This article is part of a Spotlight series on what marketers can learn from DTC disruptors in China. Read more

Why it matters

In a constantly changing landscape, brands have to be more like water and adopt fluid branding with no limitations, a fluid omnichannel that connects different sales channels, and fluid segmentation leveraging small data for insights on consumer needs and market segmentations.

Takeaways

  • Ubras’ video with a comedian leaves people’s imagination to fill in story gaps and form their own understanding of the brand.
  • Home Facial Pro sees RED as a content seeding channel while using Tmall to gain a greater share of the beauty category.
  • Lemonbox designed its user experience with small data to deliver customised recommendations of vitamins.

DTC businesses don’t create brands, they create concepts that slowly take form as brands. The brands themselves are like clumps of clay that are moulded over the years by careful, strategic choices and, of course, water – re-shaped through changing consumers trends and feedback.

Fluid branding has no limitations

Some would say the traditional packaged goods corporation of the world is more of a marketing company, where its brand equity outweighs its entire year’s profit.

Too often have I sat in on briefings of product launches by brand managers who have spent millions on brand positioning and what was the holy grail of the ‘90s – brand keys. This was before the products even hit the shelves (or these days Tmall). China, a market moving at the speed of light and where every five years is a generation, it is almost impossible to gain mass appeal the traditional way.

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I’m saying big brand videos are dead and the method of storytelling needs to change. Too often, brand videos are like fairy tales with happy endings all tied up in a little bow. But these days, DTC brands weave imagination into their communication. They leave room for interpretation even if it may be misinterpretation (eg Ubras’ Weibo with comedian Li Dan). They allow people’s imagination to fill in the story gaps using their own contexts and backgrounds to form their own understanding of the brand – a little like what magicians do.

This freedom allows creativity in selection and leads to strategic actions that may not always contribute towards a bigger brand narrative but perfectly positions the brand as the centre of attention.

Perfect Diary’s collaboration with Austin Li’s dog pushed the boundaries of what could be used as IP when it first came out. Some questioned the match but it was simply about creating enough intrigue and content to capture consumers’ attention.

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This stroke of genius wasn’t planned. It came from an offhand comment by Austin Li during a livestream and Perfect Diary used the fans’ reaction and momentum to close the deal. From talking to a fully packaged product only took a couple of weeks, including social media livestreaming and content seeding to drive the social buzz before the actual launch.

The lesson here is to make products your hero (attention driving) and the brand the glue that binds you to your customer. Allow flex and expect not to have a fully formed brand strategy yet. Allow it room to breathe and settle into the current cultural context.

Fluid omnichannel

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specially your own”.

There are many buzzwords out there but one that is most often used is omnichannel. While the meaning is “across all channels”, in China it should really be about connecting sales channels.

One of the most common mistakes our clients make in China is to have too many sales channels, all playing the same role with a similar product mix.

DTC brands, mainly due to budget constraints, are very selective about their sales channels. They are particularly cognisant of keeping demand high, supply sufficient and data transparent.

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A prime example is To Summer (观夏), a home fragrance brand that rose through the ranks post-COVID to ride on the overall home economy trend that didn’t start on mass e-commerce channels. They chose to keep it relatively close to home on WeChat’s Mini Program – a brave choice indeed, since only one-third of WeChat users buy things on WeChat.

Not only that, they also strategically designed the launch mechanics of their new product releases only for certain days of the week and in limited amounts. This helps with timely delivery and controls production quality but more importantly, it makes the brand and products more desirable and valuable.

It is incredibly important to understand how the major e-commerce platforms shift their strategies every year to gain more share of people’s wallets. This enables DTC brands to shift their channel strategy at the same time for the best advantage and resources.

Sometimes, it is also about re-shifting focus, like how Home Facial Pro shifted from RED to Tmall during their third year of operations. For them, RED became a content seeding channel and they later redirected the majority of their traffic to Tmall instead to ride the wave there and capture more share of the beauty category.

These strategic shifts not only change where you are selling but also control the product mix and prioritisation on each platform, content strategy and paid platform selection – ensuring minimal data loss and shortening the consumer journey. The beauty of the DTC business is that they are in control of all of that which makes changing and maintaining consistency across the business easy.

The lesson here is to know the plans of each partner platform and play to their strengths; this will help ensure better premium placements and allow your brand to ride the growth wave.

On the other hand, it is also about knowing where your home base is and not entirely relying on volume platforms like Tmall to lead your business and communications strategy. We need to stop pandering to the whims of the mass e-commerce platforms and learn to outwit them.

Fluid segmentation and data

“Knowledge – and data – will give you power”.

DTC is often interpreted as having a direct sales channel where people can buy from an owned online platform like a website but it stretches far beyond that.

It is about owning a direct relationship with the consumer and more importantly the ownership and usage of data. It is about the types of data and how they can be used to help inform decisions, every step of the way.

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Most of the DTC business concepts have humble beginnings – they don’t go out there thinking they are going to disrupt the market. It all comes from identifying an innate need that isn’t being fulfilled by mass brands out there. Take Lemonbox for example. What was a son’s concern for his ageing parents and their need for more personalised multi-vitamins became a business. A vitamin business inspired by Stitch Fix (a personalised fashion DTC brand from the US), combined with big data and technology.

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But what was smart was how its user experience was designed with small data. Its survey of over 2,000 customers and their feedback ultimately formed the basis of customised recommendations that created pre-packed vitamins delivered directly to them. The survey not only tries to understand your lifestyle but also focuses on the motivations, hopes and goals of the individuals.

A lot of DTC brands do well at using small data to understand what and why people buy, and to inform their go-to market segmentations. Then big data refines that into more precise deployable and addressable segments.

But when we rely heavily on big data to help inform our segmentation, using Ali’s strategic centre or the Jing Dong equivalent, we forget that we are in the business of persuasion – simply showing a product or an ad won’t convert it into a sale.

So next time you ask your agencies or insight teams about segmentations, don’t just accept demographics and lifestyles. The shift needs to happen to understand that as a person, you often have multiple mindsets throughout the day and different needs due to situations or contexts.

The power of precision isn’t about niche targeting, it is about the ability to link behaviour (mindset or need) to context using data. Let’s create less personas that put people into boxes and create more living segmentations that flex and change depending on the digital triggers and signals that people give out.

In this constantly changing landscape, we all need to be more like water.

Further reading

What we know about challenger brands

What brands need to know about the rise of Asia’s “Convenience-driven consumer”

Superimposed text size and contrast effects in DTC TV advertising: Bigger is better, high contrast not so much

A casual flirtation or a committed relationship? Assessing the post-pandemic stickiness of product subscriptions

McKinsey report – DTC e-commerce: How consumer brands can get it right

About the author

Mimi is a self-confessed strategy geek who loves to find brand solutions through a mash-up of media, technology and behavioural data signals. She led comms strategy for China's biggest brands, Unilever's personal care & foods division with PHD China, and later led OMD China's integration and growth unit which included social, content, performance and strategy. Her work has been recognised globally as the #14 most successful campaign by WARC 100 (24 Hour Doctor for Lifebuoy) and Gran Prix at MMA Global. As a tenacious communications strategist, she is a curious seeker who finds patterns in the constant change within the current zeitgeist.