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E-commerce

The Dos and Don’ts of Marketing DTC Brands, According to Nik Sharma

April 15, 2021
December 5, 2019
Mae Rice

Sharma, a.k.a. “the DTC guy,” has worked with brands like Hint Water, Haus and Black Wolf. He shared some of the marketing insights he picked up along the way.

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It’s hard to forget Nik Sharma (left). He’s everywhere: on #MarketingTwitter, in Adweek, talking strategy on a podcast near you. 

If you do forget him, though, don’t panic — you can just Google “the DTC guy.” 

The first result will be Sharma’s strategy firm, Sharma Brands; the second one will be his Twitter

Sharma and direct-to-consumer brands are so synonymous, he actually ranks higher in searches for “the DTC guy” than he does in searches for his legal name.

It’s a funny situation, because Sharma didn’t grow up dreaming of DTC domination. The acronym “DTC” barely existed until the 2010s. 

It started gaining traction when Sharma was working on Hint Water’s DTC operations, he told MarketerHire. 

Even then, he didn’t notice he had become “the DTC guy” until his friend, writer and podcast host David Perell, told him so. 

Even then, he didn’t notice he had become “the DTC guy” until his friend, writer and podcast host David Perell, told him so.

It rang true, and still does. Through Sharma Brands, Sharma has collaborated with top DTC companies like Haus, Black Wolf and Judy

His company’s work extends beyond the DTC space, too. (For instance: Sharma is an investor in MarketerHire.) 

In Sharma’s estimation, his consulting firm can help any brand grow through e-commerce channels — whether that means expanding an Amazon presence or forging new retail and brand partnerships.

However, DTC brands are his “bread and butter,” he said. So, what are the dos and don’ts of growing a DTC brand? Here’s what Sharma’s learned so far. 

DON’T use ads as market research. 

Before you start running ads, or any other paid marketing push, you should understand your audience on some level, Sharma said. 

“You can’t run ads and use that as a means to figure out your audience,” Sharma said. “Because then you’re not really going with targeted content.”

You might be advertising an expensive product to an audience that can’t afford it; conversely, you might be promoting bargain-basement prices to an audience with money to spare. 

DO do actual market research. 

To understand your audience better, Sharma recommends doing… real market research. His preferred methods: surveys and analytics tools. 

Quantcast, for instance, “gives you details all the way down to the TV shows [your customers] watch,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

Quantcast, for instance, “gives you details all the way down to the TV shows [your customers] watch,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

DTC businesses in their early stages can also benefit from an approach that’s “not scalable at all”: looking at who buys from you, and checking out their social profiles. 

“See what they’re into and what kind of stuff they do,” he said. “It’s kind of creepy” — but it helps. 

DO try story-based selling.

Features-based selling — in other words, marketing messages detailing ingredients, or product dimensions, or potential product use cases — can only get you so far. In Sharma’s experience, shifting to story-based selling can unlock major growth.

Exhibit A: Hint Water. 

“When I got to Hint, everything was about selling the product and not the why behind the product,” Sharma explained. “Then we started talking about the founder [Kara Goldin], and why Hint Water even was created.”

Essentially, Goldin found herself struggling with a diet soda addiction that undercut her health and energy levels. She founded Hint to create a healthy alternative for herself and others.

Sharing this story publicly “shot sales through the roof,” Sharma said. “I mean, just astronomically through the roof.”

Today, Goldin’s story occupies prime real estate on Hint Water’s website — it can be found in the “Our Story” tab of the company homepage. 

DO lean on strategically-chosen influencers. 

Sharma suspects that Hint Water was one of the first brands to execute “proper” influencer-marketing. Instead of paying Instagram to boost a post’s reach, Hint paid influencers to create content that would run on their personal handles. 

“Now everybody does it,” Sharma said. “But three years ago, nobody else was doing it and people thought it was kind of sketchy.”

“Now everybody does it,” Sharma said. “But three years ago, nobody else was doing it and people thought it was kind of sketchy.”

Sketchy or not: It worked for Hint, because they chose their influencer partners strategically. 

This remains essential. If you don’t, your messages will feel random — or worse, forced — to the influencer’s audience.

“It’s the same thing with PR — you can’t just randomly pitch a reporter to write about something, or just send them product,” Sharma said. “There has to be some kind of tie into them personally, or culturally, that makes sense.”

An example of influencer marketing gone right: Homesick Candles’ collaboration with Charli D’Amelio. D’Amelio has TikTok’s most popular account, with more than 100 million followers — but she’s not a known candle aficionado. 

The DTC candle brand found a workaround though: “a middle layer of Dunkin Donuts, which Charli is obsessed with,” Sharma explained. (She actually launched her own drink on the Dunkin menu as of September: The Charli.) 

Homesick collaborated with Dunkin’ Donuts on two candles: one coffee-scented, and one doughnut-scented. 

Charli posted the former on her TikTok:

And tweeted about it: 

That might be higher-impact than a shoutout on Good Morning America — though Homesick got that for its Dunkin’ collab, too. 

DON’T run ads that feel like ads.

Part of the power of influencer marketing is that it doesn’t look like an ad. Sure, if you look closely, it probably has “#ad” in the caption, or a paid partnership slug under the influencer’s handle — but at first glance, paid posts, like this one from Bachelor Nation's Ashley Iaconetti, look organic in-feed.

DTC brands should be able to say the same for all their creative. That might mean investing in  sponsored TikToks that fit the platform’s aesthetic, or paying a premium for host-read podcast ads, or buying product placement on a popular YouTube channel.

Ultimately, though, “the best ads don’t look like ads or feel like ads,” Sharma said. 

DON’T invest before you test. 

Investing in a marketing strategy before testing it is a recipe for wasting money, according to Sharma. 

When he worked at Hint Water — and remember, this was before DTC was a category, let alone one with an established growth playbook — he doesn’t remember any major marketing mishaps. The key? 

“We rarely did anything too big,” he said. 

“We rarely did anything too big,” he said. 

Instead, they’d run small, cheap tests, and only increase investment in a strategy if it had a major, measurable impact on KPIs.   

“Everything was usually very calculated,” he said.

DON’T make converting a high-friction process. 

If you’re a DTC brand investing (after testing, we hope!) in performance marketing, make sure the link you’re paying to place in front of prospects doesn’t lead to an “inefficient customer experience,” Sharma advised.

The inefficiency could stem from all sorts of different problems. It might be that the link in the ad leads to a disorganized landing page that doesn’t make it clear what’s for sale, or fails to explain what problem the product solves. 

It could also be that the ad takes customers to a glitchy checkout flow — or one that doesn’t offer a way to pay in installments, like Shop or Affirm

When a DTC brand invests in Facebook or Instagram ads, the goal is to maximize the odds of a sale — "and that requires… all 10 things, from viewing the ad to… checking out and getting a thank you email, to be a 10 out of 10," Sharma said.

The path from seeing an ad to actually making a purchase is already riddled with reasons for a customer to drop out. Don’t add to them. 

DO invest in streamlined ad landing pages.

Rather than buying ads that send customers to an existing home page or product page, Sharma recommends that DTC brands build out designated, hyper-optimized ad landing pages that ferry customers seamlessly to checkout 

He often commissions these from a company called Thesis Testing, which has worked with top DTC brands like Everlane and Ritual. Thesis landing pages can spotlight quizzes, content and more.

Source: Thesis Testing

However, DTC marketers can also build their own landing pages, with resources like Builder.io, Unbounce and Shogun.

”These are all very simple apps — drag-and-drop builders,” he explained.

Whatever your production workflow looks like, Sharma notes that the ideal landing page for DTC performance marketing functions like compelling literature. 

“When you read a really good piece of writing, every sentence convinces you to keep reading,” he said. 

An e-commerce checkout flow has to do the same thing: propel users forward.

Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is senior editor at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she enjoys interviewing marketing experts and learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture. She also loves any ad that makes her say "Huh?!" — especially Tim and Eric's ad for Totino's pizza rolls, which she watches way more often than you would think.

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