A decade into DTC and the branding landscape has significantly shifted. While finding a consumer goods category to digitally disrupt was a simple task ten years ago, there’s now a flood of competitors across every conceivable sector—from CBD-infused tampons to chef-designed dog food. The easy-to-mimic visual style of DTC brands has been picked up by the multinationals, too, with global corporates launching their own opportunistic disruptor brands, seemingly just to compete with themselves.
In this highly competitive landscape, much has been made about many of the superstar brands of DTC reverting to more traditional marketing methods, be it bricks-and-mortar retail, TV and print ads, or direct mail. Warby Parker, Allbirds, Glossier, and Made.com have all famously embraced omnichannel marketing and IRL in addition to URL. Commentators point to the limitations of social media for scaling brands, the hugely rising costs of social media advertising, as well as a lack of understanding of the broader AdTech landscape and the complexities of effective cross-channel digital marketing.
But there’s also a much simpler way of looking at it too. One of the key reasons people love social media platforms is because they help us be open, connect and share with our friends, and create communities of people whose interests align with ours. Data-driven social media advertising, however, has the opposite effect—it fosters isolated one-to-one communications between brands and their increasingly specific targets. There’s a significant difference between brands using their open social accounts to build a sense of community and collaboration among followers and brands using targeted social advertising for hunting down individuals with impulsive shopping habits.
The best DTC brands get designed to use their social media to make their consumers feel like part of a community, with shared values and common beliefs. And it’s worth noting that a sense of shared values and beliefs is one of the reasons why traditional mass marketing was once so very effective. As consumers grow increasingly uncomfortable with personal ads driven by cookie data, it’s no wonder that the most community-focused DTC brands now embrace a more omnichannel approach and finding a new voice on print billboards and TV.
Despite speed and convenience being essential in today’s world, people still want the opportunity to gather together and get a feel for a brand (and other like-minded consumers) in the physical world. One can foster a community online, but physical experiences provide the opportunity to leverage this and solidify trust—especially as the world of overly targeted digital advertising has done a lot to erode it.
The Integral Role of Design
So what does this changing DTC landscape mean for design? When developing your brand, it’s about ensuring you design around shared-interest communities rather than overly-segmented consumer types. In marketing, as in life, it’s about time we focused on what unites us rather than what divides us. Through design, every touch-point has the opportunity to communicate a value and a shared belief, whether it’s a well-crafted piece of copy or visual equity that reminds people they’re not an island. It is through these thoughtful design elements you can express the cultural nuances of a brand community.
Here are just a few of the emerging DTC brands committed to building communities.
Insect-based pet food brand AARDVARK is all about sustainability, with a digital-first brand designed to build a connected community of people and pets that love the planet. Importantly, therefore, the design focuses on values of community and sustainability rather than insects and pet food codes. The brand imagines a community of pets and people who all share a love for the planet, and it uses social media to bring this community to life. The design has an activist feel but is delivered playfully and optimistically, believing in the power of community to change things.
Electric bike brand Mycle is passionate about a life lived locally. This friendly and community-focused brand is on a mission to connect you to the people and places you belong. Although digital-first, Mycle also uses small pop-up stores in neighborhood locations to engage its audience in an omnichannel way. The flexible visual identity comes designed to reflect values of freedom and friendship with typography and graphic illustrations that champion locality, independence from cars and other gas-guzzling vehicles, and the positive impact on people and the planet, which this delivers.
THE VEGAN KIND
The UK’s biggest vegan supermarket, The Vegan Kind, is so much more than a grocery store to the country’s growing vegan community, as well as the increasing number of people now experimenting with plant-based living. With a clear focus on sustainability, the brand is built around the values of community, collaboration, customer service, and carbon neutrality, appealing to anyone who wants to live a low-impact lifestyle. From a design point of view, the brand’s relaxed and friendly hand-drawn approach softens their serious messages, while vibrant but subtly muted colors bring a natural joy and energy to the brand. A set of values-driven icons—Planetkind, Animalkind, and Humankind—helps its growing community quickly navigate third-party product benefits, such as sustainable, cruelty-free, or fairly-traded.
As people become more mistrustful of targeted advertising and the notion of being profiled as a consumer, the strongest brands are developed based on shared values and beliefs—inviting people to be part of something they can relate to and care about. Developing these brands requires a true expertise in strategic design. And the result can be more valuable than any amount of targeted social advertising.
Lisa Desforges is Head of Strategy at B&B studio, an award-winning independent branding agency specializing in brand creation, visual identity, and packaging design. Suspicious of catch-all insights, Lisa brings bespoke thinking to every project, resulting in the sort of smart, thoughtful, and challenging strategies that drive the studio’s design work for brands like BrewDog, Fever Tree, and BEAR.