Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Design for a mindset, not a demographic.

by Simon Forster, Founder & ECD, Robot Food

With more and more customers turning to online shopping during the pandemic, brands have to work harder to engage with and understand their target audience, from product development all the way through to packaging and comms.

But traditional market research doesn’t take into consideration any nuances of mindset between demographics, which can leave brands unfocussed and out of touch. And while big corporations aiming for the broadest opportunity for sales, many communities’ needs are left unaddressed. 

For startups and more focused lifestyle brands, this offers an opportunity to home in on solving a specific problem, catering to a particular ‘mass niche’ community and building a loyal following, all while making smarter and more effective commercial choices.

Remove the gatekeepers

Many brands hit their first hurdle when it comes to trying to connect to their end customer through the crowded haze of a retail shelf. Brands have made multiple compromises for retail because the product and packaging design has to do so many things to hit a target retail price point and communicate everything about that brand from the shelf.  

I know that first-hand, because it happened to me when I launched my own skin care range for tattooed skin, Stories&Ink. The range was listed in Boots, Superdrug, Urban Outfitters and Selfridges, but our customer was the retailer, the middleman, and that meant we weren’t in touch directly with our end user – so earlier this year we relaunched as a solely D2C business. 

Many successful brands like Dollar Shave Club, Who Gives a Crap, and Simba have figured out that D2C strategies eliminate the barriers and bureaucracy of retailers as an intermediary between brand and customers. Afterall, when you deal with retailer, you’re designing for retail – but with D2C, your customer is your customer, which means you can develop a product for them, specifically, straight out of the gate.

That said, D2C does not equal a copy-paste job. We’re not all Simba, and nor should we all want to be (although many have followed), so beware of following trends online rather than using D2C to really interact meaningfully with customers. It’s not a shortcut, it’s a mindset with the nuanced customer at the heart.

On the hook

When it comes to engaging mass niche communities, there’s a lot to learn from D2C lifestyle and beauty brands – Habit Skin, Glossier, and Manscape all engage directly with the customer and focus on meeting clear needs through every step of the brand experience. There is a strategic design system underpinning all of these, from comms to visuals to product to overall purpose – the whole thing is designed in unison to meet a specific, genuine need. 

Setting out to serve an existing community’s unmet needs is another, more direct and down-to-earth way of thinking about brand purpose. It’s about really achieving something for someone, with that person’s needs at the top of the mind from the very start. Rather than getting lost in the weeds of lofty ideas about purpose –  which often gets confused with political stance and ethics, or in the clinical vocabulary of market research – what every brand really needs to succeed is to focus on a unique proposition that offers a real solution to a real problem for real people.

Built-in connections

When it comes down to it, D2C strategies are about building trust with your core audience through connection, but the learnings we take from this way of thinking about product and brand aren’t limited to D2C-only approaches. These days, every brand needs to think about how it’s communicating with its customers across channels. 

Thinking about multi-channel approaches is smart for brands that need to flex in stores as well as online – and could be particularly powerful in this current moment while brands adapt to customer’s changing shopping habits.

Take a brand like Gymshark, which deploys a multichannel approach, it isn’t out there to provide gym gear for everyone – it’s out there to provide gym gear for the “conditioning community”. They aren’t producing pyjamas masquerading as gym clothes, they’re producing high-performance gear. And they’re proud to do it, because they understand that their mass niche audience values performance and progress – and that through-line is evident in the quality and feel of their product, the tone of their comms, and the brand identity.

Or look at indie clothing brand Lucy&Yak, which, in addition to a more traditional e-commerce model, leverages its Gen Z and millennial audience through a presence on the DIY clothing retail community Depop.

When brands like these – and plenty of others – use their online presence as a direct line to customers, the strategy is to connect, and then to leverage niche communities by empowering them to be part of the brand story.

Blurred lines

If we look at the world around us, D2C is becoming the new normal. With many high street retailers struggling during the pandemic, and an awareness that retail experiences have changed for the long term, it’s time for every brand to think about how it’s directly engaging with its customers

When a brand is native on your social media and adept at developing a real sense of community for its target audience, it offers a similar experience to shopping local.

Even brands that haven’t been hit by traditional retail closures, like Disney and BuzzFeed are seeking the benefits of a D2C strategy. Meanwhile, for brands that have traditionally relied on retailers and will continue to do so to some extent, a multi-channel approach is wise.

There is such an opportunity to improve. Overall, whether in-store or online, everybody wants to feel they get a really good service. People want to buy authentic, support specialists and feel a part of a brand’s journey.

Not every brand can or should be strictly D2C, but the mindset that D2C strategies engender will be crucial for brands that want to survive and connect with their core audiences.

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