How Thinking Like a D-to-C Brand Can Improve Consumer Relationships

Opinion: The secret is simplification

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Direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands are having their cultural moment. Their impact and success come from strong brand storytelling, on-point packaging, subscription models and lower prices. But there’s one underappreciated factor that’s equally important: their super simple product offerings. Whether by design or accident, they’ve tapped into a long understood (but generally ignored) human appetite for anything that simplifies decision making.

The Warby Parker experience

A friend recently told me he’d gone back to a traditional eyeglass store after years of buying directly from Warby Parker. I’ve been a loyal Warby shopper for seven years, and I’d totally forgotten about the experience he described: a pushy salesperson with opinions that didn’t match his own tastes, an unending parade of shapes and styles, grouping the frames into “yes” and “no” piles on the display case and trying to casually check the microscopic price tags on each frame without looking like a cheapskate.

I got sweaty just thinking about it and realized that among all of Warby’s innovations, the most important thing they offer customers is a pared down shopping experience. Their carefully curated product line and simple pricing model is what keeps us coming back. The traditional spectacle shopping experience is just too darn complicated.

K.I.S.S.S. (keep it simple and scientific, silly)

Simplicity is a key ingredient in the special sauce that’s propelling the new D2C revolution. Most of our days are filled with endless decisions, thanks to an always-on work culture and tens of millions of entertainment choices just a tap or click away. Decision fatigue is real, and we (or more accurately, our brains) need a break.

There’s plenty of evidence showing that our feeble human minds just can’t handle the variety and permutations that an overwhelming Target razor aisle contains. And like the famous Jam Study suggests, when faced with dozens of options for a single product, many of us will just skip a purchase altogether. (Which bodes poorly for those razor manufacturers, while being a boon for the beard oil market.)

Until this recent D2C revolution, the traditional retail model has flown in the face of behavioral psychology. Lessening the “cognitive load” of shoppers hasn’t been a priority (with a few exceptions, like Trader Joe’s). I’ll never forget the feeling of trying to select toilet paper at a big box store during a particularly anxious point in my life. I was frozen in indecision, an unmistakable sign that our millennia-old human brains aren’t suited for this sort of grappling. Choosing paper products shouldn’t be on par with naming your firstborn.

Whether by design or accident, they’ve tapped into a long understood (but generally ignored) human appetite for anything that simplifies decision making.

It only makes sense that people are flocking to brands like Harry’s razors or Away luggage, rather than spending precious time—10 minutes in the razor aisle, six hours on mattress review sites—on less than life-altering decisions. Assuming their R&D and products are strong, which is the case for the thriving D2C brands, I for one am happy to have the hard work done for me. And even as my beloved Warby Parker expands their style options, they still offer a manageable range of relevant styles and a deft skill for curation that most “something for everyone” eyeglass stores lack.

Take a page out of their playbook

Brands marketers can learn from these disruptive upstarts and heed the power of the paradox of choice: dumping more options into an already-crowded product line can lead to shopper paralysis.

If you’re starting a new brand, prioritize simplicity in your product line, shopping experience and messaging. Unlike legacy brands whose growth relies on having something for everyone, you can focus on creating products and branding that resonate with your core audience and then continue to serve them in new ways after you gain their trust. Throwing new iterations into the mix for innovation’s sake could backfire. Remember, as much as your sleek packaging and clever podcast ads will help attract customers, one of your strongest selling points is the decision-making burden you’re relieving.

But even if you’re managing a dog’s breakfast of portfolio brands—each with a tiny “differentiator”—all hope isn’t lost. You can still learn from these emerging challengers and simplify the path to purchase. Use data to customize shoppers’ online interactions: filter or pre-select products based on what you know about each website visitor rather than making them wade through a maze of drop-down menus. Maybe even launch your own D2C subscription service that relieves customers of having to frequently confront a phalanx of product permutations. You’ll gain shoppers’ trust and affinity by acknowledging our human desire for easy decisions.

In our time-crunched, mentally-exhausting world, why not give your customers’ brains a well-deserved rest? Happy brains make for happy customers and lots of goodwill.