Building The Last Brand in Sleep: Casper CCO Luke Sherwin

The direct-to-consumer mattress category has quickly entered the collective consciousness of the sleeping public in a way no one would have predicted five years ago and Casper Sleep has become the bar against which all others are measured. Casper is celebrating its birthday this month. Just three years have passed since the company exploded onto the scene in selling $1 million worth of their “outrageously comfortable” mattresses in month one. Despite significant competition the brand has grown to define the category altogether, encompassing a lot more than just foam mattresses.

The Casper brand maintains a significant hold in the category and has done so using pretty unusual marketing moves. Experiential events have been at the core of the strategy since the beginning, as have uniquely positioned social media accounts, which feel more like following a sleep-loving puppy than a multi-national mattress company.

Casper cofounder and Chief Creative Officer Luke Sherwin captains Casper’s brand from their the Park Avenue headquarters. Originally from England, Sherwin moved to the US to attend Brown University, where he founded the school’s largest student-run business. We had some time to catch up with Sherwin during a tour of Casper’s cozy Manhattan space about his role, Casper’s strategy, and the future of the brand itself.

Sherwin and his creative team work from the Casper headquarters Manhattan.

What does the CCO role at a mattress company entail?

As CCO I’m less of an executor of creative and more of a creative opinion for other much more talented and domain experienced creatives. I think the reason why I find this role compelling is because of the megaphone that you have to change people’s views and build emotional responses to things. For me, I find that more exciting than growth itself. It’s sort of like how you grow.

I think the opportunity with Casper can be looked at in two ways: One is simply looking at how many mattresses do you ship in a day. The other way is to look at how you emotionally unify the sleep category. By using your marketing, your products, and leveraging the scale of your company, how can you actually start to change the way people look at sleep?

Sometimes we think it’s possible for Casper to do for sleep what Nike did for fitness more than 20 years ago; take a category that was a relatively fringe lifestyle choice (for us it’s sleep), and make it mainstream. And by that I mean recalibrate how people think about the 26 years of their lives they spend sleeping.

You have worked closely with Red Antler since the start. How has that relationship evolved?

We kind of founded the company at a similar time that we engaged a branding partner, and it meant that we sort of found our values while immersed in the branding process. It’s meant that the brand has been a filter to every decision, rather than just a creative or advertising decision. For that, we’re forever grateful for Red Antler and we work with them consistently today as a kind of the sixth cofounder.

I think we have a special relationship with them that goes beyond what the typical agency-client has. They’re not our agency on record; we don’t have an agency of record. We built a huge internal creative team that does the vast majority of our work, but there are times when it’s really great to take the process to fresh eyes and stress test some of the things that we’re already doing.

Where did the logo come from and, specifically, the “C”?

My belief is that it was based on the idea of a sheet, when you cast your flat sheet, there’s this natural curve that goes out before it lands. We messed around with it so much that, at this point, I think what it stands for is that little wink. A little flick of an eye or attitude that is Casper.

I still think it’s a sheet, but it’s not supposed to be interpreted representationally. It’s there in the rest of the logo, which is a very straightforward, to the point, some reliable and simple type of base mark and this is just a wink of attitude, which I think in some ways, is a North Star for us creatively. I think we don’t always want to be funny. And we don’t always want to be serious. These things kind of counter-balance themselves. That’s what we do and the logo represents that.

Sometimes we think it’s possible for Casper to do for sleep what Nike did for fitness more than 20 years ago

I think branding consistency as an idea is sometimes overrated. Brand consistency, to me, is brand homogeneity. It’s like using the same visual tool kit and same words and then plastering those in different channels or experiences.

I think the way we look at it is that we’re a little bit looser. I use the metaphor of an individual: You talk differently at a dinner table with friends than you do in a presentation to a parent teacher’s association. If you look at how we talk on social versus how we talk on television, they’re very different. I would argue that we are consistent with our values rather than literally a visual continuity or a linguistic continuity.

It sounds like your brand kit is flexible.

Absolutely. I think we flex a lot as we’ve gone into Canada and gone into the UK. You know, there have been things where we inflect a little bit. Obviously in our illustrations we like to localize some of the characters that we use.

In Germany, we dial up some of the technological storytelling that we have around our lab in San Francisco because it turns out that the German consumer wants to dig a lot deeper on that than their American or Canadian counterparts. There have been revelations that we’ve only realized when we enter a market.

The experience of owning a Casper seems like half of the product itself; you invest heavily in brand exposure and engagement. Why are you putting so much effort, not into the product, but into the experience around it?

There’s a few ways to answer that question. Casper hasn’t necessarily created a wave the direct-to-consumer mattress brands. We started to ride that wave and in some ways we were the only visible surfer on it, but now we have been joined by lots of surfers.

The longevity of our brand and business will be built on making sure that every touch point, from R&D of the product itself, to the experience of communicating with our team is 99th percentile for our competition.

To me, “experience” is saying that there’s a duration to how you interact with our brand, but with us there are multiple touch points. I think Casper looks at the original purchase as the beginning of a relationship, and not the end of the experience.

In very practical economic terms, it’s a way to cultivate a lifetime of value to a consumer that trusts us and naturally wants to come back to us and purchase our pillows, sheets or other products. The more touch points, the longer the relationship, and the more we can invest in making the experience better across all those touch points, because they’re more on the table, in terms of customer experiences.

So you are investing upfront to win a long-term customer.

Yeah. I mean, it’s so funny how at odds that is. People talk about retail and direct-to-consumer like they’re opposites. One of the reasons the retail model is being disrupted is that the brands teams and the product teams are separated by traditional retail. The communication is gone, so you miss all of that research data and thus the products they make are less competitive than the ones who directly interact with their customers.

What is interesting, however, is how retail buys you scale—so how can Casper look at having more people, more butts on beds, heads on pillows, and yet still own that data layer with the customer? We’re now in West Elm, but we have a relationship where we still own the customer experience.

Casper uniquely engages with customers after the purchase. Your social media channels are counter the norm with less than twenty percent of the content directly promoting a product, but the engagement is amazing. Where did this idea come from?

Early on, we wanted our customers to be the voice of growing Casper to the greatest degree possible. When you convince someone to buy a mattress on the internet, to us they have secondary value in convincing their friends to do the same. By virtue of liking Casper and interacting with our fun posts they might inspire other people to refer their friends to Casper and give them the tool kit, and that was really primary for us.

Did someone say sleep?

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With a mattress, it’s typically a seven or eight year purchase life cycle. Even before we had other products, we used to look at a customer as not just the original purchase, but also their referral value because we have a very, very vocal and sharing customer base. Early on, the incremental value of a customer was far beyond just their purchase.

Who do you picture when you think about your customer?

Arguably to our detriment, we’ve been purposely hasty about defining our customer. Our tagline on our subway ads is “the perfect mattress for everyone” and to some degree that messaging is so simple that it doesn’t really tailor to any particular archetype. It’s sort of there to be evergreen to anyone who’s a human who sleeps.

If you saw the demographics on who we better resonate with, it’s people who are open-minded, ambitious, urban professionals who are open to the idea that you don’t have to buy a mattress in a mattress store. That makes up our core demo–people in their thirties, unlike most big mattress brands where it’s in the 40’s and 50’s, so it’s definitely younger.

Is that a problem to you?

I think it is a challenge. A big challenge for Casper is transitioning from being a brand built on the persona of open-minded early adopter to a much larger, North American demographic. Buying a mattress on the internet still doesn’t compute as something that makes sense for a lot of people, so, it’s definitely a challenge.

If we want to build our market beyond just the percentage slice of the internet economy, we would actually just increase the size of the internet slice for mattresses as a whole, otherwise we’re stuck in a 10% slice of the entire mattress market.

The Casper office offers breakfast-themed meeting rooms and three nap pods for quiet time.

Casper’s product line is streamlined, as are the brand interactions, social media messaging. What role does simplicity play at Casper?

We have five values, and simplicity is the first one. I sometimes like to add a prefix of “painfully simple.”

Simplicity forces you to have some of the painful discussions and painful debates that could end in a rounded, more complex, consensus driven outcome. With simplicity as a guiding value, it forces you to make decisions that are clear and more like a knife-edge than a blunt blade.

How will you maintain simplicity as your product line grows?

It’s something that we’re looking at right now because we are actively adding products. I think the guiding principle is being human-centered in your simplicity—always trying to inhabit the mind of the customer for how they would want to have new things introduced to them.

A sort of dumb way to sell lots of products on a homepage is to show all the products you have without any sort of prioritization between them. We force ourselves to make those decisions based on user testing and focus groups. I think it’s easy to adjust what you put in front of someone based on just the financial possibilities of it, but in the long-run there is a cost of not aligning your products to the brand.

You are one of five founders, who are all still with the company in very different roles. However, Philip Krim is the boss. Why is that the dynamic?

From the beginning we identified our decision-maker. Phillip’s style is one of consultation, of listening, listening, listening. He really kind of forces every possible opinion out onto the table and kind of reconstructing what the outcome should be in a diplomatic way.

I think that has underwritten our ability to take really outrageous stances when the five of us are in a group and we’re having a debate. When you have this leader–an ultimate decision-making figure, it underwrites the ability for the others to explore more extreme viewpoints. If everyone had an equal role, you might end up with five people taking more centered, balanced viewpoints and never really reaching for the extreme sides.

It’s been three years since you launched Casper Sleep. How will the brand stay relevant as the noise dies down?

Obviously, we grew a lot early on because of the quality of our marketing and the quality of our message. One of the things that we’ve transitioned to investing heavily into our San Francisco industrial engineering teams.

For me personally, I hope the Casper story is going to change towards our product innovations rather than our business model or just marketing that occupies most people’s minds today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.