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DTC Leaders Series: Minor Figures interview with Mona El-Saytari (2022)

This week in our DTC Leaders series, we’re chatting to coffee and oat m*lk cool cat, Minor Figures. Known for its distinctive branding and bohemian attitude, Minor Figures is a breath of fresh air in a corporate world.

Based in East London, Minor Figures first appeared on the scene in 2015. The dreamchild of pals Stu, Will and Jono who all share a mutual speciality coffee obsession, the trio set out to leave the planet better than they found it, carving out their vision for plant-based coffee and milk.

7 years on, Minor Figures has grown to be a global brand available in over 40 countries across across cafes, grocery and Ecommerce, with a roster of over 100 employees. Barista Oat M*lk is the bestseller, served in many of the best cafes across the globe.

We chatted with Minor Figures’ Growth Manager, Mona El-Saytari to find out how the brand approaches marketing. Hear what Mona El-Saytari had to say about acquisition, customer intuition and throwing a better party for the planet than those destroying it.

Tell us about Minor Figures

We don’t like strict labels or definitions. At our core, we’re a group of people with a shared love of coffee, who care about doing business the right way and make plant-based products for coffee lovers. What gets us out of bed in the morning is connecting with people to help save the planet by throwing a better party than the ones who are destroying it.

Tell us about your role

My team and I look after digital marketing globally. We primarily use digital channels to grow brand awareness and connect with consumers all over the globe, but we also have a growing community of people receiving oat m*lk on subscription.

How do you make something as ordinary as oat m*lk and coffee so interesting?

To start off, we never set out to replicate dairy. Our founders Stu, Will and Jono were much more interested in creating a product that lets the flavour notes of an espresso shot shine. For people as passionate about coffee as we are, this opens a whole world of conversation about how to experience your oat flat white as it was intended by the roaster. We also want to talk to people about more than just oat m*lk. We describe our target consumer as ‘young, bold and socially conscious’. We care a lot about how they see the world, what social causes they care about, and we know that -like us- they also just want to have a great time. We want to bring joy to people's lives, amongst all the stresses that come with living in the modern world.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you face in the current climate? For instance, rising customer acquisition costs.

We don’t believe that social ads are the best place to introduce people to our brand. For consumers it’s not a good experience as they’re trying to protect what makes it onto their feeds. And on the flipside, we don’t get the chance to tell them everything that we’re about. Our approach to growth has evolved to be much softer and starts with an understanding of what our crowd of people wants to see.

In the same vein, we’ve adopted an advocacy-first approach to our subscription, focusing on making the experience one you actually want to talk to your friends about - think coffee samples from our favourite roasters, surprises such as glow-in-the-dark stickers for Halloween, and raffles to win festival tickets.‍ Whilst it’s fairly easy to measure referrals these days, to us the real value comes from the conversations we don’t hear about - in real life. 

There is often a culture of ‘test, learn, iterate’ at most DTC brands. How do you get comfortable with making decisions based on reason rather than data?

It requires the people within the business to a) be confident with what we’re offering to people, and b) be comfortable with a level of risk. We feel that everyone tends to approach acquisition tactics in a similar way and by turning it all on its head and thinking advocacy-first, we’re aiming to arrive at ideas that are more interesting to us, and consumers. 

 

We are lucky enough to be able to talk to customers frequently - both online and offline. We visit the cafes that stock us, we ring subscribers, we show up to festivals and chat to people there. Data alone wouldn’t be sufficient for decision-making for a people-focused business like ours.

How do you know when these decisions are working?

That’s an interesting one. The way we see it: You can measure engagements on an Instagram post but you can’t measure mentions in conversations between friends. Yet the latter is much more valuable - so we focus on driving conversations, rather than running in a circle trying to optimise metrics in a dashboard. 

 

‍The digital channel where we get closest to a real life interaction is SMS. We like sending texts that make people laugh, so if we get a bunch of messages with happy emojis, that’s a good indication we hit the mark. We also run brand trackers- it all adds to the picture. ‍

What have been the biggest challenges that have changed the way DTC brands need to operate?

Within the challenges of the current environment, brands need to get clear about the role they play in people's lives. During lockdown we all got a bit of an ego boost as a delivery could be the highlight of someone’s week. Now, there are a lot of other exciting things happening - and that’s a good thing. A delivery shouldn’t be the highlight of your week. We want to bring joy to the day to day - like making that moment when you brew your coffee extra special - but we’re also conscious that we’re just a bunch of people making and delivering oat m*lk and coffee. So it’s being realistic about this and mirroring it in your comms, by talking to people eye-to-eye.

People are hyper-aware of when they’re being marketed to. Your flash discount code email won’t make them stop what they’re doing to run and make a purchase anymore. Instead, focus on building trust, letting the customer go off when they’ve had enough for a while, and let them come back when they’re in need again. It’s a different relationship between customer and brand - and we need to admit to ourselves we’re not the ones in control. ‍

Are there any brands you look up to or find inspiring?

Spotify really understands how people interact with their product. I think there’s a lot to learn from them in terms of how people function day to day. As an example, they've tapped into how people feel on a Monday (tired and uninspired) - and now getting into your Discover Weekly is a habit that millions look forward to at the start of the week.

  

Finally, what do you think it takes to be a big brand builder in DTC?

Brands who think about decision-making journeys in a non- linear way are going in the right direction. It goes back to being realistic about the role you play in someone’s life and day. A customer probably is not in the mood/space to buy your product when an ad pops up on their feed, but they might feel the need at a later point. We as marketers need to be more patient, and take ourselves out of our own bubble. 

I also think partnerships will become vital for growth. Traditional brands struggle to pull off DTC, and DTC struggle to play in traditional environments. I imagine hybrid models built on smart partnerships will see the longest lasting success stories.

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