Three Key Lessons from the IAB 250 Direct Brands to Watch

Customer service, quality, and purpose elevate the disruptors.

In February of this year, when the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis was still unimaginable to most of us, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) announced their list of 250 direct-to-consumer brands they consider most disruptive. Mere weeks later, we’re living in a new world—and the same qualities that set these businesses apart can now be regarded as essential to a brand’s survival. 

Astound Commerce took a deeper look at the IAB 250 brands to watch, not as individual success stories, but as potential inspiration. We found three core themes that any company looking to have a stronger relationship with its customers should consider.

1. Customer experience and control are as important as the product or service.

Food delivery, exercise, meetings, lessons … these are not new things, and they are not even particularly new to the digital realm. But in our current reality of social distancing and sheltering in place, digital has abruptly become the only option. And when you have a stellar customer experience like DoorDash (real-time delivery tracking and messaging) and Instacart (texting with the person choosing your items), food delivery becomes something remarkable and meaningful. When you reimagine your average exercise class taking place on a Mirror instead of a TV screen so you can watch your moves and see your stats, working out takes on a whole new dimension. When you develop a meeting and education tool that enables real-time collaboration, like Explain Everything, you are addressing the core needs of the target audience.

These companies are getting traction not just because of their technology or model, but because their experiences are intrinsically tied to their model and superior to the competition.

Lesson learned: Spend as much time imagining and designing your customer experience as you do on your service or product. They are inextricably linked. 

COVID 19 update: Since the original draft of this article, digital experiences that enable home delivery, education, and exercise are more important than ever.

2. Focus on quality and segment over quantity and footprint.

Who wakes up and thinks they will make big marketplace changes with a mattress or shoe? That is exactly what Casper and Allbirds did. Casper did it by limiting SKU count and instead focusing on quality and messaging while targeting a specific segment: millennials who had no time or interest in shopping for mattresses. Allbirds has a fine product with some innovation, but really its success lies in not trying to be everything to everyone. The company’s product works for its niche, and it’s not trying to become the Nike of wool footwear. Similarly, KiwiCo—not your average toy company—offers a monthly subscription of highly curated, quality STEM projects. Its niche market is clearly parents looking to “play” with their kids in a meaningful, educational way. 

Lesson learned: Create more goodness versus more stuff. Narrowly define your market and double down on it. 

COVID 19 update: In the disrupted supply chain world, small, focused, and in-stock helps brands stay nimble.

3. Have a purpose, and let it define everything you do.

Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space since its 1977 launch, but most retail experiences have not evolved much in the past 43 years (with the exception of experiential retailers like Apple, REI, and Sephora). When you look at brands that have exceptional experiences, you will find those experiences have been shaped by a clear purpose. Without a mission, it’s just products on shelves. Brands like Wildfang underscore the importance of purpose. Its apparel for “badass womxn” is driven by a desire to rethink gender stereotypes—everything the company does, from product design to digital content, embodies this. On the other end of the gender spectrum, Hims guides men through potentially embarrassing topics such as baldness and erectile dysfunction with humor, compassion, and quick online sessions with doctors to get the products they need. The Hims experience is born out of a mission to help men address health concerns easily and privately and not feel bad about them. 

Lesson learned: Have a purpose or rethink what you are doing. Once you have a purpose, the rest comes naturally.

COVID 19 update: Today, every brand can examine how it can help the crisis—can you retool to provide hand sanitizer like small-batch distilleries? Can you help deliver essentials to the elderly and immunocompromised? Can you provide parents trying to homeschool support? 

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Bridget Fahrland

Bridget Fahrland is vice president of digital strategy at Astound Commerce.

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