How Direct-to-Consumer Brands Are Tearing Down and Rebuilding the Marketing Scene

Creating a connection that consumers want to talk about is key

Warby Parker connects with consumers over their digital sharing habits.
Warby Parker

A recent report released by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has marketers on edge. It breaks down the successful digital business strategies made commonplace by direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands like Warby Parker and Casper, whose customer experience-driven product strategy is systematically stifling growth for some of the world’s largest brands.

The stakes are high. “Big brands are being nibbled to death,” said IAB’s president and CEO Randall Rothenberg.

The Unilevers and P&Gs that once dominated consumer industries are under attack from every front: direct-to-consumer brands are eating their lunch, broadcast viewership is in decline, Facebook’s latest news feed overhaul deprioritizes content from brands and businesses in favor of that from friends and peers, ads show up next to hate speech and fake news so often that Unilever CMO Keith Weed recently likened Facebook and Google to a swamp.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. Brands are fighting—and losing—a war on multiple fronts, and unlike previous battles, throwing in more ad dollars won’t save them.

The digital experience

Big brands can no longer “buy” audiences as a primary means to reach consumers. Instead, they need to build their own. DTC darlings like Warby Parker can teach a masters course in this as they consistently develop stronger, one-to-one relationships with consumers that make up loyal, engaged audiences.

Warby Parker’s success traces back to a digital engagement strategy designed to take advantage of their millennial audience’s digital sharing habits. Warby encourages customers to post photos of themselves wearing their trial frames on social media to get style advice from their friend, which they then regularly like, share and comment on. Before they knew it, Warby Parker had enlisted a veritable army of brand advocates lining up to share content on their behalf and not as part of some half-baked hashtag campaign.

Warby was early to embrace UGC and has consistently encouraged its consumers to tell Warby’s story themselves, and in turn, help build the brand as well as its owned audience and reach. Warby takes consumer-generated social content, turns it into powerful brand advocacy by reposting it to owned social channels and ultimately achieves greater engagement and influence than brand or influencer content could.

Product design as a marketing strategy

The ways in which consumers experience a product itself, whether it’s physical or digital, are critical to its success. This means that engagement, participation and sharing need to be built into your core product strategy and not relegated to a marketing afterthought.

Look at Venmo, a mobile money transferring app. Venmo is far from the only option available but leads in market share because they’ve built sharing as a core feature right into the product experience. Splitting a dinner check or chipping in for group getaway has never been more fun and easy.

Brands are fighting—and losing—a war on multiple fronts, and unlike previous battles, throwing in more ad dollars won’t save them.

In fact, 90 percent of Venmo transactions have been shared in a social context. That’s not dumb luck—every Venmo experience has been designed to include a social interaction by default. This makes the app appealing both to users and merchants.

The impact of data

Another critical benefit of social sharing is that it creates invaluable troves of first-party data. It’s the new social currency in today’s digital world, and the winners and losers will be determined by those who embrace and prioritize data capture.

Smart brands are taking that data and using it to develop essential one-to-one relationships.

Take M. Gemi, the direct‑to‑consumer Italian footwear brand, for example. The brand relies on owned customer data for decisions made across the company. The company tracks what customers try on, purchase and return (both in-store and online) along with customer feedback received by way of reviews left on their own website to better cater to customer needs. Understanding the path to purchase (and repeat purchase) has never been more important.

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