On Brand No. 11: Digging deep with Kay Kim, Co-Founder of Rooted
This is an edited version of an email newsletter sent on July 14, 2022. We send out new issues every other Thursday, featuring deep-dive essays and interviews with industry leaders. Sign up below.
As of September 8, 2022, On Brand is on hiatus. We have closed new subscriptions for the time being. Read the backlog right here!
It’s vacation season, folks. Use that PTO. Ari took over for me last issue while I was on vacation, now he’s in Italy. Life’s short. Go schedule some time off right now. You deserve it.
— Francis, Content at Air
This week’s plot:
The journey from a one-off joke to a full-fledged brand
Building a beloved, fun, and educational content engine
Predictions on the future of the agency industry
Knowing when to water, growing with the flow: An interview with Kay Kim
This week I sat down with Kay Kim. Before co-founding plant brand Rooted with Ryan Lee four years ago, he worked as an Art Director for reputed agencies like droga5. Kay is down-to-earth, thoughtful, and just an all-around sharp dude.
Having grown up on a plant nursery myself, I was keen to learn about what modernizing the industry means. They've had quite a journey — from selling plants in their apartment to opening three NYC storefronts to the pandemic forcing them to shut down NYC operations and move to Florida. Kay and Ryan have big plans. I truly wish them the best!
Below is a transcript of our interview.
On Brand: Tell me about building the Rooted brand and visual identity.
Kay Kim: It started with the name, which just came to me as a joke when Ryan and I were at Home Depot shopping for plants back in the day. It was a terrible experience and I thought, why isn’t there a DTC company that could make this easier. It would be called something like Rooted. A few months later…we started Rooted.
Then it became a design exploration. What is this brand, how do we position it, what do we stand for — a typical branding exercise. I knew we wanted to use green but be different from other plant brands out there. The market, at the time, skewed more basic and live-laugh-love. I wanted to be cheeky, fun, the plant nerd you grab a beer with and then walk away with a fountain of plant knowledge.
I also wanted to use a bright, neon green. It’s become trendy, but back in 2018, nobody else was using it.
OB: Educational content is clearly important to Rooted. How have you built and sourced that knowledge?
KK: We’re not some traditional, 5th generation growing family. For me, it started with doing FFA [Future Farmers of America] in high school. I raised a lamb, grew plants from plugs to a garden sale-ready state — FFA taught me a lot. But honestly, not coming from a plant background has been a strength.
We didn’t know how to take care of a plant when we started, even basic stuff like how to gauge if a plant needs water. We learned through trial and error, working with industry-leading growers, talking to them, and aggregating all this knowledge. Then we just shared that knowledge in a way that we thought we would have wanted when we were starting out journey. It’s just about being fun, relatable, and not using industry jargon.
OB: What channels have been most effective for you? Why?
KK: Instagram definitely is and was our biggest channel in terms of engagement and followers. We just started breaking into TikTok a few months ago, it’s going well. IG has just been a reliable way to engage people with our branding, our tone of voice. We have a real community, and they share our content, which brings more people into the community.
I always tell other brands or just people looking to grow their following or brand, at the end of the day you just want to provide some sort of value through your content. It’s obvious, but you just need to be honest with yourself about whether or not your content actually does that.
Saved Stories on Rooted’s Instagram page
Good content can be fun or educational — people need to walk away having had a good time or feeling that they’ve learned something. I try to inject both of those as much as possible into our content. It’s what I would’ve loved when I was starting my plant journey. As long as it hits one of those notes, people will share it and bring more people into the fold.
We once had a plant SMS hotline where people could text us and just shoot the shit or like, ask questions about why your plant might be dying. People loved it. Now we have a Discord community where people can meet other plant lovers from around the world, share their knowledge. It’s totally organic, it’s been growing well.
OB: What does it mean to be a modern farm or plant brand? You and the team at Rooted, Smallhold, Gotham Greens — there’s a new generation of companies in the broader space.
It encompasses a lot of things. The agriculture industry is extremely antiquated. There’s still so many handshake deals, they still fax, there’s no central inventory systems. Priority of what product you can get is often based on how much they like you.
We had a lot of trouble sourcing inventory before we owned our own nursery. These processes would hold us back from planning marketing, quality control, even knowing what would be available in a week or two. We decided the only way to grow at the rate we wanted was to become fully vertically integrated.
That’s when we decided to pack up and move from Brooklyn to Central Florida — to build our own nursery and greenhouses, to have control. Coming from our tech and agency backgrounds, we just have a different approach from most of the existing industry.
Folks from the Rooted team in their greenhouse. Kay in the green hat, Co-founder Ryan Lee in the blue hat.
Even still, most DTC companies are not actually DTC. They buy from factories, source it, warehouse it — it’s not actually direct to consumer. We are. Our greenhouse is the factory and we ship it to you — it’s like buying your iPhone directly from the factory making it in China. In our space, so often plants move from location to location before getting to the consumer. Our approach reduces cost of us while giving the consumer a healthier end product.
OB: Tell me about Plantboy — you’re building this new tech platform, in the same industry, based on your learnings from Rooted.
It enables anybody who wants to sell plants to sell through us, whether they want to sell the Rooted brand or white-label. Urban Outfitters, Ikea, CB2 — they all want to sell plants. But it’s much harder than just shoving a bunch of rugs in a closet to sell down the line. You need a team, industry know-how, tech, agricultural licenses and permits…not everyone can do it.
Rooted is our DTC brand. We sell plants to consumers, we educate, we curate fun content, we make an easy-to-digest experience.
Plantboy is B2B. We used to do B2B in NYC, renting out plants and doing setups, but this is totally different. Plantboy is our answer to the challenge of scale. Rooted, as much as we love it, is just another DTC plant brand. There’s a million plant brands, and plants are really the epitome of a commodity. There are quality differences, but to most consumers a plant is a plant is a plant.
With Rooted, we’ve gone head-to-head with similar competitors and big-box retailers alike. With Plantboy, even direct competitors could actually become our client.
Rooted is the guinea pig. We have brand recognition, repeating customers, a reasonable following. We can test and push product, get immediate feedback. We can see where the market is heading, what consumers want, how they’re changing, and integrate it all back into Plantboy.
OB: Your background is in agency work — what do you think the next 5 years of the agency world will look like?
KK: There will always be a time and a place for legacy agencies who will handle the super-large blue chip accounts because of said legacy and experience — but I see a huge shift towards more scrappy, boutique agencies. Agencies a bit more specialized in specific platforms and experiences.
The thing with larger agencies, there are so many layers of hierarchy. Turnaround is not the same as a small agency. It’s more direct and urgent — you’re the client, they need your business, and you need their deliverables. If you want the best work, go to small specialists.
I think we’ll see a lot of breakouts from this idea of one large agency that houses all your work to contracting many boutique agencies serving specific needs. An AR agency, a TV spot agency, a TikTok agency. You can’t use the same creative across all platforms and expect them to perform the same way.
OB: Is there anything you miss about agency life?
KK: Dedicated teams for dedicated jobs. Producers, project managers, account managers. You have a whole battalion ready to help the creatives with anything on the project. Now I wear a million hats. I miss millions-of-dollars budgets from clients. I miss being able to simply focus on producing beautiful, amazing work that might even win an award.
It’s totally shifted. Now everything ties directly back to and has consequences on the business in some shape or form. If I’m spending X amount, it needs to pay off. I can’t just take my time, conceptualize, think about refining, try to make it to Cannes.
Now it’s just test as many ideas as I can, get it to the point of execution, and run it. Test, test, test, see how it performs. If it works, reiterate, make it better, do it again. Test and go. I can’t focus on perfection anymore.
Back in my agency days, if you told me I’d be focusing so many of my campaigns on social…I used to try and hand those off to the interns. Now it’s the only brief, because it works.
OB: How do you think about storytelling?
KK: For a brand, storytelling means sharing who you are in a relatable way — you’re not just telling your audience, you’re doing it in a way where they start to positively associate you with that one thing. At the end of the day, if there’s no true connection between you and your consumers, they won’t be around much longer. Neither will you. How does our story benefit your life in some shape or form?
That’s why you see so many brands telling their founder stories. It’s not just “a brand” now, it’s the people that started it and why. The mission statement: why do these founders want to help you with their product?
OB: As Rooted grows and scales, are there any moves you don’t want to make? How do you keep social good built in as you scale?
KK: With both Rooted and Plantboy, we try do everything through a lens of both how are we helping, or at the very least how are we not further hurting the environment? It’s cheaper and more accessible to source plastic packaging materials, for example, but we always choose the harder, bit more expensive route of sustainable and biodegradable goods.
We donate a percentage of all of our earnings, profitable or not, to non-profits in the environmental space. Plus, whenever there’s some disastrous event, like a major fire in the Amazon, we try to push the cause in our community and donate all proceeds from that push to the cause.
From their website, two of the causes Rooted supports on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard as a startup, when you don’t have a ton of money. Sometimes you have to cut corners, sometimes you can’t do what you want to do. As long as you retain the desire to do good, you’re on the right path. Once you have more resources, you’ll be able to implement changes at a larger scale.
Just make it a core pillar of your brand from the ground up. It’s much harder later on. As long as it’s a core pillar, and you instill that in your team, there’s a trickle down effect. That’s how you avoid greenwashing terminology.
Consumers are just so jaded now. Corporate America has done the whole greenwashing thing and we all know they don’t mean it. Even us, we don’t feel like we’re doing as much as we could or should be. It’s a balance of making good on your promise but also making sure you live another day to keep making and fulfilling those promises.
Key takeaways 🪴
Perfect is the enemy of done. Aim for good enough, put your work out there, test it, and reiterate based on how it performs.
If you want to integrate social good into your business, do it from the start. You can’t always deliver to the extent you’d like, but that’s alright. Keep your business alive so you do more next time, once you have more resources.
Be flexible. Rooted started as an apartment plant party, became a storefront, then fully DTC, now they’re building Plantboy. In other words: treat your business like a plant. Repot when necessary. Water when it’s dry. You get the idea.
Is your content fun or educational? Ideally it’s both. But be honest with yourself — is it neither? Identify and admit your content’s flaws, then do better.
In the know
Must-reads, hot takes, and rising trends:
Lots of talk about brands starting podcasts these days. Here’s some inspiration. Tip: It doesn’t have to be a never-ending series.
Everyone loves a scrappy success story. Read how 5 brands found success with guerrilla marketing techniques.
Has your website traffic seen a strange change recently? Read about the impact of Google Search’s recent core update.
Marketing + Creative jobs at our favorite brand-forward companies:
Fishwife needs a Director of Marketing
Jones Road Beauty needs a Videographer
Morning Brew needs a Creative Director
Air is also hiring for a variety of roles! Click here to apply.