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Just a few years ago, the social media D2C brand space felt like a utopia of millennial pink and minimalism, in which plucky new beauty brands, razor subscriptions and memory foam mattresses could flourish with little more than a shop link, 100-day trials and a few gushing, unverified reviews.
Now, it’s increasingly challenging to build a direct to consumer brand rigorous enough to withstand the choppy waters of social media-led D2C models, and long gone are the days when you could build a brand from scratch through social channels alone. Cost per conversion has spiraled, and social ads no longer offer predictable ROI.
Success is all about understanding trends, then ignoring them. Countless social-first D2C brands have started to both look and act the same: a homogeneous gloop of identikit products, sold with the same fonts, return policies and social strategies. No matter how great the product or the demand, copying another model and expecting the same results is a surefire route to failure. Great branding is the opposite of imitation: By merging into a singular sector look, brands are forgettable and become dated very quickly.
There are four things brands can do to rise above unpredictable algorithmic fluctuations, stand out from the crowd and achieve real long-term success.
Put the ‘media’ in social
The ways people buy have changed. The once-linear purchase funnel has collapsed, making consistent and compelling brand stories matter more than ever. Instead of seeing a direct equation in which Brand + Ads = Customers, brands today need to think like a media company that creates engaging, useful content that speaks to audiences in meaningful ways.
Smart brands also use content to show off their products’ capabilities while seamlessly engaging both existing audiences and those they’re hoping to target. Take camera brand Canon, for instance. As outlined in a recent best practices guide, Canon showed off its EOS R5 and R6 cameras by using them for the products’ livestreamed launch event and Q&A. These were then hosted on both Canon’s site and YouTube for 10 days after launch, where they continued to attract viewers and drive product demand—so much so that the web store ran out of stock within hours.
Think multichannel to create community
Every brand channel is volatile; they’re often at the mercy of tech giants (see Apple’s iOS 14 tracking changes and Google’s decision to phase out cookies by 2024). But volatility isn’t always negative for online brands: While physical stores were decimated by Covid-19 lockdowns, online retail flourished as we relieved lockdown anxiety and boredom by buying stuff from our couches.
Since all trends are driven by human behavior and ever-shifting cultural and economic norms, they’ll always be unpredictable. That’s why an omnichannel approach is vital. What those channels are, and where and how you create those communities, will depend on the nature of each individual brand, but making yours community-led is a way of future-proofing—it’s based on the fundamentals of human connection, not trends. The best brands are unique, recognizable propositions that genuinely add value across multiple channels; they enhance people’s lives by building communities on and offline, operating in areas people really care about and helping to define their personality.
Gymshark‘s $1 billion net worth was earned through a savvy strategy that centered on community, collaboration and content. The brand was an early adopter and shrewd user of influencer marketing, leveraging fitness influencers’ existing audiences and, in doing so, using trusted sources that went straight to its target audiences. It was also ahead of its time in using social media challenges to garner huge engagement, like 2018’s #Gymshark66. The chance to win a year’s supply of merch was almost irrelevant: The draw was instant inclusion in a global community that offered priceless bonuses when it comes to fitness—positivity and accountability.
Tell compelling stories
When it comes to community-led, omnichannel approaches, it’s your brand story that ties everything together. It not only gives you a compelling message, it ensures you stay on message wherever your brand is present. And stories are one of the things people have been drawn to for millennia.
Liquid Death is (in)famous for its bonkers, out-there use of the traditional celebrity endorsement model. The brand launched a luxury enema kit with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, for instance, as well as teaming up with Martha Stewart on a very unexpected product launch: The Dismembered Moments Luxury Candle.
On the face of it, Liquid Death’s stunts are little more than old school shock tactics: ridiculous, bombastic and gory. But they deftly avoid clichés—this content isn’t for a movie or a video game, but for plain old water. It’s a far cry from the imagery of waterfall-infused landscapes or the pretty, visibly refreshed, sporty women peddled by most water brands.
Liquid Death CEO Mike Cessario has said that this stunt-led content has been far more effective for building brand awareness than traditional advertising: “People will literally pay to get rid of ads, and they definitely don’t share ads with their friends on social media for free.”
Sometimes, your customers might not be who you thought. When we started the tattoo care brand Stories & Ink, for instance, we hadn’t foreseen what our audience would become. More traditional tattoo-centric brands all too often align themselves with a rather old-fashioned, very heterosexual, stereotypically masculine, heavy-metal approach; but our community turned out to be primarily non-male. It makes sense: The majority of new tattoo artists, and those currently training, are female. But no one was catering for them before.
Conversations go two ways, and the best D2C brands answer a very real need for people and keep that conversation going, listening as much as telling (or selling) people what they need.
Alongside its smart online tactics, Gymshark created its loyal following IRL by meeting customers through fitness expos, pop-up stores and two world tours (all documented online, creating evergreen content from temporary activations). Face-to-face interactions meant Gymshark could gain real customer insights, which in turn helps them build products and evolve the brand around what people actually want.
The future is consumer-first
The likes of Liquid Death, Stories & Ink and Gymshark—all started as D2C—have never solely relied on social. These very different brands have used well-targeted, properly budgeted influencer or celebrity partnerships, fostered engaged communities and weaved brilliant stories. They listen to their audiences online and IRL, working hard to understand them inside out as part of an ongoing dialogue. They don’t advertise to people, per se—they bring them useful content they actually want.
Brands can only evolve with robust marketing models that merge data-led and real-life community insights. It’s a lot more nuanced and complex than throwing money at paid advertising, but it’s the only way to build true brand loyalty and, in turn, a brand with longevity.
Today, we’re all wise to ads—hence the ad blockers and cookie laws—and we’re sick of waiting five seconds to skip through them. But we’ll never be fed up with the useful content we actually want. Whether brands sell in physical retail spaces, through traditional ecommerce or through social-led D2C, today, they have to be robustly singular, instantly recognizable, community-centric and flexible.
Every decision D2C brands make should be driven by their unique market and its community—who and what they’re interested in, and how and where they’re looking at it. Channel-first is over; the future is consumer-first.