In The Before Times, all you had to do was ride the New York City subway to learn all about the newest direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands and products. From mattress merchants to razor retailers, DTC brands had aggressively pursued out-of-home (OOH) ads as the definitive channel to win eyes – and sales – amid consumers’ busy lives. Now, as train cars fill up, drivers dust off their steering wheels and parks are overtaken by foot traffic, DTC brands are back at the OOH game. Here’s what’s happening now, according to some of the top DTC players.
In the summer of 2020, brands could snag a wall or billboard in a prime location in a major market at a discount of nearly 70%. Today, it’s a different story, according to Brian Rappaport, chief executive at OOH agency Quan Media Group. “You cannot buy one awesome unit in SoHo until at least the end of September because everything is sold out, and the same goes for Los Angeles and West Hollywood.”
DTC brands are funneling major marketing dollars back into one of their favorite channels. Among the direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands leading the charge on the return of OOH is Ro, the company that owns Roman and Rory. Its pharmaceutical and personal care lines for men and women have gained traction through approachable subway placements advertising its discreet sexual health and hair loss products.
It’s now gearing up to launch Roman Ready, a new campaign that co-founder and chief growth officer Rob Schutz says is “centered around the energy of the world opening back up and feeling confident and ready for the new possibilities on the horizon”. The campaign will involve major OOH investments, with placements across large swaths of New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The campaign will also involve activation on TV and local radio.
Other brands are similarly invested in the channel’s return. Bedding brand Brooklinen is eyeing innovations in OOH, from QR codes to geotargeting, while luggage and travel goods company Away is keeping tabs on the vaccine rollout in primary, secondary and third-tier markets.
Shane Pittson, vice-president of growth at DTC oral care company Quip – which in 2018 and 2019 saw significant growth thanks in part to ads splashed throughout New York City transit centers and subway cars – tells The Drum that the brand’s marketing mix is now “shifting back to more of what it was pre-Covid, with OOH and other upper-funnel investments making a reappearance”. He says Quip has new OOH creative in the works and explains that the brand is considering testing some innovative digital out-of-home (DOOH) formats such as vehicle charging stations and ride-sharing opportunities in metropolitan areas.
“NYC is back and so are we,” he says.
Tracing the OOH revival
Under strict lockdown orders, most brands pivoted their marketing strategies significantly. Quip homed in on digital media. Brooklinen invested more in podcasts and influencer marketing, while its competitor Parachute funneled dollars into direct mail and TV spots to reach consumers at home. But as lockdown orders and Covid restrictions began to loosen ever so slightly – even as far back as last summer – DTC brands began testing the waters of OOH once again.
“As [markets] started to reopen last summer, we started to find this opportunity to educate a lot of brands on how to use at home a bit more strategically,” says Quan Media Group’s Rappaport. For one, he says, there are a growing number of innovative OOH and DOOH properties that provide innovative opportunities to reach audiences even during Covid. “People still had to leave their home during the pandemic, whether it was going for a walk outside or going to essential businesses, supermarkets or pharmacies, so [in New York for example] we were crafting packages of digital bus shelters, digital kiosks situated outside of pharmacies and supermarkets and lining Central Park or the East River running path [with OOH ads],” he says. “So, when people were going to those places, you were actually hitting them.”
Furthermore, Rappaport points out that, if approached strategically, OOH offers valuable opportunities for hyper-local targeting. During the last year, Quan helped brands display neighborhood-specific creative as well as launch event-focused or seasonal campaigns, including one last summer for the wearable breast pump Willow in which the brand debuted its own ‘declaration of independence’ for women, with 75 placements throughout New York City.
Meanwhile, brands like luggage and travel products company Away leaned into pandemic-induced trends to apply OOH more strategically. It launched its first pet carrier in response to the global surge in pet adoptions during lockdown and applied innovative OOH to promote the new product. “We placed beautifully-designed travel posters in famously dog-friendly cities at animals’ eye-level, sprayed them with custom scents, and placed them near dog parks,” says Christine Petric, the brand’s vice-president of growth marketing. The campaign saw great success; Away is still sold out of the pet carrier nationwide.
Today, with commutes resuming, foot traffic on the rise in cities everywhere and airports and movie theaters seeing a renewed bustle, the impetus for OOH is more clear than ever. Jasmine Rayonia, senior manager of growth marketing at DTC bedding company Brooklinen, says that subway advertising, for example, creates “a captive audience for storytelling” that enables the brand “to connect with ... customers and tell them about who we are and what we sell”.
Furthermore, brands – and especially small and growing DTC brands that may not rely on traditional retail channels – are leaning into OOH as a means by which to grow brand awareness and establish trust among consumers. “Right or wrong, when you see a brand advertising on the subway, you think, ‘That’s a big company I can trust,’” says Schutz. “Generally that’s because OOH is more expensive than showing up in someone’s Instagram feed – the ante is higher to run billboards or subway campaigns. So the implicit assumption people make is that running this type of media means the company is legitimate and reputable – just like running TV commercials.”
OOH joins the data party
To measure the performance of an OOH campaign, many DTC brands use ‘How did you hear about us?’ surveys and other avenues of customer feedback to collect information.
“Like many other DTC brands, we run a post-purchase checkout survey to learn what share of customers have heard about us through an OOH campaign,” says Quip’s Pittson. And the tool is surprisingly effective, he notes. “We see effects through this measurement months and sometimes even years after a campaign has run.”
But collecting feedback directly from consumers doesn’t just enable brands to help measure campaign performance; Brooklinen’s Rayonia points out that it can also offer a valuable advantage amid a cultural shift toward increased consumer data privacy that is seeing the deprecation of cookies and other third-party data sources. Moving forward, many experts agree that success will depend at least in part on a brand’s ability to effectively capture first-party data. Customer surveys offer a simple means by which brands can build up their own first-party databases – while helping to measure the success of various marketing efforts.
And while a billboard, street kiosk or subway panel could help a growing DTC brand establish awareness and trust while growing its pool of first-party data, OOH has certain limitations. These ads reach only consumers in their immediate vicinity –and can only be targeted in a loose sense based on demographic information of consumers in the area. It’s a well-known fact that OOH can rarely achieve the level of ad targeting or measurement enabled by digital channels.
That’s why Schutz says it’s important that brands only dabble in OOH campaigns if they really know what they’re getting into. “While you can get a high-level understanding of effectiveness with vanity URLs and ‘How did you hear about us’ surveys, these channels will never be as trackable as paid social or SEM campaigns,” he says. “It just means you need to be willing to look at your performance in that geography in a more blended way – what did my total spend look like in this geo compared to the traffic and new members I signed up? OOH is where art and science really start to meet.”
The new Roman Ready campaign is being launched only in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia – a decision that Schutz says could actually help the brand deal with some of the challenges of OOH ad measurement by essentially running A/B testing for OOH markets. This is a tactic that other DTC brands including bedding and home decor company Parachute use. “By going all-in in select cities, we’re able to create ‘geo bursts’ and can compare against the results in control cities of similar size and demographics that did not receive a boost in top-of-funnel media to see what the downstream impact will be,” Schutz says.
And regardless of the channel’s targeting and measurement capabilities, many brands believe the advantages of OOH outweigh the challenges, says Pittson. “I’d take an ad remembered over an ad tracked – or a captivated audience over a targeted audience.”