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How ThirdLove’s Risk-Taking Now Drives One Third of the Bra Brand’s Business

Like most creators of today’s successful direct-to-consumer brands, ThirdLove co-founder and co-CEO Heidi Zak set out to solve a problem she herself experienced: finding a bra that suited her in-between-cup-sizes shape and was comfortable enough for all-day wear without sacrificing a little bit of style. On top of that, she wanted intimates companies to market to her in a way that was less sex kitten and more “I am woman, hear me roar.”

The former Googler and Aéropostale alum was determined to make what she couldn’t find in the market, enlisting expert bra designer Ra’el Cohen to set about re-imaging what the intimates staple could be. True to her Mountain View, Calif., background, Zak put data at the core of what would become ThirdLove, gathering troves of customer fit information that would be instrumental in building the algorithm-powered Fit Finder that now helps scores of women discover their best-fitting size. “Constantly evolving,” the Fit Finder improves each time a customer uses it, feeding off each input—from purchasing patterns to keep and return rates—to become even more accurate in offering up the right size suggestion the first time, Zak told attendees at the WWD Digital Forum in New York City.

Now, that algorithm is central to ThirdLove’s business, Zak noted. “We use the data we collect to plan inventory, and the Fit Finder can act as a leading indicator for how we should be thinking about planning by size and style,” she said, noting that true to her initial vision, the brand’s bestseller is the 24/7 T-shirt Bra.

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Early on, Zak’s team discovered during fit testing that many women’s breasts ended up between cup sizes—more than a B but not quite a C, for example. That’s when Zak realized that half cups could be a game-changer for the masses. There was pushback from manufacturers, of course, who said Zak was crazy for even entertaining the idea, that it would be far too costly and others had tried and failed before.

Zak’s persistence paid off, however, as half-cup sizes account for a third of the brand’s business, she noted. “And I’m a half cup, which is probably why I could never find a bra that fit,” she said. “Through listening to the data and listening to customers, we saw the need.”

In June, ThirdLove rolled out 24 new sizes—the ones customers most frequently requested over the past 23 months, Zak said, and would help more women feel included rather than left out with now more than 70 sizes to choose from. The brand took pains to consider the specific needs of each size, as “size-specific product development” is an approach many apparel brands sidestep, she pointed out.

While companies tend to focus on their customers, Zak said it’s equally important to look at the data left behind by the would-be customers who didn’t quite work out. Returns data remains one of the most valuable and accessible areas of insight—and can help a brand to iterate on its products and create more hits than misses. “Who are all these people who paid us money, and we didn’t deliver in some way?” Zak said.

Though ThirdLove tries to be inclusive of many types of customers, Zak said she realized the company had missed the mark when she read a note from a 50something customer who felt that women her age were excluded based on the brand’s marketing and imagery. That moment was a wake-up call, Zak said, and that customer, Hope, became a “guiding force” for the brand-new “To Each, Her Own” campaign that just took over select New York City subway stations starting Sept. 10. “It’s diversity not just in ethnicity and shape but also what I would call life stage,” Zak said, adding that ThirdLove wanted to fully represent its teenager-to-octogenarian customer base.

ThirdLove—which in its early days leveraged a try-before-you-buy tactic to encourage prospects to take the plunge—takes its name from the idea of creating a third option, Zak explained. “So, B and C cup—creating the B-and-a-half. Comfort and style—creating the blend. Creating that third love.”