Future-Focused DTC Brands Are Going Old School. Here’s Why.

by Lisa Desforges on 07/22/2019 | 4 Minute Read

There’s no debating the rise of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. From Dollar Shave Club—still gaining subscribers at a rate of 10% a year—to men’s wellness brand Hims and better beverages from Dirty Lemon, DTC is a rapidly-growing sector with immense potential, and a recent study found that 33% of US consumers plan to do at least 40% of their shopping from DTC brands in the next five years. 

The brilliance of DTC is that it cuts out the middleman. Removing the retailer from the equation gives brands access to a wealth of very targeted data on their product and consumer—making the transition easier should they eventually move into mainstream retail—and enables them to build longstanding direct relationships with their consumers.   

But this will only get you so far. In an increasingly saturated market, DTC brands can no longer rely on their business model alone. There’s a growing recognition of the importance of brand (rather than tech) in DTC to demonstrate a point of difference, and the most future-focused brands understand that offline is more important than ever. 

You could even say they’re going old school, maximizing on the packaging, print and outdoor communications. Here’s why.

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Packaging isn’t Just for Shelf Standout 

Just because a brand speaks to its clients through a digital platform, doesn’t mean it can skimp on packaging. The tangible aspects of the retail experience are as important in a DTC brand as in mainstream retail. 

The second a product reaches its destination it gets delivered into the hands of a paying customer who will expect a memorable brand experience—so both the inner and outer packaging matters. From aesthetics to the tone of voice and, importantly, sustainable materials and processes, taking time to consider both brand and delivery packaging pays dividends.

Where DTC differs from traditional retail is the purpose of the packaging. The consumer has already made their purchase, so this isn’t about the sale. It’s about the brand. 

Look at Glossier—this is a brand that understands the power of packaging, encasing its products in pink bubble-wrap pouches that are not only fun but can be saved and reused later. Then there are the accompanying materials—this means including stickers with each delivery because that’s what connects with their millennial and Gen Z consumers. 

DTC brands like this understand that their consumers are their best brand ambassadors and create new ways for them to market the brand within their communities, living the brand at all touchpoints. 

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Clarity, Simplicity, Humanity 

Typically, subscription-based models, DTC brands are defined by two fundamental elements. Firstly, the clarity of their functional purpose—we sell mattresses cheaper than in the shops, deliver to your door and challenge the category in a consumer-championing way. Secondly, the simplicity of the offer—we only sell one kind of mattress because it’s the best kind. The vast majority of DTC brands have already nailed these two factors. 

What carries a brand to the next level is its humanity – the part that many entrepreneurs and founders miss. It’s the brand rather than the business model part and, crucially, the element that enables brands to build emotional connections with their consumers. 

For example, Casper sells mattresses, but its brand is about relaxation, comfort, sleep, and a healthy balance between work and life. Its messaging goes beyond the product to show how the brand fits into the consumer’s life, aside from serving a functional purpose.

It’s this third element that enables brands to create the old school touchpoints that can set them apart, giving further weight to their campaigns with emotionally driven assets. Travel and lifestyle brand Away produces a magazine full of unique and engaging content that focuses on the humanity of the brand, not the product. It’s the same on their social media channels. You see a travel brand, not a luggage brand, or a sales pitch. This is where many brands fail. 

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Measuring Success Beyond Sales 

So, when the digital platform, packaging, print and social media are on point, where next? 

Well, the most traditional of retail methods-bricks and mortar. Temporary pop-ups are a powerful asset to DTC brands at any stage of growth and development, but only if they’re approached as more than a simple shop. The savviest brands don’t care if visitors buy their product—in fact, some don’t even offer this as an option. They measure success in other ways, from footfall to online engagement. 

Pop-ups are an ideal opportunity to educate consumers about a brand, but what about as a source of entertainment? BarkBox’s "BarkShop Live" fir dogs with RFID-enabled vests that tracked which toys they played with the most. They can also offer a brand-led service like Casper’s ‘The Dreamery’ where visitors paid $25 for a 45-minute nap on a Casper mattress.

Some pop-ups are simply a way of recognizing and rewarding the loyalty of their customers, like at the cashier-free Dirty Lemon outlet in New York where consumers were trusted to pay for their drinks by text—an initiative made possible by the strength of existing brand-consumer relationships.

What each of these powerful brands understands is that while DTC is driven and enabled by digital—and the tech delivery must be effortlessly smooth—it’s the harmony between the digital and tangible that creates a real standout direct-to-consumer brand. 

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