Hi! I'm Lianne. I’m relatively new to the retail space, and that means I’m learning as much as I can about what goes on in this industry every day. Being new also gives me a fresh perspective on the direct to consumer (DTC) space. Not only am I listening to founders and executives of DTC companies via the Future Commerce Podcast on a weekly basis, but I am also an active consumer of many DTC products. (p.s. You should totally check out Otherland candles. Amazing.

This duality of observer-consumer allows me to view DTC brands from a unique perspective. I listen to the vision of the brand founders themselves, and it affects how I see and experience the products they’ve created.

Some thoughts I have from this perspective as a newbie:

  • Modern brands seem to be built on customer relationships, not the products
  • That relationship seems to be built on the brand’s values
  • When brands fail to live up to those values they risk much more than losing a customer, they risk losing their way

This results in what I call an invisible social contract. Let’s talk about how DTC brands begin to navigate this invisible social contract in a way that drives towards long-lasting relationships.

Values, Trust and Relationships

We talk a lot about this relationship on Future Commerce. In our latest report, Vision 2020, we noted the importance of brands promoting an audience-first message. This messaging represents a change in what consumers are expecting from the brands they choose to engage. It’s no longer just about the product, but also about personal connection, identity, entertainment, and so on. Celebrities selling products isn’t new -- normal people building audiences and monetizing them is.

What makes a consumer choose to engage with a specific brand, especially when there seem to be limitless options in every category? What makes a consumer want to connect with a brand, purchase products, and remain an engaged part of that brand’s community? 

Source: Axios, Ad Age

If you ask me, brand values play a major role. According to Axios and Ad Age, Super Bowl ads have become more about brand values than the brands themselves. Modern consumers choose to shop with certain companies based on the values that are laid out in every single place the brand chooses to be. Companies in the 2020’s are being built on values and have a purpose, and those values that have been laid out in the open for everyone to see. They’re clearly defined. In the case of Beauty Counter, they put it right on the homepage.

Social posts, packaging, email messaging - even billboards - they’re all talking about values. Consumers are connecting with values like sustainability, ethical practices, and a promise to always put the customer first.

Pictured: Beautycounter Homepage

Millennials have made it clear that they truly care about these values, and will shop with brands who truly support them. Generation Z is coming of age as the largest purchasing power generation ever known, and share similar strong feelings about authenticity. Consumers do have high expectations, but those expectations tend to be in line with what the brand promises them. If a brand promised they were only using ethically-sourced, carbon-neutral materials, then consumers would be well within their rights to be angry if they found out that the clothing they were purchasing had been assembled in a sweatshop, or that their garment was made out of oil.

Simply put: Brands set expectations, and consumers expect those to be upheld. Which sounds obvious. But it’s true.

Premium price point, premium expectations

With premium products it becomes even more important for a brand to build trust with their customers. When you put a premium on a product, you’re sending a message to your customers that they can (and should) have high expectations of your entire brand. A combination of premium price, projected values, and a mutually-beneficial agreement between customer and brand is again evidence of the invisible social contract. The terms of your specific contract depend on the values you set, the expectations your customers have, and how well you maintain the two.

I understand this concept from both a marketing perspective and a consumer perspective, because as a consumer myself, I frequently encounter this social contract. I find that I have certain expectations of brands who repeatedly promise a holistic brand. 

As an example, I love ankle boots, and I love Instagram, and I found my favorite boot brand on Instagram so it works. Thursday Boots, a fairly premium DTC brand makes some promises in its messaging. Thursday’s promises that the boots are made of high-quality leather, that its boots are waterproof, and promises both ethical sourcing as well as manufacturing. That’s why I bought those boots, that’s why I chose them over another brand, and that’s why I just ordered another pair. 

Specifically, this pair, if it matters. 

Values-based partnerships amplify the contract

While Commerce marketers are out here trying to get eyeballs, listens, and retweets, others are forming partnerships to build an audience.

One of my favorite examples of this comes courtesy of my friend, and an absolute wealth of DTC knowledge, Kristen LaFrance. In speaking to Kristen in preparation to write this article she mentioned that her favorite DTC partnership happened just last year when BARK (the makers of Bark Box) and Glossier teamed up for one of the most adorable collaborations, possibly the cutest collaboration in history. Glossier is a very dog-friendly company, so it made sense for them to partner with a brand that shares the same values, and likely a large puppy-loving audience.

This collab is the best kind of partnership execution because it:

  • Brings two brands together that have a shared value system
  • It provides mutual value to both brands and allows them to have crossover customer appeal

Also, it involved puppies. Puppies!

Pictured: Glossier partnership with BARK

Partnerships that share audiences and values amplify the invisible social contract. Likewise, partnerships that discard the initial values-based contract run the risk of alienating that brand’s customer base. And once you lose the trust of your customers, it’s incredibly difficult to regain that trust.

Outdoor Voices, another brand that I enjoy, is another clear study in building an audience around a value-system.  Outdoor Voices’ values are clear: through their clear message of sustainability, they even list the materials used in every product, but the messaging goes deeper than that even. Customers join the Outdoor Voices community because they’ve made movement, and exercise seems fun and non-stressful. One of the best ways that they do this is through events that allow users to engage with the brand in a fun, exciting way, but the products are pretty fun too.

Also, they make some of the best leggings I’ve ever bought

Build trust by living up to expectations over time

Setting proper expectations with your customer has always been important. Then why does it feel like it’s become more important as of late? It doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with recent examples of brands that have recently fallen down on their values. Everlane and Away come to mind. We can talk about brands who make mistakes all day, who over-promise and under-deliver, and who choose the wrong partners. I believe that these brands dilute their brand and erode consumer trust. 

Then there are examples of brands that live up to the high standard they’ve set for themselves over time.

The sustainable sneaker brand, Allbirds, (one of my favorites, btw) has kept a consistent focus on creating an everyday sneaker that’s also friendly to the environment. The ticker for Allbirds? They’ve consistently delivered on reasonable expectations. When they launched, they were about product innovation in textiles and synthetic foams. Then they partnered with the National Audubon Society. Then they committed to carbon neutrality. This promise to maintain status of being entirely carbon-neutral shows that they are building a culture of delivering on promises. Customers can feel comfortable that the values-based contract that they have entered into will be upheld.

Allbirds’ history proves that new and returning customers alike can feel confident knowing that the brand works effortlessly toward living up to those values. It’s never a one-and-done for Allbirds. They also avoid setting lofty goals that they cannot possibly attain.

Make Promises You Can Keep

In a world where consumers have endless choice they also have the ability to be more selective with brands they chose to buy, building a customer relationship that can stand the test of time is all-important. Entering into a social contract with your customer keeps you honest, and keeps them coming back.

Some quick reminders of ways that you can keep up your end of the bargain:

  • Choose your values carefully
  • Make promises gradually
  • Deliver on them expeditiously
  • Be honest, not aspirational, with your messaging

From my own customer perspective, it’s better to build up expectations throughout the lifetime of my relationship with a brand, only to have them falter, and I feel I have been misled from the beginning.

I believe that while brands need to communicate their desire to be values-based, they should remain internally honest (even critical) about their ability to live up to their ideals. In short: make promises you can keep. Allow for those values to grow over time, so that your brand, and the audience alongside it, can keep on growing.

If you run a consumer brand, and you do exactly this, you'll fulfill your side of the contract. And you'll have my business for life.