How to Build an Iconic Brand Without Breaking the Bank — This Founder's Formula for Early Marketing
PR & Marketing

How to Build an Iconic Brand Without Breaking the Bank — This Founder's Formula for Early Marketing

Studs co-founder Lisa Bubbers shares how they melded a strong brand with operational rigor to build a thriving business with minimal marketing expenses.

Branding can be brushed off as an unnecessary upfront cost, a problem for your future founder self that’s easy to de-prioritize when you’re leading a cash-strapped startup. But investing in thoughtful branding from day one pays dividends — especially in the increasingly competitive (and expensive) battle to acquire customers.

Just ask the founders of StudsAnna Harman and Lisa Bubbers, who stormed onto the startup scene in 2019 to transform the tired ear-piercing experience. Ear piercing was hardly a novel concept, but options were limited to tattoo parlors and mall kiosks. With a vision to meld a strong brand with operational rigor and re-package the experience of getting your ears pierced, this duo has since built a thriving business that’s expanded to 21 retail stores nationwide.

Today, the four-year-old startup is known for its colorful, Instagrammable storefronts and its wide array of mix-and-match earrings that it also sells online. Combining Harman’s background as an operational powerhouse with Bubbers’ marketing chops and sixth sense for stylish creative work, the pair have built a buzzy consumer brand that quickly became a Gen Z and millennial fave.

As co-founder and Chief Brand Officer, Bubbers has been the driving force behind this work, stewarding everything from the brand identity and strategy, to the store design and content marketing efforts — all the work it takes to bring a brand to life. From coverage in Vogue that billed the startup as “The Glossier of Piercing Studios,” to partnerships with everyone from celebrity gossip account Deux Moi to the Shake Shack burger chain, she’s made a lot of exciting moves, building a beloved, but surprisingly capital efficient, brand.

These two attributes often seem more like opposing magnets in the DTC and retail spaces. For a consumer startup that has made branding a key cornerstone of its strategy, it’s unusual that Studs spends less than 5% of its total budget on marketing. “Some founders spend $300K on a fancy agency for their brand identity, but I spent $50K working directly with designers. Our marketing launch budget was only $75K,” she says.

So while a retail piercing and e-commerce company may not seem like an obvious place for B2B SaaS startups to pull inspiration, as seed supporters who’ve been observing Studs’ journey from the very beginning, we think there’s plenty to learn from here regardless of your business model — particularly for the cash-conscious founder. “A lot of people are trying to figure out how to use experiential and retail as a marketing engine right now because direct-to-consumer costs for acquisition have skyrocketed and acquisition levers are limited,” says Bubbers. 

In this exclusive interview, she breaks down how branding should fit into your pre-launch efforts, shaping how you think about the going to market side of the product-market fit equation. Once you’re in market, her advice for growing, activating and retaining your audience is equally razor-sharp, including the nitty gritty of making your TikTok resonate, choosing the right influencers to partner with, and pulling off creative eventing. 


When it comes to building from 0-1, certain milestones are necessary (and obvious), like building the early version of the core product and acquiring your early users. But molding the company’s brand has no tried-and-true timeline to stick to — which leaves founders and early marketing hires unsure of when to kick off their brand building efforts in earnest.

“The level of importance you should place on brand and how much to invest at an early stage depends on how consumer-focused your business is and how folks engage with your product,” Bubbers says. 

“Our core offerings at Studs are ear piercings and earrings, which fall into a lifestyle category,” she says. “People get ear piercings and purchase earrings because they want to enhance their style and say something about their personality. It’s fun and aspirational. So for us, it was very clear that investing in a brand with the right customer experience, and content, would impact the business and our connection with our customer base early on.” 

But there are plenty of non-consumer businesses that also should consider investing in brand sooner rather than later, as Bubbers explains. At the very least, early branding exercises and validating product-market fit can go hand-in-hand, as they both require getting into the minds of your core customers.

For founders who are in the pre-launch phase of their journey, Bubbers presents some practical methods to gauge whether your company is truly ready for the spotlight, sharing a few lessons back from when she was still nailing down the studs behind her startup’s brand.

1. Test your brand hypotheses with a Minimum Viable Brand.

By now, every budding founder has surely heard about the power of building a Minimum Viable Product to launch as soon as possible and collect valuable early customer feedback. (Longtime Review readers may remember the alternatives we’ve shared here over the years, from Minimum Loveable Products, Jiaona Zhang’s tweaking of the same concept, or the Minimum Viable Test framework, an alternative approach coined by Maven founder Gagan Biyani.) 

But as Bubbers notes, these same principles can also be applied to your startup’s brand identity. “Before founding Studs, I was the sixth employee at interior design startup, Homepolish. When I first joined, the initial brand the founders had built looked a lot like Taskrabbit,” she says. “They focused more on getting the product out in the market to see if there was customer traction. Only then did I focus on giving the branding a fresh coat of paint to make it more polished — what you would think of when hiring an interior designer, rather than hiring a handyman.” 

But while it’s often a best practice to make speed a habit and move to quickly spin up an MVP, it’s equally important to recognize when your startup idea might not be a good candidate for this approach. As a company with its sights set on building brick-and-mortar stores, Studs was on the other side of that coin. 

“We couldn’t have a traditional minimum viable version of our brand, because our version of a launch was opening up a store,” Bubbers says. “As soon as you have a storefront on Prince Street in New York City, the brand is out there. There is no password-protecting your store out in the world. That was a big tell that we had to have a brand fully ready to go before launch.” 

To test out the core product experience, the Studs co-founders set up their own version of an MVP: a very unglamorous pop-up. “Before we opened a single store, we spent six months in a rented office with a piercer, bringing in our target customer from our network in New York to get pierced. It wasn't branded at all. All we were doing was talking to them and learning about the customer and what they wanted from this experience before we put our preferred brand out in the world.” 

2. Give your early branding and ICP some breathing room.

After confirming they had a real whitespace in the market to color in, one persona stuck out as a potential early adopter wedge. “I felt like if we could capture the cool 23-year-old living in Manhattan and Brooklyn and get them to be obsessed with the brand, it would give us a brand validity that would allow us to grow and become more mass,” says Bubbers. 

“As we’ve become national and have expanded to over 20 studios, the customer mix has really changed. The customer who’s getting pierced in Seattle is different from the one in Wisconsin which is different from the one in LA.”

The brand identity Bubbers architected purposefully allowed for that flexibility. Walk into any Studs store around the country, and each will feel like its own art gallery. “There’s neon colors, acrylic visual merchandising, and selfie mirrors,” Bubbers says. “It was created to be a destination for people, a cool place to go.” But what you won’t find in any Studs location are photo advertisements with models, one of the intentional ways Bubbers designed the spaces for inclusivity. 

“We don’t have lots of photos of a certain type of person where a potential customer could think ‘Well, if I’m not that person, then I don’t really need to be here,’” Bubbers says. “80% of women have their ears pierced, and that’s a growing percentage. So in the initial days of figuring out the brand strategy, we decided we couldn’t alienate anyone.”

In the beginning, targeted, really crisp branding is great, — but don’t make it purposefully so narrow that you can’t expand from there.

3. Leverage the “jobs-to-be-done” framework to fill in your branding elements.

In the long laundry list of items that go into unlocking extreme product-market fit, customer discovery gets top billing. For help here, Bubbers likes to turn to the classic “jobs-to-be-done” framework. 

The popular approach boils down to the belief that customers are not looking to buy a product, but rather seeking to accomplish a particular task. (For more here, we highly recommend diving into this lightweight JTBD framework for startups.) With that framing in mind, Bubbers offers up a checklist of questions founders can ask themselves before graduating into the brand work phase of their startup: 

“Once you have an understanding of all these different pieces, then you know you’re ready to focus on building the foundational elements of your brand,” she says. For a pre-launch Studs, this looked like: 

A “build it and they will come” approach skips over work that’s essential for any startup. Distilling your brand strategy, sharpening your value prop, listening to your target customer on why they are hiring you, and then clarifying how you’ll communicate all of that back to your customer is foundational — not optional.

4. Double-check on product-market fit before hitting the brand gas pedal.

Time and time again, Bubbers sees founders eager to rev up their engines and get rolling on the road before thoroughly testing if their product is needed in the market. “You have to start with a truly great product that the customer has a need for. Then you can leverage great branding or cool design that can only make it better,” Bubbers says. 

If product-market fit isn’t there, no amount of celebrity and branding is going to make your startup successful.

More specifically, Bubbers sees founders who fail to set up the go-to-market systems that will help them evaluate if they truly have product-market fit, and what that means for the next stage of their company. “If you have funding, you can spend a lot of time burning capital, ‘waiting to see’ if you have product-market fit. But there’s a lot of upfront work and checkpoints you can set up to artificially restrain yourself — what are the signals you need to see before you invest more resources?”

“Perfection is the enemy of good here. Find what good looks like for your business — and then be very honest with yourself if you've achieved it or not,” says Bubbers. “When Studs was still just an idea, Anna and I set up a business model and the checkpoints we needed to hit to keep going. For example, we would say, ‘When our first store opens, we need the company to look like this before we go open up another store,’” she says. 

“We eventually landed on store payback as our single metric. Fast forward to today: Our stores pay back very quickly, and are profitable at the unit-level. Same thing when we layered on e-commerce later — we needed it to break even, it couldn’t be a loss leader.” 

When founders aren’t in market yet, they can get really distracted with making swag, polishing their OKRs, and adding on all of these bells and whistles, like tracking revenue in Tableau. You don’t need any of that. Be extremely rigorous and cutthroat about what is and isn’t working.

Lisa Bubbers, co-founder and Chief Brand Officer at Studs


The brand strategy flywheel usually goes something like this: Collect enough insight from your customers to launch a brand, pick and choose from a menu of different marketing techniques to spread awareness, retro your efforts to pull out what works well and what doesn’t, rinse and repeat. 

All that to say, what works for a sales-led B2B SaaS startup may not translate into the same success for a D2C retail brand, and vice versa. But there are still lessons to be mined from Studs’ story, particularly on how Bubbers and her team iterated quickly to find what clicked. Below, Bubbers walks us through the four bedrock pillars that propped up Studs’ brand, while sprinkling in some tested tactics that could apply to any startup’s strategy. 

Pillar #1: Spend enough to set the levers in place, but no more 

Test and iterate, those are the only two ways to grow a brand, Bubbers says. “It’s very difficult without any data, so it’s a little finger to the wind, but have some idea of what you think your CAC will be. At Studs, we had hypotheses about what it would cost to get people into our stores, as well as goals around utilization, revenue and foot traffic for the first few months. We thought, ‘If we can hit these metrics, our stores will have best-in-class retail metrics.’” 

Bubbers then narrowed down her budget but packed it full of different marketing experiments to help Studs avoid wasting time on failed tests later. “In the beginning, I pushed for a budget that allowed us to do enough marketing tests where I could learn my levers, but was low enough where it felt very de-risked. With around $75K, it was a blend of Instagram ads, local wheatpasting, influencer events, and so on, enough to launch in one market,” she says. “We were able to amass a lot of data and learnings to back up greater marketing investments early on.” 

Bubbers shares a few of her lessons here:  

Pillar #2: Educate to Innovate: How Content and Branding Cut Through the Category Noise

More often than not, founders are working within a space where they aren’t reinventing the industry wheel, but rather putting a new spin on it. But there are still ways to cut through the noise of a crowded market, and outstanding brand work is one of them. 

“If you have a million other SaaS businesses you are competing against, people need to understand why they should be choosing you over someone else. Brand is one of the best ways to differentiate yourself from the pack,” she says. 

“We did not invent ear piercing. There are many places to get your ears pierced in New York. So for us to differentiate in the market and create an offering, I spent a lot of time investing in the brand, the IP and the design of the experience,” Bubbers says. 

“I knew I needed to brand the entire journey of ear piercing and make it clear that what we're doing is different than just going to the tattoo shop around the block. Our idea was to create a full end-to-end journey around piercing to buying. The way to connect these steps was to provide customer value around aftercare healing content and incredible customer service.” 

Bubbers had the clever idea to coin (and trademark) the term Earscaping — language they could use to describe the entire ear piercing journey, from curating a look and piercing new holes, to healing and uniquely styling an ear with jewelry. 

“People seemed to understand the word and it started to take off in popular culture,” Bubbers says. “I started seeing customers use it, the media used it, and it helped differentiate our brand and elevate our offering.”

But an innovative model and an invented term come with the pressures of creating a new category. “Branding for a category creator is an interesting balance because, on the one hand, you want to use language and vernacular that the customer already understands,” Bubbers says. “If you do invent a new IP, you have more of an uphill battle. You are introducing an entirely new concept, and no one will know what that is.”

It takes a lot to be a category innovator and leader. If you do choose to go that route, you have to be willing to set aside the resources to consistently educate your audience.

As part of Studs’ strategy, Bubbers decided to heavily invest in content, with a focus on education. “We launched an entire content franchise called (Ear)ducation that lives natively on our website. We have earscaping content that educates the customer on piercing placements, healing times, our materials, and new trends,” she says. “To power that internally, we've developed graphic systems and social media narratives around these things so that we can then constantly have a content marketing engine,” Bubbers says. 

A sample blog post from Studs' "Earscaping" content franchise.

When you are building in a new category or inventing something entirely new, invest in brand, content and audience education first. When it clicks for people and they understand what you are making, that’s when you become a category leader.

Pillar #3: Pick where you’re going to play — and let influencers and content creators do the heavy lifting 

“Anna and I decided early on that the community, not us founders, were going to be the face of the company,” Bubbers says. “So our entire approach to social media has been to inspire our community. We quickly learned people wanted to see variety and the best part was there are infinite ways to style your ears, meaning we have an endless pool of ideas to generate new looks and content.”

Here’s what that looks like: “On Instagram, our customers are looking to get inspired and they're very inclined to shop. They love our Earscape images and they like our educational content. So we have these silicone ears and these bright colors. We invest in grid content and we invest in reels,” she says. 

One thing I’ve found about social media channels: You have to test your ideas, of course. But then once they work, you have to repeat them — over and over again.You have to really commit to the bit.

While Studs’ website content and social channels are more aspirational and educational, its influencer program has slightly different goals. “It’s a performance channel, so we’re trying to reach and activate new customers. Our main focus is finding influencers who we think can efficiently acquire new users,” Bubbers says.

The criteria for who her team chooses to partner with is based on typical reach benchmarks and engagement metrics, but Bubbers does start off by asking a single question: “If this influencer showed their Studs experience, either purchasing online and styling their ears at home or visiting us for a piercing at a Studs store, how likely would their unique audience be to engage with our brand?”

But not all the influencers Studs chooses to partner have supersized followings — in fact, they may not even be considered “influencers” at all. What matters is the enthusiasm for ear piercing, and if they are connected to the right micro-communities. 

“On platforms like TikTok, we found that people were already making ‘earscaping’ content on their own — with no association with Studs,” she says. “A lot of users were talking to their followers about which piercings they have, or where they put their earrings. It wasn’t the biggest content creator following on TikTok, but that community already existed. We leveraged that natural virality that was organically happening and asked those creators to make content for Studs, instead of trying to make our own. Now, they post about how they love to get their piercings at our stores, or they make content about how they use Studs earrings to style their ears.” 

Her biggest tip for founders here is to examine the space they are building in and gauge how much outward enthusiasm already exists — it just might lead to a lower-lift social media strategy. 

If there is a natural community niche built around the product or service you are selling, don’t spend your energy trying to create your own videos. Find those who are already organically talking about your product or your market and partner with them instead.

That brings us to another related piece of advice Bubbers gives here, especially for first-time founders exploring social media: Get picky about which channels you spend your time on. 

“We happen to have an experience where people want to follow along with someone going to do an activity. They are watching to see a before and after. That is something that’s easily consumed on TikTok. The mistake founders make is to launch on every channel,” she says. 

“Studs has never launched on Twitter, and we won’t because folks aren’t getting inspired about ear piercings there. We’re not going to start a podcast, either. But for example, there are conversations about ear piercings happening on Reddit — on how to avoid infections and so on — so that could be a place to invest in in the future,” she says. “Understanding the channels and why you should be on them is essential — and it’s also what helps you stay lean.

Find the Venn diagram of where your target customer is, and where it makes sense for you to be. Where do you have a natural content strategy that you can actually execute and really invest in that early stage, versus trying to be everywhere, poorly, all at once?

Pillar #4: Use experiential marketing to differentiate and scale 

On top of the table-stakes social media and content marketing, Studs has done plenty of off-the-wall experimenting, too. “Now is a great time to invest in offline marketing and eventing because advertising costs are expensive,” Bubbers says. “Digital advertising has become very, very crowded — and it's becoming less efficient. Customers are now in a mindset where they are looking for experiences and activities.” 

Take this recent example: In the fall of 2023, Studs hit the road with a mobile piercing trailer and headed out west, where the reality TV convention “BravoCon,” had gathered 30,000 fans in Las Vegas. “It was a non-traditional way to think about advertising,” Bubbers says. 

She finds experiential marketing to be one of the most effective ways to elevate your brand from the rest of the pack — although the physical storefront experience lends her a natural advantage here, of course. “Our business is unique in that our stores themselves are marketing engines,” Bubbers says. 

But it took a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make that a reality. All of Studs’ 20+ stores were intentionally designed to promote user-generated content, and adhere to a strict aesthetic and design. “I spent a lot of time making sure the stores were highly ‘Instagram-able.’ We paid attention to every detail, like if the shelves were the right material and color, what merchandise was on display, adding the right amount of eye candy and opportunities for ‘selfie moments,’ that would be shared on social organically,” she says. 

Inside the Studs piercing studio in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. Courtesy of Studs.

Leaning on the stores as the core component of Studs’ brand also meant they could collect customer feedback in real-time, and quickly adjust as needed. “For example, we had a hypothesis that people wanted to shop for earrings with a sales assistant at the ‘Earbar.’ What we figured out over time is that if people aren’t in the stores for a piercing and just wanted to shop for a new pair of earrings, there was too much friction for them to be able to checkout quickly. So we pivoted,” she says.

Experiments have a different shape these days. “Now, we are five years in, and we’ve grown into a new focus of selling more units per stores. So now we’re looking at things like, ‘What adjustments can we make on the walls?’ or ‘What will get higher conversions?’” 

But you don’t need a physical storefront (or even a retail business) for an experiential marketing campaign to make sense. “It all depends on the type of brand you are trying to build and where you are in your company lifecycle,” Bubbers says. “Especially for B2B and SaaS, inserting yourself into cultural moments, whether it’s F1, Coachella, or Art Basel — if that's where your customers are — can be a great way to cut through the noise and earn more brand equity than you’d get from an Instagram ad.” 

You can also think of creative ways to stitch your online and offline presence together. “We ran a campaign selling ‘mystery earring’ bundles during Cyber Week that did quite well. So in our Nolita store, we brought in a gumball machine to recreate that experience in the real world — you’d put in your token and wouldn’t know what you got until you opened it up.”

Drawing from this time of trial and error in physical stores, Bubbers shares her biggest tips for any type of business trying its hand with experiential marketing:  

Discipline and strategy is crucial when it comes to saving money and resources in branding. Before kicking off any brand marketing experiment, create a hypothesis around the impact you’re looking for.


There’s a long line of founders who come from product and engineering backgrounds — founders who came up in the marketing org are few and far between. While early-stage teams without any marketing expertise are quick to farm off their branding to outside help, Bubbers makes the case for putting more brand and marketing leaders at the helm:

It’s hard to trust consultants, agencies, and freelancers with something as important and personal as what your brand looks, feels and sounds like.

Not only are you putting an incredible amount of trust in folks building your brand who aren’t living and breathing your product, but you’re also missing out on a startup’s greatest currency — speed. “If you own your marketing in-house, you don’t have to go through the operational cadence of briefing and waiting for the work to come back, reviewing, getting to market and reporting. That’s a big ordeal when you are trying to get an early read on whether or not your company is successful.” 

She urges marketers thinking of joining an early startup to take stock of their own skills.  “If you are a marketer who has a really strong sense of brand voice, is extremely customer-centric, knows how to differentiate in a market, and is focused on acquiring — and retaining — users, those are incredibly valuable skills even at the earliest of stages.”