DTC Brands Find Creative Ways to Connect

PR Week's September - October 2019 issue featured an incredibly insightful article written by Sabrina Sanchez around...

The phrase “meet me in the middle” stands for more than a school children’s game or a pop song by Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey — it now conjures visions of digitally exclusive brands.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands “remove the middleman” by allowing consumers to access products directly from the company rather than via brick-and-mortar retailers such as Macy’s, Target, Walmart or Sephora. DTC, in theory, makes products more affordable for the customer as well as more profitable for the brand. The model removes the need for third-party retail distributors and wholesalers that add a layer of cost to product prices.

The brands conduct the bulk of their business online through websites and social media, although they are starting to invest in pop-up stores and brick-and-mortar locations in major cities.

Lauren Pica, head of U.S. marketing for recommendation site Outbrain, explains, “DTC brands streamline the buying process from start to finish, owning everything from manufacturing to marketing distribution.”

Over the years, there have been many changes in how these brands operate. Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg says, “In order for a company to get into the marketplace and survive and thrive, it [previously] had to own or significantly control most of the major functions within its supply chain,” including raw materials, logistics, and manufacturing, as well as distribution.

“Increasingly, that’s not the case,” Rothenberg explains. “Value is created through a company’s ability to access and leverage a promiscuously available supply chain. You can rent or lease all the things you [previously] needed to own off the shelf.”

Emphasizing storytelling

DTC brands collect first-party data by customizing profiles, so they don’t have to guess the needs of their consumers and can better track patterns in consumer behavior.

Based on results, brands place a strong emphasis on storytelling, personalizing products for customers and authenticity and trust. Some offer new products, others simply rebrand existing ones.

Bright Cellars, a monthly subscription service that matches consumers with different kinds of wine, connects with its audience through a quiz curated for its site visitors.

It features odd, but interesting questions such as “What is the one chocolate you could eat for the rest of your life?” coupled with images to accompany the answer choices. Upon completion of the quiz, the consumer is redirected to a page that says “customize your experience” with fill-in boxes for personal information used to create a profile.

Bright Cellars CEO and co-founder, Richard Yau, says the brand uses an algorithm to match its consumers to wine recommendations based on responses. If they choose to subscribe, they continue to receive suggestions based on the feedback.

Bark/BarkBox, a monthly subscription brand that offers themed dog toys and treats, has employed campaigns featuring digital storytelling and outdoor media.

“The more high-touch ways that [consumers] enjoy our ecosystem, the longer they stay with us,” says Allison Stadd, VP of marketing at Bark.

Billboards, mailers and TV are not dead yet for DTC, and more use of outdoor campaigns and brick-and-mortar stores results in an increasingly hybrid model of business.

Rothy’s, a women’s shoe brand that creates footwear out of recycled plastic, places emphasis on word of mouth.

“People will do the work for you,” says Rothy’s senior PR manager, Anna Doré. “Our customers are our biggest advocates and evangelists because they love the shoe.”

When women talk about the brand, Rothy’s develops a network of self-appointed civilian influencers.

“Endorsements and reviews do a lot of work for us,” adds Doré, citing a podcast host talking about how she’s had a great experience and loves wearing them or a recent example of an editor writing about her experience walking in Rothy’s sneakers for 100 miles. “Women read those and relate to them because they’ve already heard them in their personal lives from friends and others.”

Public figures and influencers supplement the effort anyway, with Rothey’s “huge moment” coming from a subtle endorsement of the shoe by the Duchess of Sussex herself, Meghan Markle.

Redefining masculinity

In the case of Bonobos, its Fit for All Men campaign sought to “evolve the definition of ‘masculine.’”

“We interviewed 172 people, all who identified as ‘masculine,’” explains Amia Lazarus, former head of strategy and entertainment consulting at Observatory, Bonobos’ agency. The number 172 represents the amount of size combinations in Bonobos’ product range.

“We Googled the word ‘masculine’ and it felt like an antiquated definition,” she continues. “We asked them their thoughts on this definition,” she continues. “We asked them their thoughts on this definition and how they would evolve it based on who they were, whether they were born a man, transitioned to being a man or were a female that identified as masculine.”

The agency converted the responses into a short film called #EvolvetheDefinition, which aired last summer. The film took over the YouTube masthead and was aired during the ESPYs on ABC, an awards ceremony celebrating the achievements of men and women in sports.

The campaign started a discussion on the limitations of the word masculine and its definition, which trended on Twitter and perpetuated the “evolve the definition” conversation.

Hubble Contacts cofounder and co-CEO Jesse Horwitz believes DTC models allow for greater adaptability toward the needs of the consumer. “Consumers talk right back to you,” he says. “You get to hear what they want, what they like and don’t like about your offerings, and you can iterate based on that feedback.

“You don’t get one by them, and it’s killed a lot of the day-to-day BS. They already know what you are and what you aren’t,” he adds. “There don’t have to be big moments of reveal. It’s happening every day in the comments on Facebook.”

However, as Rothenberg points out, DTC models cannot serve everyone. They can wear out consumers with too much communication and exhaust the limited existing channels they currently use to communicate. But, ultimately, it comes down to whether a consumer believes in the brand.

“The consumer is more empowered, enlightened, and informed than ever before,” says Dawn Colossi, CMO of market research company Focusvision. “We have 24/7 access to conversations, news, and data. People are in control of where they spend their money. They are no longer forced to go to the neighborhood store — they can order from anywhere in the world.”

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