When asked about how Anecdote Candles came to be, Julie Maskula, the brand’s founder, says she always jokes that it was an accident — a side project that took off on its own.
What Maskula means by this is that the business grew from a creative outlet that paralleled her very real need for home fragrance with gentler ingredients. Plagued with frequent migraine headaches, she told WWD she was surprised to learn that the culprit was commercially made candles that she had placed throughout her apartment.
Ironically, the candles had been purchased initially in an attempt to create a relaxed home environment.
At the time, she explains, Maskula had been working for more than a decade as a strategy consultant at EY and IDEO, a Silicon Valley-based innovation consultancy. Within these roles, she led teams through the ins and outs of the design and innovation process, evolving early product concepts, building innovation labs and launching new business ventures.
In true form, Maskula quickly began doing market research on the candle space and started a bit of tinkering using deep fryers in her apartment kitchen to melt the wax. The practices she used then, ensuring all candles are hand-poured and use only natural ingredients with no additives, dyes or preservatives, continue today. The candle’s coconut-soy wax blend, cotton core wicks and premium phthalate-free fragrance oils create a clean burn and powerful scent throw that is delicate enough for like-minded sensitive home fragrance lovers.
Exploring fragrance combinations, she said, lead her mind to wander, considering what her candles smelled like, often linking the smell to a memory.
“I started really playing around with it more; it was really a creative outlet,” Maskula said. “Then I would say, ‘This set of amber really reminds me of that midcentury modern coffee bar I go to in San Francisco,’ and it just kind of became this way of playing with a second story.”
The brand building and the storytelling, she said, were organic.
“The first few anecdotes were just funny,” Maskula said. “But I think early on, when I started working at a design agency, storytelling always seemed like marketing. It was selling and sales-y, which isn’t me. But in my last job, I learned that storytelling is about creating really meaningful connections. So when we’re able to create a product with one sentence that tells customers as they leave it, you know, that makes customers feel seen or that this candle gets me like that means we did it well.”
In building out what the Anecdote brand would be, she said, she discovered that what makes a good candle is making it relevant and relatable but not too specific or referencing a trend but not copying it.
“The humor itself like that actually was just kind of also a happy accident,” Maskula said. In fact, while originally the candles had just a name, like “Quarterlife Crisis,” through observing consumers at pop-up shops, Maskula told WWD she saw that people were more drawn to the funny signs she had created, which further explained that the candle “smells like all panic and no disco.”
Walking away from the pop-ups, Maskula said she was going to invest more in the brand and design. Now, both a name and witty description are displayed on Anecdote candles.
“It was a time to see what works,” she said. “Now, it sounds like a no-brainer, but at the time, as someone who’s kind of quiet and had worked in a very professional setting and was maybe quietly reprimanded for my humor at times, it was a super easy ‘aha’ moment, where I learned that people actually want us to be a little bit bolder and more provocative.”
Acknowledging that Anecdote candles are a very simple product at the end of the day, Maskula said she knows they are not the only candle company out there or even the only candle company that puts something funny on its label. Still, she said, “we do try to go about it from a lens of humor, but also nuance and we play that line, also incorporating aesthetics to it.”
The brand leaves room for interpretation so that people can make it their own experience.
“I think that’s important when you think about what is in your home, and it’s a chance to express yourself in this statement piece on your coffee table that represents you,” Maskula said. “And ironically, we get told all the time from customers, ‘Oh wow, I had no idea it smelled so good — just bought it for the label.’”
As odd as it may seem for a fragrance company to succeed, where the fragrance is noticed as a secondary element by the consumer, it also makes sense that branding should lead when the consumer journey is being lead online, as it has been for the past few years.
“They’re not going to be able to smell it through their screens,” Maskula joked. “For us, it was kind of an interesting time to have a business’ first full year in 2020. At that time, most of our business was wholesale and we found that a lot of our retailers knew that the product would sell online. But because we were online [without that in-store experience], we were worried that ultimately that wholesale business was going to go away.”
Instead, the business with retailers increased, with partners finding Anecdote was selling online without having to do a lot of consumer education — for consumers, the story told by the candles was just clicking. Among the company’s retail partners today are Nordstrom, Anthropologie, Paper Source, Indigo Canada, and more than 600 independent boutiques throughout the U.S. and Canada. As with selling in pop-ups in the early days, Maskula said the business learned from selling with large retailers and made adjustments such as including a lid on certain items and creating gift sets.
Having gotten her start working in ventures where companies are started with a problem and solution, looking for the whitespace, Maskula told WWD that while she will always see the merit in that because it causes entrepreneurs to be thoughtful, she’s also grateful that Anecdote “was created in accident, because I was able to take the time to learn and process those learnings before I was really accountable to any type of measures of success that may or may not have been true. Even with the brand itself, we didn’t spend a lot on marketing or even our initial branding, and we were able to make those investments later once we knew what we were offering.”
When you start small, she said, “you don’t necessarily have a ceiling, but you’re also working in the constraints that you aren’t aware of that actually make it valuable. It was a good way for me to pick a lane and focus on it until I had what you would call proof of concept.”
In the future, Maskula says there’s a lot that can be done with stories through Anecdote with candles and beyond. Part of this is Anecdote’s recently launched custom offering to help corporate companies put their own stories out into the world. The company has increasingly been creating collaboration exclusives, with many collections for consumers to be excited about coming in 2023.
Maskula said she’s particularly excited about the collaborations to come out of working with retailers who each have a unique consumer and base pricing strategy. “We’ll be navigating that piece with them,” she said. “It’s almost working together on a concept from scratch. We’ve built our own stories, and now we’ll have a piece of the story for others.”