Marketing

How Fly by Jing went from Kickstarter to Shake Shack partner in a few years

“It’s never just been about a hot sauce that you can put on anything. It’s really about one person’s story and one person’s recipe that she developed in Sichuan,” founder Jing Gao told us.
article cover

Fly by Jing

· 4 min read

Since 2018, Jing Gao has been building an empire of Sichuan-inspired cuisine, starting with Fly by Jing’s famous Chili Crisp sauce and now including products like dumplings and hot-pot sets. In 2021, the brand’s revenue was reported as being “eight figures.”

We spoke with Gao about the marketing and branding tactics that have worked for the brand, how it’s retained and grown its customer base, and what’s coming up in 2023.

“Not traditional, but personal”

Packaging on Fly by Jing’s Chili Crisp jar reads, “Food by Jenny, who increasingly goes by her birth name, Jing, and was born in Chengdu but grew up everywhere and uses her experience as a trained chef to share meaningful flavors that open people up to new ideas and conversations.”

Gao told us that keeping her personal story and connection to the brand front and center has been key to connecting with customers. “It’s never just been about a hot sauce that you can put on anything. It’s really about one person's story and one person’s recipe that she developed in Sichuan,” she said.

The Kickstarter-era jar design for Chili Crisp did not include Gao's personal story. “When we first launched, my objective was really to create a design that made you look twice,” she said.

old Fly By Jing Chili Crisp jar versus new one

Kickstarter and Fly by Jing

When Gao realized there was a brand story to be told to those first encountering it on a shelf, she said it was time for a rebrand.

“Being very honest and open with our customers and talking to them like they’re friends and at our level, I think people really appreciate that,” she said.

It’s also helped the brand’s growth over the last four years, according to Gao. While the brand does some paid marketing on Meta platforms and TikTok, as well as influencer and affiliate marketing, Gao said that “word-of-mouth and organic marketing is largely how we’ve grown.”

“We’ve relied on organic traction since the beginning,” she said.

Go bold or go home

Fly by Jing is not a brand against boldness, as shown in its maximalist designs and campaigns. Last year, the brand announced it was starting a free OnlyFans account and planned to donate $1 per subscriber each month to organizations dedicated to supporting sex workers’ rights and safety.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.

While there is an “additional incremental value” in the earned media that often comes from things like shock-value campaigns, Jazlyn Patricio-Archer, head of brand at Fly by Jing, told us, “A lot of the things that keep the brand interesting, I think we do to partially entertain ourselves.” She pointed to a western-style shoot Fly by Jing did for its Xtra Spicy Chili Crisp release last year.

“When we plan a campaign, it can’t just be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be written up in some outlet.’ You can’t guarantee that,” Patricio-Archer said. She said that she’s more focused on if a campaign will convince someone to stop scrolling, click an email, or generate conversation.

Howdy, partner

Another tactic that’s worked well for Fly by Jing as part of its community-building strategy, according to Patricio-Archer, is partnering with other brands. In the last year, the brand has collaborated with fellow DTC food brand Fishwife, Disney, and the YouTube series Hot Ones.

On LinkedIn, Gao called the Hot Ones collaboration a “monumental achievement.” She told us that it’s been great for brand exposure and that getting on the show was in the works for about four years,” adding that “it’s the first time they had a chili oil on the lineup…so it definitely felt like a great moment for us.”

In 2022, Fly by Jing also partnered with Shake Shack in the UK on a Chili Crisp menu, which Gao said will be rolling out to all US locations this year. Fly by Jing also plans to “reinvent” its retention strategy this year, Patricio-Archer said. While it currently has a referral program and a loyalty program, she said “all of those things will fall away and take a completely new identity.”

As Fly by Jing grows, Gao said everything ultimately ties back to its Chili Crisp hero products and “helping to reinforce [the brand’s] core.”

That sense of identity ties back to Gao’s marketing advice to other DTC founders, which is defining the brand’s story. “Once you are clear on that, everything else is just the how, but you can’t get to the how without knowing the what. So start there.”

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

The email newsletter guaranteed to bring you the latest stories shaping the marketing and advertising world, like only the Brew can.