New DTC toolkit   //   May 11, 2023

‘People wanted to talk about waitlists’: How a supply chain bottleneck helped DTC AC brand Windmill go viral

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For most brands, going to market only being able to sell a few hundred units because of supply chain headaches sounds like a nightmare. But for Windmill, which sells both air conditioners and HVAC filters, this turned into marketing gold.

The company first launched in the summer of 2020. “[We] had a really awesome launch plan for 2020 that we had to scrap,” said co-founder Mike Mayer. “And so we couldn’t get units from the factory to the U.S., just given all the complications in the supply chain.” This made it so that the company had to build a waitlist.

It’s not the cleanest way to launch a brand and a business,” Mayer said on the Modern Retail Podcast. “But it did sort of stir up some buzz.” Many media outlets wrote about the multi-thousand-person waitlist. And when the products were finally ready to ship to customers’ homes many months later, that led to even more coverage.

It’s been a few years since then, and Windmill has continued to grow. The company saw sales triple between 2022 and 2021, and just this year has expanded into HVAC air filters. With this growth, the business and marketing has gotten more nuanced. For one, Windmill — which began as a DTC brand — has expanded into new sales channels. Its available at the Home Depot and P.C. Richards, and will launch online at Lowe’s later this summer.

What’s more, Windmill has begun investing more heavily in advertising. It no longer just relies on word of mouth or digital campaigns. For example, it’s investing more in TV. It’s a difficult formula to master, said Mayer, as Windmill makes a product that most people don’t usually think of as branded.

“The magic that we bring to this category is we have a brand [and] we have a personality in everything that we do,” Mayer said. “TV is no different.”

With the summer on the horizon, Windmill has plans to introduce more people to its products. It also has some new products it’s going to unveil. “There’s a lot more to come from Windmill and from us,” Mayer said. “We’re really excited.”

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

Using a waitlist to generate buzz
“We stumbled upon that insight by accident. It was not my choice to have a waitlist — [that for] the first few hundred people that signed up we would ship a unit to, and then the rest we were like, ‘Sorry, we just literally don’t have units — but you can preorder for next year.’ I didn’t want to do that. It’s not the cleanest way to launch a brand and a business. But it did sort of stir up some buzz. And… we sort of stumbled upon this big insight that people wanted to talk about waitlists. Like, that was a thing. And we got a few articles literally just saying: ‘The AC company that has 10,000 people on their waitlist is finally launching.’ So we did use that to our advantage.”

Windmill’s distribution strategy
“Our strategy going in was always to be omnichannel. DTC basically means you have a website, and you can sell your product on your website — that’s only one piece of the distribution puzzle, especially in this category. Because a lot of people want to go to a trusted retailer to buy an appliance like this. I think that it’s changing with marketplaces and sort of the evolution of ecomm. But, still, people want to go in-store. They trust Lowe’s or Home Depot.”

What works in TV advertising
“We started [testing TV] in March and April last year, and it didn’t really get hot until mid-May. And so I’ll tell you what didn’t work was spending a lot on TV, when it’s not hot outside, for a window air conditioner. And what did work was, one, targeting. We did target the young, professional millennial in urban areas — although that was a little bit more costly. But conversion was solid. And another thing that was interesting was that we got per-channel data. And so HGTV — you know, it sounds intuitive; people that are thinking about their homes, and they want to watch renovations — they gravitated toward our product more than some other channels. ESPN, for example, didn’t convert.”