You’ve got a killer product, a packaging system that looks fantastic on social media, a cohort of fans who flock to your site and gobble up every new flavor you drop, and a pile of data on those customers. You’ve got a thriving direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand. Good on you!
DTC is a great proving ground for start-up brands. But the costs associated with delivering a top-shelf consumer experience are skyrocketing: shipping costs, marketing expenses (social media, influencers, retargeting), and raw materials. And while we don’t think the channel’s going away in the near term, we believe it’s time for brands to shift their focus from being a darling to a few (we call this Dominant by Default in the life cycle of a brand) and move to the bigger, real-er world of in-store retail where billion dollar brands are made, and the fakers die.
We are advising the DTC brands we work with, “Get thee to retail.”
How Does DTC Success Translate to IRL Retail?
The short answer is, what you think you know about your customers is not gonna get you there.
Not all DTC 1-to-1 marketing data translates into bankable audience insights. We have seen it lead smart teams into complicated channel transitions because they’ve been deceived by past success —
1) They thought they had a brand, when in reality they had a product lineup.
2) They thought they knew their audience, but really they projected their own wants and desires into an audience profile.
Products don’t matter as much as promises. And groupthink and cognitive bias are brand killers.
Reaching consumers is so much easier via DTC and ecommerce channels than through brick-and-mortar because you’re fully in control. You tell your story through artfully curated social media photos, you pay to attract visitors to your site, you entice them with long-form content about how great your products are. Then, when they buy, you overspend on a sexy unboxing experience and free shipping, hoping that the lifetime value of this handful of die-hard fans will become your ticket to the promised land of preference.
But (or and) even though this channel has boasted 10 years of strong growth, at the peak of the pandemic DTC was still 84% below total retail sales. And it’s been steadily declining since we have been allowed to go out again.
If you want to go big, it’ll take more than your customer data to get you there. Every leader and marketer working on DTC brands has access to their own loyal fan base’s input, preferences, and shopping behavior. But just like all syndicated and primary research, this data can only look backward.
Plus, your current fan base is too insular. Consumers think they have an outsize influence on other people’s buying habits because they’re living in an echo chamber – and the brands that listen to them are living in the same echo chamber. You’re missing millions of people who could love you in the future because you’re focused on the thousands of people who love you now.
So how do you translate this tiny little star into a galaxy of customers?
The Formula for Taking a DTC Brand to Retail
There’s a formula for turning DTC traction and insights into a strategy to reach velocity on shelf:
Audience + channel strategy + positioning, with packaging as the icing on the cake.
(How do we know this works? We guided HighKey from a DTC startup with tons of potential to explosive retail sales in just 6 months.)
So let’s break this formula down.
When you start in the DTC channel, you’ll know deeply who your audience is. In fact, it’s a valid reason to launch a brand this way: not to make money, but to gather consumer intel.
But — and this is a big but — online consumer data gives brand leaders false confidence. Why? Because you’re paying money to get people to your site, narrowing your audience by persona, and communicating highly specifically to them. Many leadership teams and marketers think that the online buying audience will scale. Just because a hard-core workout type buys protein powder on Amazon, that business isn’t scalable beyond that microgroup.
Three things will help you get beyond your current fan base:
1) additional data (SPINS, IRI, Numerator) that will help you understand who to target in the retail environment
2) an experienced navigator who can interpret that data to help you find net new consumers (that’d be us)
3) a solid brand strategy that will align your mission, audience, and product lineup.
It’s not just a matter of where you sell; it’s about the order in which you proceed into different outlets. Ultimately, universal acceptance requires that your brand be available in all kinds of channels, but the order in which you move is important. Success in DTC will have left clues about which sequence of retailer growth makes the most sense for your brand.
Audiences expect certain types of brands in certain stores. If you start out in dollar stores, you can’t then go sell at boutique or specialty retail. Your reputation as a low-cost offering will precede you, and you can’t then up your price and target audience. If you get discovered at Costco, it’s hard to swim the other way.
You may not be a mass-market brand, and that’s OK. An essential part of brand strategy is defining who you are not for. But if you aim to reach a bigger and bigger audience, best to start at the small end of the funnel. When we built a channel strategy for our client Essentia, we led them carefully from specialty food retail into big-box chains. Consumers are delighted to find Essentia at Walmart because they’ve already bought it at Whole Foods.
Positioning is an extension of your strategic foundation. It’s the act of saying, “Here’s our value proposition, our reason for being, and what we make.” Let’s agree that your success in DTC means that you have considered and are using brand positioning.
Once you define and deeply understand your audience, you build different personas. For Essentia, we broadly defined the brand’s audience as “Overachievers” and then created personas around different types of overachievers: athletes, people who do physical work, musicians, etc.
Positioning involves making tough decisions that go beyond conventional messaging. Who do you want to reach, and how do you want to reach them? The transition from DTC to retail is an ideal time to re-energize brand positioning as part of a deeper strategy to reach a wider audience in pursuit of growth.
How you look on shelf is the icing on the cake, the inevitable visual outcome of the world you’ve built around the brand. If there’s any hesitation or conflict about the package design, you’ve missed something.
What Do Retailers Need from You?
No doubt, success in DTC will open some doors for your brand. Retail category managers probably know who you are. But they need more than a few months of Amazon or proprietary sales data.
They want to know that you have real audience insight — not just for your own products, but for how their shoppers will adopt your brand. And not just for your niche online buyers but for a larger universe of brick-and-mortar shoppers.
They’re also looking to see that you have a long term game. And you’ll need to convince them that you know the category well and that you’ll invest in their channel – their job is at stake here, too.
Taking an online darling into retail stores requires a hell of a lot more than a cool design, a few diehard buyers, and some swagger. We’ve done this before, with great success. So, if you’re ready to make a power move, let’s talk about how we can help you.