Unlike many CPG startups who build a product before they find customers, the truffle-infused hot sauce brand Truff had a loyal audience before it made its first bottle.
A little more than five years ago, co-founders Nick Ajluni and Nick Guillen, who met while studying at California State University in Fullerton, secured the @sauce Instagram account and started posting pop culture-rich content for young people. Ajluni described her approach as "everything from food and cars and women to cool things we think are naughty".
After the duo reached over 10,000 followers, they paused all posts for about eight months. Her first post in December 2017 was a taste of the account's upcoming change of direction with a new logo that introduced Truff – essentially from a lifestyle account to an account selling a product. Now with over 131,000 followers, the account mostly contains pictures of a bottle of hot truff sauce or some type of food – pizza, burgers, hot dogs – covered in the stuff.
"We didn't want to move from continuous release to instant CPG branding overnight. So we decided on a cooldown where we stop publishing and let time support our transition," said Ajluni.
Guillen said the postponement was "definitely an awkward, weird time," but ultimately the account didn't lose too many followers and the product the Nicks had been developing for two years in Ajluni's parents' kitchen turned out to be good on its debut recorded.
"The brand we created with @sauce has already made waves on the internet, so Truff was a quick hit," said Ajluni, who added that the Christmas season launch encouraged customers to gift the product as well to buy.
Truff's hot sauce, available in black truffle, white truffle, and spicier varieties, has held up well since then and is on Oprah's favorites list in both 2018 and 2019. The company, valued at over $ 25 million, has annual sales that are currently up 300%.
Ajluni said using social media is more art than science. If it weren't for that, Truff would never have made it this far.
"It's very common for brands to rent a studio, take standard studio photos, create generic videos with their product, and then post to their feed," he said. "It is very unusual for this to appeal to a large audience and ultimately become a real lifestyle for millions of people."
Part of Truff's success comes from an authentic connection with a specific audience that no marketing budget, regardless of size, can replicate.
"We are actually the audience we speak to," said Ajluni.
Now Ajluni and Guillen, both young millennials, hope to repeat their success with their first expansion into another category. In mid-November, the brand presented two pasta sauces: Black Truffle Pomodoro and Black Truffle Arrabbiata. Part of the inspiration for the new products that were in the works before the pandemic was realizing the spread of pasta sauce around the world. Another element was customers telling Truff that they had already included the brand's hot sauce in their pasta sauce.
In line with the food industry as a whole, both pasta and pasta sauce have sold well since the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown measures that followed.
According to market research firm Euromonitor International, sales of pasta sauce in the US this year were $ 3 billion. Together, the market leaders Prego, Ragú and Classico control a little more than half of the market. Given that more and more Americans are preparing meals at home and looking for fun recipes to keep things interesting, experts anticipate an opportunity in the room.