When Freddy Ward co-founded Wild, its natural deodorant ‘didn’t really work’. Now its efficacy has won a legion of loyal followers across 10 markets
Freddy Ward was in a sweat. It was lockdown 2020 and Wild, the refillable deodorant startup he’d co-founded, was getting short on supplies. Under the newly introduced Covid restrictions, “the supply chain just broke”, he says.
“We were tiny; we didn’t have any credibility with our suppliers.” And that’s why it found itself without enough baking soda – a common ingredient in natural deodorants like Wild’s.
The day was saved by asking a favour of a much larger rival. “One weekend we called, I think it was the COO at Lush, and said, ‘do you have any baking soda we could borrow?’” Ward recalls.
That was just one nerve-jangling instance “of moments where you have to be very entrepreneurial, and kind of solve problems and try whatever you can to make some products”, he says.
That incident was particularly nerve-wracking, given it was just months into Wild’s existence. The brand had made its debut in summer 2019 as a DTC player, the brainchild of Ward and his lifelong friend Charlie Bowes-Lyon.
They had noticed “refillable products beginning to take off”, says Ward. “We really felt that sustainability was a pervasive trend playing out across all sectors and all parts of society, and that was going to be the future of any brand or product that we wanted to create.”
Having decided “there was a real gap in the market for a high-quality, natural deodorant”, their first, self-funded range comprised four stick deodorants in 100% recyclable plastic and four refillable roll-ons.
Name: Freddy Ward
Job title: Co-founder & CEO, Wild
Marital status: Married with two children
Potted CV: Started selling Firefly soft drinks to cafés around London. Joined HelloFresh UK as a sales intern in 2012 and went on to run its marketing
Business mantra: Do one thing well
Business idol: I heard Nick Wheeler, founder of [menswear retailer] Charles Tyrwhitt, speak the other day and found his story very inspiring
Hobbies/interests: Whenever my co-founder [Charlie] and I have a disagreement, we like to settle it on the tennis court – and he is not very good at tennis
Favourite album: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac
The launch was an educational experience. “We learned that we weren’t very good at making deodorant but there was demand for the product if we could get it right,” says Ward. “It just didn’t really work, was the problem. The formulation wasn’t very good.”
A drastic rethink was necessary. By February 2020, Wild had raised £500k of seed capital to launch natural refill deodorants, ahead of an April relaunch that would introduce reusable aluminium cases with biodegradable stick refills.
“We put more investment into the R&D, making the product better and putting in this refillable element, which was always the area we wanted to go.”
The effect on Wild’s fortunes was “transformational”, Ward says. “It really captured people’s imagination.” So much so that the new deodorants made £1m in their first three months – which were, of course, also the first months of lockdown and the online shopping boom.
“We got a bit lucky with the timing,” he admits. “Sustainability came to the forefront as people realised how fragile our world and environment can be.”
Driving sustainability in personal care is at the core of Wild’s mission. This year, it expects to keep 280 tonnes of plastic out of the waste stream. But balancing this ambition with sales can be tricky, Ward admits.
“One of the big challenges for Wild is being sustainable but also appealing to enough people,” he says. “And that’s where we’re trying to play. Wild is not trying to be the most sustainable business in the world. What we’re trying to be is when you put us up against Dove, Nivea or Sure, you can categorically say the Wild product is better for the planet and better for your body.”
To help relay its sustainability message as widely as possible, Wild has undertaken an omnichannel approach. It first raised awareness of its DTC offer through “a bit of online marketing… and word of mouth”, says Ward, a former HelloFresh marketeer.
The brand’s high street debut followed in May 2021, with a listing in Sainsbury’s. The brand is now also in Tesco, Waitrose, Holland & Barrett and Boots.
This staggered approach to establishing channels was deliberate, Ward says. “From day one, we always wanted to be an omnichannel business. It was better to learn, refine the product, build an audience and grow online and then leverage that into retail than trying to do both at once.”
Wild continues to refine its omnichannel approach – insomuch as it offers limited-edition refills to appeal to different retailers. “We’ve launched Candy Floss for Superdrug and Elderflower & Cucumber into Boots,” he explains. “We’re tailoring fragrances to the different shoppers and having quite a lot of fun with it.”
It helps that the retailers are supportive of Wild’s playfulness. “They’ve really been open to innovation, they’ve been open to our mission, and we’ve really enjoyed working with a lot of them.”
Still, Wild’s fortunes have not been entirely sweet-smelling. Like most exporting businesses, it’s had to tackle the stink of Brexit – which “made our life a lot more difficult”, says Ward.
“We had six to nine months of really bad customer experience and ongoing problems with customs and clearing products and all those types of things. There was no process and no understanding of what post-Brexit would look like.” It could be worse, though, he concedes. “I’m very glad we aren’t in food.”
He’s also pragmatic about the post-pandemic decline in DTC across retail. “It’s definitely got a little bit harder. But Covid was a very unnatural environment for growth, and it’s really returning a little bit to kind of normality.”
For Wild, normality is about 50% of online shoppers as subscribers – which “gives you very reliable repeat revenue you can use to then scale the business”.
And scaled it has, in all sorts of ways. Wild is now in 10 markets around the globe, with Australia imminent. The deodorants have been joined by plastic-free bar soap and shampoo bars, as well as a refillable bodywash range. Turnover was £26.5m last year; it’s on track to nearly double that to about £50m this year. That pace of growth helped close a £5m funding round in February 2022 – led by VC fund JamJar Investments – and bag the Health & Beauty Brand of the Year title at the 2023 Grocer Gold Awards.
Complete domination of the nation’s bathrooms is the next key focus. “There are lots of products that currently use plastic and non-natural formulations that we would like to explore. The big focus for us over the next six months is really making these products work.
“And once you solve liquids, you have a lot of opportunity to move into haircare, moisturisers, sun creams. That’s a really exciting part of the vision.”