Member Practical: ButcherBox’s Growth Arbitrage

Between 2010 and 2016, a number of CPG retailers and digitally native vertical brands came of age with the help of a licensed gym movement that shaped a decade of influencers in health, nutrition, and fitness. That list includes fixtures like NoBull, FITAID, Rogue, Mizzen + Main, Zevia, Siete Foods, and RXBar. Built within or on the periphery of the CrossFit movement, these brands have gone on to amass mainstream followings and notable physical distribution. A few are now household names. One quieter brand has made an impact on a market long overdue with modern challengers.

In 2015, ButcherBox founder and CEO Mike Salguero began a hunt for high-quality, grass-fed beef. His wife Karlene, diagnosed with an autoimmune issue, was told to follow a diet of grass-fed animal protein. But after an exhaustive search in the Boston area, Salguero found limited options. Rather than give up, he sought out a direct source, connecting with a New York-based farmer.

ButcherBox launched after Salguero recognized a market for claims-based meat sold from farm to customers online. The company, which now employs 160 people, aims to help boost farmers’ businesses while expanding access to best-in-class, grass-fed meats.

Today, ButcherBox is one standout in a class of DTC brands working the mechanisms of influencer marketing to rally customers around a common goal, in this case, to bring high-quality produce to direct-to-consumer channels. In 2020, the company saw revenue increase by 110%, with growth driven by effective influencer work. Over the past five years, ButcherBox built a business carried by a coordinated community of influencer partnerships.

Early days: Partnering with influencers

In 2015, Instagram wasn’t a core sales driver, with limited link sharing. Instead, partnerships with bloggers who had large lists of email subscribers became the strategy that led to early growth. As Salguero learned, many of these influential health bloggers wrote often in support of grass-fed beef, but they lacked a call to action – there was no place online for readers to then stock up. ButcherBox filled the void. Salguero:

These people commanded huge audiences, had very authentic approaches, and had vast amounts of trust and ethos with readers. Plus, the content was already there. ButcherBox was a natural fit within the conversation.

As a startup with no outside funding, ButcherBox couldn’t pay an up front, lump sum to partners. Instead, they deployed an affiliate revenue-sharing model where influencers would earn a cut of sales made using unique coupon codes. The approach turned into a powerful marketing machine that drove MRR for both parties.

DTC suffers from the misconception that you need to raise VC to be successful. This is a transactional approach wherein companies often end up throwing money at influencers rather than truly viewing them as partners. At ButcherBox, we decided to only partner with influencers who were truly aligned with our values and mission instead. That created partnerships that were truly valuable; there was buy-in from both parties.

In the early days, ButcherBox’s affiliate model operated so that partners were paid on a recurring per-box model, with a $20 commission per box sold.

When we started, affiliates made up about 50% of the marketing mix. This gave us time to drive sales, but also to experiment with other channels. As we’ve grown and expanded into other marketing channels, we’ve supplemented this channel to make up a smaller portion of the overall mix.

Today, ButcherBox’s affiliate program operates through ShareASale, offering different payment models depending on the partnership. While most of their affiliate partners are individuals, they do work with a few agencies and deal sites. Affiliates earn commissions for sales driven within a 30-day window based on tracking cookies and earnings are paid out once per month on a designated day. According to Salguero, ButcherBox has paid out more than $1,000,000 in affiliate commission revenue to its more than 3,000 US-based partners.

Landing notable influencer partnerships

The flywheel of influencer marketing took off for ButcherBox when they landed partnerships with notable figures in the Paleo nutrition space. Chris Kresser, author of The Paleo Cure, became an evangelist of the brand. Kresser’s fact-based blogging, large email list, and easy path to purchase made for a strong partnership, but Kresser’s validation and “seal of approval” put ButcherBox on the map. Having Kresser on board as a partner drove sales and helped reinforce trust, ethos and value in the ButcherBox product.

Popular nutrition coach Thomas DeLauer also came on board as a notable influencer partner. As social platforms became places for shopping discovery, DeLauer’s YouTube videos and social media content became a powerful referral engine for the company.

ButcherBox now has more than 600 influencer partners with audiences of varying sizes that reach well beyond the Paleo realm and help extend the company into adjacent spaces, like the diet and nutrition spaces of The Whole30 and Keto. Beyond marketing, these influencer partnerships have helped shape the trajectory of the company. A 2015 Kickstarter benefitted from word-of-mouth. More than 1,000 individuals pledged over $210,000, fully funding the campaign to launch the brand, validating the interest around quality grass-fed beef.

Adapting to the current influencer environment

According to eMarketer, there are now more than 500,000 active influencers on Instagram. Statista reports indicate affiliate marketing spending in the US is projected to reach $8.2 billion by 2022. Affiliate marketing accounts for around 16% of all online sales globally, while affiliate marketing platforms like Refersion saw more than $21 million in conversion revenue during BF/CM 2020. Worldwide, global affiliate marketing spending is growing at 27% CAGR. With 81% of brands now leveraging affiliate marketing and 38% of marketers using this tactic, competition to partner with the best creators is fierce.

At the same time, many influencers have begun pursuing their own branded product lines, prioritizing these lucrative ventures over affiliate relationships and revenue-sharing models. While ButcherBox now has the capital to pay influencers upfront, rather than via affiliate payouts, the brand’s strategy has evolved as well.

ButcherBox’s future-facing influencer marketing play

ButcherBox is currently shifting beyond the health and nutrition space to reach a wider market that includes chefs, fitness experts, and other types of influencers with health-adjacent interests.

While its products are still only available through the brand’s website, expansion through other physical and digital marketplaces is in the plans. The company is also leaning into owned marketing channels on platforms like YouTube, where they’re producing branded content and educational material around their products. CEO Mike Salguero on those plans:

In 2021 and beyond, we’re planning to become more of a brand rather than just a ‘meat in the mail’ company. We’re also looking for opportunities to expand into partnerships with restaurants and grocery stores to reach that next stage of growth.

The influencer marketing game has changed, but because they started five years ago, ButcherBox has the early advantage. “We’re glad to have been early to the trend and maximized the potential when it was still a fairly novel concept,” Salguero said. As ButcherBox leaps from digitally-native brand to enterprise retailer, the strategy has reflected as much. No longer is Salguero and team focused on the model that helped them arrive atop the 2PM DTC Power List. The soft spoken brand now has eight television ads in circulation, reaching millions of top of funnel customers who are well beyond the niche that brought them from relative obscurity to relied upon by hundreds of thousands of customers.

But the influencer model that brought them from zero to one remains an important chapter that new brands should emulate. In six short years, ButcherBox has become a household name by owning the meat drawers of countless discerning customers. Salguero expects growth to continue.

Research by Kaleigh Moore and Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy

Editor’s Note: This Member Brief was unlocked by #Paid.