Earlier this summer, direct-to-consumer apparel brand Outdoor Voices became the latest in a long line to enter the content war.
When The Recreationlist hit the Internet — a standalone site: one part culture, one part guides for #DoingThings, and all parts community — its launch was met with applause. Both from retail and mainstream press alike.
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“As a brand, we’re trying to become a resource as a whole,” Chris Ralston, director of digital brand experience at OV, told Adweek. “The launch of The Recreationalist gets us one step closer to becoming that […] to establish that two-way conversation.”
But, can content can make a brand?
DTC’s Changing Definition: What Does ‘Direct’ Really Mean?
First a confession: I love content. As someone who makes their living through the (online) written word, I celebrated Outdoor Voice’s entry into branded media with enthusiasm.
The Recreationalist appears to represent what content marketers have long foretold: that the landscape of how and why consumers choose products has shifted.
Today, people no longer want to buy from faceless multinational conglomerates. Instead, we want brands with which we connect. This applies as much to fashion, where identification and loyalty — “We are what we wear.” — have always been strong, as it does to consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) like cosmetics, deodorant, and toothpaste.
In fact, the hype and funding around DTC has transformed the term into something far more than an operational acronym detailing the way online retailers source and sell. To lean on another buzzworthy acronym, the “V” in DNVB (digitally native vertical brand) is fast becoming an origin story, not a defining characteristic.
Seeking scale, numerous DNVB founding fathers and mothers — brands like Bonobos, Dollar Shave Club, and Happy Socks — have entered wholesale. Either by acquisition or aggressive “courting,” traditional outlets like Walmart, Target, and Amazon are all too happy to serve as the middlemen DTC was born to cut out.
Rather than a business model, DTC and DNVB symbolize an ethos — an approach to marketing and retention that seeks to establish one-to-one (i.e., “direct”) relationships.
How are those relationships mediated? Answer: content.
Sadly, back behind even my own adoration of content’s power to enter and thrive within one-to-one relationships, there lurks a disturbing trend.
DTC’s Content Graveyard: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter?
In 2015, DTC juggernaut Casper kicked off an independent publishing arm: Van Winkle. It hired journalists, won awards, and within a year … died. In late 2016, Van Winkle was replaced with Woolly, a standalone website and print magazine dedicated to wellness and lifestyle.
While the site is still live, neither of Woolly’s social accounts have posted since 2018, and all of Woolly’s onsite invitations to “Buy Magazine” redirect visitors to Casper’s homepage.
Airbnb’s first foray into written content met a similar fate. The company released Pineapple in 2014. Then, in 2016, announced the end of Pineapple and the emergence of a new publication in partnership with Hearst: Airbnb Magazine.
After an initial flurry of media attention, the content looks to be floundering with a mere 2.8 thousand followers on Medium and this ominous line on Airbnb’s community helpdesk beneath the headline: “Why am I receiving Airbnb Magazine and how can I manage my subscription?”
“Starting in January 2019, we’re aiming to send all hosts in the US (with a valid listing address) and a limited number of guests a free one-year subscription to Airbnb Magazine.”
Similarly, Dollar Shave Club’s Mel — a lifestyle and culture outlet covering “sex, relationships, health, money, work and culture from a male point-of-view” — boasts less than 2,500 followers on Instagram compared to Dollar Shave Club itself at 204,000.
More casualties could be added:
- Flex’s The Fixx hasn’t published a new post since 2018
- Goop Magazine published for roughly a year, then shuttered
- GoPro’s media business met epic failure shortly after a much-lauded beginning
- Peloton’s written content is arguably a mess and yet that’s hardly slowed its growth
- And while perhaps not a casualty, Chubbies’ legendary written content is delivered through email — visit its blog and you’ll be met with one on-page line: “This silly Tumblr hasn’t posted anything yet”
As a final cautionary tale — this time moving in the opposite direction — Buzzfeed’s layoffs at the start of 2019 paint a disheartening picture of even a publisher’s ability to monetize itself through merchandising.
DTC’s Content Hope: A ‘Silver Lining’?
What then is a DTC brand to do?
The rock and the hard place scaling eCommerce companies face is this: customers connect with written content … but they’re not willing to pay for it. Not with money. And — as an acquisition strategy in comparison to direct-response paid — not with clicks.
The uniting factor of the above examples isn’t that content is broken. Nor that brands can’t grow on the back of content.
Rather, it’s that late entry into the content war as a bolt-on to triage acquisition is almost certainly a recipe for failure.
Success with written content — namely, outliers like Into the Gloss, THINX, Tracksmith, and (perhaps) Outdoor Voices — hinges on a creative strategy born from and for the community it serves. Such strategies, as was the case with Away, must be organically established from the jump (even if that content is an accident due to production delays). To reverse-engineer content with mixed or misaligned expectations dooms it.
Most importantly, whatever acronym you prefer, a fundamental divide exists between B2C and B2B content.
For the latter, longer purchase cycles, multiple decision-makers, higher average order value (AOV), and higher customer-lifetime value all make the cost of written content justified. In B2B, words can serve as a gravitational center. In B2C? Yes … and no. (But, as much as it pains me, mostly no.)
Storytelling and copywriting make or break a brand. However, the gravitational center as manifested to the public isn’t written content as traditionally defined by B2B.
It’s content as aesthetic creative — rooted in visual mediums and off-site platforms like social — that is then woven onsite and throughout customer touchpoints. (Or, vice versa.) Regardless of the direction its created in, written content orbits an aesthetic sun.
To treat publishing as yet another chapter in a standardized playbook is to miss the point: outliers are just that … outliers.