Seed co-CEO Ara Katz on Building a Brand During COVID and Using Instagram for Consumer Education

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s “Marketing Risks Worth Taking” series, an ongoing forum with marketing leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality.

As co-founder of microbial sciences company Seed Health, Ara Katz has changed the way thousands of people think about their bodies and health. During COVID-19, as conversations around personal health have taken on a new urgency, Ara has seen firsthand the importance of company communications in shaping consumer beliefs—and her insights have shaped Seed’s response.

Ara’s personal history intrigues: she’s been an independent film producer, has been named to Marie Claire’s Most Influential Women list, has decades of experience in direct-to-consumer marketing, and can stake claim to having day-to-day communication with leading science communicators. Therefore, Ara is an exciting addition to Mission North’s ongoing series about how marketers are adapting to our new reality. We talked about building a brand strategy during COVID-19, how Instagram has become the newest education platform, and why consumers look to companies for education and inspiration. Our Q&A, below, has been edited for length.

As a consumer health company, what informed your brand strategy during the COVID-19 crisis?

As the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis became inescapable, we thought deeply about how we could show up for our ecosystem. One of the most critical observations during this period has been the deprioritization of science and the ineffective ways that it is communicated to the public. We felt that this was an opportunity to double down on how science is communicated—to empower people to make sense of headlines, have the tools to decipher misinformation, and ask better questions.

In early March, we made the decision to pause paid advertising on our products and orient ourselves around service—our operations teams tapped our global supply chains to help source PPE for first responders in need, our care teams focused on ensuring minimal disruptions to our customers, and our marketing and scientific translation teams dedicated resources to one of the most meaningful missions of our work—education. From our ongoing translation of the science behind COVID-19 to our five-week #LearnFromHome science course built entirely on Instagram, it’s been especially meaningful for our team to work on these efforts, and we’ve continued to validate our hypothesis that science communication requires evolution.

Fascinating. How did you come to the decision to pause all of your paid advertising across social channels? 

As COVID-19 consumed our lives, we saw flagrant opportunism around products and brands claiming to be “immune boosting” or “coronavirus-preventing’ without any scientific evidence. At a time when consumers are feeling especially anxious and vulnerable, we feel it’s especially critical to remain integrous to science, and did not want anyone to misconstrue or misinterpret what they may or may need for their health. 

What is the #LearnFromHome initiative and what inspired it?

This pandemic has transformed our world and challenged everything we thought we knew, but it has also reinforced one critical truth: the importance of science, and the ineffective ways that it gets communicated to the public. As a company that believes deeply in the translation, communication, and empowerment of science, we’ve committed ourselves to the accessibility of scientific education, and we asked ourselves—how can we show up and help bring some clarity during this time? And how could we use the social media platforms that everybody is already using to make science feel relevant?

We invited our community (and the greater public) to #LearnFromHome with us, launching The Story of You—a five-week, five-chapter science course built entirely on Instagram. Throughout the course, we digitally traverse our 4-billion-year history with microbes to better understand this complex, invisible world around and within us—and how it impacts and informs our health and our future.

At a time when the entire world is focused on a single, pathogenic microbe, it’s important we remember that 99% of microbes are harmless to us, and many are in fact important. 

How have customers and followers responded to your new strategy of education-focused content? Do you have any data or anecdotal feedback of note?

The response has been incredible. On launch day, we saw a more than 1,300% increase in Instagram follower growth compared to our normal growth rate, with participation and engagement from influencers like Karlie Kloss and Sophia Bush. 

On launch day, we saw a more than 1,300% increase in Instagram follower growth compared to our normal growth rate, with participation and engagement from influencers like Karlie Kloss and Sophia Bush.

In the first 24 hours after the first part of the course went live, almost 10,000 people started the course, almost 3,000 completed the entire 100-“frame” chapter, and more than 900 went on to complete the chapter quiz. As users engaging with the content continue to share to their respective communities, these numbers are continuing to grow day-over-day.

To see how many people engaged, actually retained what they read, DMed us back intriguing follow-up questions, and then took a quiz (which wasn’t easy) to demonstrate what they had learned—it radically evolves the potential of social media platforms like Instagram to educate and change the way science is communicated. 

The enthusiasm for this initiative shows how relevant science can be across the board—from articles in Hypebae to Fast Company; from Karlie Kloss to hardcore microbiologists. Some of my favorite comments are from parents, who say, “I’m showing it to my kids who are doing homeschool right now, and they say this course is so much more approachable than school.”