Check out our new book, Badvertising! Learn how to ascertain the integrity of your agency.

How These Disruptive Direct to Consumer Darlings Are Building The Future, And How Your Brand Can Too

By Scott Ginsberg, Head of Content, Metric Digital

“Average companies focus on profit, good companies focus on value, but great companies focus on building the future.”

This insight comes from Facebook’s latest State of Disruption Annual Report, which provides a deep dive into how disruptive direct to consumer brands are achieving such rapid growth.

Their internal mantra, “move fast and break things,” is more than lip service for hackers, it’s a legitimate marketing strategy.

And it’s one that your company can embrace.

Even if you’re not a digitally native vertical brand.

Metric Digital is proud to be the agency that powers marketing for some of the best, most disruptive direct to consumer brands (Bonobos, Buffy, Mack Weldon, Maude, Mizzen + Main). We’ve spent the last several years learning firsthand what it takes for a small brand to reshape their industry, and also what it takes for a large brand to protect against disruption from competitors.

Our thesis is:

Disruptor brands aren’t startups, they’re performance marketing companies. These brands require disruptor agencies who act like growth partners. When these marketers work at the pace and in a manner that combines expertise in retail, ecommerce, and digital, these brands build the future.

In this post, we’ll look at several successful direct to consumer brands who have done precisely that. We’ll also share performance marketing strategies and tactics based on experience executing campaigns for our own clients. With these insights, your brand will be equipped to increase profit, build value, and most importantly, build the future.

Here’s an overview of today's direct to consumer brand roster: 

Honest Company, Harry’s, Soylent, Tommy John, Thinx and Away Luggage.

Now, before we dig into these individual companies, let’s first ask the big question: What does building the future actually mean for a brand?

Two words: Behavioral change.

Schrage writes in his bestselling book about innovation that the biggest winners are the companies whose customer is a noticeably different person because of their product. These are the brands who build the future because they literally change the behavior of the people who live in it.

“Innovation is about designing customers, not just new products. It’s about innovatively investing in who you want your customers to become. Instead of asking how you can become more innovative, you ask how to make your customers more innovative.”

Now that’s disruptive.

Shrager’s research found that successful innovations rebrand their customers, not just their products, services, or enterprise. Successful innovators don’t just ask customers and clients to do something different; they ask them to become someone different.

Honest Company, Harry’s, Soylent, Tommy John, Thinx and Away Luggage have all done this in their own unique way.

What are you asking your customers to become?

Answer that question (and throw in a lot of grit) you will disrupt your way into building the future. 

Let’s begin deconstructing several of the brands who are already making this happen for their customers.

# # #

Honest Company: Founded 2011

Honest Company makes effective, eco friendly, and beautifully designed products for babies, parents, and the homes where they live. Founded by actress Jessica Alba, the company started as a digital native, powered by monthly delivery subscriptions. But as they’ve grown, this brand now also sells products in big retail chains.

Google did a case study on how Honest Company used in-market audiences targeting to increase conversions, and another one on how campaign drafts and experiments increased customer lifetime value and better return on ad spend. Localytics also conducted a cool case study around mobile first marketing. Worth checking out.

But you don’t have to look very far to see why they’re valued at over one billion. They are part ecommerce, part mainstream retailer and part lifestyle brand. Hell of winning combination.

How is Honest Company’s brand building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become? Alba says it succinctly in their brand story:

People who make convenient and conscious choices for their families.

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Basic branded videos, story driven videos and educational videos are all effective for demonstrating value and driving conversions. 

2. If your creative budget is limited, use static images with changing text overlay in a slideshow format to create movement that leads to conversion.

# # #

Harry’s: Founded 2013
Harry’s manufactures and sells quality shaving equipment and men’s personal care products via online and retail channels. Their brand has so many things going for them. Their origin story, their brick and mortar corner barber shop, not to mention the razor factory in Germany they bought. Their vertical integration reinforces their focus on quality and controlling the product and supply chain from start to finish.

Interestingly, that same feeling of ownership is exactly how customers feel when they interact with the Harry’s brand. They’re in control of their grooming experience.

On a cultural level, the two founders explain how their brand embraces the messiness of masculinity. They seek to counter outdated stereotypes around masculinity, touting that men today are equally as comfortable being nurturing as they are strong, accepting of others as they are confident. 

They also promote a social mission of donating one percent of sales to organizations that challenge stereotypes around masculinity.

How is Harry’s building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become?

Modern men who make considered choices to own a quality grooming experience

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Make sure your product is visually featured front and center in your ads. Don't bury the lead, don't leave any room for confusion.

2. Explicitly feature what makes your product valuable. This is especially potent when you’re marketing a non-tech product with technical features.

# # #

Soylent: Founded 2013
Soylent is a meal replacement drink that started as a successful crowdfunding campaign for a subscription service. They solely utilized an ecommerce business model, both direct to consumer and via Amazon for their first few years. But as the community around it amassed, attracted by the ability to customize nutrition precisely to their unique needs, it grew into a multimillion dollar brand with distribution via direct to consumer as well as traditional retail outlets.

My favorite part: Soylent is highly popular among coders, gamers, engineers and entrepreneurs. As the story goes, tens of thousands of early adopters survived entirely on this product alone. In an interview with their founder, you can clearly see the vision. This product for people who want to make food, food waste, and even global hunger problems, obsolete. Because who has time to eat? These people have got code to write!

How is Soylent building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become?

People who believe eating traditional food is too time consuming, socially inconvenient and environmentally wasteful.

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Make sure your ad answers this campaign narrative question: Who is the kind of person that, if they had this product, and you took it away from them, would feel some sort of pain? More on this strategy in our popular post on Marketing Inception.

2. Capture users quickly. Front load your video with attention grabbing content to ensure they don’t just scroll and go.

# # #


Thinx: Founded 2011
Thinx is a feminine hygiene product company that sells underwear that can be worn during menstruation to absorb blood without leaking. Thinx has won prestigious awards for their innovations, earned a reputation for its provocative advertisements, and most notably, helped make cultural progress around breaking menstruation taboos.

Their brand is mischievous, clever, sexy, and with fifty million dollars in revenue, extremely profitable. They’re also socially conscious, participating in a donation program that provides cloth pads to women and school girls in rural areas, helping the customers become part of their broader social change mission.

Agrawal, the founder, thinks of herself as the taboo queen for the nether regions, which she said in an interview with Business Insider. She also had this to say about her brand:

“By creating this product, we shine a light on the subject and make us ask ourselves why periods not okay to talk about, when it’s the very thing that creates human life.”

How is Thinx building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become?

People who defy expectations, break taboos and live without shame.

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Most video ads in the mobile feed are viewed without sound. Use captions if there is dialogue. Facebook’s caption feature works really well.

2. Idea video length is 10-15 seconds. No longer than 30 seconds. 

# # #

Tommy John: Founded 2008
Tommy John set out to reinvent men’s undergarments. They first launched with their patented undershirt with a stay tucked guarantee. Since then, they not only expanded into underwear, socks, casual wear and performance gear, but also disrupted a crowded industry with many heritage brands.

They entered the market through the traditional route of partnerships with established retailers, but ultimately built out their own direct to consumer ecommerce channel. You can read in Forbes a fascinating data point that Tommy John’s ad campaigns including the no-wedgie guarantee have actually helped their team change consumer behavior permanently. 

When the company was founded, 65% of men’s underwear was purchased by women; in 2017, it was less than 20%.

How is Tommy John building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become?

Men whose experience of buying underwear is as comfortable, supportive, approachable and high quality as the product itself.

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Save on budget with a poor man's video. Compile a series of sequential static photos and piece them together for awesome stop motion concepts

2. Produce for mobile. Consider your dimensions. Make sure your brand story is told well on a small screen.

# # #

Away Luggage: Founded 2015
Away is the last of our digitally native direct to consumer darlings. They found a white space in the affordable luggage market by positioning themselves as a lifestyle brand for millennials who spend their money on experiences, not things. That’s why their brand focuses on travel, not just suitcases. Although bags do have their own phone chargers, which was a first in the industry.

Away has raised $107 million in funding and has sold a half a million of suitcases. Like many of the brands we’ve explored today, they started as a direct to consumer company and now have opened up to a handful of storefronts worldwide. They also publish a few lifestyle magazines.

Korey, their co-founder, summarizes the brand beautifully:

“Your luggage should pull more than its weight, it should be your home between homes, your closet between closets, your outlet between outlets. Because if you’re looking down at your dying phone and broken bag, you can’t see up, out, and ahead to the world in front of you.”

Our team is currently enrolled in Away's class via Business of Fashion, which we also highly recommend.

How is Away Luggage building the future? What new thing are they asking their customers to become?

Travelers who work, connect and go anywhere, making a difference along the way.

Let’s view several of their marketing pieces to see how that comes to life:

How can this disruptive DTC brand help your company build the future? Here are some ad creative tips:

1. Add texture, motion and depth to commodity products. If possible, leverage the production value of how your product is actually made.

2. Sell your product in three dimensions so the customer's tactile expectations are fulfilled. 

# # #

As we reflect on our list, these disruptive direct to consumer darlings didn’t necessarily invent their respective offering:

Honest didn’t invent baby clothes.
Harry’s didn’t invent razors.
Soylent didn’t invent meal supplements.
Tommy John didn’t invent men’s underwear.
Thinx didn’t invent feminine hygiene products.
Away didn’t invent luggage.

But they are really good at performance marketing and customer experience. They found a way to innovate their customers, and their advertising reflects that.

As we wrap up, let's learn from my old friend Seth Godin, who writes in his renowned marketing book that the marketer's quest is to make change on behalf of those we serve:

“We watch people, figure out what person they dream of becoming, and then generously create transactions that can deliver that feeling, a little bit at a time.”

Sadly, though, too many brands (scrappy startups and heritage companies alike) think marketing is merely telling and selling. But the intention and attention behind that ethos is in desperate need of an upgrade. And if it's true that marketing really is the quest to make change, then your company’s thinking can't afford to be small.

If you truly want to build the future, not just create value and make money, through every single marketing touchpoint you need to be reminding customers who you want them to become.

You are the innovator, and they are your innovations.

Instead of trying to cram customers into your marketing plan, focus on leveraging the power of personalized digital marketing tools to show them how your brand fits into their life, and how it makes that life better when it’s there.

Get our tips straight to your inbox, and start driving revenue today.

Thanks!

Scott Ginsberg Head of Content, Metric Digital The Metric Digital Blog A Blog on All Things Digital Marketing