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Once more, with humanity: Lessons in brand identity from direct-to-consumer startups

Direct-to-consumer startups such as Casper, Allbirds, and Glossier are like the Candy Crush of brand identity: simple, addictive, and sweet. They make conventional consumer goods chic and capture the millennial market with clean web design and viral subway ads.

These brands are succeeding at things their competitors have chased for years and turning industries upside down. Their contemporary spin on marketing best practices helps them stand out to elusive younger audiences. For these companies, direct-to-consumer is more than a business model — it’s the foundation of their brand.

This emerging generation of powerful brands doesn’t just communicate about themselves — they interpret and communicate the needs and values of the people they want to reach. It’s an important shift that invites new ways for any company to think about identity.

Want your brand to crush it too? Consider these three strategies:

1. Elevate the authentic emotional benefit.

When these brands engage with consumers, they use transparent, human language to elevate the emotional consumer benefit that’s core to their strategy. Direct-to-consumer brands are disrupting industries and reimagining products, but that’s not how they talk about it.

They understand that people don’t care about their business; they care about the way products touch their lives and impact their image. So, Capsule doesn’t sell a reinvented pharmacy model; it sells less clinical, more human connections. Curology doesn’t sell skip-the-middleman acne medication; it sells personalized treatment. Women’s wear brand Cuyana doesn’t sell transparent supply chains; it sells fewer, better things.

Rather than patting themselves on the back for thwarting the system, direct-to-consumer startups offer the consumer their raison d’etre. And because that reason is a clean and curated world, people take notice.

2. Talk like a person at every touchpoint

Brands everywhere are working to build trust with a more conversational, human voice. Direct-to-consumer brands take it a step further by using their “social media voice” everywhere. While most companies save cheeky jokes, timely phrases and emojis for Twitter and Instagram, these brands sound like people every time they talk.

Makeup-mega-hit Glossier and personal care startups Thinx and hims scatter emoji across their websites, making transactional copy feel like a text message. Even brands that eschew cutesy internet tropes use rhetorical questions and colloquial phrases to bring the reader into the conversation. They make their brand feel like one of us— over email, when we complete a purchase, and in their advertising.

Eggplant emoji aren’t for everyone, but brands shouldn’t save humanity for in-person interactions and Twitter feeds. Brands need to ensure their voice reflects how people would talk about them and remember not to lose authenticity, even in traditional communications.

3. Connect their values to your priorities

Nearly all of these brands sport a handle that offers their point of view and articulates their priorities in just a few words. Glossier is “skin first, makeup second.” Medical care appointment booking service Zocdoc offers “patient-first problem-solving.”

This priority-first language is powerful when it taps into shared values. Some brands nod to the cultural zeitgeist of consumer activism in their “about us” copy. For example, Everlane talks about “radical transparency,” and Thinx claims to “break the taboo.”

Regardless of their age or place on the political spectrum, people seek to identify with brands they buy from. But you don’t need to launch a big brand-activism campaign to have a point of view. Have an authentic perspective, then show your consumer that it’s something you share. Brand loyalty starts when you connect over common ground.

The bottom line: More than just millennials

The specific strategies for direct-to-consumer success may be millennial-optimized, but there are larger lessons for any brand to learn. To cut through the clutter and keep up with cultural change, signal to your consumers that you’re part of their world — not just that they should be part of yours. Lessons in brand humanity, after all, are age and industry agnostic.

Emoji and bubble fonts may fade from fashion, but transparent, human language won’t lose its appeal. By elevating emotion, speaking conversationally, and tapping into priorities, the brands of the future will make their business matter.

Rachel Benner is Associate Strategist, Brand Communication, at Siegel+Gale

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