When it comes to creating a great D2C brand, there are so many little moving parts to consider. So we thought it would be worth checking in with marketers who have remarkable D2C experience for their advice on the subject. We asked them to each share their best piece of advice—and a common mistake they see D2C brands make all the time.
Despite being just 22 years old, Nik Sharma is a recognized expert in the world of D2C. When he was still in high school, he managed social media for celebrities like Pitbull and Priyanka Chopra, and since then, he has become an established marketing wunderkind. In 2017, he became the director of D2C at Hint water. Since then, he has worked as the head of DTC at VaynerMedia, and has transitioned into a career in consulting with brands like Lemon Perfect and Vox Media.
“One thing that's really important across most successful direct-to-consumer brands is that they are all very experience-first,” Sharma says. “When you think about Casper, they aren't selling a mattress, they’re selling a sleeping experience. When you think about Glossier, they aren’t selling makeup, they’re selling a beauty experience.”
So how do you go about selling an experience rather than a product? Casper, for instance, has focused their story on the benefits of good sleep rather than simply the materials in their mattress, Sharma says. While Casper is transparent about the materials they use, that’s not the focal point of their branding. Instead, they focus on stories and ads that rotate around the value of good sleep.
Getting to know customers on an individual basis is another key component of being an experience-first brand. Aside from the fun branding and relatable colors, the biggest thing Glossier does differently from many other beauty brands is that they truly know the people who love and use their products. “Glossier has a very personal connection to their customers, whether that’s through channels like Facebook groups, Instagram DM groups, Instagram close friends, or building their own apps for their community to use. They have full-time staff dedicated to this,” Sharma says. “Until this last funding round, most of their marketing was word-of-mouth. They relied on ambassadors who really value the brand telling their friends and posting stories with the product, and that comes in part from having this personal connection with them.”
This is distinctly different from the older D2C model, which was much more about convenience—think of brands like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker. These days, Sharma says, brands that do well create an experience for the consumer.
“So many brands are just trying to follow each other rather than figure out their own acquisition funnel,” Sharma says. “Right now, they're just trying to figure out what someone else is doing and copy that. I think that’s largely happening because of these VC dollars are expecting returns right now, so they're forced to accelerate a company's growth.”
So what’s the downside to copying another brand—why reinvent the wheel if a strategy already worked for someone else, after all?
“Do something original, and people really remember it—you have the potential to make a real splash,” Sharma says. “The brands that go the extra step to make sure the font on the box matches the branding, that throw in stickers or whatever it may be, are going to stick out in our minds. They make people remember, and they make them want to show off that brand.”
Patrick Pan began his career in Silicon Valley, exploring how technological development and digitization were transforming business and customer interaction across key transactional touch points. Eventually, he traded Silicon Valley for Fifth Avenue, and was part of L'Oreal's first internal team that would invest in and relaunch D2C and eCommerce for its luxury brands portfolio. After some key successes with Kiehl's, he joined NEST Fragrances. Under his lead, NEST Fragrances D2C went from 0.5% of the business to nearly 40%. He then started at Theragun when it had only two employees, made some key branding changes, and helped this brand become the leader in the category.
Pan acknowledges that you may have heard this one, but believes it bears repeating: D2C growth is very different from $0-$5M than it is beyond $5M. “A lot of products can growth-hack—probably my most hated phrase of the 2010s—to 3-5 million dollars, but beyond that point, or even before that point, the product will have no defensibility unless true brand equity can be built,” he says. “It helps for D2C companies at certain post-launch stages to have ample brand and performance expertise, ideally within one person, whenever possible.”
“Every. Second. Counts,” Pan says. “Marketers that have achieved marketing excellence elsewhere—perhaps in Fortune 500 companies—are trained to approach problems a certain way, with repetition of successful solutions and taking time-exhaustive calculated risks. But D2C can't be approached this way. D2C marketing in its pre-5M or pre-10M stages might benefit more from a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach.”
This is because when there are growth opportunities, every day you don't do it well is a day of losses, according to Pan. Eventually, brand investment and true defensibility will have a lot of residual benefits over time, but most D2C brands can't and probably shouldn't wait that long.
Nick Shackleford spent two years with the team at Common Thread, where he worked with emerging brands and established brands looking to scale. In his time there, he wore many hats, as a media buyer, ecomm strategist, business development, and director of strategy. Now, as the Co-founder and Managing Partner of Structured Social, he invests in brands, partners for growth, and consults internal media buying teams.
“When it comes to building a brand in 2020, I’d start advertising before the product or final product is even ready for production,” Shackelford says. While the dropshipping model is not one Shackelford supports, citing the fact that it’s often abused, he is behind the overall idea of selling without holding inventory.
“D2C brands approach paid media or selling their product too romantically and without realistic expectations about what it takes to generate consumer interest,” Shackleford says. “D2C Brands need to understand that having a store and running paid ads is the same thing as paying for a retail location with good foot traffic. It all costs money and the traffic isn’t always the same.”
A freelance marketing consultant with more than six years’ experience in SEO strategy, Megan McCullough was the Growth Marketing Manager and SEO Manager at ThirdLove, where she was responsible for planning content that educated new and returning customers.
“What I've realized working with D2C brands—many of which are just starting to consider SEO as a viable channel—is there really are easy wins to be had,” McCullough says. “Sometimes a technical recommendation that will be easy to rollout can grow your traffic overnight, or simply researching search volume when naming a product can result in hundreds or thousands of organic visits instead of none. Luckily, with an audit or consultation with an experienced pro, you can gauge potential and opportunity when you consider adding SEO to your marketing mix.”
While we all understand the siren song of placing all your efforts into short-term strategies, it’s really not a good idea in the long run. “I think some brands aren't as balanced,” McCullough says. “Long-term strategies are things like a well-built and user-tested website, with not only beautiful branding, but a logical site architecture and multiple paths to conversion that are optimized for different channels. The dream!”