How reality TV, vegan blogs and storytelling put one sustainable business founder on the fast track.

In 2016, as Lindsay McCormick was working as a reality television show producer and catching a different flight every other week, it bothered her that she was going through countless travel-sized tubes of toothpaste. As a former surf instructor, she had unsettling memories of the plastic that littered the ocean and beaches where she taught lessons, and she wanted to avoid contributing to the earth’s waste.

McCormick conscientiously used refillable shampoo and conditioner bottles for her work trips, but the answer to the toothpaste quandary eluded her. She searched for alternatives, but everything on the market was packaged in plastic. Although she stumbled upon some toothpaste tablet options, the ingredients were lacking and reliant on harsh chemicals. And so McCormick started taking online chemistry courses on nights and weekends and talking to dentists and hygienists to formulate her own substitute.

It was a hobby—not a business. She simply wanted an effective toothpaste to combat her vegan lifestyle, as a high-carb diet tends to cause more cavities, and to reduce her own environmental footprint. At first, McCormick tried piping powders mixed with coconut oil to make hardened little balls like the candy dots that come on strips of paper, but that was a bust. Eventually, she landed on the right combination of ingredients, bought a $1,000 hand-press tableting machine and figured out how to package the toothpaste in a glass jar.

Why there’s value in values marketing - Bite's Lindsay McCormick

Lindsay McCormick, founder/CEO of oral care brand Bite

“I saw this solution, and I thought it would have an incredibly niche appeal. I assumed it would be me, some of my hippie friends, my parents—who are just always going to be supportive—and maybe some of my TV producer colleagues wanting this stuff,” McCormick says. “I figured it would be an Etsy shop, and I’d also sell it on Shopify with the goal of just making my money back from the equipment I bought.”

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McCormick, now the founder and CEO of an oral care brand called Bite, was wrong. Case in point: “Shark Tank” investor Mark Cuban wanted a sizable stake in her fast-growing company and offered to finance it.

Like an increasing number of executives, McCormick discovered that consumers are increasingly gravitating toward purpose-driven businesses. In fact, shoppers are even demanding accountability on social, political and environmental topics—with sustainability being a particularly hot-button issue. This consumer cry for action is leading merchants like Bite to highlight ecologically responsible products or practices. There is “clear and strong” evidence that consumers assess companies through the lens of their own belief systems—a trend that has been growing over the last decade, according to Anjali Lai, senior analyst at research firm Forrester Inc.

“A company’s approach to moral, social and political values increasingly matters to its success,” she says. “[This is] giving rise to ‘values-based consumers:’ consumers who evaluate their purchases not just in terms of the direct benefits they’ll receive but also in context of the product’s [or] brand’s values around employment and manufacturing practices, political and social stances and commitment to other causes or beliefs.”

Bite moves on up from small vegan blogs to score a ‘Shark Tank’ spot

Retailers that have resonated with consumers on this front report benefitting in a number of ways: more social media mentions, lower customer acquisition costs, higher conversion rates, increased customer loyalty, upticks in revenue and more. And with consumers rallying around retailers that align with their personal values, analysts say it’s crucial that companies authentically communicate their brand identity and initiatives to shoppers.

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Yet it can take some time for merchants to perfect their tone and pinpoint the best channel to convey their messaging before reaping the benefits of a values-oriented business model. For Bite, it was a small cult following in the blogosphere that paved the way for the company’s later, more mainstream success.

Some of McCormick’s friends with vegan blogs started featuring the refillable toothpaste tablets in 2017. This was during the early stages of the zero-waste movement, or the eco-friendly set of principles centered on waste prevention to encourage reuse of products and prevent trash from being sent to landfills. Bite is subscription-based and sends customers a jar filled with four months’ worth of non-toxic tablets while subsequent refill orders arrive in a compostable pouch, making it a fit for writers seeking to highlight new, sustainably minded products.

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Soon, Bite—which markets itself as an all-natural, 100% vegan, gluten-free, cruelty-free, zero-waste company—attracted the attention of “Women’s Health.” The magazine was spotlighting short videos of women-owned businesses in the health space and asked McCormick to submit a featurette of her making tablets in her living room and talking about the genesis of the company. The video went “insanely viral,” McCormick says, despite the fact that her boyfriend quickly shot the video at 6 a.m. before she left for a work shoot. It had almost a million views in the first two hours after the magazine posted it without giving her a heads-up in August 2018.

McCormick’s Shopify app was “going berserk” that night, she says, and the entrepreneur was certain she had gotten hacked because there were more orders coming in than she had received in the entire life of the brand. Turns out, “Women’s Health” linked Bite’s profile directly to its ecommerce site. In the first four days after the video was posted, the brand generated $200,000 in sales—more than 30 times the $6,000 she sold in the entire prior year. At the time, McCormick was still making tablets by hand—one by one—and she scrambled to get business insurance and find a manufacturer after running out of stock.

“It was like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’ All of a sudden, it dawned on us that this is a real thing,” McCormick says.

As the zero-waste movement gained traction, many of Bite’s early influencer devotees grew their followers to 150,000 from around 1,000, propelling the brand into a coveted spot on the investor-run, startup incubator “Shark Tank” on ABC. Mogul Cuban and businessman Kevin O’Leary both wanted to invest in the brand after hearing her pitch, but McCormick says she turned down the offers because they wanted too much control of the company. While the thought of raising funds can be tempting and she frequently gets solicited by would-be investors, McCormick says she’s not interested in selling the business and hasn’t needed an influx of capital.

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Bite has also since scored deals to get its toothpaste tablets sold on Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh site and VioletGrey.com, a discovery hub for beauty editors, as well as in several trendy Erewhon Market stores in Los Angeles. The brand currently boasts 100,000 active subscriptions and doubled its product offerings in the past year, including a plastic-free teeth whitening gel system, a company spokesperson says.

While McCormick declined to disclose Bite’s revenue, which Digital Commerce 360 estimates reached $10.3 million last year, she says the brand more than doubled its sales over 2019 and has been profitable since 2018. The brand raked in more than $3 million in 2019 and has since hit eight figures annually, the spokesperson adds. With a Digital Commerce 360-estimated 175.0% growth in online sales in 2020, Bite is the fifth fastest-grower in the 2021 Next 1000 rankings of mid-market online players, where the company holds the No. 1549 spot.

Storytelling in marketing helps brand connect on sustainability

McCormick attributes a large part of the company’s success to solid, educational content, which she says has always been the cornerstone of Bite’s marketing efforts.

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“The content we create has to effectively describe our product. It’s a weird product. The tablets use different ingredients that are more expensive, and we have to explain why,” McCormick adds. “If we weren’t good at communicating our message, we wouldn’t be getting anywhere.”

BiteToothpasteBits.com features cautionary statistics to spur shoppers to buy green products like, “More than 1 billion plastic toothpaste tubes are thrown out each year with harsh chemical residues” and, “Every year, more than 50 Empire State Buildings’ worth of toothpaste tubes end up in landfills or oceans.” But McCormick says consumers demand more than that to buy into her sustainability proposition. Shoppers now heavily research brands and expect them to be transparent about their sourcing, packaging, hiring, ongoing improvement efforts and more.

“I write these lengthy blog posts about why we choose the ingredients we choose, why we choose the packaging we choose—we weigh the pros and the cons for our audience to engage them in the conversation,” she adds. “We never try to come off perfect because there’s no perfect way to achieve sustainability. Instead, we articulate our reasoning for everything and the why behind our decisions, and once we give hard answers to consumers’ hard questions, they in turn become gigantic advocates for the company.”

Word of mouth is huge for Bite. The brand’s consumers are mostly 24-35 years old with a strong showing in the 18-and-under crowd. And these younger and often mission-driven shoppers get on board because they believe in what Bite is doing and feel comfortable vouching for the company to their friends and family, which McCormick says creates a natural referral program. Bite’s customer acquisition cost is $4.50 per customer, which she says is low compared with other brands, which she says averages double digits. McCormick attributes her low costs to messaging and storytelling that has laid the foundation and primed shoppers to think positively about the brand.

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Bite has more than 15,000 five-star reviews across all products, and McCormick says she watches the brand’s conversion rate climb with every new review, which she calls social proof.

In 2021, storytelling will remain a focus for the brand’s team, which recently grew to six employees and still operates out of the founder’s living room. One of McCormick’s three bedrooms now also has been converted into an in-house studio stocked with photo and video equipment to aid Bite in doubling down on content production this year, and the brand will devote full-time staff and freelancers to these projects.

McCormick has dreams of using her TV background to produce environmentally conscious documentaries about the world’s plastic problem and potential solutions. The conservation narrative is what’s so effective and stays with consumers long after statistics have been forgotten, she says. Outdoor apparel and activist brand Patagonia (No. 206 in the 2021 Top 1000) does this especially well, with its documentaries on protecting national parks, adds McCormick, who hopes to have a similar impact without the same huge budget. IPhone videos can work just as well if the content connects with the audience and makes them understand and care about the cause, McCormick says.

The work it takes Bite and other value-focused retailers to tell their stories can be worth it, data suggests. 32% of consumers would pay more for a product from a brand they believe is committed to sustainability, according to an online survey of 2,000 shoppers commissioned by personalization platform Nosto in 2019. Additionally, 11% of consumers who shopped online during the five-day period last year from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday selected a retailer because of its sustainable business practices, according to a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,113 consumers in December.

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Bite pushes shipping carriers to use more sustainable packaging

Yet, for McCormick, it’s the small things that are indicative of Bite’s real success. The brand, which went carbon neutral in 2020, was “incredibly strict about its packaging materials from Day 1 because packaging is such a big part of an ecommerce business’s environmental footprint. Boxes are cardboard, and tape is paper instead of the default plastic.

“When we were small, it was such a hard fight. We had to pay so much extra to get those fulfillment companies to use paper tape because it’s not normal,” McCormick says. “Then suddenly there’s a fulfillment company that’s courting us because we are doing a significant number of orders per month, and they’re asking ‘What can we do to get your business?’”

She answered without pause: Don’t charge Bite extra for substituting packing tape. And the first time McCormick toured the facility, the fulfillment company directed her attention to the paper tape dispensers that were recently purchased and installed on her behalf, showing off three new stations to accommodate brands like Bite.

“It’s really exciting,” McCormick says. “We were the ones who kind of kicked in the door. That’s so awesome that we established the demand and paved the way for these other small brands who won’t have to fight the same way we did to be good to the planet.”

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And then it’s just a matter of time before the big companies start taking notice. McCormick’s hope is larger toothpaste companies—which may previously have been hesitant to shake things up with a legacy brand—will see what Bite has accomplished and realize that it could be worthwhile to manufacture a more sustainable toothpaste with ethical and clean ingredients that costs a little more.

“I’m really finding my place for our business in this world. I want to be the thorn on the side of the industry or the outlier—the company that is doing these really audacious and bold, sustainable thing and proving that there is a gigantic market for it,” McCormick says. “We can’t do it alone, but if we’re continually raising the bar on our end and coming out with more and more sustainable products that solve these important problems and push the big guys, that’s where the real change is made.”

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