Sitting in a coffee shop with her laptop, Maggie Vandura, an account manager at Houzz, types names into an Excel sheet while dialing the local flower shop on her phone. “It’s been crazy,” she says while writing down the unexpected cost of hydrangeas on her list of expenses. With her wedding fast approaching, Vandura reviews the final touches for her ceremony. “I felt like I had so much time back when I first got engaged, but now the wedding’s next month,” says Vandura. “The hardest part is orchestrating the whole thing.”
Given the size of her wedding party, Vandura has endlessly brainstormed ideas with her mother on party favors for attending guests. Finding a business specializing in party favors is incredibly useful to customers like Vandura, and highly lucrative in today’s celebratory market. Luckily for her, this part of the wedding detail was easy to finalize, thanks to the brand Kate Aspen.
The Aspen Brands Company is a successful designer of all celebratory event favors and gifts. With a large selection of unique, beautifully packaged and personalized products for a number of occasions, customers can simply pick and choose their desired items to create a memorable experience. “We like the idea of celebrating,” says Shirley Wang, president and co-founder of The Aspen Brands Company. “We want our brand to be a part of the celebration and bring in the excitement.”
The Aspen Brands Company officially began in 2004 as a small wedding favor business in the heart of Georgia. “Me and Shirley actually met as students at Georgia State University and got married here,” says DJ Meng, CEO and co-founder of The Aspen Brands Company. After graduating, the newlyweds, along with another married couple, formed a wedding retail business after going through their own and seeing the potential market opportunity in celebratory events. “We wanted to become a premier designer from the get-go, rather than being any kind of plain or cheap manufacturing business,” says Wang. “I’ve always had an interest in brands that are unique, beautiful, elegant and just different. I wanted to make sure we built a business that made a genuinely positive impression on people.”
Despite humble beginnings, the company has since grown to incorporate a number of other festive events, from baby showers and birthdays, to graduations and Mardi Gras. The brand name Kate Aspen was born shortly after the business started, merging the owners’ affinity for the name Kate and their love of skiing in Aspen. “Often at trade shows, our clients and customers come looking for Kate,” says Wang. “We just tell them that we’re all Kate.”
The business growth really accelerated after Meng and Wang decided to buy out their partners to assume full ownership of their business. “Starting our business was never easy from the very beginning,” says Meng. “We all worked very closely and very hard together.” In 2007, the company introduced Baby Aspen, which added business diversity and higher sales. Since then, the line of festive favors, gifts and decorations has grown enormously, and their business is now thriving. “The future is about going international,” says Meng. “We’re always looking for bigger business opportunities to grow, and right now China is that opportunity.”
With 18 million babies born in China every year, compared to approximately 4 million in the United States, Meng and Wang have made strategic decisions on expanding their Baby Aspen brand into Hangzhou, China. “It’s something that we’re working closely on right now,” says Wang. “We were there last year to finalize preparations for launch.” After carefully analyzing the China market, hiring a manager through a recruiter, and building a digital campaign, the company decided to jump into international sales. Baby Aspen became available in Hangzhou in April and immediately generated stable sales, and now generates a monthly profit for the company.
“We’re still trying to figure out how we can grow quickly and penetrate the market,” says Meng. “At the very beginning it was very tough, and we spent the first few months trying to figure out how to run a business from overseas in China.” Some of their biggest challenges included finding the best sales channel for their products online. “There’s still a big learning curve, but after we figure out how to run the baby product line smoothly, we plan on introducing Kate Aspen for weddings next year,” says Wang. “We’ve now set our sales goal for the next three years, and we’re confident that we’ll meet and even exceed our set goals.” With a commercial loan and revolving line of credit from East West Bank, Meng and Wang are confident in their business’ expansion. “The Aspen Brands is all about personal touch, and the fact that East West Bank was able to provide for their financial needs is what has kept our relationship so positive,” says Danny Pian, vice president and East West Bank branch manager in Atlanta, Georgia.
"We’re always looking for bigger business opportunities to grow, and right now China is that opportunity."
“We put a lot of emphasis and belief in building our brand,” says Wang. “That involves connecting emotionally and genuinely with our customers to celebrate their milestone events.” With a strong urge from the very start to become a distinguished designer brand, both Meng and Wang put considerable efforts behind building a presence on all relevant social media channels with personalized content. “Whether it’s about getting married or having a baby, most of these celebratory events are highly emotional,” says Wang. “So it’s been relatively easy to build up our digital profile by having genuine interactions with people and developing relationships.”
These days, it’s unheard of for those in the events business to not have an online presence, but simply having that presence doesn’t guarantee immediate sales. “We look at our digital analytics every day,” says Meng. “It’s hard to pinpoint the direct point of contact with the customer and see with data what exact factor triggered the point of purchase.” The Aspen Brands’ active social media profiles are managed by a team of four in the social media and marketing team, while a separate e-commerce team cross checks to see how various content pieces are influencing customer conversion rates.
The Aspen Brands also works with big sites like Etsy and Amazon to sell their products. “They’re not our primary platforms for sales, but we’re hoping that the exposure and reach to consumers through these bigger sites will increase our brand recognition as an industry trend setter,” says Wang.
“We anticipate that there are about ten touch points before a customer actually goes and buys one of our products,” says Wang. “That’s why we’re so active on digital platforms—who knows if they saw our advertisement on Instagram, looked at our dream board on Pinterest, or watched our DIY video on YouTube.” Using data that shows the pathways and effect from various touchpoints helps The Aspen Brands’ team plan for future product rollouts and marketing strategies.
Community building through social media is also a big point of focus, and the company hosts events throughout the year to build trust with customers. Personal and touching pictures of weddings, baby showers and other special occasions populate the majority of their posts, from their blog, to their Facebook channels. “We like to follow up with our customers to see if they were satisfied and to see how their event went,” says Wang. “We also reach out to see if they’re willing to share their moments of happiness that we can retell on our owned media platforms.” Tapping into emotional moments to build a brand is highly effective, but Wang cautions to do it right, since overdoing it may cause your brand to lose authenticity.
Being a consumer-facing brand, Meng and Wang are highly sensitive to existing and, more importantly, upcoming trends in the industry. “Personalization has been big for a while now,” says Wang. “We anticipate that this trend will keep growing, and we’re looking into different ways of personalization on our products.” Given the range of their products and flexibility in customization, The Aspen Brands relies heavily on technology and a highly competent inventory manager to handle all personalized requests, business inventory and deliveries. “As a company, we’re known for our trends and unique designs in the marketplace,” says Meng. “We have a very dedicated and talented product team that goes to tradeshows and subscribes to multiple industry publications.” The constant research and feedback loop that the company has created helps in deciding which new trends and pieces to incorporate for the coming year. “We’re normally 18 months ahead, in terms of preparation for any product that we launch in the market,” says Wang.
The Aspen Brands has been in the market since 2004 and grown significantly from its initial startup phase into a thriving company looking to expand overseas with a sizable number of employees. The momentum hasn’t slowed, as both Meng and Wang prepare for the burgeoning markets in China. The ingredient that has helped consistently drive their success centers around strong branding practices. “What we want to emphasize is the power of brand image,” says Wang. “You have to get that right if you want to build meaningful relationships with your customers.”