The tech-driven trend toward direct-to-consumer is transforming consumer brands, their intermediaries and their marketing. Intimate relationships with customers and new shopping experiences are alluring, but companies must tread a fine line between hyper-personalisation and intrusion.
Once upon a time, advertising solved a problem and, in the process, brands were created.
After the Second World War, the problem was finding a way to pay for mass entertainment and information in an era when the only option was broadcasting. The solution opened the age of commercials and soap operas, so named because the radio shows were sponsored by soap manufacturers. It led to the rise of global brands, the advertising industry and an entire ecosystem built up around them.
Today, the initial problem no longer exists. “While companies still spend large budgets advertising, where they advertise is another matter,” says Giles Parkinson, global equities portfolio manager at Aviva Investors. “Much of the spend has shifted from TV, radio and print publications to social media and search engine advertising. In a world where ads are no longer the only way to pay for entertainment and information, how can advertising redefine itself to stay relevant? And what are the implications for companies trying to build a brand?”
Part of the answer can be found in the increasing collection and use of data, the rise of platforms and online marketplaces, and the surge in direct-to-consumer (D2C) interactions, from established brands moving online, but even more so from newcomers that expertly navigate the online universe.
The decades-long relationship between mass consumption and mass production is breaking down
Research by consultancy McKinsey and survey group Nielsen has found that, in recent years, the leading brands have only captured 25 per cent of value growth, against 30 per cent for private-label products and 45 per cent for small and medium-sized brands.1
The decades-long relationship between mass consumption and mass production is breaking down, creating a more direct relationship between producers and consumers, and potentially squeezing out middlemen like supermarkets.
“The boundaries between entertainment, communication and shopping will blur,” according to a recent article by The Economist. They noted a surge in creativity, from established brands like Nike selling trainers on its website to e-commerce firms like Shopify doubling its sales between 2019 and 2020. “[Shopify] hosts the first-ever sale by a first-time retailer every 28 seconds.”2
D2C looks set to expand even further with far-reaching implications, not just for advertising, but also traditional offline brands, middlemen, and of course consumers. Companies that can establish and maintain trust should win out.
A new business model
“Direct-to-consumer – buying something on “brand.com” – is a subset of buying online more generally, whether that is on tesco.com, Amazon, or Walmart,” explains Parkinson.
Some platforms like Facebook Shops offer a solution halfway between full D2C and selling through another company’s website, being hosted on the platform but offering brand personalisation to a level not possible on marketplaces where products are presented as a simple line item. Such solutions can therefore be considered D2C, to a certain extent.
D2C can be a very profitable disintermediation route for companies with a strong consumer brand
“For companies with a strong consumer brand and the potential to establish customer relationships, D2C can be a very profitable disintermediation route,” says Ed Kevis, equities portfolio manager at Aviva Investors. “For example, digital D2C has been key to Nike’s strategy in recent years. It is the company’s fastest-growing channel, Nike invests a lot in it in all the markets where it operates, and it is margin-positive, since it disintermediates distributors and third-party retailers. Nike can curate its offer towards higher-margin, more profitable products.”
For new entrants without an established brand, the central question is in how to build the funnel of brand and product discovery that will eventually lead to consumer sales and loyalty. “One of the keys to success is having a narrow focus,” says Scott Freundlich, senior credit research analyst at Aviva Investors. “Although Netflix, which is the powerhouse of video streaming, is not necessarily focused in terms of age group or genre, it is very focused on being D2C with a simple business model.”
Netflix shows that, across categories, investors hoping to identify the future winners of D2C need to focus on two sets of factors: tech capabilities on the one hand, and the ability to build and retain a strong customer community on the other.
“What is important is having an agile, scalable tech stack, digital brand-building capabilities, and a well-invested, back-end infrastructure to facilitate fulfilment, from warehousing to logistics,” says Charlotte Meyrick, UK equities fund manager at Aviva Investors.
Scalable tech stack, digital brand-building capabilities and back-end infrastructure are important
Building an audience quickly and the ability to create content that will go viral are particularly important for brand and product launches. But so is delivering a faultless client experience across the lifecycle of the customer relationship, from the first click to doorstep delivery.
According to research commissioned by McKinsey in August 2020, while free delivery and returns and fast delivery remain important, the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns also drove up the significance of informative product descriptions and clear product images for customer satisfaction in the experience at a time when products couldn’t be seen in stores.3
Meanwhile, to build trust, brands increasingly need to communicate and demonstrate a sense of social purpose on issues such as community, health and the environment as part of their overall value proposition. A survey by consultancy Accenture found that purpose is at least as important as customer experience for eight in ten global consumers.4
Achieving this is fraught with challenges. The most successful brands have created demanding customer expectations, from cheap or free deliveries to purpose-led positionings, hyper-personalised relationships and frequently renewed products and services. From a logistics and technology standpoint, it makes it challenging to progress from the first few customers to a quick expansion, and even more so to maintain a viable offering over the long term.5
The most successful brands have created demanding customer expectations
Laurence Buchanan, a partner at EY, recently wrote that foregoing distribution intermediaries means companies “must deal with an omni-channel strategy, be able to forecast demand, create bespoke supply-chain and delivery processes, as well as handling payments, return management and customer communication”. This is further complicated by differences across countries in terms of privacy laws, consumer attitudes and the cost of doing business.6
Another key challenge lies in companies’ ability to embrace an entirely new form of marketing. Consumers are no longer passive recipients of awareness-raising advertising campaigns. Instead, they are active participants in a two-way relationship spanning offline and online advertising, social media, influencers, product co-creation and, most crucially of all, data collection and analysis to deliver personalised products and communications.7
Whether traditional brands can build these capabilities and successfully switch to D2C remains to be seen.
Social media encourages customers to be less loyal and keep on trying new brands
“D2C can open new markets where brands benefit from increased sales,” says behavioural scientist Ben Voyer, research chair of Turning Points, Cartier - ESCP - HEC Paris and full professor in the department of entrepreneurship. “The issue is more to do with D2C-only brands without a retail presence. Those will have to fight for market share in ever more crowded markets. Social media is driving curiosity, and this encourages customers to be less loyal and keep on trying new brands.”
Start-up success stories and growth figures seem to show established brands falling behind the trend. One area is particularly delicate for them to navigate: positioning their brand purpose in an authentic manner.
“D2C brands, especially those born and bred online, have a unique opportunity to create a brand narrative from the beginning they can actually stick with in an authentic and transparent manner,” says Prianka Srinivasan, EYQ insights director at EY. “When legacy brands try to change their personas and cater to people's prevailing sentiments from a marketing perspective, it starts to feel manipulative. In people's minds, if the companies weren’t doing this two years ago, the only reason they are doing it now is to make a bigger buck. That is a challenge for a lot of legacy brands.”
Many are nonetheless demonstrating an ability to create a persona in line with their core positioning, and successfully using specialist outsourced partners or in-house direct marketing channels to improve awareness, acquisition, engagement, satisfaction and profitability.8
Companies’ own perception of the importance of D2C is a key driver for successful transitions
Parkinson explains that companies’ own perception of the importance of D2C is a key driver for successful transitions.
“One of the reasons cosmetics has gone so heavily D2C is because of the expensive department-store sales model,” he says. “The likes of Macy's and John Lewis were capturing so much margin that it has been wildly profitable for the big brands to shift to D2C channels. Some market commentators estimate that, for every one per cent of L’Oréal’s global sales that moves D2C, it could add two per cent to profits.”9
Another key factor is product category. Parkinson illustrates this by contrasting the example of canned soft drinks with cosmetics. “When we want some Coke, we just put it in our Ocado or Tesco online basket. We tend not to look for it on the company’s website; it’s just the nature of the product,” he says.
This raises several questions on what will happen to intermediaries, how online sales will split between brands and middlemen, and who will win the battle for “the new oil” that is customer data.10
Figure 1: Four possible online direct-to-consumer models11
Source: ‘How to accelerate online direct to consumer strategies beyond COVID-19’, EY, June 15, 2020
Data and the middleman
“There is the term ‘attention economy’. What we are all fighting for now is people's attention,” says Greg Davies, head of behavioural finance at Oxford Risk, a company specialising in behavioural software to help people make better financial decisions.
What we are all fighting for now is people's attention
This has created several new breeds of middlemen, the first of which is social media advertising, from Facebook to YouTube or TikTok influencers.12
“These people are very much the middlemen in terms of brand awareness and marketing, but the ultimate end is they're pointed towards your own website, whereas in the past they would have been pointed towards a Tesco store or another retailer,” says Parkinson. “These digital properties are intrinsic to the nature of D2C, and the success of a brand's website hinges on the effectiveness of their social media and online marketing, particularly if they are a start-up.”
However, social media can also become the store. “The issue is that every social media platform has the potential to become a D2C platform,” says Voyer. “Think of TikTok; just add a ‘buy now’ button next to your favourite social media influencer and this allows them to enter the market. This has become known as ’social shopping’.”
The second type of middleman focuses on providing marketplaces where consumers can find all available options in one place. Amazon is the epitome of the generic marketplace, while travel sites from Expedia to Booking.com and Airbnb are specialised.
“The economics of that are interesting,” says Davies. “If these firms are matching hotel rooms to people, they apparently take 20 to 25 per cent of the revenue. If you book five days in a hotel through one of them, one entire night of your stay is going directly to a company who doesn't even own the hotel but has done the matching.”
The third type of emerging middleman is more of a solutions provider
The third type of emerging middleman is more of a solutions provider working behind the scenes to deliver various components that make up a D2C offering.
“Some consumer brands are playing catch-up and don't know how to develop a D2C offering quickly at scale,” says Meyrick. “That's where Shopify or Magento come in with their front-end self-service D2C solutions.
“A company called The Hut Group goes further still and has a full end-to-end enterprise D2C solution, providing convenience and often a more cost-effective solution than sourcing individual components from a number of different vendors,” she adds.
The fragmentation of shopping
Another danger to traditional retailers, which also applies to online marketplaces like Amazon, is the ease of shopping across multiple sites compared with brick-and-mortar stores. Shopping is fragmenting, after several decades of consolidation of the weekly shop – which went from stopping at the butcher’s, fishmonger’s and greengrocer’s in turn to buying everything in a single supermarket, enabling the spectacular success of large retailers.
The opportunity to fragment customers’ buying behaviour is there
“Clicking five times on different ‘buy now’ buttons in different places on the web is less of a hassle than doing five separate shopping trips, even if they're linked in a single drive,” says Parkinson. “The opportunity to fragment customers’ buying behaviour is there, and D2C ventures will want to exploit that.”
In a recent letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos underlined the fact most Amazon shoppers completed their purchases in under 15 minutes.13 “It’s not a complete coincidence because he may see the reduction of the fragmentation barrier as a threat,” notes Parkinson.
On the other hand, traditional retailers with a relevant, differentiated client proposition can still prosper as brands shift to D2C. Meyrick gives the example of JD Sports, historically a store-led retailer and wholesale partner for leading sports brands.
“Nike and Adidas are successfully shifting to D2C and shrinking their number of wholesale partners as a result,” she says. “However, they have continued to give more business to wholesalers that complement their offering like JD sports, who help them reach a different customer demographic.”
Uncovering new markets
What this also reveals is companies can explore other avenues to market than the very largest platforms and marketplaces.
D2C brands need to start exploring all the available options
“There are other channels and other means to get customers, and D2C brands need to start exploring all the available options, especially given the fact some D2C brands are global,” says Srinivasan. “China, India, Southeast Asia, Singapore, Australia and even the UAE all have completely different platforms. D2C brands, especially ones born and bred online, need to take advantage.
“They can also create their own online presence and never go to any of the platforms,” she adds. “Though some of the advertising might have to, the real focus is on SEO optimisation, brand alliances with traditional big retail, innovative avenues to get their online brand in the market. It’s good to diversify the risk.”
As firms become more experienced, digital commerce is becoming intertwined with regular commerce. Legacy firms are catching up with their digitally native peers and mixing and matching various blends of in-house and outsourced solutions.
Split down the middleman?
Eventually, there may be a split between commodity products sold on retail sites and marketplaces on the one hand, and higher value, purpose-driven brands thriving in a D2C model on the other. In this emerging ecosystem, behemoths Facebook and Amazon are each making strides to capture separate strands.
There may be a split between commodity products sold on retail sites and marketplaces
Amazon is growing its advertising business at pace. “As both advertising and commerce become digital, companies’ ability to close the loop between their advertising spend and the sales generated goes up structurally,” says Parkinson. “If I have a shopfront on Amazon and I advertise on Amazon, I have a complete picture of where I spend dollars and how many of those people ended up buying my products on Amazon.”
In a mirror initiative, Facebook launched Facebook Shops in May 2020, as an alternative to products being a simple line item on a marketplace.14
“Facebook is trying to rapidly grow its e-commerce business because of its dominance in advertising, and its ability to close the loop for a different demographic of customers with a different need,” says Parkinson. “Facebook Shops offer the ability to customise the branding compared to a line item on Amazon, while keeping it all within a platform where there is no GDPR to prevent companies from connecting the dots between the dollars they spend and their revenue.”
Data versus access
With pure D2C, however, brands will retain more control over their customer data. Depending on their strategy, they may choose between relinquishing some of that control, to benefit from the unparalleled visibility a large platform can give their brand, and offering a pure D2C channel to oversee and optimise the end-to-end customer experience, albeit to a smaller audience. Strategies may evolve over time, as fledgling companies build their customer base on marketplaces and bring them in-house as they grow.15
One advantage of controlling as many touchpoints as possible along the customer journey is that it enables brands to collect behavioural data along the way and use it to enhance the client experience – providing personalised information in the most relevant places, giving insight across departments from sales to client support, and developing a single customer view to provide a seamless experience.16
Research found nearly half of customers said brands struggle to display the correct information online
It also allows companies to understand what their customers need. However, it is crucial for companies to provide accurate information as well – not just collect it. European research conducted by data solutions provider Yext in August 2020 found nearly half of customers (47 per cent) said brands struggle to display the correct information online. At the same time, 70 per cent said being offered accurate answers by a brand evokes trust, and 56 per cent added they would buy from a brand they trust. Not using data effectively can hinder relationships and jeopardise the entire brand.17
“Customers, especially in Europe, are wary of the information they give away when signing up to platforms,” says Voyer. “They make a trade-off that the sharing will lead to benefits (discounts, personal recommendations, etc…), the issue being that the bar keeps being pushed up. Consumers want more and more because the baseline of benefits keeps improving and is offered everywhere.”
A question of trust
“The phasing out of Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers – IDFA – and of third-party cookies, reducing firms’ ability to target consumers, is the backlash from intrusive practices,” says Parkinson. “That backlash is happening, and the industry, which is completely reliant on cross-platform advertising, is furiously trying to build a new ‘Unified ID’. This aims to replace cookies with a more purpose-built method allowing explicit user consent of tracking against more relevant advertising.”
Regulation will mostly change data collection and usage in a good way for customers
While this may complicate the building of accurate models and predictions of consumer behaviour, Davies says regulation will mostly change data collection and usage in a good way for customers.
“If we approach things in a way where people are engaged, and willingly sharing their information to get better service, this isn’t something regulation should stop,” he says. “If I know you are profiling me, but you are doing so to help me, and I share by answering questions, I am part of the process. It's not something you are doing to me but with me.”
Personalise and engage
According to EY’s 2020 Megatrends report, “consumers are hungry for innovative approaches using behavioural capabilities to empower and engage with them rather than exploit and alienate them. Companies able to fill this void could see tremendous market potential”.18
Behavioural science is increasingly used by marketers to respond to or influence consumers’ beliefs, creating or reinforcing behaviours to build trust, loyalty and, ultimately, sales.19
D2C companies are doing a lot of things behavioural economists would consider effective strategies
“D2C companies are doing a lot of things behavioural economists would consider effective strategies: creating a differentiated brand on social media; being very active on social media; and creating a sense of intimacy and authenticity,” says Gautam Jaggi, director of EYQ at EY.
“A lot often tap into emotional triggers as well,” he adds. “You will see D2C companies tapping into frustration with the high prices of traditional brands and offering a lower-priced alternative or using social norms and a sense of purpose, with some brands making social or environmental commitments for every product sold.”
Jaggi also lists companies specialising in products consumers might be embarrassed to buy in-store or those that require a lot of information gathering, where a good D2C site will support consumers in their research, or even share video tutorials on product use. “All those things create a more intimate relationship and tap into emotional needs, and that creates a strong bond,” he says.
Many D2C companies also offer their customers more choice, not necessarily in terms of the product range but through personalisation, sometimes down to the price people are willing to pay. “That's one way of building trust because it provides transparency and makes the customer a partner in the process,” says Srinivasan.
Personalisation can be as simple as predicting when consumers will run out of their favourite products and offering them a deal or sending them a reminder to renew, or as complex as asking customers to participate in new product development, explains Voyer. “For brands who do not have an established online community, engaging in co-creativity for new products is a good way to build trust and respect,” he says.
Additionally, aligning messages and product innovation with consumer mindsets can be a strong way to build loyalty. Lipton’s Immune Support Tea, rolled out after COVID-19 increased consumers’ health and wellness concerns, and haircare brand Olaplex’s donations to support local hairdressers during lockdown are good examples.20
The use of behavioural science in marketing mostly equates to effective practices
Though the concept of behavioural science may sound ominous, its use in marketing mostly equates to effective practices.
“There is not a marketing department in the world that does not use behavioural economics, whether they are aware of it or not,” says Jaggi. “Marketing and behavioural science evolved in separate universes for a long time but independently came to similar conclusions. From the way things are priced to how they are shelved and advertised, all of marketing uses behavioural economics. You can call it manipulation, or you can just say that’s what works.
“However, that's not to say the perception of manipulation isn't real and isn't something to be worried about,” he adds.
Manipulation or participation?
While Jaggi and Srinivasan don’t always agree with the term ‘manipulation’, behavioural strategies can create a perception of manipulation and spur a backlash.
“What makes certain companies more successful is authenticity and transparency; that requires showing up in the market in a consistent manner,” says Srinivasan. “If you can do that, it won’t be perceived as manipulative. At the end of the day, these are tools, and they are not good or bad in and of themselves. How you use those tools is what dictates the outcome.”
Jaggi explains the greatest danger is when companies are not aware they are using behavioural science techniques. “Behavioural economics can lead to very dark outcomes if we're not using it consciously,” he says. “Social media is the latest example, but there has been behavioural manipulation for years; getting people to smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, or rack up credit card debt. All of those are dark outcomes and have rightfully led to a backlash.
The greatest danger is when companies are not aware they are using behavioural science techniques
“All companies, including D2C brands, should be thinking about how to use this purposefully, to empower people to do the things they really want to do, as opposed to just getting them to buy more,” he adds.
As an example, Davies says that to build a system that will guide people to making better financial decisions, it is necessary to first have a clear idea of what ‘better’ means. In personal finance, that includes understanding people’s financial circumstances, but also their behaviours (do they spend more than they earn or save every month?) and perceived financial wellbeing (how anxious are they about their financial situation?). Only by granularly profiling each customer on all three aspects can a system offer them the best options to help them build their financial resilience.
To avoid manipulation, Davies says engagement is important. “People must be involved in the construction and evolution of their own financial system. That means not telling them what to do, but giving them a menu of good things they could do and letting them choose,” he says.
Demonstrating trustworthiness is also crucial, which requires companies to prove they will act to the benefit of their customers, even when it is to their own detriment. “Often, investing is about encouraging people to do less, rather than more,” says Davies. “A company willing to encourage that, even if it brings in less revenue, will credibly demonstrate its trustworthiness.”
Would I lie to you?
Regardless of such efforts, companies could still find themselves at the mercy of malicious fakes capable of harming their brands deeply.
“A shallow fake is taking a real video or audio and editing it to portray something different. A deep fake is a complete forgery,” explains Srinivasan. “If you think about the number of Tom Cruise videos that have been all over social media recently, those are completely fake. But if you look at the Nancy Pelosi video that was done, that's a shallow fake. It was really her; she really said those things, but the video was manipulated to make her look bad.”
92 per cent of consumers believe misinformation is a problem, and two thirds think this will only grow
According to the Yext survey, 92 per cent of consumers believe misinformation is a problem, and two thirds think this will only grow. This is an issue for companies, as nearly half the respondents blame brands themselves for misinformation, no matter where they find it.21 Fakes can have a potentially devastating impact.
“These have the same effect as counterfeit products for luxury brands: they can tarnish a brand image, and put people off buying the product. D2C brands need to be especially careful to educate customers on what genuine products are and look like,” says Voyer.
Such fakes can affect a company’s share price. Equally, malicious actors can harm the brand by posting negative product reviews by the hundreds. Any of these can erode customer trust and loyalty.22
“In March 2021, the FBI issued a ‘private industry notification’, telling companies malicious actors will almost certainly leverage synthetic content for cyberattacks in the next 12 to 18 months. This is how serious the situation has become,” says Srinivasan.
Occasionally, deep fakes are deliberately used for marketing purposes – some brands having recently revived Marylin Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in their advertising, for instance. However, more concerningly, a major smartphone maker now includes software enabling anyone to create a deep fake.23
Jaggi says another cause for concern is that our cognitive abilities are declining just as we need to become more sophisticated in discerning fakes and fraud. “We are in a world where conspiracy theories are running amok and a growing percentage of people believe the earth is flat,” he says. “Despite having instant access to information prior generations could never have dreamed of, we are becoming less able to use those sophisticated tools.”
As hackers evolve, companies must monitor all of their brands’ online content and continuously educate their customers
Hackers also keep evolving, meaning companies must monitor all the online content related to their brands and continuously educate their customers. Somewhat encouragingly, regulation is being considered, at least in the US, to help protect companies and consumers.24 Technologies to embed authenticity markers into online content are also progressing.
“A lot of companies are using different technologies, whether it's AI, blockchain, or digital watermarking, to indicate what is authentic to consumers,” says Srinivasan. “A company named Truepic recently closed a deal to include digital watermarking technology into smartphone cameras so if any content from a particular device is changed, it will be detected. A professor at Berkeley, Hany Farid, teaches digital forensics, misinformation and image analysis targeting the growing threat of synthetic media.”25
The attention merchants
Despite these risks, online penetration will continue to increase, and the attractions of building direct relationships and increasing margins by cutting out middlemen mean D2C is here to stay.
“I see the emergence of many direct ‘hyper-targeted’ niche stores for virtually everything,” says Voyer. “Think The Hut Group strategy but with D2C, meaning one brand/website/app/e-store but for a niche brand, and as many viable niche markets as one can identify. D2C has the potential to reshape the whole e-retail landscape.”
We may see the emergence of alternative targeting
We may also see the emergence of alternative targeting, for instance through online streaming embracing advertising and tailoring it based on viewers’ watching habits, or through interest-led publishers.
“UK-based publisher Future convincingly argued that one of the winners from the evolution of digital advertising is first-party, interest-led publishing,” says Meyrick. “Future argues that, for instance, subscribers to an amateur photography magazine are very likely to be interested in cameras. It’s the dawn of a new hope for independent publishers that can demonstrate clear, interest-based audience behaviour without the need for any surreptitious tracking.”26
Alternatives to the cookie-based business model are emerging
Alternatives to the cookie-based business model are emerging, which may make it easier for D2C companies to maintain trust and withstand regulatory pressures. A cryptocurrency called the Basic Attention Token is reappropriating the business model. It is based on a web browser called Brave, which uses blockchain technology to anonymously track user attention, helping to compensate publishers based on advertising engagement. Additionally, users of the browser are rewarded with Basic Attention Tokens as compensation for their participation.
“I don't know if it will be successful, but it could allow brands to better understand how their ads resonate with audiences, using engagement as the main metric,” says Freundlich. “Either way, I don't think traditional advertising is going to be the same going forward.”