On DTC branding & the value of building an honest community

making a brand

Growth for the DTC (Direct-to-Consumer) brand requires a whole different playbook from your retailing counterparts.

Brand building vs Brand leveraging.

You’re not selling somebody else’s brand. You haven’t built your business on the back of other people’s brand.

This is your brand. And this is where I’m seeing DTC marketers and founders falling down. Working on misguided assumptions about their customers and placing emphasis on single touch-point CPA-led acquisition tactics.

DTC marketers are facing two significant growth issues.

1.) The ability to raise awareness through social & search advertising due to escalating costs.

2.) The ability to build community when all focus is placed upon the above.

Time is limited and the majority of in-house and agency briefs refer to acquisition as the lynchpin for growth. Acquisition at the lowest cost available (dealt a further blow by those anticipated costs being linked to last year’s CAC).

So the struggle is real. And with the performance marketer’s head submerged in data, looking for green shoots, no time is made available to consider ‘the brand’. It’s all about the acquisition.

And that scares me, frankly.

Firstly due to the continuing retention oversight. Both in terms of how CPA targets are set (single basket formula) & the assumption that people will come back and shop again (because the product is so damn good). The further assumption that people will share your story (because the product is so damn good).

There are a shit-ton of assumptions going on. And we’re doing very little to engage with our customers to find out what’s going off in their head.

For engagement, read ‘brand building exercise in a public arena’.

For acquisition growth, you can’t afford for people to buy from you if they’re not buying into you. This relates to fashion brands, luxury brands, lifestyle brands, any brand where your customer has an alternative choice. Direct or indirect.

If you’re taking on the role of the catalog, if all your effort goes into depth of product then you’re working from the retail playbook. And that’s wrong.

Launching new products and gathering crucial feedback

Yeti are a brand I admire hugely. They’ve built a unique brand within a market where people were spending 10x less on equivalent products. There were ice coolers and then along came Yeti.

Yeti are widening their product range beyond their industry standards. The beautiful thing about what Yeti has built is the vocal nature of their brand loyalists. People who see Yeti as far more than an ice cooler. People who aren’t afraid to voice opinion as Yeti represents a purpose-led brand. For explorers and adventurers.

So Yeti run with the following Facebook feed update:

Yeti Facebook Feed

They’ve launched a non-insulated ‘bomb proof’ storage box for tools and life’s etceteras.

Yeti advocates are doing their thing to introduce the new GoBox in YouTube videos like this one:

You get the picture.

What about our Yeti loyalists? What has their reaction been?

Yeti Facebook

Tony leaves his judgement. Are Yeti making assumptions that their loyal customers will sweep up any product that carries the Yeti logo? Yeti, a brand built upon the ideal of delivering ice cool beers to hunters when they’re needed most?

Yeti Facebook 2

Todd gives his view. He doesn’t associate Yeti with work (the toolbox). Yeti is his ticket out of work – that ultra cool and refreshing beer…

There are just 2 voices in a sea of opinions. But these voices matter. Ask yourself, if you released a new product today, are your brand loyalists ready to pounce with their own feedback, good or indifferent?

Are you ready to listen to the voice of your brand allies?

Yeti are building products at a price point that demands you ‘buy into’ Yeti. There’s a responsibility to carry when you shake the marketplace with a premium product. That responsibility is the continued nurturing of relationships with your most loyal customers. Whether that be 100 or 100,000 voices. They matter.

These relationships aren’t built upon brand-minimal performance marketing campaigns. You don’t simply open the doors and expect people to realise the value your product brings.

These relationships take time to build.

You can’t buy an honest community like you can buy followers.

So when I hear of DTC brands floundering in pity having spent £1000s on their Facebook campaigns I ask about expectations. Where were these expectations set? In the slidedeck of an agency pitch? In a blog article where talk of 3-4% conversion rates being obtained?

Somehow we need to reel in the guesswork, the expectations and begin to understand what really builds a brand. What will make what you make matter?

Throwing a 10% or 20% discount code into the mixer won’t achieve those goals either.

You need to go back to the drawing board and quickly realise why your product exists in the first place? Why did your founders deem it necessary to add yet more products into an already saturated marketplace?

That existence must then align within your customer’s own lives and values. If you have a story to tell, begin telling it. Go deeper with your marketing rather than blaming your product (or your website) and moving onto the next product iteration.

The DTC growth struggle is real. And oversimplified growth strategies attached to mass audience Facebook Ad campaigns won’t make the grade.

I think a big problem is the rush for growth. The desire for immediate results. The lack of willingness to build community around a brand because of the time and effort. Customers become a hindrance. A place where you can build open and honest relationships with your customers isn’t a primary desire. Do you work where customer reviews, when submitted, are actually reviewed (and referenced in internal discussions?). Where the understanding that multiple value-based touch-points are necessary. Where budgets are set accordingly and expectations are very much built for the long-haul.

At the very centre of this brand-build struggle is the time dedicated to our customer. Customer-centricity in action rather than a meaningless fodder in a corporate-styled slidedeck.

Building value into your product proposition is an education piece. Your job is to hone your performance marketing skills to give your audience a reason to stick around and listen.

That means advertising that, oftentimes, doesn’t have an outright focus on the product itself. Contextual advertising.

That means an email marketing strategy that invites people to join something that feels exclusive. A club of sorts. Do away with the ‘20% off when you buy today’ and see where you can take your brand when you build a welcome experience that gives your audience a feeling of belonging.

Throughout this stuff takes planning. Not enough planning is taking place when we’re focusing in on rehashing Facebook audiences to new lookalike audiences in the hope of a bite.

There’s not enough time spent on wonderfully executed welcome campaigns when there’s a weekly newsletter to be published (saying, pretty much, the same thing over and over again… BUY NOW).

You do have a blank canvas to work from. I get the feeling too many of us are restricting our work with ill-fitting growth templates that lead to frustration.

Let’s grant ourselves to time to really figure all this stuff out. The meaning of our brand and the routes that achieve ‘buy in’ within our chosen audience. Give yourself the opportunity to build an honest community with your brand, not necessarily your product, at the centre.

Written By:

Ian Rhodes


First employee of an ecommerce startup back in 1998. I've been using building and growing ecommerce brands ever since (including my own). Get weekly growth lessons from my own work delivered to your inbox below.

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