By Mike Reed, Founder and ECD, Reed Words, a verbal branding and copywriting agency with offices in London, New York and Manchester.
DTC is dead proclaim the business soothsayers. Really? If turning over $111 billion+ is “dead,” plenty of other sectors must be praying for a swift demise. In the Tarot, Death symbolizes not oblivion, but transformation. And that feels closer to to the truth: this is an industry evolving — as all industries do..
No evolution is without its challenges, of course. As DTC brands have proliferated, their success had bred many copycats — especially with such apparently low barriers to entry. And even among the big names, there have been accusations of “blanding” — of a space awash with the same, pastel-colored “millennial aesthetic”.
A recent Bloomberg article references the Colgate Hum toothbrush, a DTC brand that looks (and sounds) remarkably similar to its rival Quip — as well as a bunch of other, URL-friendly dental brands: Goby, Burst, Boka, Brüush, Gleem and Shyn.
Naming, of course, is just the tip of the verbal branding iceberg. And DTC suffers as much from copycat copy as identical identities. How many origin stories have you read along the lines of “We were planning our daughter’s first birthday party when we realized there was no reliable method for blowing up balloons. So we set out to invent our own…”?
But like colors or fonts, words can be powerful as well as generic. So when we spoke to some DTC experts, we weren’t surprised to find that language featured heavily in their advice. Here’s what we heard:
Be True To You, And Uniquely You
In many ways, this is Branding 101: be unlike anyone else. And as always, that’s easier said than done.
The early days of DTC saw a flurry of truly distinctive brands—often with language at their hearts. Dollar Shave Club famously created a viral pitch where the spiky, brave — and hilarious — brand voice was key.
By comparison, Allbirds went warm and mission-driven with lines like Tread light, live large, and Better shoes in a better way. And Warby Parker defined their own voice (in 2012) as “witty, yet sincere; casual, yet composed; sophisticated, yet accessible”.
These were brands paying close attention to words as a brand asset.
Getrude Allen, CEO of personalized dog-food brand PetPlate, recognizes how a highly individual voice can speak to multitudes. “The more we sound like PetPlate,” she says, “the more success we have.”
Having started out with a relatively default DTC voice, aimed primarily at millennials, PetPlate realized they were neglecting a whole subset of customers: empty nesters.
“In 2020,” Allen recalls, “we asked for the language to be softer and more approachable—and really tie it to the mission. The deep dive was: Who are we? What are we trying to do?” Being super-clear on those fundamentals created the foundations of an authentic—and distinctive—voice.
PetPlate chose ’90s nostalgia as their inspiration, with flavor names like Barkin’ Beef and Chompin’ Chicken, which helped bridge the gap between their different audiences. Channeling an era rather than a “persona” has, says Allen, opened up new creative opportunities in everything from from packaging to emails.
PetPlate has found a voice that’s authentic and resonant for customers of various ages. They’ve proved how powerful it is to start with the truth of your brand—rather than trying to fit in with the crowd.
Brand Isn’t Just For The Brand Team
A brand is made up of everything your business does, every day. Not just ads or packaging, but the people you hire, the emails you puts out, the investments you make. Brand should guide every decision — and every decision shapes the brand.
So you have to be crystal-clear on what your brand is all about, and make sure everyone else is too — inside and outside the organization. In fact, businesses are increasingly making their brand guidelines public, to help attract both customers and talent.
Fran Gaitanaros is an independent brand consultant and advisor, formerly with Sakara, Birchbox and One Kings Lane. She says: “Many people think, ‘Oh, a brand book is only useful for a creative team,’ but it’s an amazing tool that should be referenced in so many ways.
“From onboarding new hires, to finding the right partnerships, to casting and product development and so on … it’s only effective if it’s socialized, referenced and put into practice often.”
That includes verbal. “Good brand copy should be distinct,” Gaitanaros says. “If I close my eyes, I should be able to identify the brand just by listening.” That’s a high bar, but a good aspiration. If you sound like anyone, you kind of sound like no one.
Language is a unique brand asset, because it’s the only one everyone in your team deploys, every day. The way someone in CRM responds to an email — that’s your brand voice, as much as an Instagram ad or your on-pack copy. That CRM colleague needs as clear a sense of the brand as your logo designer.
Brand is not a team — it’s what you are as a business.
Your Story Is As Important As Your Product
Sure, people buy products. But they choose more than just features. The story you tell as a brand, and the experience you create, is critical too.
For one thing, the huge Gen Z audience famously cares about the ethics of a brand as well as quality and price. One report found that 90% of Gen Z “believe companies must act to help social and environmental issues,”,and that “75% will do research to see if a company is being honest when it takes a stand on issues.” A good story isn’t enough for this audience—it has to stand up to scrutiny.
Another challenge for DTC brands is the lack of a physical experience. A 2022 poll found that 54% of US consumers preferred shopping in physical stores — compared to 21% who chose their phones.
A store creates a rich, layered, enjoyable experience. So DTC brands have to think hard about how they can create an equally compelling experience — on a screen you can hold in your hand.
How can you tell a story that connects with the values-driven Gen Z? And create an experience that competes with a physical store?
Sachi Singh knows these challenges well. As founder & CEO of Rootless a sustainable seaweed company, she understands the value of getting a story across — fast. Especially for a product that’s new to many.
Rootless offers delicious daily seaweed bites packed with healthy ingredients. But Singh knows it’s not enough simply to list the benefits. The Rootless website and marketing also work hard to create an intriguing, premium experience—and compelling narrative—around the product.
“People trust science,” Singh says. “We wanted the health benefits of seaweed to feel accessible. The pain point you’re solving is the one funnel you’re messaging around.”
Rootless is building a new “whole health” narrative around seaweed, across various channels, and their language is being adopted across the industry. They’re educating their audiences in a new vocabulary of food—but making it feel like a journey of discovery, not a lecture.
Find Your Focus — And Keep It
DTC is changing, not dying. Founders are finding new ways to launch their brands, tell their stories and reach their audiences. That’s forcing each DTC brand to focus on its own niche — what it does, and why that’s right for its customers.
For example: the doormat might seem too commonplace an item to consider reinventing. But DTC brand Porte+Hall has done just that—with multi-million-dollar success. The brand’s founder and CEO, Stafford Meyer, had a background in interior design. That told her there was an audience who cared about first impressions, and understood the difference a high-quality mat could make.
Meyer thought hard about what that audience really wanted from a doormat and created the stylish, durable mats to meet that need.
As she puts it: “Nobody loves their mat, but everybody has a mat. So why can’t it be something that brings you joy and works well for you? You go for a disposable one that you buy at the hardware store and you’re replacing it every six to twelve months. Why can’t it be beautiful and last?”
That understanding of her audience, the quality of the product, and the clarity of Porte+Hall’s story have turned Meyer’s original insight into a multi-million-dollar business.
Quality, not quantity, may be the way forward. That’s the view of Caley Adams, founder of Wildes District, a design studio specializing in emerging women’s and e-commerce brands.
“For a period of time,” she says, “there were so many brands jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of doing it—and copying and pasting a method. I think the ones that didn’t do it for the right reasons will fade away. There’s a thinning out as the past era closes.” Far from proclaiming DTC dead, she excited for its future, and encourages brands to hire people who really understand their brand’s unique focus.
As DTC evolves, brands will rise and fall, change tack—and potentially change the whole industry. As always, those who understand the importance of brand, and who tell a focused story that’s both unique to themselves and tailored to their audiences, will have the advantage.
In a clamorous sector, filled with competing claims, your voice — and what you say with it — can make all the difference.