to be able to meet the high-quality expectations they’ve set for themselves.
Second, the site’s broad topic of “sleep” influences all aspects of life. Since sleep can be woven into just about anything, they’ve given themselves the flexibility to be able to write about topics that will be genuinely interesting. Six months from now, they won’t find themselves writing a stale story just because it’s the only thing left that fits in the site’s overarching theme.
Third, the unbranded strategy fits perfectly with Casper’s mission. Casper’s direct-to-consumer business model eliminates inflated prices and benefits consumers. Any business that is built on benefitting the end consumer has a leg up on an honest and trustworthy brand perception. Launching an unbranded editorial site, filled with amazing content, with no direct strategy to drive e-commerce enhances that positive perception even more.
Finally, the executive team’s expectations are realistic, open and prepared for adaptation. Sherwin does not expect the site to be a destination that readers will check every morning. Instead, the objective is to provide interesting, valuable content that will spread itself. Sherwin explains, “We live in a world where being a destination site is not necessarily the primary goal of all content sites. The quality of the content still has value.” Casper’s CEO, Philip Krim, is also aware of the risk and prepared to alter strategy if need be. He explains, “If it isn’t well received we’ll have to reevaluate, but if we do succeed in creating some awesome content then I think we’ll have an interesting standalone business here.”
While still in its infancy, the site has already drummed up buzz and been covered by Wall Street Journal and the New York Business Journal. At a time when content is the “in vogue” marketing strategy of the moment, Van Winkle’s is an exciting experiment that will interesting to watch and sure to influence other brands’ content marketing strategies.