Emily Singer on 7 Key DTC Trends to Know in 2020

Emily Singer who leads marketing at Alma (prev. Daily Harvest and Gear Patrol) shines the light on key trends every DTC founder and marketer should know about going into 2020.

Emily Singer looks at the modern world of DTC through an interesting lens: A graduate of Middlebury College, her education there focused on art history. “Art history often involves studying things as a reflection of society at large, in a way that’s not bogged down by facts and dates. It’s more about context and culture,” she said.

Today, she uses this framework to study digital media, editorial strategy, changing consumer cultures, marketing trends, and new technologies, striving to better understand what they reflect about our culture and our desires--as well as how they will influence the future.

Through previous marketing and copywriting roles at DTC brands like Jack Threads and Daily Harvest, Singer gained firsthand experience with the inner-workings of eCommerce operations. She now leverages this knowledge within her newsletter, which focuses on the intersection of ecommerce, tech, and branding and has more than 2,200 subscribers--including many DTC industry leaders. Today, Singer’s full-time role is Marketing Manager at Alma, a community and resource collective for mental health professionals. 

She and I sat down for a conversation together to talk about a growing trend she’s noticed over the past 12 months within the DTC space: Brand accountability and evolving consumer expectations. 

Here’s what she had to say.

The Overview: DTC Accountability & Evolving Customer Expectations

From Singer’s point of view, DTC consumer expectations are beginning to shift into high gear when it comes to holding brands accountable. Not only do today’s shoppers want and expect end-to-end service from DTC brands, but they also want them to follow through to the fullest extent when it comes to their mission, values, and promises that are communicated through their marketing efforts.

On the topic of DTC accountability, Singer said things like the recent news of toxic chemicals discovered in the fabric of menstrual underwear company Thinx’s products comes to mind. Or the recent Vox article that discussed the Facebook groups wherein Rothy’s customers are organizing boycotts of the brand in response to mishaps and delayed orders.

In short: Customer expectations around the customer experience provided by DTC brands are on the rise, and will likely only continue to increase as shoppers hold these retailers more accountable over time.

“Today, it’s easier than ever to sell online. There are low barriers to entry with selling platforms like Shopify that allow brands to set up shop and launch in mere hours. And with born-digital brands who have full-service agencies like Red Antler and Mythology (fka Partners & Spade) helping with everything from logo design to product development and brand voice, as well as seed-stage funding large enough to rival Series A funding, there’s increasingly an expectation — subconscious, unspoken, or otherwise — that these companies will get it right from the start.” she said.

New research echoes Singer’s perspective: The SAP Fashion Index survey, powered by Qualtrics, surveyed 5,000 consumers about their perceptions of brands and their overall shopping behavior and found that as much as 81% of survey respondents said they expect brands to go above and beyond.

At present, the data showed brands still have a long way to go when it comes to delivering on those expectations:

  • 75% of consumers have high expectations for digital shopping experiences, but only 63% believe brands are delivering.
  • 73% of consumers expect brands to go above and beyond for delivery and pickup, while only 59% believe brands are doing so.

And brands are aware of this shift, too. The 2019 Gartner Customer Experience in Marketing Survey found that 81% of companies said they expected to be competing mostly or entirely on the basis of customer experience by the end of the year. 

Customer experience encompasses any interaction between a brand and its customers over the course of their relationship together. This includes customer support conversations, website interactions, social media conversations, and so much more.

So what do these increased expectations entail, exactly?

Singer feels that for one thing, it’s no longer enough to cover the basics--DTC brands really do need to go above and beyond if they want to retain customers for the long haul. She expanded on this in an edition of her newsletter (below), writing: 

“...because direct-to-consumer brands have a more intimate connection with consumers, and because they’re not burdened by the operational challenges of traditional retailers, we hold them to higher standards. We expect products to ship faster, communication to be prompt and human, and the product to be good.”

This means DTC brands should incorporate relevant personalization in marketing messages, integrating a more human approach to customer service interactions, and incorporating moments of unexpected surprise and delight into everyday experiences.

“The DTC space is evolving. If you think about the world into which Warby Parker was born versus what exists today, things have changed a lot: Paid channels are more expensive and it's harder than ever to stand out,” Singer said. “One of the best ways for a DTC brand to differentiate itself is through the experience it provides. If you make it unforgettable, and if your product is as good as you market it to be, people will come back and will recommend it to others.”

DTC Realities in the Way of Success

We know modern consumers’ expectations, but the truth is: There are some very real obstacles in the way for DTC brands as they work to address them.

For one thing, many of these brands are small and resource-strapped--even if they’ve received funding or raised capital to help them grow. If DTC brands are still in the process of scaling up, they’re likely working with a smaller team of people who are wearing multiple hats. As time and personnel resources are already stretched thin, it’s often a “keep your head above water” situation, which makes it difficult to think about (let alone execute) going above and beyond for customers.

“It’s not revolutionary to say that new things are not perfect, whether a business, product, or tech feature,” Singer said. “There’s pressure to launch and scale quickly and to do as much as possible, but speed often comes at the expense of quality. Knowing this, it’s interesting to see brands begin to communicate iterative product development — something that’s standard in the tech space, but relatively new to the consumer product arena.”

How DTCs Can Stay Accountable and Exceed Expectations

So how are DTC brands finding a way to stay accountable and deliver on rising customer expectations? Singer shared two primary ways this is being addressed, as well as some examples of companies who are doing it well.

The human touch

Singer feels that DTC brands are in a unique position to play up their smallness and the fact that they aren’t legacy brands or faceless big-box retailers. 

Instead, by adding names and faces to team members and introducing the real humans behind the day-to-day operation, these agile DTC brands are able to build more intimate relationships with customers who then feel like they’re a valued insider to the company.

“This is a natural way for DTC brands to promote brand affinity,” Singer said. “The more you know these brands and the people who run them, the more you want to support them.” This tweet from Zach Stuck on the holiday card sent out by DTC alcohol brand Haus illustrates the impact of this human element--and how it can generate organic social buzz, too.

“This example from Haus is a perfect instance of surprise and delight from a DTC brand. The human touch goes a long way with customers,” Singer said.

Looking at CX as a customer journey

On the subject of high-touch customer experiences and personalized marketing, Singer said that what's most interesting to her is the opportunity to take customers on a journey. That can mean recommending seasonal products based on past purchases ("You liked X; Y has a similar fit and is great for warmer weather") or, in some instances, underscoring the benefit reaped by the customer from purchasing or using the product through value-driven content.

The problem is: Many DTC brands are still missing the mark. A study by Salesforce showed that 64% of shoppers feel that retailers don’t truly know them.

However, there are DTC brands who leverage value-driven personalization well. Ritual is one DTC example Singer referenced. 

How do they tackle it? By sending out monthly email updates about the long-term effects of taking their vitamins: A valuable form of customer education that keeps the brand top-of-mind as they move along the course of their customer journey.

Studs, a new piercing space, is another DTC that uses customer journeys to consistently provide value. In their case, it’s by sending follow-up emails as a customer’s piercing heals — which Singer said feels personal and is an effective means of building loyalty without necessitating a repeat purchase. 

Activewear DTC brand Outdoor Voices was another brand that came to Singer’s mind when thinking about taking a customer journey-focused approach to email marketing: Leveraging customer data around past purchasing habits, Outdoor Voices sends customers personalized text-based HTML emails with information on specific product re-stocks and new item releases that are tailored to reflect their areas of product interest. 

“Rather than a flashy, templated mass-marketing message, they take a more customized, human approach to this channel,” she said. “The plain text emails feel more genuine.”

Other DTC brands like Everlane and Glossier are taking a similar approach, leveraging what looks like internal emails within an email marketing phase.

“Glossier was the first DTC brand I saw use ‘internal messages’ as marketing material with their ‘Phase 2’ launch. Lots of brands have copied since then, but few do it well. Everlane's loafer sunset email (pictured) is one of them,” Singer said.

As you can see in the image, this approach shows the brand sharing internal emails between team members and giving shoppers a peek behind the curtain at what’s happening at the company, attempting to further deepen a bond with their email subscribers and past customers. 

So how can other DTC brands capitalize on the concept of customer journeys without simply replicating what’s already been done?

Singer said she thinks there's still room--especially for DTC brands in the skin and haircare space--to lean into this concept of the journey to retain customers. 

Whether that’s through ongoing education-focused email campaigns that help each individual shopper through their journey with the brand or finding creative ways to bring them further into the fold via increased transparency, this route is one that won’t be a passing fad.

What DTC Brands Need to Remember

So what to DTC brands need to keep top-of-mind as they work to improve customer experience and build deeper bonds with customers? Singer says there are two key ideas to remember.

1. Recognize the value of good customer service

In the DTC world, customer service isn’t just about problem-solving. It’s a rare chance to build trust and respect. Most customer support queries relate to tactical order fixes, website issues, etc. However, Singer says there’s a real opportunity to deliver lasting value that translates into customer loyalty through stellar customer service interactions. 

“Customer service isn’t just a helpdesk--it can also be used as a proactive form of customer support and these team members can even serve as a personal shopper figure,” Singer said.

Again, data backs this up. One of the most important takeaways from the SAP Fashion Index survey was that 85% of consumers rated outstanding customer support as the key differentiator when shopping a brand. 

So what DTC brands already do this well? Singer pointed to Glossier’s “gTeam” as an example. “The gTeam works to reference customer data and purchase history to make personalized recommendations for each individual customer,” she said. “They can reference past shades and products bought and, from there, deliver that important human element of a one-to-one recommendation.”

Digiday reported in 2018 that Glossier’s online customer service representatives, called “editors,” are trained to interact casually with customers in a way that’s “friendly, warm and thoughtful.” 

The article went on to include this insight from Mallory Pendleton, a gTeam editor working on the brand’s social media who had been with the company for 14 months at the time of the article’s publishing:

“We never want our customers to feel as if they’re talking to a robot, because they’re not. Every editor on our team has a unique vibe and a different experience with Glossier products, so we all bring something different to the exchanges. When I’m DMing a brand on Instagram, I want a candid response, like one I’d get from a friend, so that’s the way I think when I’m in the Glossier DMs, too — whether we’re sending emojis in reply to a mention or answering a complex product question with recommendations.”

While Glossier is a strong example of this concept executed well, not all DTC brands can say their CX team members feel quite so empowered. In a recent article from Modern Retail, an anonymous DTC employee shared that being part of the company’s CX team could be somewhat chaotic.

“I feel like I’m frequently being pulled in multiple directions, which can be exciting but also frustrating when you feel like it’s your job to just drop whatever you are doing and support another team. If there is a shipping issue, the CX team is going to need to be involved because they [must] alert customers,” the interviewee said.

“We would love to have our own internal guide with all sorts of product information, just so when our team is responding to customer inquiries we have as much information as possible to keep us efficient. And that [guide’s creation] frequently is delayed because when something is changing, it is more important to adapt than to be proactive. People who don’t work in CX don’t necessarily realize how much of a science it can be. There are so many different ways you can optimize things...but we don’t always have the time to work on those.”

The takeaway: DTC brands need to realize the importance of customer service and place a larger value on supporting team members who directly interact with their customers.

Truth in marketing

It can be tempting for DTC brands to lean on feel-good messaging or what they believe is what customers want to hear. But with the uptick in consumers holding brands accountable, truth in marketing is more important than ever before. 

Singer says this largely means following through on the marketing messages the brand is touting. Company messaging around values like a dedication to eco-friendly efforts can’t just be a feel-good marketing ploy: It needs to be a true pillar of the brand.

Reformation executes this well: Each quarter they release a public report on their company-wide sustainability efforts and the impact of those activities, with data on everything from their CO2 emissions to fabric upcycling and more.

“Today’s shoppers are holding brands accountable to sell the products they said they are. In Reformation’s case with this quarterly report, probably only a small group of customers actually read it. But the point is: They’ve gone to lengths to show this is a true core value to the company that’s baked into the brand’s identity. It’s something they value,” Singer said.

When I asked Singer how brands can do a better job of educating consumers about their value-focused efforts (without banging shoppers over the head), she said the secret is often to say less. “Rather than trying to educate customers on a variety of different efforts or values, it’s often better to focus on one core thing and lead with that for clarity’s sake, backing things up with data--like we see in the case of Reformation.”

Final thoughts: DTC is more than selling online

Singer summarized her thoughts on the topic by saying that being a DTC brand today is about more than just selling product online. It's about the broader experience that brands provide--and there's plenty of room to innovate within that context. 

She also sees many parallels around what’s happened within the digital media space. 

“DTC, like digital media, has potential that’s limitless and ever-evolving. Experimentation, risk-taking, and a refusal to settle or accept the status quo are rewarded. New devices will continue to be released and adopted, the ways we interact with those devices will continue to evolve, and the content we interact with on those devices will change accordingly,” she said. “I'm excited to see brands take advantage of that, and think it's something they'll need to do in order to stand out and survive.”

Interested in learning from more experts in the DTC space? Join over 1,000 DTC founders, executives, and enthusiasts at DTC DAY, the largest direct-to-consumer conference in North America.

DTC DAY is the largest Direct-To-Consumer conference in North America featuring an all-star lineup of brands, retailers and e-commerce enthusiasts. From Founders, CEOs, to Managers, we all get out of our busy lives for ONE day to meet and discuss ways to improve our businesses, our lives, our environment, and our communities.

Get access to founders and CEOs you wouldn't have access to, even online. Get exclusive insights, new opportunities and best of all, lasting relationships, only at DTC DAY.