Member Brief: A Neighborhood of Goods

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If you asked anyone around the table at last night’s Executive Member Roundtable in Soho, one of the issues facing the maturing DtC industrial complex was an obvious one. There is a lagging effort in commercial real estate to attract these emerging brands – a growth trigger that could potentially revitalize stuttering malls by attracting a new cohort to Tier B malls. The irony of the conversations around physical retail weren’t lost upon any of the industry leaders at the table. We were in the heart of Soho, Manhattan. If you walked a tenth of the mile in any direction, you’d see the physical manifestation of nearly every top 30 DNVB in the market: Casper, Glossier, Warby Parker, Bonobos, M. Gemi, Rowing Blazers, Aesop, Aether, Birchbox, Harry’s, Theory, and the list goes on.

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No. 295: Asymmetrical Warfare


The truth is somewhere in the middle. It involves nuance and an unbiased view at the industry as whole to understand what’s occurring, as things change with light speed. The recent article in The Economist paints a pretty picture of a DTC industry. The industry, as a whole, is a lot more difficult than newly-minted retail entrepreneurs would like to think. Two things can be true: (1) stodgy old brands are run by career executives that don’t understand agility or innovation (2) most DTC brands will fail because they are run by former management consultants or recent MBA grads who do not value the powers of brand, relationships, and community.

Asymmetrical warfare:  warfare involving surprise attacks by small, simply armed groups on a nation armed with modern high-tech weaponry.

Direct to consumer brands are difficult to scale. The assumption often made is that you can spend on design, manufacturing, packaging, and then acquisition. Spend, spend, spend, spend. Thus, the endless VC raises of $30 million or $50 million or even $100 million. The problem is that while able entrepreneurs can outsource design, manufacturing, packaging, and even acquisition – incumbent brands were built on relationships, consistency, value, and trust. Traditional DtC acquisition channels cannot immediately facilitate trust or value. That part takes an insane amount of work and consistency. It also takes offline interaction, a phenomenon that we’re watching in real time as “nearly 850 stores are due to open in the next five years.” [Forbes]

Industry giants took time to begin worrying about the arrival of game-changing newcomers; barriers to entry in their business are high. But by now the incumbents are stagnating. According to Nielsen, a consultancy, the biggest 25 food-and-beverage companies, for example, generated 45% of sales in the category in America but drove only 3% of the total growth in the industry between 2011 and 2015 (see chart). A long tail of 20,000 companies below the top 100 produced half of all growth.

Economist: Growth of Microbrands Threatens CPG Giants

If you ask Publicis Groupe’s EVP of Innovation Tom Goodwin about direct to consumer (DtC) brands, he will give you an earful. To be fair, defending Procter & Gamble is one of his chief functions. P&G is so important to his employer that they just announced a Cincinnati office to support P&G’s advertising strategies. In a October 22nd article that he wrote, he includes this hearty passage:

DNVBs may be a flash in the pan, they don’t have moats, they have fickle brands, they can die as soon as they fade and we can’t keep talking to the 1/100 companies that make it as anything other than survivorship bias.

Marketing Week

He’s not entirely wrong. Just a few days earlier, I’d published an article on DTC brand defensibility where I wrote on how surviving brands established the moats necessary to be more than a flash in the pan. This era of the consumer web is defined by two groups jarring over you: the affluent, intelligent, busy, and principled consumer. We are communicating many of the same elements while landing on two distinct conclusions: he believes that DNVBs cannot last and I believe that they can. Our professional experience shades our opinions here. Five years ago: Jeff Blee, the former VP of buying and planning for Brooks Brothers, commented on an early stage DtC shirt maker:

Unperturbed by the newcomer, there would always be a market for shirts he described as “newer.” And, “any competition was good news.”

New York Times

The iconic menswear brand has since adopted a Joseph A. Bank discount strategy (four shirts for $200) and Mr. Blee now runs a DtC apparel startup. This war between old and new is not limited to consumer packaged goods, or luggage, or dress shirts, or wooly shoes. It’s everywhere. In a recent article by someone at Business of Fashion (no byline), they discuss the woes of L Brands’ Victoria’s Secret and how “it can save itself.

And yet, Victoria’s Secret still feels as though it’s stuck in a time capsule: an era when it was okay, even expected, to openly project the male gaze on women’s bodies, when uncomfortable push-up bras with air pumps were viewed as innovative, when people still shopped at the mall. This season’s show felt like an homage to itself. Between set changes, archival footage played in the background.

Their article builds on an earlier report by 2PM, where we laid out the increasing competition faced by the legendary intimates incumbent. What we’re seeing here is an onslaught by new, cheaper-to-run brands that are appealing to the senses and wallets of communities primed to look elsewhere. Not only are companies like L Brands (Victoria’s Secret parent company) and P&G (Gillette’s parent company) and Brooks Brothers competing on a shifting grounds of price, ease, and selection; they are competing on culture (size inclusivity, the “pink tax”, and shifts in where / how we work).

Look no further than the pushback facing the Victoria’s Secret CMO, 70-year-old Ed Razek, who was quoted to have said, “we attempted to do a television special for plus-sizes [in 2000]. No one had any interest in it, still don’t.” Fighting a battle on multiple fronts takes sensible leaders within an organization built for agility. These leaders must also be empathetic to consumers and progress. Needless to say, Razek’s comments were tone deaf and aloof. Currently, several top brands are competing against the L Brands subsidiary by designing and marketing more inclusive products. In No. 271, I wrote that Victoria’s Secret needed an update:

In addition to intimates brands expanding into VS’ territory, there are adjacent pressures from the athleisure market, an evolving beauty market, and the rejection of lingerie by consumers looking for comfort, function, and individuality. Rather than continue competing against the likes of Adore Me (21), THINX, Inc. (31), and Third Love (51), or Savage x Fenty, Victoria’s Secret could re-invest in the brand, messaging, and end-to-end processes by following Wal-Mart’s lead.

The news around Victoria’s Secret’s latest fashion show was, by all accounts, a fiasco. But the solutions are right before them. They should observe the legacy CPG industry. There, innovation often involves: youth, acquisition, and agility. Procter and Gamble is doing just that. The CPG conglomerate recently restructured to form smaller, agile teams and the Cincinnati company is open to acquisitions.

The evolution of the DTC era has more and more brands competing in physical retailers, adjacent to the CPG, apparel, and shoe companies who’ve existed for decades. There are dozens of brands, in each market segment, looking to compete for your dollars.  Tom Goodwin is correct in his assessment of many of the brands who have raised exorbitant amounts of capital to acquire customers via paid media.

But that’s not the characteristic of the entire DtC industry. As media buying becomes more difficult for challenger brands, more direct-to-consumer brands will shutter. And competition will become more symmetrical and predictable as the hundreds of new brands narrow down to the sturdier dozen. P&G will shake off much of the newfound competition by adopting many of challengers’ practices (and brand IP via acquisition), as many begin to compete on familiar territory. But there will always be room for the independent challenger brands that get it right.

Read the No. 295 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM Executive Membership

Continued reading: CircleUp CEO Ryan Caldbeck’s latest thread on the aforementioned Economist article.

No. 294: Brands must hack culture


NEW YORK — In just a few short years, Fab went from a $1 billion valuation to a $15 million fire sale.

Across eCommerce, success is more unpredictable than ever. When it comes to culture-driven products, things that worked in the past often do not work in the future – the sheer number of Avengers sequels notwithstanding. But despite the inherent unpredictability of our tastes and the complex way they interact, venture capital still places a heavy bet on pattern recognition. These patterns: be it a proprietary product, low-cost customer acquisition tactics, or the ability to reach scale fast – are hardly reliable predictors of success.

For example, Harry’s proprietary product is manufactured in its German factory. Insourcing manufacturing was a great initial way to differentiate their razors from Gillette’s low-quality but expensive razors. But, superior product quality has since become table stakes in the shaving market, with a number of startups all offering the same key features. Five years and $375 million venture dollars later, Harry’s has only 5% market share in the traditional retail sales market. It is a distant third in the online manual shave market. Not until Target provided its massive distribution muscle, did Harry’s growth begin to tilt upwards. To stay competitive in this mass market, Harry’s now needs to worry about the shelf space and brand marketing – just like the incumbent. 

Dollar Shave Club, with 21% of the online market share, was not profitable when Unilever bought it in 2016. Its media-beloved Youtube ad was viewed more than 25 million times since 2012. Social media was responsible for Dollar Shave Club’s awareness but that form of media also undid its staying power. The main lesson: awareness doesn’t equal conversion and fast user growth doesn’t mean profitability.

To hack growth, startups have to – first – hack culture.

In addition to the usual signals, venture capitalists should look into whether or not a company has roots in trend or subculture. A subculture is made up of people who are more informed and passionate about a topic than anyone else. They are likely to be beta-testers, source material, and advocates for a new product or service. Cycling brand Rapha started from cycling obsessives. Apparel brand Patagonia started from the subculture of social responsibility. A deep subculture entrenchment ensures that a company can maintain and enhance its difference as it scales. Long-term defensibility has more to do with whether a company can believably connect with a community through the shared things. This takes precedence over a proprietary product or its acquisition channels.

Success also has to do with what Japanese call kuuki wo yomu or, reading the atmosphere. In the October 2013 article titled Yes, Real Men Drink Beer and Use Skin Moisturizer, Bloomberg magazine quotes Mintel’s data on the 5-year rise in the global sales of personal-care merchandise geared to men. Harry’s was founded earlier that year, Dollar Shave Club two years prior. Both of them capitalized on the shift in the culture of modern masculinity, but neither of them invented it.

The shift was already happening. As sociologist Duncan Watts notes in his research on social influence: if a society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one. But if it isn’t then almost no one can. The success of Harry’s or Dollar Shave Club didn’t have to do much with a spiffy video or on the German factory-produced razors. It had more to do with how susceptible men already were to the idea of grooming and how easily persuaded they were to invest in it.

Social influence is often mistaken for disruption.

The dynamics of how trends spread are shifting from (1) brands, media, and retailers pushing ideas to (2) mass market exploitation to the (3) networks of niches and taste communities. Both startups and VCs have to consider social processes that ultimately define success of their inventions.

In addition to engineering products and services, startups then need to engineer social influence in their market. The fastest way is to piggyback on the already existing social influence, and amplify it through go-to-market strategy that emphasizes social activity among a company’s initial following. This social activity then serves an ad for a product or service aimed at the mass audience. Luggage brand Away’s initial community of travelers – and their stories – became an ad for its products; rides of the Rapha’s Cycling Clubs are the ad for Rapha’s gear.

Social activity in a market accumulates social capital. How a social currency is going to be created and exchanged is the inherent part of business plan. It’s a business’ core value unit. And whether a company has the potential to build and trade in social currency should become part of venture capitalist’s evaluative criteria. Beauty brand Glossier’s currency is beauty preferences of its fans. Glossier’s currency is so strong that this brand is now creating the entire marketplace around it. Social currency builds scale, defensibility, and network effects.

To prevent social currency from being devalued due to the reverse network effects, companies need to maintain and grow their distinction as they scale. The best way to do this is through product and service diversification. A brand is an umbrella for a portfolio of unique products. Streetwear brand Supreme mastered the art of distinction, with a large part of its audience owning unique brand products. Product diversification increases the number of bets, reduces risk, preserves social currency, and organizes a company around the inherent unpredictability of people’s tastes.

The ultimate irony of the popular disruption narratives is that they venerate a deeply anti-social attitude. They celebrate an outsider and a renegade who “moves fast and breaks things.” But without social influence that creates the susceptible mood and allows the new products, services, and ideas to spread, there is no “disruption.” Instead of applauding the world’s outliers, we should direct our attention to the society that makes them thrive. There should be a sociologist among engineers.

Read the No. 294 curation here.

By Ana Andjelic| Edited by Web Smith.  About Ana: named to Forbes CMO Next list, Ana was most recently the Chief Brand Officer of Rebecca Minkoff. She has earned her doctorate degree in sociology and worked at the world’s top advertising agencies. She’s also a frequently published author, public speaker and writer. She lives in New York City.