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Stodgy brands, not DTCs, are the new millennial darlings

After years of being overlooked, traditional brands are winning over younger buyers. Nathalie Con, vice-president, strategy director at Giant Spoon, tells us why.

As the saying goes: ‘Never skimp on things between you and the ground: cars, shoes, mattresses.‘

My partner and I wanted a real mattress. Our 30-something bodies needed to upgrade to a queen. Suddenly names like Sealy, Stearns and Serta meant something to us. We knew these brands weren’t cooked up in a white space lab at Stanford Business School. We ended up buying an exciting mattress from an unexciting brand that, to our surprise, cost about $1,000 less than its DTC competition. And yes, it was delivered to our door. Now we are sleeping pretty well with our decision.

This is an experience that is now becoming more common to millennials. They are beginning to realize — why am I counting the old guys out? How did reliability, experience, and stability become synonymous with ‘dated‘ or ‘conservative‘ anyway?

We’ve conflated newness and progressivism. We celebrate the pioneers and the challengers. We follow their new ideas and buy new products to feel like we’ve got a leg up. A leg up on whom? Who cares! What are they disrupting? They just are! But don’t worry, the hustle comes in soothing neutrals.

When billion-dollar direct-to-consumer players like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker came onto the scene, their disruption was democratization. Their business model drove accessibility. No middleman, no mark-ups. Customers came to assume that DTC meant they were getting a deal. Outsmarting the old guys. But much like food trucks, as DTCs grew more popular, they also grew expensive. Brick and mortars popped up on Melrose Avenue in west Hollywood and the corner of Bond and Lafayette in NoHo. If not accessibility, what’s in it for consumers? Is joining a brand’s ‘global sleep uprising‘ enough?

The DTC look across brands marks them as part of a set and we unconsciously assume they share a set of progressive values. Branding has trained us to think sans-serif fonts means gay-friendly, nude colors stand for body inclusive, curated is somehow sustainable. Who wouldn’t want those things except stodgy traditionalists stuck in the past. If you’re not one of us, you’re against us.

Rest easy and try not to think about the mattress landfill crisis and recycling nightmare spurred by 100-day return guarantees. Or how online mattress companies were quietly suing mattress bloggers over negative reviews.

There may not be a middleman, but there is an investor demanding growth projections. (And they don’t even like sleep).

The global pandemic, the increasing wealth gap, the rising unemployment and homelessness, the fires, Black people fighting for their right to matter, has made us all think more about how we spend our money. According to a July 2020 McKinsey report, consumer loyalty went out the window. Value, availability and quality are now the main drivers of trying new brands.

Progress means improving the needs of all people. Right now, our society is situated at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. That means security, stability, knowing that their families are taken care of. How can brands serve the needs of people? Rather than coming up with solutions to made-up problems and branding it as progressive, maybe brands should make products and services that just work. Quality that is accessible for all. Who cares if they have aggressively thick fonts and use primary colors.

In his medium post ‘Why nostalgic logos are booming right now,‘ sociologist James I Bowie noticed a branding attempt to signal legitimacy. He writes, “In recent years, ‘Est.‘ has made quite a comeback, appearing in trademarks at a rate 17 times higher in 2020 than in 1980.”

Are consumers searching for expertise and authority during a time when science and reason seem to have gone out the door? Could slow become more celebrated than fast? Commitment instead of sampling? Objectivity over aesthetic?

There’s a new relevance on the horizon. Could the new millennial darlings be Dewalt, WD-40, Vaseline, and Tiger Balm? Unbuzzy, tried-and-true brands with a legacy for being incredibly reliable?

Let’s not blindly make consumerism great again. The old guard doesn’t come without its failings. If the chief executive supports white supremacy, please get disrupted. When the beauty establishment didn’t service the needs of a wider spectrum of skin tones, particularly darker shades, Fenty Beauty (albeit owned by the very-much-an-established LVMH) answered the call and received praise from women who felt like afterthoughts in the space. People say if you don’t have a voice at the table, build your own.

Competition is good for consumers, as it pushes brands to learn from each other. But disruption should have a purpose, beyond profit. In a time of uncertainty, let’s focus on real problems and solutions that just work. “Stodgy brands,” it’s your time to shine.

Nathalie Con is vice-president, strategy director at Giant Spoon

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