Memo: Understanding DTC Backlash

The New Yorker article was on the “illusion of the millennial aesthetic” and it appears that there is reckoning. According to industry operator and analyst Nate Poulin, venture capitalists have invested roughly $22 billion into DTC brands and the total liquidity, thus far, has been about $25 billion. Of that $22 billion invested, many were into brands that were meant to “disrupt the industry.” These were modern brands positioned for the upwardly mobile: beautifully designed, quietly sourced, and well-packaged. It was an aura of excess that propelled design houses to position DTC brands as products for H.E.N.R.Y. But what happens when the consumer falls on hard times? For much of America’s workforce, the past 15 months were just that. And many of life’s luxuries were traded for the steady, the essential, and the trusted. DTC brands, for the most part, are not that.

The question writer Kyle Chayka raises is around whether or not we actually need all this brand disruption, and if the new crop of millennial brands prioritized aesthetic and marketing over functionality. The DTC backlash has begun. I have an opinion as to why:

According to Chayka, Great Jones is one example of the dysfunction of DTC and how a crop of colorways that look good on Instagram can cover a much more troubled company behind the scenes. Other brands either don’t stand up to the quality test or are so overtly “millennial” that they impose: an unnamed brand selling bath towels failed to stand up to more reliable brands, while Away suitcases feel like an embarrassing relic, he writes. Away, however, is an example of a company that has returned to the forefront. Today, it resembles more “orange” than “green.” As the company near’s IPO, it moves towards the bottom of the hierarchy – even if the products remain elevated. Their most recent advertisement was well-received.

On whether or not the millennial brands will stick around, the problem is boiled down to functionality and reliability:

Perhaps it will fade out when customers learn that a compelling narrative is not the same thing as the integrity of a product or of the business selling it. We’ve seen many times before how the growth-at-all-costs startup mentality can backfire.

Reliability has been an incredibly important feature in what we buy over the past year-plus, which brought about anxiety and uncertainty. In more difficult times, legacy brands become the preferred purchase. There’s something to be said about consistency and quality in the middle of a pandemic. Despite spending a lot of time on our phones, being served Instagram ads for new brands and products, the standbys won out. The millennial DTC brands represent a certain amount of excess that falls out of fashion during a crisis. In times of recession or duress, customers flock to brands that feel like necessities. That has meant good news for the old guard, the standbys that might blend in on a Target shelf but are reliable in their quality.

For DTC brands, the next step of growth will be proving themselves as essentials, not just aesthetic excess for a specific cohort of customers that, when put up against a wall, may not prove so loyal. I believe that the faster they prove essential, the less likely these stories will dominate the narrative. And this year will see a number of brands that were once “nascent” become members of the old guard.

By Web Smith | Art: Christina Williams | Editor: Hilary Milnes 

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