Under the skin of sunscreen challenger brand Vacation’s email newsletter strategy

Email newsletters aren’t really part of anyone’s beachside fantasy. But for sunscreen brand Vacation, email has been a key ingredient of its marketing strategy since the company was founded three years ago. 

“It’s been a big part of what we do from the start,” co-founder Lach Hall told Digiday.

The newsletters each bear the hallmarks of the brand’s distinctive art direction, which borrows heavily from ’80s resort travel aesthetics and depicts a kind of Piña colada utopia where it will always be Saturday, the cocktails are always chilled and everybody owns a jet ski.

It’s a world away from mainstream sunscreen branding. That’s by design. Email newsletters are “a nice opportunity for a brand to have a bit more of an intimate interaction with their audience,” said Alison Smith, director of editorial marketing firm Be Content. But to make the most of that opportunity, brands need to put the effort in.

Maddy Apsey, svp and director of digital investment at full service agency 22 Squared, told Digiday that providing value to consumers, either through exclusive discounts or content, is “crucial”  for successful email marketing. Most brands choose to deliver that value through financial means, such as limited-time offers. But Vacation takes a stylish, alternative approach. 

Each edition is planned roughly a month out, and new signups are awarded a gag job title from the Vacation, Inc (example: ”shrimp cocktail designer”). While some editions carry promotional offers for its core brand or new, limited edition merchandise, the team ensures that at least once a fortnight they send a content-focused newsletter. That includes an editorial series on “Poolside etiquette,” and a regular roundup of links to web artifacts that support Vacation’s idiosyncratic, luxe brand universe.

“We source all sorts of fun, strange objects from around the internet that seem like they fit into our world,” Hall said. “We just did one about a banana museum. Before that, we had one on a parrot training course.”

“Email newsletters are still an effective way to communicate with audiences, especially as marketers move away from cookie-dependent tracking,” said Dayv Widdecombe, account supervisor of lead management at full-service agency GSD&M.

There are obstacles in the way, however, including inbox saturation, audience indifference and shifting spam policies at Yahoo and Google.

Despite those road bumps, Hall said that Vacation’s newsletter open rate has consistently stayed above 50% since the company’s launch. (The industry standard for health and fitness advertisers is 37%, according to email marketing company Mailchimp.) He said that email newsletters began as a key plank of the business’ customer acquisition strategy — one of its very first marketing campaigns was designed to create a foundational mailing list — and matured to become a means of retaining consumers.

Retaining consumers is an inherently difficult task for a sunscreen brand, Hall noted. During the primary months for selling sunscreen (February through August, according to Hall), people tend to buy it in a hurry — say, if they’ve forgotten a bottle at home — meaning brand loyalty is hard to come by. 

“Sunscreen is a very infrequently purchased product,” he explained. “It’s something that’s often only purchased once a year and you never really know when that moment is going to be. By having a cadence of email — we do three emails a week during the summer and two a week in the offseason — we increase the opportunity to be in the right need-state moment when somebody needs to purchase sunscreen.“

The approach is cost effective, with only art direction and copywriting costs to really consider, and has helped the company cut through its category. Last year the firm snagged a $6 million Series A funding round; this year, a company spokesperson said sales are projected to hit $40m, a 250% increase over 2023.

As Vacation has grown out of the DTC space (it’s now available in Target and Nordstrom, among other retailers), it’s embraced other channels for customer acquisition. Digital advertising on Meta platforms, plus paid spend on TikTok (which takes up to 10% of Vacation’s overall budget, according to Hall) and influencer marketing are all in the mix. Hall said it occasionally makes use of retail media inventory as well as SMS ads for the occasional sales push, too, without sharing exact ad spend figures.

“We can get up to 5 million views on TikTok a week from influencer marketing, and from UGC … that’s equivalent to about $70,000-$80,000 worth of Facebook ads. It’s significant,” said Hall.

22Squared, Vacation’s in-house team and GSD&M each track engagement against newsletter content. In the latter’s case, that helps both optimize creative effectiveness and stay on the right side of spam filters.

Apsey suggests email newsletters can help inform activity on other channels. A promotion that performs particularly well with a mailing list audience might be suitable for other channels, she said.

“Your emails can be part of the decisioning criteria of what creative you serve,” she said. “It’s about using your first party data and email data as a seed audience to uncover learnings.”

While Vacation uses email to try and provoke earlier sales of sunscreen, 22Squared’s work has also seen it deploy email in a bid to seed new purchasing habits.

Costume retailer Party City found demand for animatronic halloween decorations rising, but difficult to meet with efficient supply. “The cost is high and [store] footprint challenging, and in the dead of Halloween, everyone wants to get it — so supply has been challenging,” said Apsey.

To promote advance sales of the decorations and ease Party City’s supply chain conundrum, Apsey’s team focused on email as a means of reaching the types of core customers that might countenance buying Halloween supplies in summer.

“There is an audience of people who do care about it in July,” she said. “If we’re talking about loyalty and creating raving fans, part of it is doing something that feels a little non-traditional, such as celebrating Halloween in summer.“

Apsey declined to share how the campaign had impacted sales, but said “it’s leading very positively right now.”

“If you’re just sending out reminders about one or two products every time, sooner or later [consumers] are going to get bored of that,” said Hall. Instead, Vacation’s open rate rests on the team’s “putting a smile on their face and transporting them to the Vacation state of mind.“


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