Member Brief: The Mechanics of Belief

It was Hill’s collection of skills that contributed to his meteoric rise. Rarely is the able creator and the idea’s evangelist the same person. The ability to shift from a launch arc to a storytelling arc is one of rarity in today’s economy. There are bootcamps for software engineering; there is no formal study for the mechanics of belief. Consider this the first step in that direction.

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No. 331 Part One: As Seen on TV

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In a private New York City dining room sat a few dozen executives across digital media and retail. Of them included companies like The Chernin Group, Cameo, Instagram, Barstool Sports, Stripe, Digiday, Seat Geek, theSkimm, Andie Swim, 2PM, and Zola. These companies ranged from venture-backed DTC brands to digital media companies that are valued well into the nine figures. Everyone had a particular problem to solve. We discussed industry-wide concerns to include: advertising efficacy, margins, scale, and sustainable growth.

On this night, Instagram wasn’t the center of the universe. At least not at first. A rarity given the social media giant’s surroundings. The moment that quieted the room wasn’t one devoted to the foretelling of a new marketing technologies, innovations, or hacks. Rather, it was an anecdote about traditional marketing channels.

Andy Khubani is the CEO of Ideavillage, a holdings company that pumps out well-researched, highly marketable “power brands.” Flawless, a hair removal system for women, was the brand name of his latest success.  A power brand tends to be asset-light, high growth, with high margins, manufacturing leverage, logistics prowess, and a sustainable competitive advantage. 

In 2018, he sold Flawless to Church & Dwight for $450 million (or 2.5 times revenues). In year two, his company grossed $180 million with a 30% EBITDA margin, according to a March 2019 press release. 

To scale the company, he used a traditional style of advertising and promotion. 

Backed by print advertising, ads on New York City taxis and blogging campaigns— to go with the full-scale DRTV campaign— Flawless has quickly become a top-selling retail beauty product in As Seen On TV sections and in-line beauty and shaver departments. [1]

In a room full of digital advertisers, platforms, and merchants – everyone was likely asking themselves the same question: how did he reach critical mass so quickly? With no outside capital raised and no performance marketing spend alloted, Khubani built a brand worth nearly half of a billion dollars in just two years. Absolutely no one in DTC is doing that. The most recent acquisition was of Oars & Alps for $20 million. They raised nearly $7 million. This week, Tristan Walker recorded his episode of “How I Built This.” He sold his company to P&G for less than $40 million. Greats Brand sold to Steve Madden for less than $30 million. I could go on.

Khubani’s magnitude of exit is incredibly rare in the DTC space. Since 2007, fewer than seven DTC brands have exited for a price as high as $450 million. Flawless’ early profitability contrasts most in an industry where LTV:CAC optimization is a law akin to the Old Testament. The widely held consensus is to spend heavily now, despite a lack of profits, to earn a customer for a lifetime. This method extends the horizon and heightens the capital requirement but it also absolves executives of the near term pressure to achieve scale early. The LTV:CAC optimization theory is one that I have found to be disingenuous at best. Markets change, competition arises, technology improves, and consumer sentiments shift with the gusts of pop culture and the zeitgeist.


From No. 310: The DTC Playbook is a Trap

As long as DTC brands attempt to follow what’s been done before them, you too should be skeptical of the industry. Many investors seem to look for a DTC Playbook to hand their portfolio companies. As if to say, “Here is how it’s done. Now execute the game plan!” But it’s likely that it will never be that way. As digital-natives begin competing in traditional retail’s territory, heritage brands should serve as a reminder. They had unique paths to critical mass, very few encountered the predictability that the DTC era seeks.


There seems to be two considerations for challenger brands of today. Either optimize for the early exit or settle into growth over a 15+ year horizon. Venture capital doesn’t typically compel either outcome. It is the pursuit of the uncomfortable “in between,” the 5-10 year horizon, that may be a root of DTC’s liquidity problem. For many companies in that space, there is a lot to learn from power brands. The ones that scale fast and exit. Flawless is but one of many.

As Seen On TV / As Seen In Stores

Over the past weeks, several data points suggested that the days of DTC playbook are long past. As traditional brands adopt the technologies and the web-first approaches to growth, many of them have widened their advantages between their own companies and the challenger products vying for the same shelf space.

eCommerce is a tremendously challenging, frequently unprofitable business. It also doesn’t take into account how much consumers still want to be in person with brands and products and people.

Andy Dunn

In an interesting breakdown by Yotpo VP Raj Nijjer, the retail executive presented a few surprising metrics [2]: Sealy Mattress’ direct to consumer sales surpassed Casper’s total revenue in 2018 despite Casper taking the mindshare of online retail advertising and consumer chatter. He also noted that Madewell: a brand that is primarily driven by physical real estate, traditional advertising, and traditional brochures – will do $534 million through online retail channels.

[Dunn] said that, in the case of Bonobos, the brand’s “most profitable business” today is its partnership with Nordstrom. Bonobos now also boasts 66 brick-and-mortar stores known as “guides shops.” [3]

When Khubani detailed how he built Flawless into a relative powerhouse, he made it clear that part of the problem with the DTC era is the inability to truly compel purchases. In short, few DTC executives know how to actually sell. Many are dependent on the superficiality of the impression as a metric rather than the depth found when executives target more than a consumer’s eye balls.

I don’t really like digitally native vertical brands. What gets me excited are brands that are really strong and direct-to-consumer, but also have got omni.

Andy Dunn

He believes that he has it down to a science. And it’s hard to argue that he’s wrong. When the typical DTC brand or digital media operator considers the word “targeting”, it instills a sense of modernity. “Television ads are inferior to the quantitative capabilities found with Facebook and Instagram,” a refrain that you will hear from the typical media agency founder. Khubani suggested that brand managers should reconsider the definition of “targeting.” While television advertising espouses a broader approach to reach, it targets a different part of the consumer.

Screen Shot 2019-09-16 at 3.32.01 PMThe consistent approach to an Instagram or Facebook ad is to engage the eyes. We visit the app to mindlessly consume images. Rarely do we stongly recall what we’ve seen after we’ve left the app. We don’t tweet about it; we rarely talk about it. That collection of targeted, inline advertisements are calculated impressions. They are visuals that spark a mental consideration by capturing a consumer’s eyes – if only for a second. It’s why you see scrolling .gifs of coupon codes, diagrams with price incentives, or photos of marked with fabric qualities. On social, brand advertising is often a science and not an art. Brand managers are working to compel the sale through the logic of price and comparison. Television is different. It inspires the heart. When we consume our favorite show, we talk about and we spread the joy of consumption through social channels.

On this night, Instagram wasn’t the center of the universe. At least not at first.

Just as a physical billboard that is uploaded to Instagram or Twitter becomes a social ad; a consumer good that we discover on television accelerates the growth curve through social and distributive channels. Those crude “As Seen” advertisements have been known to compel purchases so well that stores devote aisles to the category of products. But in this era, the benefit is even greater for brands like Flawless. Early traction, often fueled by television can equate to wider physical and online distribution. This perpetuates affiliate deals, social influencer participation, and earned media. These are all key performance indicators of DTC marketing traction for many brands.

The Two Andy’s: Dunn and Khubani

It’s been rumored that for that $180 million in 2018 sales, Flawless paid for less than $2 million in traditional advertising. With a $450 million exit + incentives, the return on advertising was clearly remarkable in size and in velocity. But surprisingly, that wasn’t the key takeaway.

As DTC brands improve their ability to sell, they will advertise more like the original direct brands, ones that intrigued consumers through their televisions. These brands compelled the sale via phone, computer, or that distinct shopping aisle in Walmart or Target.

The report, which synthesizes information from 125 top DTC brands representing 52 different categories, found that DTC brands included in the study spent 60% more on television ads in 2018 than they did in 2017, totaling $3.8 billion in television ad spend last year.  [4]

Consumers are due to see more television ads from brands like Away.  But for some categories of products, the production style will shift away from brand statement and towards the longform style of selling that you’ll only find on TV. This new era of retailer will be slow to use television in the longform manner that marketing executives have mastered. The traditional television demographic may not be suitable for many new brands or their products.

But, for certain categories, marketing and distribution strategies will continue to evolve in that direction. These will include many of the cues found in those hard-selling infomercials.  There are new tools available to brands that are looking to adopt more of the merchant’s DNA. As television, billboard, and QVC-like platforms feature more DTC brands, these selling strategies will make their way to digital-first platforms.

In this way, Andy Khubani’s thoughts were prescient. The direct-to-consumer industry commonly appeals to consumers through two styles of media: (1) the lofty brand statement or (2) the coupon code value proposition. The style of advertising that drove Flawless from $0 to $180 million was a combination of both styles, designed to carry the potential customer from discovery, to intrigue, to conversion, to evangelist. As Andy Dunn noted, digitally natives brands will continue to struggle without an omnichannel approach to growth.

Brands are using traditional retail sensibilities to achieve half billion dollar exits by year three. Nearly $534 million in DTC revenue by Madewell, a J. Crew-owned private label headed towards IPO. Walmart building their own brands rather than acquiring digitally natives. And the godfather of the term “DNVB” noting that being a digitally native is now a disadvantage.

In the coming months, DTC brands will build around the aforementioned style of television advertising. They will test it on platforms like Instagram, ads will playfully mimic the cadence and tone. They’ll build the processes out on newer platforms tailor-made to achieve efficiently scalable levels of reach and engagement. The two Andy’s seemed to be advocating for similar best practices. By 2018, the cloud-based technologies commonly used by online-first brands had been widely adopted by legacy retailers. For challenger brands to regain their competitive advantages, they should look to the proven advertising and distribution strategies of the old guard. And then, they should make them their own.

Read the No. 331 curation here.

Report by Web Smith |About 2PM