Revolutionary Measures

Going direct – and the impact on marketing

The rise of the internet was meant to usher in a new, more direct way of communicating, including the removal of middlemen. We’d buy goods and services directly from their producers, rather than having to go through shops or brokers, cutting costs for consumers and opening up new opportunities for companies. It would be the end of the package holiday, the supermarket and the insurance broker, amongst other business types.

It is fair to say that things haven’t worked like that. While small companies can sell direct on the internet, the majority of goods and services are still bought from middlemen who bring products together, allowing consumers to compare them in a single place and then make their choice. Think of Amazon, ebay or insurance comparison sites, which are essentially old-style brokers with an updated business model.


Why has this happened? Partly because people find it difficult to cope with too much choice – there is always the worry that you’ve made the wrong decision and also because these companies have ensured it is as easy as possible to buy from them. Amazon has one-click ordering, buttons to press that automatically send new stocks of household essentials, and voice ordering via Alexa.

However, this model is changing, at least in part, due to the rise of Direct to Consumer (D2C) brands. Companies like Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and a plethora of mattress start-ups are all selling via the internet without any middlemen involved. They often use a subscription model – i.e. you get a delivery of shaving products, beer or food kits on a regular basis, backed up by generous introductory discounts and strong guarantees of quality (if you don’t like the mattress we’ll come and collect it and give you a full refund). They may be relatively small in the UK at present, but they tend to target younger, more affluent consumers and are therefore likely to continue to grow and spread.

These brands are also having an impact on marketing, particularly as many are start-ups that need to establish themselves before similar rivals appear.

1.Name recognition is all
It could just be that I’m their target demographic, but I see adverts for D2C shaving brands such as Harry’s everywhere I go online, in the podcasts I listen to and offline in the press. You need to create and sustain strong name recognition if you are to succeed – given the number of challengers in particular markets it is a question of first mover advantage. This impacts traditional brands, whether that is the likes of Gillette, Tesco or Amazon – they need to respond if they are to keep customers loyal.

2. Marketing is constant
Subscriptions do give some security when it consumer retention, particularly as there is an inertia effect when people don’t get round to cancelling them – look at the number of people who failed to cancel their free Amazon Prime trial before it started charging them. However, consumers, particularly of D2C brands, are savvy and are likely to be constantly checking that they are getting a good deal. So customer marketing has to be tailored, personalised and constant if you are to stay front of mind and engage with your existing consumers.

3. You need a story
You can’t create a D2C brand by just moving your product online or to a subscription model. Not only would that be likely to cannibalise existing revenues, but it wouldn’t generate the appeal of an exciting, new, internet-first brand. People want to get more than a product – they want the story behind it. That means highlighting your credentials, why you are different and what sets you apart. This could be that you buy the finest Japanese steel for your razor blades or donate mattresses to charity – whatever it is, it needs to be clear, differentiated and appealing to your target audience.

4. You need to build a tribe
Business guru Seth Godin pointed out the opportunities that the internet provides to build your own tribe – a group of people that follow your brand, understand what makes you different, act as ambassadors and ultimately buy from you. The most successful Kickstarter campaigns are those where someone with an existing following launches a product. Podcasts that spawn books or tours are another example. Essentially your tribe feels a personal connection to you, believes in your ethos and will both sign up for your new offering and spread the word to others. Building a tribe takes time, but creates a lasting customer base for your brand and all of its products.

None of these marketing tactics are new – and importantly none of them are out of the reach of traditional brands. If you want to protect your products against the rise of the D2C brand you need to look at how they are operating, what you can learn from them and how you can improve your marketing and engagement with customers and prospects.


March 7, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Virtual Reality – the new mobile?

Oculus Rift

Acquisitions by large companies can be a bit of a mystery, forcing people to ponder why they are spending their money on unrelated markets or technologies. Is it a stroke of brilliant foresight, PR by association or just bailing out a mate with an interesting idea?

Facebook’s purchase of virtual reality company Oculus VR is the latest purchase that has led to a lot of head scratching. How does the company’s immersive headset for video gaming fit into Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of the social media giant? Will every Facebook user be issued with a headset so that they can see their friends and ‘like’ things in a virtual world?

Zuckerberg himself has said that he sees virtual reality as the next stage of computing, after mobile, and the company is planning to expand the use of Oculus technologies to include “communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas”. Some of the original KickStarter backers of Oculus, which initially raised £1.5m on the crowd funding site, are unhappy that they won’t see any of the $2bn purchase price, but their reaction seems to ignore the basic site premise of providing funding for zero equity.

Having been to a demonstration of virtual and augmented reality technology a few months ago, I think there are three main reasons that Facebook has shelled out for Oculus VR.

Firstly, bear in mind they are actually ‘only’ paying $400m in cash (the rest is in Facebook shares), so they are not betting the farm. And as an internet company that started with essentially one product, they have been diversifying rapidly into neighbouring markets, with the purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram. This mitigates the risk of having all your eggs in one basket and provides the chance to diversify and sell other things to your enormous user base. The perfect case in point is Google. While it began in search it now offers everything from mobile and desktop operating systems, robotic cars, smart thermostats and cloud-based office applications.  And that’s the stuff we know about. In an industry as fast-moving as the internet, clever companies realise that they can’t stand still – better to take a punt on a variety of new technologies, see what works and learn as you go.

In my opinion, the second reason is based more on a desire to be taken seriously. Google has Glass, Microsoft has Kinect and Amazon wants to deliver your parcels through drones. All bold statements that lift the company from being about mundane bits and bytes to being part of the real world. Facebook has a shedload of money and is essentially aiming to compete with its older, more established neighbours.

But the third reason, is that Zuckerberg might just be right and VR could be the next wave of computing. The fact is that companies, brands and marketers are continually trying to get closer to consumers, and bridge the gap between the digital world (where everything can be measured) and the messy, chaotic real world. From Google Glass headsets to augmented reality and even QR codes, companies want us to use our mobile devices to interact with brands. The businesses that manage to own this intersection will be extremely powerful gatekeepers, in the same way that Google is the start point for the vast majority of internet browsing or searches.

Time will tell whether Oculus becomes central to Facebook or withers away in a corner of the campus. It does mark a step change in Facebook’s growth, since, while the product is about virtual reality, the headset is a physical device, rather than an app or social media network. What it does show is that the Facebook of 10 years time will be radically different to the network we see today.

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April 9, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Standing out from the Crowd (funding)

Turning your brilliant idea into a world-beating product requires a lot of things – drive, commitment, flexibility and often a large slice of luck. But one element it can’t really do without is money – whether to develop prototypes, employ staff or simply pay your own bills.

Finding funding has never been easy, but the range of potential sources does seem to be growing. As well as traditional sources such as VCs, banks, angels and friends and family, there are a range of government grants and multiple competitions that can potentially help startups take a step forward. I’m not saying this necessarily makes gaining investment easy, but it does give more options.The Pebble iOS Smartwatch

And another option that is expanding rapidly is crowdfundingsharing your idea with the world and getting them to back it before you start the expensive business of actually producing anything. If you don’t attract the pre-orders then it should probably act as a wake-up call – are you producing the right product that people actually want?

There’s been a run of successful, over-subscribed launches on sites like KickStarter. The company behind the Pebble smart watch raised over $10m and will start shipping real products this month. On a smaller scale, projects like photography book I Drink Lead Paint hit its target of £10,000, unleashing the thoughts and images of Mr Flibble onto the world. And B2B versions like Funding Circle have attracted government backing, making £20m available to British businesses over the next 12-24 months.

With growth like this, it is no wonder that Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding will double in 2013, raising £1.9 billion globally this year. Not huge in the scheme of overall investment, but potentially opening up funding options to smaller scale projects in a simple way.

But, with more and more projects out there looking for crowdfunding, how do entrepreneurs get people to view what they are doing – and potentially part with their cash? Kickstarter’s own stats show that just over 40% of projects hit their funding targets, showing it isn’t as simple as launching and waiting for the money to roll in.

This is where an enormous opportunity arises for the marketing and PR industries to get involved. Crowdfunding projects need marketing in the same way as any other product, identifying target audiences and demonstrating the benefits your new wonder widget brings to them. And then you’ve got to reach them, using both social and traditional media to identify the influencers that are likely to help you spread the word and convincing them and the world at large. Obviously the downside is that projects don’t tend to have any ready cash, but for anyone brave enough to go for payment by results the business is out there. At a time when the PR industry is suffering financially, creating smart, all-in-one services that help you get crowdfunding or launch your new iPhone app are just what it needs to be developing to recapture growth and build relationships with the next generation of smart businesses.

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January 23, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bye bye angels, hello Kickstarter?

There’s been a lot in the press recently about crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Electronic paper watch Pebble raised over $3.4m for its smartphone linked timepiece while the first Kickstarter scam – trying to get backing for a non-existent video game has just been uncovered.


Kickstarter (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

At a time when money is tight Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites look like the perfect way for startups to raise cash. Essentially you pitch your idea to a receptive audience of people that want to be able to buy your product – and they fund your development in return for a small stake. Your product gets validated by the market, future sales are generated and you get backing – what could be simpler? It also provides another opportunity for public relations agencies to extend their reach by using press and social media campaigns to build a buzz and drive people to their client’s Kickstarter page. 

However while Kickstarter is great for certain types of products, it can’t replace more traditional types of 
funding. First off, the Kickstarter audience is comprised of early adopters – the type of people that are going to spend $150 on a watch that links to their smartphone and are happy to pledge money to get it built. It won’t work for mainstream products that need to appeal to a more conservative, mass market demographic.

Secondly, startups need a lot more than money to succeed – they need help, connections and business advice from people that know what they are talking about. This is something that angel investors and VCs both provide over and above cold hard cash. Otherwise the risk is that companies raise the cash on Kickstarter but then can’t make best use of it as they run into technical, marketing or sales issues that outside advice could have helped with.

So while Kickstarter is a good (and cheap) way of validating your idea for startups building physical products it can only be part of the story – if you want lasting success you still need to knock on doors, make the contacts and do the hard work. 

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May 2, 2012 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments