Social media provides direct-to-consumer businesses with the rocket fuel they need to scale their business at speed. Get the messaging, visuals and tone right, and they could end up with a brand that looks so at home in their customers’ feeds it feels like they’re engaging with a friend.
It has given startup manufacturing brands a ready-made route to market, enabling them to grow sales rapidly while maintaining an agile business model that established product brands could only dream of. Their challenge is how to turn social media followers into loyal customers that will engage with them on their own platforms.
Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are all key marketing channels for mattress and sleep brand Simba, helping customers discover the business and see what it feels like to unpack one of its mattresses, which are delivered rolled up in a parcel-sized box.
“We are not just able to generate fascination, we are able to show the unboxing, so we can remove some of those barriers that people might feel and explain in detail what it is that makes our product different,” explains brand and communications director, Mario Rauter.
“We tailor the content we put on these channels so everything is native. There’s no point putting a TV ad on there that no one is going to watch. We’ve got very tailored messaging for customers who interact with us and show an interest, to help them understand what the Simba difference is in order to get them to go to our website.”
I really think it’s better to focus on getting 200 customers who are super passionate about your brand, rather than trying to get 200,000 who know about the brand.
Tom Broughton, Cubitts
Instagram is also a crucial part of the marketing mix for fellow sleep brand Eve, explains co-founder and chief brand officer Kuba Wieczorek, who has seen the number of direct-to-consumer brands launching solely on social media rocket upwards over the past 18 months.
“Brands are able to launch a direct-to-consumer offering and consumers almost feel like they already know them because they’re inhabiting the same space as their friends and their family,” he states.
“Social media is a hugely brilliant thing for new brands, but I think all of this stuff has to be viewed with a degree of caution. The fact people are saying, ‘I’m launching in two months, make me a brand’ – well, that’s impossible.”
Wieczorek argues that consumers hold the key to whether a business is a brand or not, and even if you are able to capture the public’s imagination quickly it takes years of trust and producing consistently brilliant products to create a brand.
There are also risks for direct-to-consumer companies selling solely through platforms like Instagram, as there is no retailer acting as a buffer between themselves and the customer if something goes wrong.
Social media is a hugely brilliant thing for new brands, but I think all of this stuff has to be viewed with a degree of caution.
Kuba Wieczorek, Eve
“It’s crazy that on Instagram it’s so easy for a business to launch. You could do any product and there’s no buffer, whereas in the past you had to sell it into retailers and they would advise you and say ‘there’s no market for that’ or ‘you have to make sure you have these health checks’,” Wieczorek states.
“So it’s a bit like the wild west now. To launch as a sustainable, long-term business proposition you have to do all of that background stuff without any of the safety nets there.”
While he can appreciate the benefits of having a strong social presence, Tom Broughton, founder of eyewear business Cubitts, urges other direct-to-consumer brands not to get hung up on chasing followers.
“I think a lot of people look at Instagram influencers with three million or three billion followers and think ‘we must get in front of this massive audience and then we’ll have made it’, when actually you’re not going to have any impact,” he explains.
“You’re much better to have a smaller target audience and really look after those people. I really think it’s better to focus on getting 200 customers who are super passionate about your brand, rather than trying to get 200,000 who know about the brand.”
In Broughton’s opinion the goal for any DTC brand should be slow, incremental growth and building a genuine relationship with a small number of customers who will eventually become advocates themselves.
Consumers are looking for platforms where they can engage with brands that have a personality and use social to bring their product to life, according to Ashleigh Hinde, founder and CEO of contact lenses brand Waldo.
Her business has put a concerted effort into elevating the experience of buying contact lenses from a functional, medical necessity to a lifestyle product. This ethos is visualised through the blue and white spotty packaging, emblazoned with the inspirational motto: ‘Get ready to see happiness’.
This attention to the visual detail makes Waldo a product made for the Instagram generation, although not everyone immediately agreed.
“I remember speaking to investors very early on and they were like: ‘You can’t see the product, how on earth are you going to create that engagement?’ And I just can’t see how that is a fundamental problem,” says Hinde.
“When you create an emotional experience for a customer, just because you can’t see the product doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be building a community and a story around a brand. I think that companies that don’t see that as an opportunity are missing out.”
Playing on the story that vision is a gift enabling you to see the world, Waldo wants to use platforms like Instagram to encourage consumers to get involved in the conversation, a strategy which has resulted in a high level of organic sharing of posts.
One need only look at cosmetics company Glossier for an example of a brand that has grown its business on Instagram. When it launched in 2014 the received wisdom was that startups had to build a strong Facebook following, but Glossier saw its customer base gravitating towards Instagram. Now not only does it source all its models on the platform, the brand also uses Instagram to connect with interesting new collaborators.
However, while social media continues to provide opportunities to scale its brand presence and engagement globally, Glossier’s ultimate ambition is to own that relationship itself.
“Social media right now owns the relationship with the consumer and we’ve been able to use that to get to the customer in better ways than we could have done a few years ago, but now how do we take that one step further?” asked Glossier president and chief operating officer Henry Davis, speaking at Cannes Lions in June.
“At the moment YouTube, Instagram or Facebook owns the context, the environment and the format in which we talk with our own customer and, actually, if we really believe that having customers as a core part of the company is the way to build brands of the future, you have to start to own that relationship.”