Yves here. I’m not sure all direct-to-consumer plays are quite as empty as Jared Holst suggests, but I suspect that is true for national operators. I almost bought a mattress from a Maine company that was set up to sell only in Maine (you pick it up or they ship in the area) And unlike Jared Holst’s empty, erm, lite direct-to-consumer companies, it had a showroom in front and a factory in back! But finding a delivery company to get it to Alabama entailed more brain damage than I was prepared to deal with.
However, not buying from the Maine company was a mistake. The Westin mattress I got instead was complete junk and more costly too. So much for convenience.
By Jared Holst, the author at Brands Mean a Lot, a weekly commentary on the ways branding impacts our lives. Each week, he explores contradictions within the way politics, products, and pop-culture are branded for us, offering insight on what’s really being said. You can follow Jared on Twitter @jarholst. Originally published at Brands Mean a Lot
You Down with DTC, Ya You Know Me
Scroll through Instagram or Facebook on any given day and you’re likely to see one: an advertisement for a direct to consumer (DTC) brand. DTC is a method of sales and supply chain management wherein products are sold directly to consumers by manufacturers–no wholesalers, no retailers, no middlemen–to reduce costs, and thus, prices. Ads from prominent DTC brands are bright and millennial-y—pastels, flat fonts (no use of textures or dimensions), pithy, yet milquetoast copy.
Some of the best known DTC brands include Brooklinen, Casper, and Away. Whereas Sealy and Simmons rely on mattress and furniture stores to sell to consumers, Casper claims to sell its self-produced mattresses directly to consumers, saving them money.
Left: https://www.templaza.com/blog/best-fonts-for-flat-ui-design.html, Right: A brooklinen ad.
1-800-It’s Okay to be Empty
In hyping their ability to offer consumers savings through DTC, most of these brands omit that people producing their products aren’t actually employees. Crack open the sickly sweet shell of many of today’s hottest CPG brands and you’ll find nothing but nothing. Precision social media advertising paired with slick marketing and branding form the shell of something that save for the employees carrying out the aforementioned functions, exists in bits and bytes only. Retail’s hottest trend is nothing more than slapping a digital coat of paint on manufacturing arbitrage and hoping the advertising works.
Great Jones, a company which utilizes the DTC strategy to compete in the cookware arena against the likes of Le Creuset and Cuisinart is no different: A recent Business Insider story about Great Jones, ostensibly about a feud between the two founders and the ensuing fallout, illuminates just how vapid some of these brands truly are.
Turmoil amongst entitled founders, a harmonious startup facade concealing acrimony and backbiting—the best kind of corporate gossip. I can feel my serotonin spiking and pupils dilating in enjoyment. It’s tempting to get lost in the scintillating schadenfreude-y gossip revving my engine (and likely many other’s, given past coverage of stories about the founders of millennial brands Thinx and Away), but don’t get distracted.
Nestled amongst the tidbits regaling tales of founder hubris and entitled egos, sits this morsel:
“A spokesperson for the company said the fourth quarter of 2020 was its best quarter to date.”
The morsel, juicy as ever, can only be unwrapped with this fact, a direct result of the founders behaving so poorly:
On September 3 (2020) the remaining four employees resigned.
As in, the same quarter in which there were no employees was also Great Jones’ best.
The article, camouflaged though it may be, is a beacon revealing just how hollow many of consumer packaged goods’ hottest stars are.
Go to a Ford plant and it’s Ford employees assembling your F-150. Go to a Brooklinen Factory and it’s…some other person producing your sheets, your towels, your robe. A cursory glance at Brooklinen’s Linkedin page lists 114 employees, almost all of which are located in New York City. This, despite professing to have far-flung locations in places like India, Turkey, and China, to name a few.
This means, the same Dutch ovens sold by Great Jones or sheets bearing Brooklinen’s name are sold in many other places, just without appealing finishes and clever branding. The differentiation is literally only skin deep.
Everything Is a Blank Slate
For these companies, and many others in the DTC space, the products are mass-produced in locales which enable hearty worker-compensation arbitrage. The Chinese employees manufacturing Dutch ovens in Tianjin aren’t on Great Jones’ books, they’re on some unnamed manufacturing company’s books. This spares companies from paying anything resembling US wages as well as providing any attendant benefits, be it insurance, retirement contributions, or paid time off (PTO).
Pictured: A Great Jones Dutch Oven
Hollowness aside, the proliferation of the DTC model illustrates the importance of branding and the outsized role it plays in driving purchasing decisions. Used in concert with tracking technology which follows us across the internet, regardless of where and how we use it, and easily accessed cheap labor, branding is remarkably effective as a sole means of revenue generation.
Paradoxically, the events from the Great Jones saga, and what we know about DTC brands in general, also reveal just how pointless branding is. The products these brands represent are nothing more than dull avatars re-skinned to appeal to whatever we project ourselves to be. In the case of Great Jones, a budget conscious, style-forward home chef looking for home goods that don’t just function, but broadcast those qualities to anyone within range.
Both sides of the purchasing equation project themselves onto the other, making an infinite loop of marginal differentiation and superficial appreciation. The supply-side delivers products without material substance to a demand side in search of substance residing not in the product itself, but in its wrapping—physical, digital, or otherwise.
Given this, of whom is the success of these companies a bigger indictment, customer, or brand?