Five Characteristics of the Most Successful Direct-to-Consumer Brands


Glossier, that direct-to-consumer beauty brand charming Millennials and Gen-Zs on both sides of the Atlantic, has just been valued at $1.2bn. And it’s not the only one. Chic luggage brand, Away, slick sleep-specialist, Casper, and innovative fashion-rental business, Rent the Runway, hit similar valuations. All are start-ups, with less than five years of business under their belts. No surprise then, that they’ve been dubbed ‘unicorns of retail’. Their success is almost mythical. So what’s behind it?


How is it, in an age where millennials are shunning buying more ‘stuff’ for life-enhancing experiences, that companies like Away can cash-in on luggage? Or there’s room on this earth for yet another mattress company? We’ve identified five ways the most successful, here-to-stay D2C brands have captured the imaginations, and wallets, of their consumers. 


1. They have Self-Belief (and they shout about it)


More than just a product or service, direct-to-consumer brands are selling something they believe in – a reason for being – and they connect their consumers with this in a meaningful (and transparent – see below) way. Away doesn’t just sell beautiful, well-designed luggage, it believes travel is about getting more out of life. It’s social feeds are full of content that’s focused on where you can go with your luggage and the access travel brings. For Heist, it’s driving force is inclusivity. Their ‘modernising hosiery’ mantra is that it should be designed for everybody, whatever their shape and size. Glossier exists to democratise beauty. Casper is committed to improving sleep, not selling mattresses. Rent the Runway’s offers us no less than a fashion revolution (as well as a dream closet).


How does this drive their success?

These brands are confident because they know who they are. This drives how they grow and diversify, without stretching their brand beyond belief in the eyes of their fans. A collection of hotels dotted around the globe from Away Travel? Not that hard to imagine – the brand is already planning its move into lifestyle accessories and clothing. Casper too has been busy launching a range of slumber-inducing products, including a smart night-light and a bed for your pet pooch. Crucially through, a brand’s self-belief gives people something to buy into, rather than a place just to buy from – a compelling reason to pick one product over another and join that brand’s gang (see point 5 below).  A trait, research shows, that’s particularly motivating for millennials, who most of these brands are targeting.


2. They Champion Transparency


Not only do the most successful of our D2C brands have a bigger purpose, but they back it up by being transparent. They mostly do this by being skilful content creators and producers (some of these brands – Glossier, for example – started life as blogs and so content is their forté). Fashion upstarts, Everlane and Reformation, demonstrate their sustainable credentials by exposing their supply chain to customer scrutiny, providing clear evidence that they are what they do, not just what they say. Visitors to Everlane’s website can take a look at the specific factory an item is manufactured from. Everlane and Away are also big on price transparency. The price difference between their products and competitors is clearly explained on their websites, demonstrating why their products represent good value. 


How does this drive their success?

These brands understand that their target, younger consumers are motivated by how ethical a brand is and how weary-wise they are when it comes to spin. Authenticity is a big selling point and clear communication on pricing and sourcing helps to prove they’re genuine. The fact that they have direct control of their selling environments means they can consistently deliver these messages. Check out Everlane’s physical store for a masterclass on using visual design to bring a ethical stance to life.


3. They’re more than digital-only


They may have been born as digital natives, but the most savvy of these brands have made that crucial move into physical retail. US real estate firm JLL predicts that over the next five years, direct-to-consumer companies could open up to 850 stores. Casper has ambitions for 200 stores by 2021. Beauty brand, Glossier, has experimented with highly experiential, Instagrammable pop-ups (that were mobbed by its fans, by the way) and now has flagships in Los Angeles and New York. Heist opened its first ‘demostudio’ in London in 2018. The strategies behind these spaces differ but all deliver interactive, social, educational experiences, rather than being a place just for transactions. 


How does this drive their success?

Countless studies show that physical stores still play an important role in the bulk of retail sales, especially for Gen Z and Millennials. They’re an important part of our decision-making process and the most successful D2C brands capitalise on this, either through stand-alone stores or concessions. Physical experiences bring online and offline worlds together to improve the customer experience and drive sales. They offer fantastic opportunities to capture data on consumer behaviour, likes and dislikes, through the use of smart in-store technology, and are a highly cost-effective route to recruiting new customers too. We worked with Instagram-born, The Couture Club, to bring its influencer lifestyle to life with its first ever store – a place for its core customers to gather and hang-out before a night out. We also helped beauty blogger and global influencer, Huda Kattan, launch her brand into the physical realm in the UK, with experiential concessions in Selfridges. 


4. They listen to their customers


More than any of the other traits that D2C brands have, there is one that really sets them apart from competitors – they’re good listeners. That’s because they’re generally pretty smart at capturing and using customer data – it’s part of their DNA. They are built from the ground up to listen and respond quickly to what customers are telling them. As a result, they understand their customers’ needs and how they want to shop, and build stand-out, customer-centric experiences to meet these expectations. 


How does this drive their success?

Right now, this vanguard of brands are ahead, but soon others will have learnt from their success and direct-to-consumer will be the way many brands in our lives operate. Listening to customers and acting on these insights is vital for direct-to-consumer brands to continue to evolve and thrive. Look at any 12 year old now and imagine how they will shop in 5 years’ time. Personalisation of products, services and offers will be important – getting this right is about listening and building meaningful relationships with your consumers.


5. They turn customers into fans


Those D2C brands that do all of the above well – have a clear, compelling purpose, behave ethically, engage in both the real and virtual worlds, and listen to their customers to deliver exceptional experiences – will build a fan-club not customer-base. Disruptive beauty brands, Glossier and Huda Beauty, are masters of this. Glossier describes itself as a ‘customer-owned’ and uses its social channels as a powerful platform for its community to directly engage with each other and share product recommendations. 


How does this drive their success?

Last year, Glossier’s CEO, Emily Weiss, highlighted social sharing as one of the company’s biggest growth drivers, maintaining that nearly 80% of customers are referred to the brand by a friend. If fans love the brands they shop with, and want to share this love with whoever will listen, driving recruitment of new customers. Crucially, cultivating a community also brings valuable feedback on a brand’s products and services – insight that can be fed into improvements and product innovation. 


Ready to Take Control?


Start Design has helped direct to consumer brands, The Couture Club and Huda reach out to its customers through their own physical retail experiences. If you’d like to talk about how we can help you brand take control, get in touch below.


Read more of Start Design’s thoughts on Direct-to-Consumer brands here 

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