When Dan Lourenco and Ryan Hughes started GHOST, they wanted to build something with authenticity at its core, not a fake version of fitness. Today, GHOST is one of the fastest growing brands in the industry across a multitude of categories. I sat down with Dan and Ryan to learn about their unique approach to brand building and how GHOST convinced brands like Chips Ahoy to work with them early on.
Dave Knox: What is GHOST and how are you different than other sports nutrition products on the market?
Dan Lourenco: When we first launched GHOST back in 2016, we set out to create what we called the ‘first lifestyle sports nutrition brand’. At the time, the industry was very bodybuilding focused. We wanted to go and build a brand for everybody that was accessible and authentic and that just told the truth. No matter of your specific fitness or physique goal, the science is generally the same. The products – although there are nuances and small differences between them – are kind of comparable in a lot of ways so we wanted to focus on building a brand and a product that was accessible and appropriate for everyone.
Ryan Hughes: Dan and I come from a very different background, but we worked for two very large brands in the space. And truthfully, we just wanted to have some fun. And the funny thing about entrepreneurship and success in a lot of ways is you don’t start something like this, or go on this journey as an entrepreneur for success. You do it out of pure passion for what you’re doing. The two of us being good friends prior to this, we wanted to have some fun and we wanted to do it together. And fast forward six years, one of the most challenging things is talking about the success of the brand because that was never a conversation early on. The coolest part about GHOST is everything that Dan just alluded to was the vision and the goal for this next chapter of our life. And to see it come to life and see how many people it’s impacted and what we’ve done at a global scale is incredibly cool. And the best part about that is we’re still having that same fun that we started back in 2016.
Lourenco: At the end of the day, we wanted to take that experience of going to the gym and taking supplements or playing a sport, whatever it was, with your buddies and simply do that at scale. That was a very big departure from the ‘fake perfection’ in sports nutrition when we first launched, where everybody ‘had perfect abs’ and ‘ate chicken breast all day’ and didn’t actually ‘live’. We know that’s not what any of these people were actually doing when the cameras are off. We wanted to create a lifestyle brand where the marketing was essentially ‘no marketing’ and to change that culture and that is really what you see in the market today with GHOST.
Knox: Licensing has been at the core of the GHOST brand. What led you down that path and how did you end up working with brands like Chips Ahoy?
Lourenco: It’s been the most fun and humbling experience to work with brands like Chips Ahoy, Oreo, Swedish Fish, and Warheads. Ryan and I are big sneaker guys and if you think about sneakers, there’s a huge passionate community behind them and it’s a hugely collaborative industry and that’s something that we really wanted to bring to the world of sports nutrition.
On flavors, in sports nutrition, you use to really just have chocolate and vanilla. The number one question people would ask is, “Well, what does it taste like? Does it taste good?” By working with these brands everyone knows and loves, we could answer those questions instantly and credibly through partnering on flavors. We were able to bring familiarity and approachability to everything that we’re doing and instantly broaden who might be interested in our products. Our vision was always to formulate and innovate for the 1%, but build the brand, the marketing, the message, the flavors for the 99%. And I think that balancing act is really the secret to any success that we’ve had so far.
Knox: What brand was the first to give you a shot with this new approach to flavors in sports nutrition?
Lourenco: The very first licensed product in sports nutrition was Warheads Sour Watermelon GHOST Pre-Workout in December 2016. All the brands that we spoke to understood what we were trying to do. They understood Ryan and me. They understood the vision. They appreciated the approach and the conversation. But the thing that we had to overcome honestly was kind of the taboos of the industry at large, because if you Googled pre-workout at that point, you didn’t see or hear this attitude in this conversation we’re having now. It was that 1%. It was that bodybuilder, that veins-on-veins marketing that didn’t apply to any of these brands and our target audiences.
We had to overcome that and say, “Yes, I know that’s what you see on the market right now, but GHOST is taking it in a brand new direction.” The people actually using the products are not what you saw on the ads or social media at that time, it was so much broader and that’s what we wanted to double down on.
Knox: So if I look at the mantra of GHOST, it’s “be seen.” How did you use that as this catalyst to go beyond that 1% and really bring in all these different industries to what you guys are doing?
Lourenco: Well, the name GHOST first and foremost really comes from Ryan and I previously being behind the scenes of some pretty big players in the space. And when you’re part of a big organization, it’s not always your vision or way of doing things that gets on the shelf. That’s just a reality. We thought that would resonate with everyone that wants to be seen and be heard and make an impact.
If you look at what we’ve tried to put out and publish from a content and product perspective, although we do partner with some really big names, if you look at our social media, that’s not clearly not the focus. You see a lot of ‘micro influencers’, you see a lot of fans. Again, we wanted to build a brand for everybody and that’s really where the “be seen” mantra comes into this – this is the people’s brand in the coolest of ways.
Hughes: As Dan said, it’s not necessarily even the literal meaning of “be seen.” It’s be heard, it’s making an impact. I think everybody wants to feel like they’re a part of something. And the idea behind GHOST was to give people a brand that they could feel, that sense of I’m a part of this brand. I have a role or a small piece in product formulation, or my feedback is listened to. Some of our products actually have been ideated in the comments of our social media, which I think is something that we’re super proud of. A lot of the different categories and stuff that we’re in today, Dan and I never even talked about that when we were talking about launching this brand. And it’s the community that kind of presented those ideas to us and we took them back and ran with them. And some of those products are now the products I use every day. So, it’s a cool story. And I think the message behind that is a real one.
Knox: You both started your career at big brands where they talk about community, but ultimately it’s tough for them to give up control. How did you rewire yourselves with GHOST to give that control up to your community in such a big way?
Lourenco: You have to get comfortable as an entrepreneur that you own your company, but you don’t own your brand. And one of the coolest things for us is every time we see a fan, a customer, a team member internally, they say OUR brand. They talk about GHOST as though they own it, and that’s special. There’s probably some insecure entrepreneurs out there that would hate that but for us, that’s the most special and most rewarding part of the whole story.
Hughes: Yeah. I mean the use of the word” our”, whether it’s internal or external, whether it’s a fan that’s commenting on our social media or somebody that’s designing our labels internally, it’s probably the biggest compliment you can receive as an entrepreneur and a brand owner.
Knox: How does GHOST build on your success for the next 5 years and beyond?
Lourenco: The goal for GHOST from here is really to create the ‘Nike of active nutrition’. There has been a lot of one-hit product companies out there but I think what makes our vision unique and so differentiated is that we want to cover all the bases of product categories. The common denominator is the brand of GHOST whether its powdered sports nutrition, pre-workout, protein, greens, or our energy drinks. We’re trying to do all of those things in efficacious, innovative, and authentic ways. And really that’s where I think we want to go in a long term. And that’s the vision for the next five years for me.
Hughes: If you look back, Dan and I sat down to have a conversation about the first five years. And of course, you’ve got product plans and stuff like that, but in a lot of ways we didn’t really have an overarching plan. I think the plan was we wanted to challenge how big we could grow a brand like this while staying true to the initial vision and having fun. And for me the next five years is a lot of the same. I think we want to continue to challenge how big and how much of an impact we can make as a brand and as a company in as many different categories as possible while still staying true to everything that makes GHOST what it is.
Lourenco: It’s incredibly important to us to never forget why we made the leap in the first place. And it’s also incredibly important to us to never forget where GHOST came from. When we first launched this brand, we had two products – a pre-workout and amino acids. We didn’t even have protein powder. Why? Because we couldn’t freaking afford it. That simple. And look, in a day and age where the conversations are dominated among entrepreneurs with cap raises and series A and series B and whatever, for us, it was never about that. It was always about this ‘brick-by-brick’ mindset of building a brand and building a community and building products that everyone starting with ourselves, know and love, and just seeing how far we can take that without sacrificing on any of those things.