25th Mar 2013
Mei Lin Ong, president and CEO of California-based Wink Shapewear, talks to Lucie Mitchell about how she uses bloggers, rather than big retailers, to promote her brand.
Mei Lin Ong grew up in a family who owned businesses, so when she saw an opportunity to take over Wink Shapewear in 2011, she jumped at the chance.
“I saw great potential [with Wink] because there are many women out there looking for good quality shapewear, but so many shapewear products on the market don’t really work, so I took over Wink and came up with different designs as well as improving the material.”
Founded in 2009, Wink Shapewear was aimed at new mothers and offers compression garments to post-pregnant women, made from patented medical-grade material.
When Ong bought the company, she decided to expand the original line to offer shapewear to all women. The business has now grown by 50%, she says.
“When I first took it over there were many different products that didn’t make sense so I streamlined the number of products. I also changed the manufacturing process to enable us to get a better price, as we have fewer actual products now but more quantities, so that reduces our costs.”
The company currently employs five people and has a turnover of around $700,000.
Ong remarks that it is the material of the garments that sets them apart from other businesses in the same sector.
“A lot of shapewear out there probably contains less than 20% lycra, which is what provides the compression. We use 49% lycra and I can’t think of another brand that has a similar amount to us. And because we mix our material with nylon, it is very soft, comfortable and strong.”
The material is also specially woven, she adds, meaning that they can choose the percentage of materials that go into the products.
Ong is currently working on getting small retailers to stock the products, however the company has largely grown through word of mouth.
“Our products are very ‘women based’ and that is the approach that we want to take. We are not a big brand like Spanx that can go in and dominate the market.
“So over the last couple of years, we have grown through word of mouth by one mum talking to another and recommending the product – and that is how I think we will continue to grow.”
Ong also makes use of social media to promote the brand, as well as working with many ‘Mummy bloggers’, she says.
“We have found one of the best ways to get the word out is through Mummy bloggers. We send them products to review, and they have followers who read their blogs, so there is more validation there because it is a review from a blogger they follow.
“So we go down that route instead of getting into big stores. Of course it would be great if we could sell into big stores but it’s not something we think is going to happen soon.”
One of the reasons for this is because many of the big stores don’t think the product is mainstream enough and is a bit pricier, she says.
“So that is a challenge I’m getting right now, but that is why we are going down the viral route where mothers talk to other mothers about the products,” she adds.
Another challenge is dealing with the number of returns and exchanges due to the customer ordering the wrong size.
“Our main market is the post-pregnant women market and we recommend wearing our products immediately after delivery, because after giving birth women can get a lot of cramping and they need something to compress their uterus to make it more comfortable,” she explains.
“So many women order the garment before they deliver but it is hit and miss because you don’t know how much weight you are going to lose and women tend to order the wrong size, thinking they will be back to their pre-pregnant size.”
Ong gets around this by ensuring their website provides as much information as possible.
“So for example, we recently put information on our website about different body shapes so that if a customer knows their body shape, they can go for a certain type of garment. So we try to help as much as possible to reduce the number of exchanges and returns.”
The company is based in California, but has recently expanded overseas with offices in both Singapore and Ireland.
Ong says that running a business in the US is very competitive.
“Everyone is always trying to get ahead of everyone else and things move really fast here compared to some other places. There is a lot of competition because there is a big market here. So it’s fun, but also quite stressful, because you’ve got to be on top of your game all the time.”
One of the challenges involved with expanding overseas is coming up with the right marketing strategy, she says.
“Due to the differences in culture, spending habits, size of the country, and median income, marketing strategies that work in one country may not work in another,” she remarks.
“It takes some experimenting with different marketing strategies and finding one that ‘click’ in a country. Out of 10 strategies, we will be very pleased if a handful of them work. However, each time a strategy fails, it helps us hone and fine tune them. So, failures are just as important as success.”
In terms of future plans, having expanded into Ireland just last month and Singapore six months ago, Ong’s main focus at the moment is growing those markets.
“Right now Singapore is our number two country, after the US, so it has taken over Canada. So I am trying to grow those two areas, plus of course, continue growing the US market.”
So if Ong could give one piece of advice to businesses, what would it be?
"Always put yourself in the position of your potential customers; seeing things from their viewpoint and perspective," she says. "By doing so, you will be able to innovate, improve and come up with products that make sense and that will meet the needs, and not the wants, of customers."