Designers everywhere have heard it, and many company owners have thought it: “We want to look like Nike/Apple/Coke/whatever the popular brand is at the moment.
Introducing products to market is never easy, and creating a brand that resonates with customers is even more difficult. Many companies envy Apple for having cool products and fitting package design, and try to mimic its success by copying an art concept or branding strategy.
But looking deeper, we know these sought-after brands aren’t coveted solely because they happened upon a secret formula of white space plus choice colors for their well-designed products and packaging: Brands are the most successful when decisions are made from a strong sense of self and without concern for the current “it” company.
BRANDPACKAGING talks with Elle Rowley, creator of Solly Baby, about her work in starting and managing a unified, well-received and thoughtfully designed brand.
BRANDPACKAGING (BP): Let’s begin with the “what’s and why’s” of babywearing.
ELLE ROWLEY (ER): Babywearing is the practice of wearing a baby in a carrier. Our carriers are designed from “womb to wrap,” meaning you can begin babywearing from day one (assuming the child is not preemie, for which we recommend consulting a physician).
There are many benefits of babywearing. Here are just a couple:
- In the wearing of newborns in particular, the mother’s oxytocin levels are increased through the physical contact with the infant, leading to a more intimate maternal bond, easier breastfeeding and better care, thus lowering the incidence of postpartum depression and psychosomatic illness in the mother; similarly, the father carrying the baby has benefits for the paternal bond.
- Infants who are carried are generally calmer because all of their primal/survival needs are met. The caregiver can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted and provide feeding. In addition, the motion necessary for continuing neural development, gastrointestinal and respiratory health, and establishing balance (inner ear development) and muscle tone is constant.
BP: Tell us about starting Solly Baby: Where did the desire come from, and how did you get the brand going?
ER: My husband was still in school, and I was pregnant with our second child, our first being two years old at the time. I had used several carriers with my first and, although I loved wearing her, they all left me with headaches and neck pain. I set out to make myself a wrap-style carrier that was more comfortable and that I was excited to wear. In the process of making this wrap and testing out fabrics, I made it much lighter in weight and more compact than other wraps on the market. Not being super familiar with wraps at the time, I honestly didn’t know I’d done anything that different until my friends started asking me to make them one as well. So I bought my first serger on Craigslist and went to work during naptime.
I had little to no luck selling them at local handmade and gift shows, but one day I had the idea to send them out to bloggers. I was aware of the blogger “scene” at the time and thought it seemed like a novel idea to send one to a pregnant fashion blogger. It was common at the time for fashion bloggers to receive clothing, not baby gear, but because I had focused so much on the design, I was proud it not just carried a baby really comfortably but also added to the wearer’s personal aesthetic, rather than taking away. As soon as the first blogger wore our wrap, our business really started.
From there we took the business seriously and found real manufacturing (no more living room-turned-workshop), improved the quality of our fabrics, design and packaging yet again, and worked tirelessly through social media to get the word out.
Now, four and a half years later, my husband works with me full time; we have a small handful of employees, and we’ve grown into a multi-million dollar business. More than that, our product has a positive influence on the lives of mothers and fathers all over the world. We feel so incredibly blessed to do what we do.
My education is in English literature and communications and my husband’s is in political science. Not exactly what you’d expect from a baby carrier company, but we’ve always been interested in business, marketing and product development. We also really love to learn and solve problems, which is all running a business is.
BP: What is the purpose of the brand and intent for the products?
ER: Becoming a mother rocked my world in a way I never could’ve anticipated. I am endlessly inspired by the idea of making the lives of mothers and fathers not only easier but also more meaningful. Our products do both.
On a seemingly superficial level, I also love the idea of integrating a parent’s personal aesthetic. It just feels nice to retain your sense of self after having a child, even when everything else seems to look and feel differently.
BP: Brands that care about their customers’ wants and wishes do well, and there’s a lot of thought that went into the Solly Wraps — tell us about those details.
ER: Upon first glance, a wrap is just a really, really long piece of fabric. Upon use, though, you’ll find that every detail makes a huge impact as to how it functions. It’s taken years to find exactly the right blend of fabrics and shape. We have our fabrics custom-made and dyed in Los Angeles, and we’ve added little details to the design over time as well. I never liked having a separate carrying case for it, so I added a self-enclosing pocket on one end that the whole wrap can be stuffed into for easy transport, and a hidden pocket inside of that for a pacifier because I was always losing my son’s on walks. I love that what looks like a little pouch of fabric in your diaper bag is actually a baby carrier.
We also worked hard to find environmentally friendly fabrics that were uber-soft but also durable enough to throw in the dryer. It didn’t begin this way, but we found that a lot of the mothers in our community wished they were, so we made it happen.
BP: The industry has begun to realize that any interaction with any brand facet (i.e., packaging, product, website and so on) leaves a person assessing the genuineness of the company. Brands are an extension of their owners and managing principles — you’ve even come in to ship backorders on your birthday so customers weren’t kept waiting.
Just as important as the guiding practices are in demonstrating a brand’s authenticity is a great design that’s a natural fit and feels effortless for the company. How did you go about deciding the look?
ER: Because I am not a fashion or graphic designer, I really had to draw from my own aesthetic. I have a rather clean, minimalist approach to design, so it started there and then evolved with the help of an amazing graphic and packaging designer — all of our packaging and branding materials are created and executed by Rowley Press. I also drew a lot of inspiration from brands I related to in other industries.
BP: Who did you bring in as partners when creating your vision?
ER: We have gone about it very slowly. I really don’t enjoy managing people, but I do enjoy working with peers who understand our brand and vision for the company. We have a small but brilliant creative team and a head of operations who helps us keep the backend running. My husband, Jared, is our strategy man, and although his part may seem quiet, he has been so essential to our growth from day one. He was the catalyst in the early days for me to not give up even when no one understood what I was doing.
BP: Why do you believe style and design is so important to a brand? What do your customers see in your products/packaging that makes them think, “I need that?”
ER: I strongly believe that the way we consume now is different than it was a few decades ago. We want to know where our products come from, and we also subconsciously know the products we use say something about us. They reflect our personal values, and I think, or at least I hope, that when mothers see our products they can feel they’re from someone who understands their world. They can feel it from the first time they look at the product, and they continue to feel it when they use the wrap and experience the magic as their little one sleeps the day away while they make dinner, run a company and take care of their toddler all the while. Our community knows that our wraps didn’t come about through market research; they came about through a real mom on the search for a way to take care of her two year old and still bond with her baby.
BP: The Solly Dolly wrap was introduced after the Solly Wrap — how did that new product come about?
ER: As you might guess, babywearing is a big part of our home. My oldest daughter, Lucy, wanted to wear her doll just like I wore her baby brother, so I made her one. Then I made her little friends wraps for their dolls and so on. I sold them in our shop for the first year, but then I stopped selling them for several more because it was a pain in production. I really loved what they stand for and what they encourage in little girls and boys, so we reintroduced them last spring.
BP: You have a book out — Carrying Baby — and it’s an on-point extension of the brand.
ER: Thank you! I’m so glad you feel that it is. It seemed a little random at the time, but I really wanted this book to be out there for my own children. I also found the concept of teaching how animals carry their young and connecting that to mothers and fathers carrying their little ones really beautiful. Somehow it seemed to bring all of our products and maybe a little bit of my own life full circle, since writing has always been such an important part of me.
It’s a simple lift-the-flap board book, but it was, personally, a really special project to work on. Especially because I was able to work with three women that I not only look up to tremendously as creatives and mothers but also count as dear friends — Ashley Mae Hoiland created all the artwork; Amanda Jane Jones designed the book, and Eva Jorgensen did our hand lettering.
BP: Today’s mom is aware of what goes against baby’s skin, and that extends to the package the product comes in: What considerations did you take when choosing packaging?
ER: Everything is intentional, and along the way, we’ve been challenged with changing the way we work for efficiency or cost, but this aspect is non-negotiable. We have always kept our packaging as minimal and eco-friendly as possible to not only reduce our footprint but also have the cleanest and most natural of materials touching our products.
BP: The Solly Baby brand and products have this feeling of living unhindered: For example, the Solly Swaddle doubles as a car seat blanket or even a big-kid throw — the brand has captured a practicality and down-to-earth attitude that converts one-off consumers into brand evangelists. What keeps brands honest and real?
ER: I firmly believe in staying connected with your customer and staying true to your brand values. It’s hard to go too far astray when you know your customer well and, to some degree, answer to them. We have made a lot of decisions that don’t make sense on paper, but we know they are in the best interest of the company. We have controlled our growth in a way that we know is best for maintaining quality and passed up opportunities that might alienate us from our community. It’s easy to get caught up in the creative or backend, so I go through our hashtag each week to see who is using our product and what their experience has been. It’s a very grounding practice. And gratifying — I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the families that support our family.
And I think authenticity comes from being yourself, so in a business that means knowing your brand. Our brand values are to inspire and nurture. Whenever I feel like something is off with the messaging, it’s usually because we need to come back to those values in some way. It’s not enough to have personal values: A brand is a living thing and should be rooted in principles.
BP: You have “Dress the Bump” and “Solly Baby Style” submissions and contributions from fans on your social media channels and website, but Solly Baby isn’t just a women’s brand — you have Solly Dads, too. In addition to your easy, comfortable and conversational brand tone, how do you make men feel welcome and on board with the products?
ER: Well, having my babywearing husband as the co-owner of the company definitely brought about a natural attention to babywearing dads. Jared and I are also very much partners in everything that we do, especially parenting, so I love integrating men into our brand story as much as possible. My favorite thing is seeing women tag their husbands on images of dads wearing wraps with comments like, “See!! Look how good this dad looks! Men wear wraps too!” It’s so gratifying to see these dads connect with their babies in a way that they never thought they would through wearing them.
Our Instagram began as my personal account, so the brand voice has always been my own. And, if you know me, you know I’m not very formal. I am originally from Texas, and I think some of that Southern hospitality I was raised with has given me a natural desire to make people feel at home with me and with our brand.
BP: You collaborated with Joy Cho, founder and creative director of the Oh Joy design studio and now lifestyle brand. Give us a rundown on why it was done and how you kept it in line with Solly Baby’s character traits.
ER: I have wanted to do designer collaborations for years, but I was waiting for just the right partner. Joy is a rockstar in the design world and among mothers, so we knew she would be a perfect fit. Still, we didn’t actually start working with her until she’d used the product and reached out to us about another collaboration for her blog. It’s really important to us that we work with people who genuinely love our product. Even with our growth, we are still very much a small business in the massive empire of carriers. Making sure that we retain that authentic connection is everything for us.
We are incredibly excited for future collaborations with other designers. It’s such a fun way to keep our designs fresh and to share moms we love with our community.
BP: Because you’re a startup, how did you spread the word about the brand? You mentioned earlier of being at the forefront of choosing bloggers to work with, and you do social media giveaways and have a lot of Instagram engagement with fans. Why go this route?
ER: We live in such an amazing time for marketing. People are sharing their views on products candidly on the Internet, and some people have made a career out of sharing beautiful images of their daily lives. Luckily, my product came just as certain bloggers were really seeing their following grow, so I was able to make relationships and lasting friendships at the perfect time.
It’s really been interesting that promoting our brand in a traditional sense with ads has never really worked for Solly Baby. So much of our customer base comes from mothers interacting on social media and reading reviews. This keeps us very responsive to our customers and ever-evolving.
BP: The brand is obviously centered on happiness and a sense of sanctuary for moms and babies: You’ve created videos that give a behind-the-scenes look at real parents and safety instructions. You also have a partnership with Every Mother Counts (a nonprofit working to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every woman) — these insights, concerns and passions flow naturally from what Solly Baby stands for.
As a brand owner, how do you go about deciding what to do and pursue with your brand?
ER: One thing that makes running this type of business a little easier is that I am our target market. I don’t have to pay as much heed to statistics: I can just think, “Would I wear that?” “Is this something that speaks to me?” Our partnership with Every Mother Counts came about after stumbling upon a video on its website. I felt so instantly connected to what it is doing to improve maternal health, and I knew other mothers would as well.
Still, brand alignment gets tricky as we grow because we want to create new partnerships while still maintaining old ones, which can get overwhelming. And this industry is a really personal one, making it even trickier. We don’t believe “business is business,” so it can be pretty emotionally draining at times, but I think that is the consequence of doing anything you really care about.
See more of the brand’s design and principles in action at sollybaby.com.