DTC: When your Specialty Appears to Be Mainstream

In the topsy-turvy world of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, my world has become ever more topsy.

Recently a client asked for a one-pager on best practices for DTC advertising. My answer was that the shortest format I could provide would be a book. I might have been exaggerating, but there is certainly more knowledge necessary than can be put on one PowerPoint slide. Even setting up a new Bluetooth headset requires a quick start guide four pages long.

I can protest this all I want, but there is now a feeling in the business that just about anyone can make an effective DTC ad. Well, at least anyone with a Shutterstock account. It may appear to be true because, over the past few years, so many new DTC brands were launched and so many of them have seen some level of success. So, they must be doing something right, right?

Not necessarily. First of all, it’s been obvious that for almost all of these DTC products, there is a base level of customers. So, acquiring the first hundred thousand is not that hard. It’s the second hundred thousand, and the third, that gets challenging. And even those who now have a million customers are currently finding it very expensive to get to two million. With cheap media and a certain amount of low-hanging fruit, success early on is relatively easy; but when the media gets more expensive and with increased competition, scaling over the long term is the challenge.

Which takes us back to “best practices.”

Over the years, certain techniques and tactics have proven very reliable for producing sales. That is why there are so many clichés in the creative you see; so many new brands simply copy what other successful brands have done. But just having a list of those techniques and tactics is no guarantee of producing a winner. To hit the jackpot, a brand needs to meld the selling with the right brand positioning. And that positioning is essential because, when scaling gets tough, differentiation will carry the day. Another key is to be very intentional about the brand you want. Once deeply set, an “accidental brand” will be expensive to change. Or impossible to change. So, you need to start shaping the brand you want from early on—ideally from day one.

To achieve that (the melding of selling and branding), each piece of selling needs to be, what we call at Rain the Growth Agency, “Transactional Brand Building.” Each piece of communication needs to sell in a manner consistent with the long-term brand goals. And how to achieve that is not something a person can glean from a one-pager. It takes, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote, many thousands of hours. Or, as Picasso supposedly said to the woman who questioned the value of a portrait he drew in five minutes, “It did not take only five minutes. To create this, Madame, it took a lifetime.”

Chefs, musicians, poets, painters, pilots, athletes… each develops an instinct through hours and hours of practice. Practice means lots of experimenting, lots of success and lots of failure. And with each success and each failure comes valuable feedback. And that learning is integrated into the next execution and the next.

Can I explain how to do effective DTC advertising in a one-pager? Yes, probably. But does that mean someone can easily integrate those notes into their work? Probably not. If I write down how to hit a tennis ball, will that make your next serve an ace?

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