How Blue Apron Rose, Fell, and Rose Again… with Effective Brand Strategy

Hummingbird CreativeAdvertising & Marketing, Brand Value, Branding & Creative, case studies

With a vision for Better Living Through Better FoodTM, Blue Apron launched in 2012 to provide fresh, chef-designed recipes to everyday people in their homes. Twelve years later, Blue Apron has delivered more than 500 million meals to families across the United States.

When founders Matt Wadiak, Matt Salzberg and Ilia Papas started the company, their idea was novel. They knew they couldn’t be the only ones who struggled to prepare healthy meals after a long day at work, but the idea of delivering to doorsteps easy-to-prepare recipes plus the ingredients to make them was just gathering steam. 

So, they put some simple recipes together for 20 of their friends and got exactly what they expected in return…raving reviews! That was all the encouragement they needed. Their meal-kit vision was off and running, and in three short years, they’d built a $2 billion company. 

Two years later in 2017, the company was in trouble, CEO Matt Wadiak had resigned, and some experts were predicting that if Blue Apron wasn’t acquired immediately, it wouldn’t last much longer.

What happened?

In Blue Apron’s story, we’re investigating the four areas of branding that Hummingbird concentrates on with its own clients—strategy, identity, awareness and loyalty—and how the company’s branding successes and struggles contributed to the dire situation it found itself in.

Read on to learn how Blue Apron turned things around by facing the challenge head on, adapting its branding strategy, and continuing to grow… in spite of the odds.

The Fast Track to Brand Awareness

When Blue Apron started out, they invested heavily in advertising. They’d raised the capital and had the funds. In a move that’s not unusual for startups seeking a fast track to brand awareness, their marketing funds went toward a robust customer referral program, podcast advertising, radio and TV ads, and direct mail campaigns. Explosive growth resulted. And in spite of growing competition in the meal-kit industry, Blue Apron quickly rose to the top.

The Achilles Heel – Brand Loyalty

The purpose of a business is to create a customer who creates customers.”
– Shiv Singh

However, the company struggled to become profitable. The money they invested in advertising grew into the millions, and they acquired new customers at an impressive rate. But the cost of the acquisitions remained high… too high, and  they couldn’t seem to keep the customers happy for more than a few months.

Brand Strategy 101 – Cultivate Raving Fans

In 2019, new CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski recognized the challenge and laid out a new strategy. Rather than continue the costly efforts of filling the top of the sales funnel with any customer who would go for a discounted—or free!—trial subscription, Blue Apron would focus on cultivating raving fans.

”How do we expand the audience and really attract more people that are going to be great customers for Blue Apron?” Kozlowski said in an interview with CNBC. “Rather than going for broad, high expenditure growth, which is what a lot of companies are doing right now—which is growth at all costs.”

Blue Apron had achieved brand awareness, but the brand had fallen short in loyalty. Kowzlowski admitted in that same interview that the company was still at the top in brand recognition, but loyalty was a missing piece in their success puzzle.

A Focus on the Ideal Customer

By putting a new brand strategy in place, the company could take a fresh look at its own core values, explore customer insights in greater depths, develop more targeted archetypes, and refine its voice to really speak to the ideal long-term customer. 

In the highly competitive meal-kit space, the company’s ideal had never been those customers who try out a meal kit and move on. But it took time for the leadership to understand that its best customers are those who crave the experience of cooking together with their loved ones, teaching their kids to cook, and having fun in the kitchen. The new strategy would focus on those customers.

“A well-developed strategy delves into core values, customer insights, archetypes, voice, and brand persona. Leveraging brand strategy can be a valuable tool to optimize your marketing, increase sales in your business, and ultimately, increase its overall value.”

Targeted Campaigns

With that in mind, in 2018 Blue Apron built a new branding campaign—What Cooking Can Do. In a press release, the meal-kit experts revealed that the inspiration behind the initiative was, in fact, real stories from raving fans.

“The new campaign highlights how cooking with Blue Apron can transform any night into an experience that is much more meaningful,” announced the press release. The stories included siblings, a married couple, a widowed father and his son, and a group of friends. We’d say the marketers hit their target directly.

In 2020, Blue Apron and others in the meal-kit industry got a boost in the midst of the global pandemic. When families were eating at home more than ever, they sought out easy solutions for meal prep.

But when things settled back down following the pandemic, it was time for another campaign. In 2022, Blue Apron had doubled down on customer demographics and insights. They segmented their customers even further into key audiences. 

Then they launched:

  • Being a Hero – A television campaign revolving around the idea of heroes and the concept that when you cook with Blue Apron, you’re the hero. 
  • Expect the Unexpected – An online video series focused on the uniqueness of the company’s recipes, flavors, and techniques. 

These campaigns carried on Blue Apron’s efforts to create raving fans who would become loyal customers. In addition to the TV and video campaigns, the company also began tailoring the menu more and developing creative assets to support those loyal customers who stay the course. 

Cohesive Branding Builds Business Value

At Hummingbird, we talk a lot about how a company’s core values, customer insights, archetypes, voice, and brand persona all make up its brand. We share with our clients the importance of presenting all of these aspects cohesively because they make a strong statement about the value of the business.

Blue Apron has continued to adjust its brand strategy, develop its identity, build greater brand awareness, and cultivate loyalty. Its efforts have resulted in a strong customer base, and in 2023, Blue Apron entered a definitive merger agreement to be acquired by Wonder Group. CEO Linda Findley announced on LinkedIn: “The Blue Apron brand and product that you know and love will stay the same, and now we have more opportunity for product expansion in the future.” Some experts were ready to give up on the company in 2017, but intentional brand building turned the ship around.

If your company has struggled to craft cohesive branding that results in raving fans, reach out to the Hummingbird team. Our experts in branding strategy can help!