How Startups Like Thinx and Glossier Are Disrupting Out-of-Home Advertising

The math on New York City subway advertising has always been pretty straightforward.

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Down there, commuters can’t be wealthy, otherwise they’d take cabs. The ride isn’t elegant, so don’t get your brand too close. And, the ad space is far too small and far from commerce to spur results. For years, subway ads did one thing: go deep into our psyche. Improve your skin, get your body bikini ready, eliminate varicose veins, practice safe sex and stop smoking, damnit! Outside the train, station ads invited us to escape our worlds with TV binges and movie posters.

All of a sudden, the math is different. Subways are no longer “public” transportation, they’re “social.” The city is younger, hipper and more diversely populated as New Yorkers stay local instead of moving to the suburbs. That means more decision makers, with their money and influence, are commuting by subway instead of train and car. “Subways are an iconic place to gather. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fancy person or not, you take the subway,” says Thinx Founder Miki Agrawal. And the ads, though they haven’t changed in size, are relatively huge compared to mobile screens. The result is that underground exposure is suddenly a hot ticket, especially for fast-moving, consumer-facing startups who want to target young urban professionals and establish a unique IRL identity. From Casper to Glossier, Oscar to Jet.com, Thinx to Shyp, Minibar to Streeteasy, VC-backed companies that live online are joining our daily commute, and it’s paying dividends on the sales and media fronts.

Oscar, the health insurance marketplace and provider, launched in New York City in 2013 with subway ads that “humanized” healthcare. Their quirky, eye-catching subway illustrations made  insurance seem playful and friendly. CEO Mario Schlosser attributes their rapid growth to the ads, and VP of Marketing Veronica Parker-Hahn calls them a much more efficient play than TV. Venmo’s “weird and alienating series of billboards” made the payment app (and the ads’ star, Lucas) a household name and sparked stories in Fast Company, BuzzFeed, Gothamist and Fox News. There wasn’t a millennial in New York who didn’t have an opinion on Lucas’ thin mustache when his face was plastered throughout the L train and Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue stop.

Boosting profits and national conversation

Startups’ subway strategies are centered around a holistic approach and minimalist design rather than one-off buys and text overload. Telling a story that walks with us from the turnstile, into the subway cars, up the stairs and onto the street is the most successful. “We realized we needed to create a gallery experience that includes many palettes and designs,” Thinx Head Design Strategist M.Y. Nguyen told me. The period-proof panties caught everyone’s attention with their much-disputed station dominations and brand trains late last year. Across the Bedford Avenue and Broadway-Lafayette stations, hundreds of thousands of commuters engaged with a spread of suggestive grapefruits and frank language. One ad read, “…absorbs up to 2 tampons’ worth of blood (no, you don’t have to change every few hours, no, they don’t feel like diapers, and no, it’s not like sitting in ur blood all day). boom.” When Outfront Media hesitated on approving the ads, Agrawal sparked a political debate about open conversation that saw global publications jump on board to win the debate quickly, and in a landslide. “Yes,” the subway-taking journalists and editors said. “We are allowed to talk about periods in public.” When critics took to social media, Thinx’s messaging evolved into a call and response: “Period-proof underwear that protects you from leaks and sometimes the patriarchy, but not from manspreading. We tried tho.”

Thinx succeeded in selling more underwear and demolishing, not just chipping away at, the taboo. Periods are discussed openly and shown visually on Instagram and Broad City. The taboo is now national conversation and Agrawal is an international icon for the feminist and socially-conscious business movements. Plus, “We had a double-digit lift in New York City sales revenue over the first 45 days of our subway campaign,” she told me. (Boxed CEO Chieh Huang reinforces these metrics, telling AdWeek that subway viewers spend more on average than consumers who only see digital ads)

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High design & community stories at a good price

Thinx elevated content and simultaneously hacked the established ad model in concept and budget. Instead of typical feminine hygiene lifestyle photos showing free, effervescent women, Thinx shifted categories by channeling high-fashion photography. When modeling agencies declined to participate in the campaign (or quoted astronomical prices), the team invited diverse, photogenic college friends to wear their product. Thinx shunned creative houses in favor of in-house design and sourced copy-writing ideas from their community. “The whole grapefruit campaign creative cost $5,000. So did the brand train campaign,” Thinx Director of Brand Veronica del Rosario says. Yet the result was so impactful that Calvin Klein copied the vision (at, what, 50x the price?), grapefruit and all, for a recent Kendall Jenner shoot.

Glossier, a burgeoning skincare brand and New York City startup, took to the train to promote their Phase 2 product line: makeup. They washed the Bedford stop with Glossier pink ads and 500 pink roses to the delight of excited commuters who reflexively shared the news on social media: “Adorbs, brilliant!, the perfect subtle spring vibes I needed 💘” And, the holy grail: “OMG THERE ARE @glossier SUBWAY ADS. GOD SAVE MY CHECKING ACCOUNT.” As a beauty brand, Glossier leaned heavily on pretty faces, but placed emphasis on tapping local models who were proud to celebrate their subway spots and add to the authenticity.

Being a first mover on the subway gets you a better seat in consumers’ minds, and for brands, a deep expertise in compelling out-of-home advertising. Subways are no longer just for small, local businesses trying to catch money through our insecurities. Instead, underground is a go-to destination for companies looking to build mindshare and brand recognition. It’s not just startups, either. Haagen-Dazs is reinforcing all-natural, simple ingredients through subway ads and I’m sure we’ll see Hillary there soon, too.


This article is written by Greg T. Spielberg of Brand Union – a global brand agency with expertise in brand strategy, design, interaction, brand management, and employee engagement. 

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