How olive oil brand Graza broke $500K in revenue—without paid ads
Graza co-founder and CEO Andrew Benin knew his business would work in January 2022, the day before the DTC olive oil brand officially launched.
It was past midnight. He and his team had turned on their Shopify site and settled in for final debugging in his apartment.
“And all of a sudden there were so many people on our site,” Benin says. “Like 70 people on our site at 1 a.m.”
They weren’t sure where the traffic was coming from. They had hired Gander, a branding agency, to create their look and unique squeeze-bottle packaging, which had gotten Graza featured on the Gander site.
Did a lot of people read that site…at night?
Graza had also gifted their extra-virgin olive oil to some prominent food-world influencers in the weeks leading up to launch. Had one posted about Graza on social?
They didn’t get it. Frankly, they were concerned. “We were like, ‘We’re going to sell out even before launch day,’” Benin says.
Not exactly. But they sold out during their first week in business, bringing in $100K in revenue. By April, they’d passed the $500K in revenue mark.
Even more impressive: Graza achieved all this without a single paid ad. Here’s how.
Even pre-product, Graza had the ingredients for product-market fit
The secret sauce behind Graza’s success sounds simple. “We have product-market fit, which I think a lot of businesses don’t,” Benin says.
Too many founders focus on “disruption” or design, he argues, as opposed to the fundamental question: Will people buy what I’m selling?
Benin started building the skillset to answer that question and hit the product-market fit bullseye long before he founded Graza.
Starting in 2014, he worked for venture-backed DTC darlings like Warby Parker, Casper, and Magic Spoon, learning to navigate the ecommerce space—and, at Magic Spoon, the DTC food space, specifically.
After living in Spain for three years, Benin got hooked on olive oil. He wanted to sell the best olive oil in Europe in the US. But his friend Mike Anthony, the executive chef at New York’s Michelin-starred Gramercy Tavern, helped Benin see a slightly different opportunity around olive oil, Benin told ecommerce podcast DTC Pod.
The olive oil market is bifurcated, Anthony explained: In the grocery store, you could find mass-produced extra-virgin olive oil that barely deserved its name.
In his book Extra Virginity, journalist Tom Mueller reports that at least 75% of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in the US is fraudulent. It’s often cut with cheaper oils, like soybean oil, according to a 60 Minutes report—if it contains olive oil at all. It’s sometimes really sunflower seed oil, dyed slightly green.
Better-quality olive oil existed, at deranged prices. Luxury boutique olive oils, imported from European olive groves, can cost more than $100 a bottle. Even more than $700.
Instead of joining the throng of luxury olive oil retailers, Anthony advised Benin to sell pure olive oil at an affordable price point. That was the gaping hole in the olive oil market.
“That changed my perspective completely,” Benin said on DTC Pod. “Ever since then, mass and scale have been the leading principles for this company, of course without sacrificing quality.”
Benin and his co-founder, Allen Dushi, fused quality and quantity by sourcing their olive oil from a place Benin knew well: Spain, and specifically Jaén, a major hub for Spanish olive and olive oil production.
They opted to work with Picual olives because they produced an oil with a higher smoke point, longer shelf life, and punchier flavor. A Picual olive oil “doesn’t hold back when it comes to flavor, and shamelessly slaps you in the face each time you eat it,” Benin wrote on the Graza blog.
This all means that before Graza even turned on its site, the team had some key ingredients of product-market fit:
- A co-founder with DTC expertise
- A pure Spanish olive oil with a bold flavor
- An unusually accessible price point: $35 for 1250ML of oil
Once Benin and his team flipped that Shopify switch, they just needed to figure out how to build on that initial, 1 a.m. influx of demand.
The organic growth playbook that took Graza to $500K+ in revenue
Before turning on paid advertising, “inventory is critical,” Benin says.
In Graza’s early days, with global supply chains in disarray, Benin and his team stuck to testing out organic marketing channels. “We’re definitely lucky in the sense that everything has worked,” Benin says.
To date, Graza has used 3 main organic channels to build its highly engaged audience: email marketing, a creators gifting program, and organic social.
Slick, hyper-segmented email flows drive 50%+ open rates
Benin and his team started building Graza’s email list before they launched, with Klaviyo and a simple landing page.
“I think we benefit from really direct communication,” Benin says. So the landing page CTA was simple: Share your email, and we’ll tell you when Graza launches.
They racked up about 2K email addresses that way. Since launch, Graza’s contact list has only grown.
Engagement remains high, too. “We don’t over-index on how much revenue we’re driving from Klaviyo, but we do over-index on open rates and click rates,” Benin says.
Automated flows and promotional campaigns should all hit similar engagement benchmarks, Benin believes—and similar design standards, too.
The Graza team shoots for a 50%+ open rate each send, and often hits it, thanks to Klaviyo’s granular segmentation options.
“We have flows going out to just 200 or 300 customers,” Benin says. Regulars who buy once every 2-3 weeks get different emails from regulars who buy every 4-6 weeks.
When it comes to design, whether it’s a flow or a promotion, “we won’t have a CTA in tile one, ever,” Benin says of Graza emails.
They’ll always include a CTA—after all, they’re running a business—but it’s usually lower in the send, as in this abandoned cart email.
Another hallmark of a Graza email: custom typography, which the team coded into Klaviyo manually. “We made it a point to be able to use our own fonts,” Benin says.
That means Graza’s emails are more branded than they are hyper-optimized for dark mode and every other variable under the sun. So far, that’s helped set them apart.
After all, they invested in branding from Gander, the same agency that came up with Magic Spoon’s bright, illustrated packaging. They’re making the most of it.
An unpaid take on influencer marketing: a creators gifting program
Three weeks before Graza launched, the team started building momentum by gifting about 25 packs of olive oil per week to food world creators.
They didn’t pay for posts, or ask creators to hit specific talking points. “We took a seeding approach that was no strings attached,” Benin told DTC Pod.
In other words, they trusted creators’ instincts. “These are just people that do something that is really difficult,” Benin says.
As someone who’s tried and failed to film his own aspirational food content, Benin respects their skills. (Though, counterpoint: This TikTok of Benin drinking olive oil straight from the bottle in the office is the literal American Dream.)
Graza’s seeding strategy made a splash. During launch week, cookbook author and Bon Appetit YouTube alum Molly Baz had already run out of her gifted Graza oil. The team sent her a big refill—restaurant-style 5L jugs of Graza––and she posted them to her Instagram.
“The second she posted that on her story, it was a bloodbath,” Benin says. “Suddenly, everyone wanted them.”
Another creator Benin enjoyed collaborating with: Antonio Tapia, a.k.a. Backyard Eats, who made this reel of Graza drizzling over a barbecued pizza.
The black backdrop makes it look “Gothic and kind of Liquid Death style,” Benin says. It doesn’t fit Graza’s brand guidelines, “and that’s OK—it looks cool.”
On organic social, Graza keeps its brand aesthetic fluid
Graza launched its Instagram with impeccable visual branding: a custom serif font, grassy greens and yellows, and sunlit videos of oil-drizzled dishes.
Then social media creators like Tapia helped Benin and the Graza team imagine new social possibilities for their product.
“Working with creators helped us evolve our brand aesthetic,” Benin says, “rather than just stress out if we were diluting it by having a lot of this user-generated content that we didn’t direct.”
Graza’s distinctive packaging helped make that evolution possible. Cheap and luxury olive oil alike usually sells in glass, wider-mouthed bottles; Graza’s yellow- and green-topped squeeze bottles set the brand apart, and visually tie together its branded and user-generated social content.
Now, on Instagram and even more so on TikTok, Graza’s brand social accounts look a bit more eclectic.
Professional shots and UGC collide on Instagram
Today, Benin describes Graza’s Instagram as a “hyper-diversified” patchwork of branded and UGC.
It’s the brand’s biggest social channel. Graza has racked up more than 8K followers on the platform and often posts:
- Branded illustrations, like this infographic on how to make pesto in Graza’s signature green
- Cooking video reposts with Graza bottle cameos, like this garlic knot recipe video from creator Kelton’s Kitchen
- User-generated reels from customers, like this clip of a baby snacking on a Graza-drizzled snack
- Reposts from Graza’s TikTok, like this reel of Drizzle and Sizzle bottles set to the popular “This is perfect” sound posted to TikTok a week earlier
Unpaid UGC from creators “visually enabled us to play in multiple arenas, and have this Instagram that feels fragmented,” Benin says. “We’re not just honing in on what we thought would work—we’re honing in on what is working.”
Cooking how-tos meet audio memes on TikTok
Graza has about 1K followers on TikTok, but TikTok’s engagement-driven algorithm means the brand’s short-form videos could reach many more people than that.
As every marketer knows, TikTok is the attention economy slot machine. Or as Benin puts it: “TikTok is the best because no one understands it, so crazy things happen.”
He and his team have already experienced this firsthand. One Graza TikTok, a quick cut from a Sizzle to a Drizzle bottle set to the “If I like it, I’ll just grab it in another color” sound, has already gotten more than 13K likes and 200K views on TikTok.
That’s 200x more views than Graza’s account has followers.
One key factor that helped that video gain traction: Graza strays even further from its launch branding on TikTok, to create videos that look native in-feed.
The brand will often post:
- Olive oil-related jokes and glamor shots set to trending sounds, like the choral arrangement of Adele’s “Someone Like You”
- Behind-the-scenes videos of Graza’s office and production process, like this clip of bottles getting labeled
- Cooking and food videos featuring olive oil, like this step-by-step recipe for poached salmon
To Benin, it’s important that Graza’s TikTok diversifies beyond cooking videos. “People are constantly bombarded with culinary content,” he says. “Even though we want to be a culinary-first brand, people are getting inspiration for cooking 24/7.”
To stand out, Graza needs to do things differently—like making its Drizzle and Sizzle bottles kiss sometimes.
Graza’s next move: an epic retail rollout
Graza is less than 6 months old, but the brand already has major traction as an ecommerce startup. It looks like a DTC success story.
Benin, however, doesn’t see DTC as a viable standalone business model in 2022.
“There is no such thing as DTC anymore,” he says. Instead, he sees “the utilization of digital platforms to communicate and tell a story and be visually captivating, but all of that has to funnel into omnichannel purchasing environments.”
In that spirit, Benin has plans to ramp up Graza’s retail presence. Already stocked in Foxtrot and a variety of other shops, Graza will soon be available in new stores, including what Benin considers “the gold standard of retail.” (He declines to name names.)
One thing that’s not in the works: paid ads. Benin sees emails as more than sufficient for supporting Graza’s retail rollout. He plans to promote in-store launches and events with geo-targeted Klaviyo campaigns, social pushes, and…that’s it.
He’d rather build strong relationships with an organically growing customer base than adopt a “hyper-acquisition mindset,” he says.
There are plenty of signs that a mix of email marketing plus earned media from creators and design blogs like Dieline can drive Graza’s next phase of growth.
Just look at the “tagged” tab on Graza’s Instagram. Creators post Graza bottles for free, poised over oven-fresh pizza, or in design-centric kitchen photos. The chic bottles just fit in aspirational tableaus.
“I think the upfront investment in what you’re building visually is more important than it’s actually ever been,” Benin says. “Brand is alive.”