At the start of 2021, Amber Venz Box realized that her startup had a problem. The high-flying creator-guided commerce company she had co-founded with her then-boyfriend a decade earlier was flourishing. Its big-name partners in the fashion industry were happy, as were the influencers they were helping to enrich because so many shoppers were using their app.
Yet at the heart of all this success lay confusion. The startup had launched as rewardStyle, but more people seemed to refer to the company by the name of its popular app, LIKEtoKNOW.it. Some used the app’s full name, others shortened it to LTK.
“There just was a constant battle of which brand wins in every communication,” Venz Box says.
But taking the step back required to overhaul their brand was never a priority at a fast-growing company focused on building out its platform, developing new products, and increasing market share.
That’s hardly unusual. The importance of brand can be difficult to appreciate in a startup’s land grab days, when the typical founder is most concerned with product and growth. A rebrand can be tricky; doing it right requires focus and money. And where’s the ROI in a future that a company will never reach unless it first hits more measurable metrics?
“I didn’t want to do anything that would be disruptive to the existing business,” Venz Box, the company’s president, says. Her co-founder and now-husband, Baxter Box, says he worried a rebrand could be a massive effort with an uncertain payoff.
Yet, after much internal debate and some resistance, the two decided to embark on a rebrand they agreed they could no longer afford to delay. In June of last year, they announced to the world that their company name was now LTK.
The payoff was immediate and surpassed all their expectations. The name confusion disappeared, but that was just the beginning.
“It was almost like a steroid shot to the company,” says Box, who is CEO.
For employees, it was a clarifying event, a galvanizing force that provided certainty about the path forward. Mission and strategy came into sharper focus, and everyone became better aligned on goals and what they had to do to achieve them. LTK’s growth accelerated after the name change, too.
“It really was the best decision we’ve made,” says Venz Box.
An investment many startups overlook
There is little more fundamental to a business than its brand. It’s who the company is and how it presents itself to the world, including customers, partners, investors, and employees, says Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet many startups fail to appreciate its importance.
“There’s a tension that’s uniquely associated with startups because they’re in a kind of fast-fail, pivot-quickly world, and they don’t take the time for more strategic things that more established companies do, such as brand building,” Reed says. “Many startups drop the ball on branding because they don’t appreciate what the brand actually does as an asset.”
That was Venz Box and Box. As a fashion-forward consumer company, they were always brand conscious. But that didn’t translate to investment at the corporate level. In the early days, Venz Box herself hand-painted the rewardStyle name on office walls. Investing in branding seemed an expense they would take on when they were a more established company. Only in time did they start to appreciate that the distraction of multiple names came with its own costs.
Creating a new retail concept for the influencer era
The couple founded rewardStyle in 2011. They lived in Dallas, where Venz Box worked as a personal shopper, earning commissions from boutiques, and had started to make a name for herself as a blogger. But her blog, while generating clicks and compliments, didn’t deliver commissions. If they could solve that problem for Venz Box, other fashion bloggers might benefit from it, too.
They decided to develop a simple platform that would allow online personalities like Venz Box to make money when a follower bought an item they were promoting. The original company name was literal: It would reward style as it was put forward by a growing world of bloggers, influencers, and social media stars in the world of fashion, clothes, shoes, and accessories.
“It was a completely new concept and tool,” says Venz Box, who was 23 years old at the time. That required educating those the company calls “creators,” as in content creators, and also the brands they needed to convince to pay a transaction fee for the business they steered their way.
“They are visionaries who saw trends ahead of the industry and really pushed to define the business of social commerce,” says Angela Du, a SoftBank Vision Fund partner and LTK board member.
The business took off, and by the start of 2021, rewardStyle was working with more than 100,000 creators scattered across 147 countries. It had enabled $2.8 billion in purchases in the previous 12 months and had partnerships with more than 5,000 brands.
Originally, rewardStyle, which sometimes insiders shortened to “RS,” was a behind-the-glass product known only to participating creators and the retail shops and brand sites that used it to boost sales. But Instagram took off and in 2014, the company launched a consumer offering they called LIKEtoKNOW.it. (If you “liked” an item, the app sent information about it, along with a link to buy it.) Quickly the LTK app became a core business driving growth in retail sales for brands while giving creators a dedicated shop to promote across social platforms.
The growing downside of multiple brands
The name problem began to reveal itself in a myriad of ways as the couple, who married in 2014, continued to grow the company. A new crop of influencers sought to affiliate themselves with the LTK app and yet the onboarding process began with emails from an entity called rewardStyle.
“I’d be talking to a creator and wondering, which brand do I lead with?” Venz Box says. The multiple names hurt recruiting when few even knew the rewardStyle name, and it also watered down their success in the eyes of the wider world.
The company had business relationships with any number of big brands, from Gucci, Chanel, and Dior to Walmart, Amazon, and Alibaba, and Venz Box was flattered whenever she heard an executive at one of these blue-chip companies call them out during an earnings call. But it was a crapshoot whether they would be referred to as rewardStyle, LIKEtoKNOW.it, or LTK.
Kit Ulrich, a newly hired general manager overseeing the company’s consumer operations, was among the first to start voicing concerns about the confusion. “Kit introduced the concept and then would bring it up maybe every two weeks,” Venz Box says.
Another new hire, Nikki Kuritsky, who oversees the company’s relationship with its creators, brought a sense of urgency to the problem. “We needed a single brand to market and push before we started using paid media and other acquisition methods to bring people in,” Kuritsky says. “It was fundamental that we make this change.”
The conviction from both Ulrich and Kuritsky was so absolute, Venz Box says, that it got her onboard with the idea. She still worried that not everyone would appreciate a change or what it signaled, and she feared alienating the people who had been with them the longest.
There was also the company’s long to-do list as they mapped out growth. But with the prospect of an upcoming fundraising round and the thought of wasting time explaining the multiple names, the scales firmly tipped toward action.
A strong brand builds a deep connection between a company and the people who use its products. It also communicates to employees and external partners what’s most important.
So it’s natural for a rebrand to feel like a big risk and a big deal.
But there are ways to control that risk. Successful rebrands tend to follow a similar formula, says Gabrielle Muse, a brand and product strategist who co-founded the San Francisco Bay Area–based Studio Mococo. That starts with research.
“Doing research is more than saying, ‘I showed it to my wife and she likes the old version better,’” Muse said. “It’s putting in place a process that lets you rigorously ask how this rebrand fits around your strategy, mission, visioning, and positioning of the company.”
Ultimately, the rebrand is a decision made at the highest level of an organization, but it’s imperative that it feel inclusive. “Rebrands are highly emotional,” Muse says. “You need to go into the process knowing that your team is going to have strong feelings about it, and you need to build a process that allows people’s voices to be heard.”
From the beginning, the rewardStyle team believed that LTK was the right name for the company moving forward. But the leadership team spent much of April testing those instincts during a series of individual video sessions with seven top creators and seven top brand partners.
The process, which was led by the company’s internal talent, rather than outside consultants, was consistent with Venz Box’s focus on “building community among creators and empowering everyone around her,” says Du, the LTK board member.
The company’s new creative director, Maggie Collins, would walk creators and brands through not just a name change but a rebrand that included a new color scheme and typefaces. By design, the discussions, which took place over multiple sessions, also included frank conversations about each person’s feelings toward the company. That gave the team a roadmap for sharing the news with the broader community.
“It wasn’t just five executives in a room,” Nikki Kuritsky says. “It was really us gut-checking with a community of power users who, by the end of the process, were really excited about moving in that direction.”
Among other lessons: “Constant reinforcement is so important,” she says.
Based on feedback, the company decided to keep what they called their heart and shutter icon but tie it to the new name, LTK. They would also change their colors from a pink-dominated palette to one heavy in black and white.
Venz Box and Box announced their decision at an all-hands meeting in June. “It was important to let people know why a single name for the organization would be better for all of us as we hire and as we fundraise and as we grow,” Venz Box says.
To help spread the word among its partners, they armed the troops with a series of lighthearted videos to bring along creators and brand executives who had not been involved in their internal discussions.
“It felt like I was part of the family,” says Kailee Fodge, an influencer who has been on the platform since 2015 and who learned of the rebrand through an emailed video featuring Venz Box and Box. Fodge felt relieved when she learned of their decision. “I think there was a little bit lost in translation” with the multiple names, she says.
The unexpected payoff
One of Venz Box’s first acts after the rebrand was to raid the marketing closet and purge the company of all rewardStyle swag, donating what she could and tossing the rest. “Overnight, we stormed the office and our operations team changed all of the art,” she says. Pink was out, black-and-white was in.
Other small changes, from the making of LTK-branded swag and light-up signs to backgrounds with the new logo for employee video calls, were introduced over the next few weeks. To date, employees still send their emails from the rewardStyle domain.
Box says the step-by-step approach has made sense. “A rebrand does not have to be some massive exercise…[that] requires 100% attention of every team member,” he says. “It can be done iteratively, and it absolutely can have disproportionate value in terms of that effort.”
That was the big surprise: While it’s still hard to quantify, the rebrand, both founders stress, has been a driving force in the company’s accelerated growth. While they embraced the journey to rid themselves of a gnawing problem, they didn’t anticipate it would end up reinvigorating the company.
As LTK’s growth picks up even more steam, the company’s story is an object lesson about the power of brand no matter a company’s trajectory. “Even as a startup, you need to put some effort into building a brand,” says Reed, the Wharton professor.
Before the change, some employees had been holding on to strategies that no longer made sense, Box says. “The rebrand allowed us to more effectively communicate our strategy as a company and do so with urgency, with fierce prioritization, and allowing the team to think much bigger about how we were going to grow the company,” Box says. “It made clear that our future is not the same as our past.”