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Meet This Week’s Meaning Maker: Harry Young, Airhead Co-Founder

Harry Young and his co-founders are on a mission to reduce your exposure to air pollution. Earlier this year, they launched Airhead, a next-level air pollution mask, on Kickstarter. Combining a brilliant product, smart positioning and true community-building, Airhead’s Kickstarter campaign raised an impressive £315,511. 

Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with Harry, Alex and Elliot to bring the Airhead brand to life. To say we’re inspired by their story so far is an understatement. That’s why, when it comes to telling your most compelling Product Story, we couldn’t think of a better team to learn from.

Let’s start with your hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. What did the experience teach you about product storytelling?

To succeed on Kickstarter, we had to form a connection with people we didn’t know and build trust. Originally, we were generating leads through social media advertising. By telling the story of our progress to date, we then connected with our audience on an emotional level. After that, we had to demonstrate exactly what we’d done from a product development and technical perspective to show how the Airhead pollution mask would actively benefit them. 

Yes, we tell jokes, we’re fun and we try to understand your hopes, dreams and fears in life, not just in the context of pollution. But we’ve also worked with experts at Brunel University to develop a product that’s highly effective and genuinely different to other pollution masks out there. We had to find that balance between being engaging and establishing credibility. 

We also learned a lot about being honest and transparent about who we are and our journey so far. 

Rather than pretending we were this big corporation, we shared that we were three guys, living together in lockdown, who are probably quite similar to a lot of our customers. 

Making our story relatable was a huge driver for us. After the campaign, our customers said they felt like they knew us and loved that we were open to feedback. We took our customers seriously by listening to them and what they actually wanted.

What practical advice can you give to your fellow startup founders about gathering customer feedback? 

In the early stages, we tried to make it feel like people were joining a true community. It wasn’t a very well defined community in the beginning, but people knew they were joining a group who all have something in common: caring about air pollution. 

As our community grew, we started interacting with them more, predominantly via email and surveys.They found it valuable when we asked them what they wanted and what they thought. We sent surveys about their favourite and least favourite things about our product, what specific things they would change, and what colours they’d like to see.

We allowed our audience to genuinely make a difference about the product they’d receive – we’re building Airhead for them and with them. 

With the colours, for example, people voted and chose their favourite ones and that informed what we ended up going with. It was all done digitally, but it was powerful. 

Post-Kickstarter, the work we’ve done with Make Us Care has involved focus groups and 1:1 interviews – it was so valuable to better understand what people want, what they actually think and what they’re worried about. Everyone gets worried about all sorts of different things and if we can uncover those worries and do something to help, that’s a big win. 

When you’re tackling a subject as scary as air pollution, how did you find the right balance between stating the important facts without fear mongering? 

We went on a journey to understand what spoke most to our audience 

There are approximately 8.8 million people dying prematurely from air pollution every year. It’s a shocking figure. That’s 16 people every minute, but it’s hard for most people to relate to that statistic, unless they’ve been directly affected by it. It’s an abstract number that people will put down as happening to ‘someone else’ rather than them.

Even if you bring it down to the UK, where 64,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year – it’s a bit more relevant, but it still won’t fully get the message across. 

It’s a tricky balance between getting attention and being too morbid. What we’ve learned is that air pollution affects all sorts of things in your everyday life and that’s what will get people more emotionally invested in the topic. An example could be your concentration being impacted at work because you’ve had particularly high exposure to pollution that day. There’s research that directly links air pollution to workplace productivity, reducing it by up to 6%. 

Equally, air pollution has also been shown to reduce the sports performance of professional athletes and, by implication, everyone else. People care about their fitness levels. There are clear links between air pollution and dementia, as well. A lot of people can relate to that, if they’ve got grandparents, for example, who have been affected. We also compared air pollution to smoking and that was also quite shocking and easier for people to put into context. With statistics like these, people can start understanding why they need to protect themselves. 

You don’t want to bombard people with negativity. You want to outline the seriousness, but tell them that they can live a healthier life if they make changes. And that’s not just through wearing a mask, either. Through the work we’ve done with Make Us Care, we’re trying to encourage more people to get active through cycling, running and walking which will only have positive effects for individual health and the environment.

Ultimately, it’s about approaching the problem in a positive way, with your product being part of the solution. 

Lastly, what advice would you give your younger self about telling your Product Story? 

Be transparent, be honest and really listen. With our Kickstarter product development phases, it’s been so important to be transparent about any failures, setbacks and progress. 

It’s easy to quickly acknowledge any wins and move on, but we’ve tried to pause and celebrate them – as a team, but also communicating them to existing and potential customers. 

Also, be open to feedback. Don’t be afraid to hear negative things about the product you’re creating. Don’t be too stubborn, either. You can think one thing, but the most important thing is the people who are buying it.

What you think at the very start of launching your product might be a good idea and have legs, but it also might not. It’s all about being open to changing if external feedback comes in – whether it’s about the colour, mask straps or otherwise. 

We’ve learned to not be too set in our ways because feedback leads to good ideas and an even better product.  

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Bianca Bass
Bianca Bass

Bianca is a Marketing and Communications Director who combines strategy with storytelling to build brands, reach new audiences and create impactful campaigns.

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