Why the Perfect Customers Swipe Right
By Eric Harrison
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s as easy to find a romantic partner as it is to order DoorDash. 30 percent of U.S. adults say they have used a dating site or app; the endless number of match-making apps packed with limitless amounts of potential mates has forever altered the expectation that dating requires human interaction. In the competitive market for daters’ attention, and with all apps more-or-less equally convenient, differentiation is essential.
For most platforms, that means resorting to the tried-and-true model of tweaking product features. Feel strongly about a partner’s Jewish identity? Get on Jdate. Seeking a long-term partner? Try Match.com. Looking for a country-roots companion? Join FarmersOnly.com. More open-minded individuals? There’s always Throuple. No matter how intricate the personality, there’s a dating app for everyone.
Almost all of these apps rely on the basic mechanism of “swiping right” to pair with potential dates. For that, they can thank the 2012 launch of Tinder. When Tinder entered the online dating market it was already crowded, but fast-forward nine years and Tinder has grown to over 57 million users, reports direct revenue of $1.4 billion… and has a brand so poorly regarded all but the least-discerning user would swipe left.
The right brand story articulates what makes an organization unique and connects it to individual users. A company’s values, while derivative of the story, are how that identity is experienced every day: it signals to employees how to act, sets expectations for customers and users, and is the undercurrent to each decision that influences the brand’s reputation. This is especially vital for marketplace brands such as Tinder, who rely on values to attract a specific profile of users—who in turn draws in others hoping to match with them. Statements such as “we are human and honest” may sound great on the company’s website, but when compared to how Tinder actually lives its story, the brand comes off as hypocritical.
Even the most established companies who are not able to differentiate through a unique technology or service must not deviate from the values which define their brand—when they do, it creates the ultimate opportunity for a competitor. In a market with laughably low barriers to entry, such as dating apps, the cost of ignored values is strong: competitors powered by purpose who win the hearts of the incumbent’s consumers.
It is for this reason every happy Bumble user owes a debt of gratitude to Sean Rad and Justin Mateen.
Tinder’s founding follows a narrative similar to many fast-growing social platforms. Rad and Mateen, both friends, knew there was a market for a dating platform that targeted young adults. Tinder grew out of another project they were working on, Cardify, whose user interface was the origin of the “swiping” mechanism. As the early version of the app began to take form under the name MatchBox, a campaign to target college campuses for early growth was developed. Mateen has successfully tapped into the Greek system for growth at a previous company; he “knew that if it were to resonate with college kids who were already in a very socially charged environment, that other people would find value in the product as well.”
As the user base grew, so did the team. Rad and Mateen eventually added additional team members, one of which included Whitney Wolfe, who served as the VP of Marketing. It was after her launch that MatchBox became Tinder, a name for which at least some early employees assign her credit. Wolfe focused on building usership by visiting campus sorority and fraternity houses—signing up women first, correctly intuiting that the men would follow. As she invested more in growing the brand, she entered what became a tumultuous relationship with Mateen and began being identified as a co-founder in press accounts of the company. When their relationship deteriorated, she looked to make her leave of Tinder. She offered to resign with a severance and vesting of her stock, but Rad fired her instead—stripping her of her title.
The details of what caused her to walk away from the company she had helped build from nothing became public when Wolfe filed a $1 million sexual harassment lawsuit against Tinder and its two founders. In addition to stripping her co-founder title, Wolfe also exposed the explicit text messages sent to her by Rad and Mateen that were later used as evidence in court. Rad and Mateen consistently avoided publicizing Whitney Wolfe’s involvement with the brand, claiming “(she) makes the company look like it was an accident” and “a girl founder” devalued the company. No matter the personal relationship between Wolfe and Mateen, the messages exposed a company culture that violated every publicly espoused value of Tinder.
It’s bad enough that the company’s founders ignored the values they claimed to hold so dear. The cost of this nasty behavior and the way the company publicly lambasted Wolfe went beyond her experience at work: it signaled to Tinder’s male users the company’s values were optional, and assented to their embrace misogynistic attitudes. Women who engage with the app are both sexually harassed and abused. The number of users who are report cases of sexual misconduct on Tinder is growing at increasing rates—causing similar sites to ban partial nudity and explicit language all together. Brands can not hold their customers—or employees or partners or anyone else—to a higher standards than they are willing to hold themselves.
The totality of Wolfe’s experience—what she felt at work and what she saw in the user base—caused her to realize that Tinder’s disinterest in delivering on the values that had attracted many of its users had left a massive opportunity in the market: the number of dating platforms was infinite, but each was skewed to focus on men.
Less than a year after departing Tinder, Wolfe launched Bumble—a dating app made by women, for women. In just seven years, the company has grown to more than 100 million users, and Wolfe is a billionaire based on equity in the company after it went public in February 2021. Bumble now claims more than 40 million monthly users
Bumble’s meteoric growth and valuation is a reflection of the commitment users have to the platform. The close alignment users feel with the platform’s female-first values has done more than earn downloads: over 10 percent of Bumble’s monthly users pay for their services, compared to the mere 1 percent of Tinder’s. The features of the two apps are close to identical, the price of their paid tiers are consistent, and Tinder was the established incumbent—users are making the move to Bumble because it has a brand that connects with them in a way that Tinder does not.
The user base of apps like Bumble and Tinder is young: Just over 79 percent of Tinder’s market is millennials—83 percent of whom want companies to align with their values. Bumble’s product resembles a clear reflection of their values through a design that gives women the power to be who they are while maintaining better control over which men they engage with. In Whitney Wolfe’s own words: “There is no better way to create a confident and meaningful connection with someone than to be self-assured and true to yourself. Remember, you want someone to truly appreciate you for you, not for your best side. There is only one you. Be proud of that and own it.”
Effective organizations take that advice seriously: they define who they are in a way that’s clear, compelling and authentic to who they are. They hold their teams and customers accountable to values consistent with those beliefs and own that story each day.
Eric is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.