Direct-to-consumer (DTC) tactics are revolutionizing the way brands connect with consumers—legacy brands included. Explore our comprehensive guide to start employing effective DTC marketing in your own campaigns.
Although legacy brands can typically afford to leverage bigger marketing channels such as TV, many companies may struggle to make meaningful connections with younger, tuned-in consumers seeking authenticity in the companies they do business with.
For this reason, traditional brands are increasingly looking to direct-to-consumer (DTC or D2C) businesses for inspiration, focusing on meaningful, targeted marketing tactics rather than big budgets.
Shaking up the worlds of retail and e-commerce, the DTC marketing model has shifted consumer expectations, offering a more creative, personalized brand experience—and forcing many traditional brands to take a page from the direct-to-consumer playbook.
Though legacy companies can’t—and shouldn’t—“reinvent” themselves into edgy, youth-oriented trendsetters, they can start to employ some of the tactics helping to bring the most forward-thinking brands into the future.
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Top DTC Marketing Strategies and Tactics
Discover the most effective ways to forge meaningful connections with your target audience, with real-world examples and expert advice to help perfect your campaigns.
Know Where to Be
Start by getting creative with how—and where—you reach your target audience.
Break through the digital clutter.
It may seem counterintuitive in the age of digital marketing, but physical channels can be highly effective in grabbing discerning customers’ attention.
I’m actually seeing … brands moving back into adding a print component. … I think that the digital environment has become so crowded and so difficult to establish [a] meaningful connection with the consumer.
— Former marketing executive at leading DTC shapewear brand
Today’s consumers have become so accustomed to the barrage of digital ads and marketing that experiencing something tangible is often a novelty.
79% of direct mail recipients say they look forward to seeing what they’ve received.
88% say receiving a handwritten letter, note or greeting card in the mail still has a lot of value.
Direct mail also offers a great opportunity to better connect your various marketing channels. For example, to drive more traffic to your website and encourage customers to explore your offerings, you could send out a postcard with a QR Code® leading to an exclusive online discount.
Physical marketing and ads in high-visibility public locations can help build brand awareness, as well. And as with direct mail, these can be effectively coordinated with digital efforts—whether by including a digital discount code or by providing a smartphone-scannable free app trial.
Focus on new or niche organic search categories.
Unlike traditional brands, DTC brands tend to deprioritize organic search engine optimization (SEO) in generic categories with high competition. Instead, these companies focus on novel or more specific category and product areas.
For DTC businesses with highly specific or novel categories such as meal boxes, search visibility is primarily used as an acquisition tactic, leading prospects into brands’ digital ecosystems. Consumers searching for these kinds of terms are typically highly motivated to buy.
But in crowded industries with many legacy companies competing, many DTCs just don’t believe it’s worth dedicating valuable resources to organic visibility.
In the furniture space, where many DTCs compete, these innovative brands showed little visibility in organic search terms compared to bigger retailers.
Also keep in mind that DTC brands' target audiences, which skew younger, typically use specific—or "longer-tail"—keywords, whereas older consumers tend to search more broadly.
If you’re a mattress manufacturer, for instance, try zeroing in on search terms that capture the unique aspects of your product. So if you’re focused on environmental responsibility, that may mean using the keyword "eco friendly mattress."
Employ various types of influencers.
Influencers—individuals with large social media followings who are considered experts or icons in their field or niche—are frequently employed in direct-to-consumer marketing.
These individuals, as well as micro-influencers—“everyday” people with fewer social media followers who are known within a specific niche or region—can help build credibility and authenticity for legacy and DTC brands alike.
66% of DTC brand media professionals say that social media influencers are the greatest contributor to “earned” media.
Actresses, models, athletes, social media stars, bloggers, authors and many others can all be effective in influencer marketing, whether appearing in social media posts, serving as guest bloggers or doing social “takeovers,” in which they post on a brand’s platform for a set period of time.
For instance, one well-known DTC company selling modern luggage partners with lifestyle bloggers and athletes known for their jet-setting style.
As you begin to employ DTC strategies and tactics in your marketing efforts, focus on establishing trust with your customers.
Rely on mail as a trustworthy medium.
With so much digital advertising and marketing to sift through—and much of it impersonal or unhelpful to consumers’ needs—today’s customers are becoming more receptive to physical ads. In fact, studies show that younger consumers spend more time processing physical ads than digital ads.
We [have] used direct mail to acquire some customers, but really [we’ve used it as] a way to retain and engage our most active customers.
— Former marketing executive at DTC home furnishings brand
Tactile and immediate, physical mail now holds an air of novelty—and is considered more trustworthy. One study revealed that 58% of Millennials worry less about direct mail privacy than about digital communications privacy.
Connecting direct mail and digital efforts—using direct mail innovations such as the Informed Delivery® feature, Informed Visibility® notifications, retargeted direct mail and digitally enhanced mail—can take your marketing even further, helping to build credibility around your brand.
After sending customers a direct mail announcement about a new product line, for example, an Informed Delivery campaign can provide these same customers with a preview of the piece before it arrives—viewable via email notifications or the Informed Delivery app or dashboard.
Knowing what to expect gives recipients a sense of anticipation and assurance, helping them feel connected to your brand and confident that they are being kept “in the loop.” Along with the preview, you can include additional digital assets—ride-along content—to complement the creative mailers.
In the case of the example above, offering an exclusive, personalized discount in the ride-along content can go a long way in making your customers feel special, further solidifying their trust in your business.
Be hyper-aware of your brand tone.
Establishing an authentic, sincere brand tone—essentially your brand’s personality—is crucial for winning and retaining the customers you’re after.
Think about what sets your business apart. Are you committed to fair wages across your supply chain? Do you only use organic ingredients? Or perhaps you’re dedicated to providing a full range of sizes for all body types.
83% of Millennials want companies to align with their values.
76% of Millennials like when CEOs speak out on issues they care about.
65% of Millennials have boycotted a brand due to the company’s stance on an issue.
62% of Millennials enjoy buying items that show off their social or political ideology or beliefs.
If you’re not currently tapping into consumers’ sense of purpose and justice, now may be the time to start brainstorming.
DTC brands are well aware of Millennials’ desire to support brands with solid values, and use an empathetic brand tone to get across the company’s stance—and the actions taken—on issues important to their customers.
Be sure to only highlight the causes to which your brand is truly dedicated. Consumers can see through inauthentic “do-good” campaigns, with 61% of U.S. internet users believing that too many brands use social issues as a marketing ploy.
Use social media to tell your brand story.
For DTC brands, social media serves as an invaluable tool for establishing a cohesive brand story that speaks to their target audiences’ wants and needs.
And with a range of different social platforms available for various purposes and aesthetics, it’s easier than ever to connect with customers through compelling narratives.
For image-based storytelling, consider posting photos that illuminate your brand’s unique qualities, good deeds and backstories. Are you especially proud of your factory conditions? Your product designers’ talent and dedication? The fact that you’re family-owned or your products are U.S. made?
Use social media to highlight these aspects, creating visual narratives to showcase your brand’s authenticity. For example, one leading DTC brand uses social to share photographs of their charitable work abroad, providing shoes to people in need in developing countries.
For young, empowered consumers, social media is one of the primary places to discover new products and businesses, so it’s crucial to connect with customers on these platforms in a way that resonates.
Using paid DTC marketing tactics can help enhance customer discovery and acquisition efforts, pulling in your target audience where and when it matters.
Limit your paid search efforts.
Especially in industries with low margins, direct-to-consumer brands typically limit paid search, which many do in-house.
In particular, these companies are largely choosing to forgo dedicating big budgets to broad keywords. Instead, forward-thinking direct-to-consumer brands are focusing on SEO for organic search. While paid search is highly measurable and concrete, SEO is a sounder, more profitable long-term strategy.
It’s true that paid search can be very effective when launching a new product, but once awareness reaches a certain point, it’s usually wise to scale back. Although a boost in overall site traffic resulting from paid search may seem like a great sign, it doesn’t mean much if the bounce rate is high, or if time on site and average page views are low.
Take some time to assess the value of your competitors’ organic traffic, then compare it with your own to gauge how much you’ll need to invest to catch up and how long it will take to do so.
Online competitive-research tools can help you easily estimate competitors’ organic value.
Allocate a large part of your paid media budget to acquisition.
DTC brands typically dedicate a lot of paid media to customer acquisition efforts. In fact, 98% of these brands believe they must invest in paid media, and nearly half of them have 11 or more online and offline media partners.
The majority of DTC brands, 62%, typically invest in social at launch, then achieve growth by leveraging all types of media.
65% of DTC brands intended to invest in display
64% of DTC brands intended to invest in social
57% of DTC brands intended to invest in out-of-home ads
As the cost of acquisition increases and online ads become more expensive, many DTC brands are also focusing on more traditional marketing channels, including TV, radio and mail. In fact, 41% of DTC brands’ 2019 media spend was dedicated to offline efforts—and 63% of those brands intended to include direct mail in their offline paid media spend.
Coordinating offline and online media can help take marketing and advertising efforts to the next level.
For example, including an easy-to-remember discount code in subway ads highlighting a new line of swimwear can entice consumers to visit your app or website and take advantage of the promo. Or you could pair those ads with an Every Door Direct Mail® campaign to target consumers in a specific geographic region.
Trying to understand how all the [marketing] channels interrelate or relate to each other is very important.
— Former marketing executive at major DTC e‑commerce brand
To ensure your paid media is as effective as possible, consider working with content publishers. Ninety-four percent of DTC companies work with content publishers, citing easy/good consumer user experience (20%), reputation (20%) and display (18%) as the top reasons for including them in paid media efforts.
Know when—and where—to push users to transaction.
Unlike many legacy brands that release generic TV ads, DTC brands often focus on creating very enticing, strong calls to action or promos to push consumers toward transaction.
Most DTC companies simply don’t have the sales amplifiers—such as brand equity—that traditional brands have. Therefore, DTC brands put more effort into building awareness that will lead to repeat purchases and long-term customer relationships.
Paid social plays a major role here. For example, DTC brands often use social ads to encourage an immediate purchase, offering big discounts on first-time purchases. For these companies, advertising is primarily a vehicle for driving sales, whereas “storytelling,” or brand narratives, are used in direct brand experiences such as email.
And with some social media channels now allowing customers to make transactions on the platform itself, DTC brands can more easily eliminate consumers’ decision stress.
Social can also be leveraged for garnering referrals. For example, you may want to provide customers with personal referral URLs, which they can post on their social media accounts or share via text and email with friends and family. Including an incentive will motivate customers to act.
One subscription-based personal men’s care brand was able to acquire 65,000 referred customers by offering a range of incentives, including complimentary items and a year’s supply of free product.
Making use of new advertising avenues such as podcast sponsorships can also help reel in new customers quickly.
8 out of 15 brands spending the most on podcast sponsorships in 2019 were DTC.
Providing discount codes in podcast ads themselves, for instance, can help push consumers—many of whom are affluent, engaged listeners—to transaction.
Use direct mail as a conversion tool.
To drive conversion, direct-to-consumer brands are also turning to a tried-and-true marketing channel: direct mail. Connecting direct mail to digital marketing, in particular, has proven a highly effective tactic.
Through retargeted direct mail, for instance, you can set specific triggers based on consumers’ digital actions. So if a customer abandons items in their online shopping cart, a mailpiece can be sent out automatically within a few days, reminding them of the products and offering an exclusive discount.
Many DTC businesses send such discounts via direct mail specifically to drive conversion; use these direct mail ideas for inspiration. For example, some meal-kit subscription companies and food delivery brands provide time-sensitive discounts through postcards, enticing consumers to act swiftly or else lose out.
Personalization can also be a powerful conversion tool. One e-commerce clothing platform specializing in secondhand items found that direct mail boosted reorder rates from a subset of previous customers by 20% to 25%. To gain inspiration, spend some time researching innovative direct mail examples from DTC companies in your niche.
We’ve tried a lot of different approaches over time, and what’s worked best [are] campaigns that were very targeted and very personalized. Those have been the ones where we’ve seen the best [return on investment].
— Customer experience executive at leading DTC shoe retailer
What are these direct-to-consumer brands doing differently? How are they speaking directly to consumers’ needs and making them feel special? Look for ways to make your target audience feel understood.
As you begin to assess opportunities for incorporating DTC-inspired marketing into your brand’s campaigns, use this guide as a reference, working through each step to consider how you can start implementing similar strategies and tactics.
Because many direct-to-consumer brands operate with smaller budgets, lower brand awareness and thinner profit margins, they must think more strategically and creatively.
By knowing where to be to reach their target audience, focusing on building consumer trust and using paid tactics for discovery and acquisition, today’s leading direct-to-consumer companies are disrupting the status quo. These businesses are connecting with customers in more personal, meaningful ways and forcing legacy brands to keep up or fall behind.
Implementing a few strategic changes can help your company ensure continued success in an ever-shifting landscape—and help your customers get the personalized, innovative offerings they expect.
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“5WPR 2020 Consumer Culture Report,” 5W Public Relations, 2020.arrow_right_alt