It's sort of surprising to hear the founders of Cuyana speak about the importance of language. After all, this is a company whose name pretty much no one can pronounce properly the first time. (It's "koo-yana," if that helps.)
At its start, the company itself wasn't easy to explain, either. Now, when co-founders Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah speak with reporters, they know how to describe Cuyana: It's farm-to-table, but for fashion.
Finding a quick description that was also consumer friendly was exceedingly difficult. But when the founders did come up with the right tagline, the effort was well worth it: "The moment we started using the right language, it was like night and day," says Gallardo.
In 2013, the company had been selling mostly to friends and family, and getting great feedback. What the company wasn't getting was the word-of-mouth it needed to grow. "Why isn’t it hitting?" Shah said she and Gallardo asked themselves. "We realized we weren't putting the 'why' in front." In retrospect, she says, "We were so deep into our own company, and we thought people understood."
In truth, they weren't arming their first customers, who were mostly friends and family, with the tools they needed to advocate for Cuyana and spread the word. "If you don't give your customers the right message to turn around and tell their friends, what you stand for gets diluted," Shah says.
Digging for the Essential
The "why," for Cuyana, was, and is, complicated. The company makes a small number of high-quality garments and accessories for women. Cuyana is completely vertically integrated within each country in which it does business, in many cases using traditional craftspeople who have been thrown out of work in the rush to outsource to lower-cost countries. So all of Cuyana's cashmere sweaters are made in Scotland. Capes made of baby alpaca are cut and sewn in Peru, and the alpaca itself comes from Peru, too. Leather--the cattle, the tanneries, the cutting and sewing--comes from Argentina. The items are not cheap, but given the quality, they're not expensive, either.
"We were building a brand, but it was all behind the scenes," says Gallardo. "You would ask, 'What is Cuyana?' and it would take us 15 minutes to explain. It was 10 things." Shah and Gallardo talked about it every day for almost a year. But when they got ready to officially launch Cuyana--and hired a public relations company to help--finding the right language to describe the company became more urgent.
Shah and Gallardo said they'd sit with two other employees and their newly hired head of PR, obsessing over a whiteboard covered in mediocre slogans. The PR person, Gallardo said, "was mainly sitting there listening to see if he got it or not. He kept saying, 'That doesn’t mean anything to me,' and challenging us to come up with something better."
They did this every week for two months. Then Shah blurted out, "Fewer, better." Says Gallardo: "Once we heard 'Fewer, better,' there were definitely no other contenders. We knew it was right."
That still didn't answer the question, "Fewer, better, what?" That part, the founders said, came in pieces. Was it about fewer, better clothes? Fewer, better products? "At one point we wondered if it should just be 'Fewer, better,'" full stop, says Shah. "But then people didn’t know that we sold things, or if we had products." Eventually they settled on "fewer, better things."
Now that they've been using the new tagline, both founders agree the change has been dramatic. And they wonder about what could have been. Says Shah: "A lot of time people focus on just getting the product right. If they fail, and they're not successful, of course it could be the product. But it could also be the way you're talking about yourself."