Issue No. 267: On DNVB Branding


What’s next in DNVB branding? Every vertical brand story has its beginning. For lifestyle and fashion DNVBs that are fortunate enough to work with the finest branding agencies, this story often begins with its founder’s biography, the problem that product x begins to solve, and proclamations of the brand’s inevitable staying power. It’s a short history, as most are in online-first retail. But it’s also a forward-thinking approach, one designed for: eCommerce, Instagram and Google advertising, and third party delivery. Less “we’ve been” and more “we will be.”

According to the godfather of the term, “DNVBs are maniacally focused on the customer experience and they interact, transact, and story-tell to consumers primarily on the web.” As brands begin to focus on off-line retail, you’ll begin to find that the packaging around the brands will change with that focus. Whereas technology and futurism appealed early on (2010-2014), the brands that succeed over the next ten years will focus on heritage as much as they focus on futurism.

Phase One (2010-2014): Technology

Warby Parker is the best example by a mile. The brand grew by implementing a practice that other direct-to-consumer companies had not. The company worked to eliminate all barriers to purchase by implementing tools designed to facilitate an ingenious customer experience. For this first phase of DNVB marketing, the eCommerce brand’s technology was the draw. The product is nominal and affordable but the access to it became just as much a part of the brand as the eyewear itself. Take this excerpt from a 2013 Wall Street Journal article co-written by Kevin Lavelle and me:

We are now in the age of e-commerce 3.0, where entrepreneurs can launch companies with few barriers to entry. eCommerce 1.0 consisted of crude online shopping in the ’90s offered by a few businesses met with significant consumer skepticism. This evolved into the more sophisticated interactions of e-commerce 2.0 in the mid 2000s, when most companies realized that if they weren’t online, they were endangering their future.

A new time is here — and the power no longer lies in the hands of a few buyers at large stores. Bigger businesses can be upended by an upstart competitor with a superior product. And retail startups no longer have to endure the long, slow road of trade-show hopping to get their product in front of a handful of buyers, or giving away a hefty portion of each sale to distributors.

Phase Two (2014-2018): Comedy

Dollar Shave Club’s 1m33s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” video was developed to promote the launch of a (since-acquired) brand and has now been viewed over 25 million times. This internet ad is considered one of the premier examples of top funnel marketing and DSC’s brand of humor has since influenced other mens-focused brands to pursue humor as a means of brand differentiation: Chubbies (no. 67), Untuckit (no. 48), Tommy John (no. 54), and Mizzen+Main (no. 86).

Capturing one customer by way of a top funnel direct-to-consumer ad can cost upwards of $20 per click on Facebook. Digital advertising can be costly. To counter these steadily rising costs, brands have been stimulating awareness, interest, and consideration cycles by promoting a viral brand video. It achieves awareness, consideration, and intent.

Most importantly, introducing mainstream users to your brand and getting them to clickthrough for more information allows marketers to use tools like Facebook’s pixel to retarget casual visitors, moving them further down the sales funnel. Appealing to casual customers was an effective way of increasing top funnel traffic.

Phase Three (2018-forward): Heritage

Brands that began as the embodiment of online-first retailers are now expected to rival age-old incumbents, as they grow their annual revenues well beyond nine figures. Incumbent competitors are still around and some are even stronger than they were before the emergence of online rivals. All the while, new brands are beginning to compete on old-aged ground: mall retail, brick and mortar shops, and traditional advertising. The internet was supposed to completely eliminate these channels, instead, it provided cover until online retailers were prepared to go physical.

eCommerce has matured and physical retail has evolved into a more effective channel. As such, we’re beginning to see brands take on the traits of heritage companies. But if you’re eight years old, you won’t have much of a heritage story. For every Abercrombie, Filson, Ralph Lauren, Lily Pulitzer, Ray Ban, and Tag Heuer, there is a digitally vertical brand like Harry’s, Allbirds, and Outdoor Voices hoping to achieve staying power.

Heritage brands work to maintain heritage, while striving for futurism through of product and channel innovation (see Cole Haan). For heritage brands, presenting an aura of staying power means that the products and channels will present as forward-thinking for a millennial-driven, omni-channel age.

Meanwhile, vertical brands work to establish their products as an evolution of heritage products, while maintaining as many of their technological advantages as possible. For digitally vertical brands, longevity is projected by tethering to history and tradition.

The next wave in DNVB branding will be focused on developing history and tradition. Brands will deepen their roots by way of product collaborations, messaging, and unique origin stories of their own.

Look no further than this example of a heritage maker and vertical brand accomplishing both of their messaging objectives with one collaboration.

Messaging: “Legacy brands approve of us, they want us around.”


Long before designer dad sneakers infiltrated fashion hot spots across the globe, the New Balance 574 set the gold standard for what a well-designed, chunky, retro runner should be. It looked great when it launched in 1988, and in 2018 it manages to look stylish on just about anyone who wears it—actual dads included. Over the years, the 574 has become the go-to New Balance model when it comes to collaborations, too, so it’s seen a fair number of upgrades and interactions. But the latest collab—with the high-tech clothing label Ministry of Supply—brings the 574 into the ultra-performance future.  – Tyler Watamanuk, GQ

Messaging: “The finest legacy brands trust our platform.”

This month, Mr. Porter launched a tongue-in-cheek collaboration with Prada. As luxury continues to grow online, Mr. Porter is pushing to become the destination for such wares. This type of heritage nod goes a long way with consumers.

Since the 1990s, the brand has maintained an enviable position firmly at the forefront of fashion, to the extent that it has become a household name, a byword for sleek elegance, forward-looking design and, yes, a lot of fun print shirts. So great is the admiration for the brand’s wares in the MR PORTER office that there was something of a festival atmosphere when, in September 2016, we became the first online store to offer Prada’s much-coveted menswear collection.

Messaging: “We’re the future the past has been waiting for.”

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Tristan Walker’s Bevel is one of the rare DNVBs that opted out of working with a branding agency, in favor of handling brand and marketing in house (and with people of color to maximize authenticity).  Walker has always led in the heritage branding space and it will pay off, Bevel is ahead of the curve here. When potential customers see the products on the shelves of major retailers and boutique apothecaries, they are likely to believe that the brand has been around for decades.See the campaign here.Heritage and vertical brands seek longevity in an evolving retail space.

Online shoppers flock to forward-thinking and entertaining branding. But brands that have been born out of physical retail are steeped in tradition – the aromas of the stores, the photography, the wood and metals. These elements serve to remind the consumer that it trusts the brand’s quality and longevity. DNVB’s will begin using heritage branding methods to establish longevity of their own.

Read the rest of the issue here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM

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