How to build an authentic brand, with Kevin Lee of immi
immi is a better-for-you instant ramen brand, launched at the start of 2021 by Kevin Lee (KLee) and Kevin Chanthasiriphan (KChan).
The Kevins met a decade ago, working together as product managers in the tech industry. They bonded eating noodles for breakfast everyday before work — their paths diverged, but their shared passion for noodles brought them back together two years ago to launch immi.
Today, immi uses Air to run Creative Operations. We sat down with Kevin Lee to talk about building an authentic brand, fostering community, and immi’s content marketing strategy.
Tell us about the initial inspiration for immi.
KChan and I both grew up in Asian food families. My grandparents are produce farmers in Taiwan and his grandmother sold egg noodles out of a Hawker stall in Thailand. His dad also ran a Thai restaurant in LA, selling noodles. So the food industry is in our blood.
It wasn't until recent years that we noticed in both of our direct families, there were very high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure. These chronic health conditions are prevalent across most of the world. So we got together and said, well, let's combine our interests in food and our interests in health and nutrition. Let's build a better-for-you Asian American food brand.
What was the journey from that initial idea to noodles?
We knew we wanted to do food and beverage, but it definitely took a while to land on noodles. We had no food science or chef experience ourselves. So when it came time to do the formulation, it was mostly just us in our kitchens on nights and weekends, experimenting with various ingredients we bought off of Amazon.
Back then, we didn't even know that as a food brand, you can actually reach out to suppliers and ask for samples. We went fully DIY. It was about an eight month process before we felt comfortable enough to say hey, I think this version is decent enough. Let's start the process of finding a manufacturer.
Once you had a product, how did you create the brand?
The elevator pitch is, people have this inherent bias of instant ramen being unhealthy and lacking nutrition. We knew that when it came to the packaging, we needed to display two elements: fun and elevated.
The main thing you see on our packaging is these whole ingredients falling into a bowl. Most other brands just show a composed bowl of ramen. We thought that our approach would be fresh and fun, while also creating this elevated feeling of, “Hey, you can actually see the ingredients.” With other brands it’s sort of nebulous, you usually have no idea what's in the seasoning packets.
The label with the nutritional info and the logo was a way to pay homage to Asian city street culture — specifically, the neon signs you’ll see hanging above every shop entrance. We wanted to capture that feeling, as if you were walking into a ramen restaurant in the middle of some Asian city, in some random alleyway. There are a lot of these little elements hidden in our branding.
You’re a natural storyteller, both in interviews and on social media. How have you leaned into that while building immi?
In terms of my social media, it’s never overly intentional, to be honest. For example, when we launched back in January, we did this tweet storm that went pretty viral. People have always asked, “Hey, did you put a lot of thought into that?” Truthfully, I wrote it the night before we launched, it was very spur of the moment. It’s just something I like to do.
These off-the-cuff moments have been important throughout our founding journey. In our beta community, which is a private group on Facebook, we've always just told casual stories around like, “Hey, here's us at the manufacturer,” or “here's us packaging things, getting ready to send them out.” It's really just been a way to build in public and bring our community along for the rides. Inevitably, it has helped on the marketing side quite a bit.
Tell us more about immi’s Facebook community.
When we first built immi, we knew that we wanted to take a community-driven approach to building the company. One of the main things is to always meet your audience where they are, you know? Early in our demand testing we realized that our audience skewed toward women of a certain age demographic, and based on our knowledge of where that age demographic lives, most of them were on Facebook.
So we said, “Okay, let's build a Facebook group.” We seeded it with some of our own friends, just to kickstart the engagement, but then it took off. We started sharing all these really natural, honest things — like we would film ourselves in the kitchen, just making different recipes with our noodles. This was pre-launch. Then we’d cut those videos into like, recipe .gifs, and post them on various cooking subreddits.
There was a period of time where we were always on the front page of the cooking subreddit. Suddenly, people started to find us: “Hey, we didn't know there was such a thing as low carb, high protein, plant-based instant ramen.” So people started inviting each other to the Facebook group, and this community slowly grew. Now it's around 4,000 members, which is amazing.
It's been a huge benefit, honestly, for a number of different reasons: R&D, collecting feedback, having mini evangelists who help spread the word on our behalf. They’ll even fight for us in the Facebook comments. It's amazing.
What was your marketing strategy at launch?
In the early days, we built a waiting list of around 35,000 people. That was important. Part of that was organic, part of that was paid. The organic piece I already mentioned, we were doing things like the recipe videos, but we also had like a bot in our Slack channel that would scrape Reddit to find any mention of phrases like “low carb noodle,” “keto noodle,” or “keto ramen.” Then it was mostly me just responding to every single comment. There were some weekends where a single comment could drive 100 email signups at once.
We also tested Facebook ads. Basically, we made an assumption that a certain percentage of our waiting lists would convert at a certain average order value, with a certain gross margin. Then you back into all of that, and you can start to figure out, “Well, that means that I really need to acquire an email lead at a certain number of cents in order to break even.” We were able to test paid ads using that strategy in a more quantitative manner.
Ultimately, all of our combined efforts built that 35,000-strong waitlist which really boosted us during launch. Between that and the Facebook community, those two really got us off the ground. Plus some well-placed PR articles.
What does the future hold for immi, beyond noodles?
It's interesting, because we see the rise of all these Asian American brands and we love all of them. Both KChan and I are investors in Sanzo, we know Sandro [Founder & CEO]. We had a group dinner with Jenny [Founder] of Fly By Jing in LA last year. I'm actually going to see Kim [Co-Founder] from Omsom later today in Brooklyn. As the common saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. We’re all trying to push each other forward.
For us at immi, we started with instant ramen, because it was a food that we loved. And it's funny because a lot of people often ask, “Oh, does that mean that you're gonna do instant Japanese curry next?” Basically any instant foods. But that’s not how we’ve planned it out.
When we think about our brand extensions, for now, — KChan and I started this because we wanted to have fun and create something we cared about. These are foods that we grew up eating, foods that we truly love. So we try to think from a perspective of, well, what did we enjoy eating while growing up? And if we can recreate that, let's.
So whether that’s Asian snacks, or something else, we ask, “Can we make it healthier? Can we make it low carb?” We'll probably think of brand extensions more from that perspective, rather than, does it have to fit within what immi “is”? That could change, but I think our attitude allows us to just play at work, which is really what we're aiming for at the end of the day.
What advice would you give to other founders or marketing teams working to build a brand?
At the end of the day, this brand started because it was me and KChan as two first-generation, Asian American immigrants, who grew up in this country and had our own experiences being both Asian and American.
How do we portray that in this brand, how do we show other people that you can grow up eating these Asian foods, but have this American perspective of caring a lot about your nutrition and health? How do we show that you can merge that?
Long story short, don't ever erase the personality that you bring to your brand. If you forfeit to other people, or other audiences, which was a mistake we made early on, it becomes inauthentic. People will see through it right away.
Now we like to promote things that we really care about. Our Instagram has changed a lot. It used to be mostly health tips, all this stuff that we thought our audience would like, and now it's moreso, let's just share Asian foods that we love. And if people don't like it, that's okay, maybe we can get to them later.
But maybe people will see these two guys just sharing themselves and who they really are, and they'll be drawn to that. That’s a really, really important thing. Don't ever lose that.