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DTC: the forgotten friend of marketers

By Marine Pajot

4 minute read

‘Direct-to-consumers’ has been a buzz word in the last few years, and I recently realized that it means different things to different marketers. Many will see another new subscription box for sustainable panties or vegan beauty products coming up their Instagram feed. Some will see platforms to sell products online, like and launched by Pepsico during the pandemic. Some will see big databases, collecting information about consumers, what they research, like and buy. Well, all of the above are true. Still, up until very recently DTC rarely made it to marketing plans. 

Bringing my two worlds together (advertising and management consulting), I see direct-to-consumer as a big opportunity for CPG marketers to build their brands. As the need to sell online became increasingly evident in the context of the pandemic, it is important not to lose focus on the bigger prize: the opportunity to deliver new types of brand experiences, to enrich the storytelling, demonstrate brand values and engage in real and authentic conversations with consumers. 

Let’s take an example - quite well known but still very relevant. It was in 2006 that Nike pioneered the world of connected sports with the launch of Nike+iPod Sports kit. With this new equipment, runners could easily measure and record their performance. It sounds silly today considering how much data we generate on a daily basis just using our smartphones. But back in the day it was a real breakthrough. Instead of only designing new performance enhancing sneakers, they created an experience around the use of the shoes. With a better understanding of runners’ behaviors and needs - where they run, when they run, how long they run, how often they run - they designed services. Look at where they are now, offering a plethora of guided run and personalized coaching programs via their app, and bringing together communities of runners who might not wear Nike gear at all for training and races. 

I think we can all agree that brands are not just a logo or a set of products. They have a voice, a set of values, a personality. They have a mission and a purpose. They are living objects, take part of culture, embrace innovation, get old and die or reinvent themselves. As we see the world evolving, I believe that DTC presents 3 opportunities for brands to evolve in the right direction.

1 - Consumers want more than products: offer them services

“If I can get it from my regular retailer online, why would I buy directly with the brand?” You need to think about how DTC could help you deliver on your brand purpose, whether it’s curation, personalization or any other additional services. With Just Right, Purina does not deliver to your door a regular pack of food you could have bought in store. As Purina seeks to help pets live longer, happier and healthier lives through proper nutrition and care, with Just Right they offer pet parents a personalized nutrition plan tailored to their dog’s needs.

2 - Consumers seek connections: build communities

Brands' most efficient marketing tool is happy consumers. Beyond gathering invaluable data to inform product innovation and sales strategies, creating a space for consumers to engage with each other, connect and share will drive advocacy and commercial results if done genuinely. As an example, in 2000 P&G launched, an informative resource for teenage girls, to connect and find answers to all the difficult questions that growing up brings. Expanding in 46 countries, they captured females from the start of their journey in an industry driven by loyalty. So what content and experience do your consumers want to engage in? How can your brand unlock value from the community? 

3 - Consumers’ expectations evolve: stay relevant 

Retail is not dead, and it would be silly to believe that tomorrow everything will be bought directly with each and every brand. While native DTC players offer new premium experiences to consumers mostly online, some legacy players have rightfully bet on DTC as well. Look at M&M’s or Nespresso - who would have thought they would have flagship stores selling directly to their consumers. Strong brands transcend the channels they are sold in, and DTC propositions can help evolve the brand perception across its ecosystem. 

Of course traditional CPG companies are not yet financially organized and equipped to deliver services and ongoing engagement with consumers so it comes with its set of new challenges: need for new capabilities, new operating models, new talents, new measures of success. But in brand-led businesses, isn’t it for brands to lead, define the vision and make the change happen?