Leon Lewis | Attracting Customers With Mission and Product

Sometimes a business is more than just a business… even more than simply something you’re passionate about.

Leon Lewis, eCommerce and digital marketing lead, and the other folks at REBBL which creates herb-infused beverages, consider themselves to be on a cause to bring awareness about human trafficking and uplift at-risk communities around the world.

Their mission extends to sustainable packaging and more. But they’re also cutting-edge when it comes to digital marketing strategy to build the ecommerce side of the business. 

It can be a challenge, says Leon, to communicate their mission while marketing their product. But it’s essential. One way they do that says Leon: Keep the customer in mind at all times.

We get into that in detail, as well as…

  • The importance of product pages – what to include, what to leave out
  • Why Amazon isn’t a great platform for their product – and what they’re doing about it
  • How they’ve leveraged the subscription model
  • The importance of maintaining a consumer perspective
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript:

Joris Bryon: Hey, this is your eCommerce excellence podcast. And today I’m very excited to talk to Leon Lewis. Leon is the eCommerce and digital marketing lead a Rebbl that’s Rebbl beverage company. But it’s actually more than that. It’s a cause and mission-driven brand. That was started by a nonprofit called Not For Sale. So it’s a pretty special story, and I’ll let them tell you the story in a minute. But Leon, he has a ton of experience in eCommerce actually. And he’s been in the game since the late 90s when he was still a kid. So I’m sure this is going to be a very interesting episode today.

Leon, welcome to the podcast. Great to have you here.

Leon Lewis: Yeah, thanks so much yours. Good to connect.

Joris: Cool. Just to get started. Can you tell us a bit more about your background where you come from in your career? How did you end up at this point?

Leon: Sure, it’s kind of a bit of a tale. So, you know, I started, I started in, you know, just eCommerce. When I was a kid, I was really, into board games, and I designed a board game. And there was no way I grew up in a small town, kind of, you know, in the woods, here in southeastern Virginia. And, you know, there was no way to really get it out there.

So I built a website and started selling it online. And it ended up getting the attention of a distributor and I got like a, you know, kind of emerging, you know, minds award and in the gaming industry at the time, which was, which was super cool. And I moved, you know, from there, I mean, Music is my passion. I’ve been a musician my entire life. So I started a record label. Soon after that, sort of ran that through, you know, through college.

And that was a record label, but it was really Like a mail-order sites will be like custom-built a site that had you know, we sold thousands of books and CDs and things like that before. You know, there was Amazon before there’s anything store, you know, we were that we had to build it all from scratch. I don’t think Shopify was even a thing quite yet. And yeah, from there, you know, continued in the music industry, I ended up at Hohner, which is a, you know, old German company.

And after, you know, sort of helping to run our eCommerce accounts there, was put in charge of the ukulele division and came to run Lanikai ukulele, which is the world’s largest ukulele brand. So you know, spend a lot of time about three and a half years doing that kind of back and forth from Hawaii the entire time. And after that company sold, I happen to know the founder of health warrior and you know and met him and sort of came on board. And, you know, I thought that natural foods were, you know, really fun, it had, you know, message the company had, you know, a very clear cause.

And so I was there for three years until we accident to Pepsi little over a year ago and came to join the team at Rbbl which I was, you know, very, very excited about. You know, I remember getting the first call about being at Rebbl and I like, told the recruiter I was like, let me count how many of them are in my fridge. Right. So, you know, between the product itself and and and the mission. You know, it’s really been just a wonderful experience and we’re looking forward to next year. Cool.

Joris: That’s actually a great story. I mean, going from board games over ukuleles to all the way to Rebbl. Don’t even about the Rebbl story for people who don’t know the brand. How did rebel get started and what are you guys actually selling?

How Rebbl Got Started

Leon: Yeah, so you know rebel was started by nonprofit called Not For Sale, which you know Not For Sale is, you know, basically built around raising awareness about human trafficking, helping to lift some native populations, you know, out of, you know, situations where they either are active, you know, being victims of human trafficking, or they’re at high risk for him, which includes actually a lot of farming and, you know, agriculture operations around the world.

A lot of you know, low-cost ingredients, as you know, has been documented, I believe, in some cases around some, you know, some pet food, you know, where the folks that were actually you know, fishing for were basically slaves, they were, you know, locked up on an island and forced to fish and things like that are much more prevalent than many of us realize it’s the fastest-growing, you know, illegal industry on the planet, which is, you know, shocking for most people. So, not for sale had, you know, the idea of creating a food brand where the ingredients, you know, came from these communities and you know, help to uplift them out of these situations and you know, kind of support education and, and safe housing, etc. So that’s, you know, Rebbl was born, David stone, who was the founder of Not For Sale partnered with Paulo Hawkin.

And, you know, they created this line of really delicious, you know, coconut milk, Herb infused beverages. So it’s a very unique product, I would credit, you know, Rebbl with creating a category where you see, you know, many, many players today, you know, even coming at it from an outside perspective, four or five years ago when I first started to notice Rebbl, you know, I mean, first it was like, Okay, what is a $4 or $5 beverage? What does that even entail, you know, paying that much for something which is now commonplace, you know, but also like coconut milk infused with thirds, and there were plant proteins and, you know, even just a few years ago, that was completely out of the left field.

And now we see you know, we’re on the shelf, you know, full of competitors that you know, our attention to doing the same thing, but, you know, for us, we really stayed true to our impact message and impact sourcing. So, you know, we continue to offer much more, we’ve donated over a million dollars to not for sale at this point. And I believe it’s over 20,000 individuals that we have directly helped through our efforts.

Joris: Yeah, well, that’s, that’s actually great. I mean, it’s already visionary for a not for profit organization to actually start a brand and an own product, but then it’s also efficient to actually launch that kind of product that is now a bit more mainstream than it was at when you saw it out. But you mentioned that I mean, Rebbl is committed to impacting, right? So you have your very mission-driven, but there’s also an impact on the environment, right with the type of products you have and the fuels for shipping, that kind of stuff, the packaging how How do you address those issues?

Addressing Issues With The Environment

Leon: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it’s been an issue for us I mean, before even getting to the con perspective you know, really kind of walking the walk you know, the way that our products are made they you know, have to be package they can’t be packaged in glass. I’m not a food scientist, I can’t get too deep into it, but you know, we’ve been forced to use plastic packaging. Next year, we are switching to 100% RPET, which is you know, post-consumer recycled plastic packaging.

And we’re very, you know, excited to be one of the first brands to make that full transition and you know, coming into it for Ecomm that was, you know, that was definitely a concern. I mean, there’s a lot of, you know, brands that you know, my target a similar consumer, and if you buy them online, you’ll get the beverages, you know, shifted a bunch of Styrofoam with some toxic gel packs, and it’s, you know, just feels like there’s a big disconnect there. So after doing some research, we’re able to partner with, with a couple of different companies you know, one being temper pack. temper pack is actually very strangely based in the same city that I am in Richmond, Virginia. And they are one of the only suppliers of a fully curbside recyclable liner for shipping.

And they’re also working on you know, a plant-based replacement for styrofoam, which is amazing. And then we Yeah, then we’ve been able to work with a few companies Polartec and Nordic ice, which both have, you know, drain safe ice packs that are also recyclable. So you can, you know, it’s safe to just empty it down the drain, it’s not going to do any harm to the environment. And you know, then the actual material itself is recyclable. So if you order rebel online, you know, you’re able you are able to take the entire package, you know, and just put it by the curb for recycling, which is great. It doesn’t require any, you know, special processing.

We’re going to continue to expand on that. into the future and we’re also able to use ground shipping for everything that’s a big policy of ours is you know not to do any you know, second-day air shipments, etc and you know, burn more jet fuel. So, you know, we’re proud that we’re able to deliver rebel you can get it two to three days, you know, anywhere in the US shipped by ground and it’s you know, safe recyclable packaging, which is great.

Joris: Yeah, absolutely. I love it. The way you look at things I really tried to reduce your footprint basically. Do you notice that your customers mainly come for the product for your message and mission or is it a combination of both?

Leon: Yeah, it’s you know, it’s a combination of both I think you know, with our product isn’t super simple you know, I mean, if you’re looking for like you know, plant-based protein then it’s pretty, you know, straightforward Oh, we have a dark chocolate protein you know, try it but there’s much much more you know, depth to Rebbl. them.

Whether it’s getting into the functionality of the ingredients where those ingredients come from, or, you know, the impact side of it, you know, of course, so we have to do a lot of work to understand, you know, when to message, those particular things. But you know, what we found as we’ve made this transition into eCommerce, you know, Cheryl Laughlin, who was our former CEO, when I first started, she, you know, she would ask me, like, is anyone going to buy a dozen Rebbl at the time?

That seems crazy. And now that we’ve launched and, you know, we’re four months into it, our average order is, you know, much larger than that. So we’ve seen Yeah, so we’ve seen a lot of consumers, you know, who really understand you know, the complete picture and you know, are able to come online and whether they’ve heard of the brand and maybe had it just a few times, you know, if you look at how we built our site, you know, I really focused a lot on getting complete information about the products on the product pages in a That, you know, kid is easy to absorb and sort of tell the story friendly flavors, and we’re very proud of that as well.

Joris: Yeah. What are the main sales channels for Rebbl? Is it Amazon? Obviously your own site any other channels?

Leon: Oh, yeah. So, you know, Amazon, we are, you know, a 3P seller there, you know, Amazon through just the main.com business has not, you know, learned to handle, you know, perishable or frozen shipping and they actually just, they don’t really make many concessions, you know, for them at all, which is, you know, been a challenge and, you know, we continue to try to, you know, work with him to get some changes made, you know, the .com site is is, of course, you know, big focus for us. It allows us to develop you know, subscription model to consumers.

And then, you know, another site which I know is talked about a lot but I can tell you there’s going to be a lot of you know, changes and improvements and growth in the coming years Instacart, which we as a just a great opportunity to, you know, market our products to consumers that might be shopping at a conventional grocery store. And otherwise just wouldn’t discover rebel, we may only have one or two skews. And we started to invest, you know, more and advertising there because it’s a great platform.

Joris: Yeah. Okay, cool. So, as I mentioned in your introduction, you’ve been doing this for a long time, right? You’ve been in eCommerce. Since you were a kid. A lot of things have changed. marketplaces, technology, consumer preferences. Amidst all of that, how has your strategy and approach evolved, has, like the proliferation of analytics, more customer data, add technologies, a lot of a lot has changed? How has that changed your strategy and approach?

Leon: Yeah. I think that you know, I’ve been fortunate to have the experience, you know, running businesses myself and even today kind of maintain this I have a great team around me, but I’m the sole person at Rebbl sort of, you know, running eCommerce.

And I think, you know, today, I mean, there are so many tools, there’s so much data, there’s so many, you know, ways that you can measure your business day today. And I try to work around it and use it to my advantage. But I do think that you know, there’s, there’s so much, you know, specialization that you kind of have to look at the whole experience and just maintain that perspective of the consumer, you know, consistently and ask yourself, you know, am I giving the consumer all the information that they need? Because this offer makes sense, is it compelling?

You know, consumers, I think are, you know, are looking for pretty simple, you know, just easy to use, you know, websites today, you know, and, and a lot of you know, sites are just kind of over-engineered, and you know, and it just makes it more difficult. So, we try to keep it pretty simple, you know and pretty straightforward. I mean, I think that you know, then it’s definitely gotten more complicated and it’s definitely now eCommerce gone from thing where you know in the 90s it was big was kind of for weirdos because if you needed to buy it yeah what if you needed to buy something online just because you just couldn’t find it anywhere else not because you were searching for paper towels, you know or you know, stocking your pantry.

It was for something strange and now it’s sort of an everyday thing and so you know, most people have a sense of how it works. And there is a much more technical and like detailed you to know, you know, lots of gears happening and you know, turning in the background at all times, of course, but you know, we have to you know, meet the customer where they are and just you know, give them an experience that’s easy to use. It’s very consistent and just makes them you know, love the brand and feel like they’re in partnership with you. So that you can have that ongoing conversation and really build lifetime value.

Joris: Yeah, I think that’s the best approach long term, right? Instead of going from shiny object to shiny object and trying a lot of stuff out, it’s just put your customer at the center of everything and try to look at it from their perspective and try to improve their experience. And that’s going to pay off in the end.

Leon: Exactly, exactly.

Joris: So it’s not only the landscape that has and technologies that have changed, but the roles as well I guess, and eCommerce, and you’ve been in quite a few roles now. You’re already mentioned more specialization. How have your roles changed over the years?

How Does the eCommerce Role Change Over The Years

Leon: Yeah. I mean, I think in some ways, you know, it’s the day to day is very different. You know, we use different tools and different technologies, but, you know, at the same time, you know, to be, to be totally honest, my days from you know, Running a, you know, sort of punk rock record label mail order when I was, you know, 17-18 years old, and my days today are not that much different, you know, where you look at the business, what are we selling? Are there customer issues? Are there you know, things that we can be improving on the side? Are there consistent things that we’re seeing, you know, really looking at every channel and how are we converting or not converting, you know, by channel and just like understanding that, and really, you know, I’ve been fortunate to consistently have roles that give me the opportunity to take a holistic approach.

And I do encourage that, you know, for anyone that you know, I look into larger organizations and where, you know, Amazon might be Oh, this person that handles promotions, this person handles search, this person handles display. This one handles the detail pages and like there is communication and there’s always efforts to break down silos, but I do think that there’s a risk of silos of understanding and perception. And, you know, that can just break the, you know, the pieces that pulled the larger picture together. So, it’s been, it’s been interesting to me to see, you know, so many just different aspects of what I do become not just their own jobs, but their own industries.

So, yeah, yeah. So it’s, it’s, it’s one where I think, you know, anyone involved in the business, you know, rather than if you’re involved in advertising, like, That’s wonderful, but, you know, let’s, you know, try to break out of that, and always be learning more and more so that, you know, you can I mean, a move into a larger role over time, you know, you want it to be your career, or be just, you know, have that broader understanding that can help inform your day to day work.

Joris: Yeah, and I think that’s, that’s one of the challenges. Biggest Yeah, there’s a lot of specialization going on. And if you want to be really good at one particular feel of, of, let’s say digital marketing, and you have to go all-in and you have to go really, really deep. But the risk areas, as you mentioned, as well is that you lose perspective on the entire picture and the allistic approach I find when I talk to people, those people are sometimes over specialized I feel, and they don’t understand the could, as you mentioned before, as well, the experience of the consumer and the entire marketing picture and really understanding this the way a brand is evolving. 

And well, the full picture everyone is so narrow down into their own field. And that’s why I like the idea of I believe it’s called a T shaped mark here so that you have a broad base and then you can go deep in one field, but you should keep that broad base. Otherwise, you’re going to get lost within your specialization, I think.

Leon: Right and I feel like you know, that has You know, helped me learn over time, right, you know, as a certain challenge presents itself, it’s okay. You know, we’re having trouble with a consumer, you know, shipments like, let’s really look at how we’re shipping. Okay, now I know everything I need to know about how FedEx works, you know, or how packaging works or the density of current use on our boxes and, and those things have just added up over time. I mean, I’m only I’m 34 but, you know, this was what I’ve been doing for more than half my life now. So it’s been great because I’ve had those, those opportunities and the other point that you just made me think of, and I think it’s, it’s a little silly, but it’s relevant. You know, Help Warrior is a great example.

But if you do a really really great job at presenting and talking about it and selling what might basically just be a, you know, a widget in someone’s life, then you can build sales and you can build affinity around that one thing because it becomes the best one that they relate to. But you have to approach it from how that consumer is perceiving it. And I think that when you do live in the data, you know, you’re thinking about the numbers and how you’re affecting and you’re not really thinking about like oh, this is a snack bar.

You know, Help Warrior makes Chia bars, they’re 100 calorie snack bars, they’re very small, they’re less than an ounce apiece. And, you know, one thing is we would be deep into marketing and like, deep into worrying about sales and planning, and this And that would be that every once in a while, we would have to step back and say, Okay, these are 100 calorie snack bars, you know, we have to give consumers a, a experience and messaging and communication, that that is realistic for 100 calorie snack bar because, you know, not many consumers are going to make it the most important thing in their life, right, you just can’t do that for every item in your pantry.

Joris: Yeah, we all think we, we sell the coolest product that everyone should have. But that’s not how consumers see it and taking a step back and thinking about it and looking at your marketing in a way like that, it’s, yeah, it’s gonna be eye-opening because we all think what we sell is the most important thing, but let’s be honest, that isn’t the case right now, yeah, this is the last couple of I don’t know months or years there’s been like that direct to consumer search. What’s your opinion on that? What do you think that’s going?

Leon: I find it I don’t know I have a lot of opinions. I mean, on one side, I saw I saw an article about you know, the rise of the direct to consumer bro, the DTC bro, you know, which are, you know, hotshot, you know, eCommerce managers, you know, burning a lot of venture capital, and, you know, just making magic happens. And like, that’s great.

Like, I’m really glad that it exists. I know some of those folks and like they do an amazing job and, you know, to me, it’s just, it’s just the community to see is a very new and fresh term and you know it existed beforehand and it was just, you know, branded e-commerce, etc. I do think that you know, it’s, it’s very interesting to me some of the investments that happen, how companies position their value from their DDC business and you know, some of the very very lofty projections that you know, that we’re starting to see play out in, you know, to just be kind of hollow and what I mean is, you know, many companies are looking at, you know, their subscription growth and Okay, we are, you know, we’re bringing customers in at you know, marketing costs of $75. The first order is $50.

You know, we are in the green for that consumer by their third order, and we just need to get x percentage to pay back The initial marketing costs, and we’re just going to put millions of dollars into that machine and then in 18 months will be a $40 million a year company. And there are companies that go and seek investment based on models like that, and without much commentary on exactly what’s going to happen in the middle. And I think that you know, the wallet has worked, I do think that you know, building a business that relies on this hot initial offer to get consumers in, where you are out of the gate, you know, deeply discounting, giving someone some crazy deal.

There’s such a gap of value that’s created at that moment, that you’re at risk of never having a consumer pay full price, you know, for that product. And, of course, if you’re building, you know, a hot startup that you want to, you know, to flip in a couple of years, you may not care, you know, because you may be telling a great story, but I think that you know, for independently owned businesses, and you know, for companies that have very small budgets I think it’s it’s a risky proposition.

And you know, we’ve seen it plays out even outside of the e commerce space, you know, you can look at we work which is a company that thought it would infinitely expand and that there would be you know, infinite number of people that would want to you know, move into their offices and they built models that absolutely didn’t pan out but they still spend all the money they said that they would you look at peloton today, which is, you know, has come out with an IPO and, you know, they fully think that you know, two out of 10 you know households in America will have a peloton in a couple of years and you know, more power to them if that’s what happens but you know, every category in every industry is just so segmented and there’s so much competition at every turn, that you have to weigh that when you build out those models and you have to be very realistic and you know, one thing that I was encouraged by yours even just looking at you know, Your agency and some of the commentary that you do about optimizing your, your organic traffic conversion rate.

I think that that is advice worth its weight in gold, you know, you’re looking at a business that you know is going into eCommerce and maybe they exist at retail or maybe they do well on Amazon, but they have an existing base all our website gets, you know, 5000 you know, customers a, you know, or 5000 visitors a month like that is a perfect place to start to build your business. Because you have so much to learn about selling to those consumers that already know something about your brand before you can even begin to extract value out of consumers that don’t know anything about your brand. And you have to reach them through very expensive advertising. So I have a lot of thoughts.

Joris: I feel like we should do a separate episode on DTC. But it yet is a big topic and it’s very new and stuff because of all this. Yeah, so maybe we should schedule that. Yeah, we only have a few minutes left. But if you would start over again, is there anything you would do differently?

Leon: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. You told me you were going to ask me that one. And I yeah, and I thought about it and, and, you know, I think, you know, for, for me, I, you know, feel very, you know, fortunate to be where I am I and to, you know, get to work for some wonderful cause based companies and I think back to the company that I ran when I was a teenager and you know, and through college and we tried very hard and we had a lot of growth and it’s a long story there were some, you know, tragic things that unfortunately happened and it kind of it caused me to give up and you know, and I moved on and, you know, that has opened up everything that happened since then, but at the same time, some of the artists that we were working with at the time, you know, future islands being one of them Girl Talk has, you know, went on to become, you know, international touring artist and, you know, we were working with them right before they sort of started to blow up.

And so I always think about, like, if I just, you know, really really toughed it out, you know, through the opportunity or through those challenges that, you know, those opportunities would have revealed themselves, but, you know, at the same time, that was, I was 21, that was 2006. And then 2008 happened a few years later and, or 2007, the whole financial crisis and, and, you know, who knows how that would have panned out but that would do kind of weigh on my mind sometimes.

Joris: Yeah, I can imagine. I mean, you could have been socially rich, but you could have been homeless by now as well. Who knows? Yeah. Over all those years, a lot of experience in eCommerce, what’s the biggest mistake you made?

Leon: Oh, I think, you know, the biggest mistake that I’ve made is, is, you know, it takes a while to, you know, to learn to really trust yourself and you know, to absorb what you have, you know, expertise in something and, you know, to accept that reality that, hey, you know, I know what I’m doing. And, you know, and we can go out there and we can make this happen and there’s no need to, you know, to doubt yourself. So, I think it’s, it’s, you know, that’s been a big mistake.

And then, you know, also, you know, for a long time I you know, neglected my health, I was not as healthy as I could have been, I you know, 250 pounds and you know, and today I’m you know, much, much, you know, less than that after just learning to, you know, separate my life and my work a little bit and those things, you know, truly took me a long time. Time to work through so those were both mistakes that I learned from.

Joris: I absolutely love it because most people say something like oh I made the wrong hire and say trust yourself and take care of yourself and I like that because that’s that that applies to anyone if you have an eCommerce business or not if you work for someone or if you’re an entrepreneur I really like that early on this has been great and yeah, again we could go on for hours probably about PPC alone. But yeah, we’re out of time and it just wants to make sure that people know where they can find you or connect with you they would like to connect with you but what’s the best place for that?

Leon: Yeah, you know, I’m I love connecting people and just you know, chatting and either providing my thoughts on anything. You can look me up on LinkedIn at Leon Lewis. My email is just [email protected] and feel free to reach out I love to connect and just You know, chat about things and if I can ever lend my opinion and I’m happy to do so.

Joris: Cool. Thank you so much for being here earlier. It’s been absolutely great.

Leon: Alright, thank you so much Joris I really appreciate the opportunity.

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