These five pieces of advice from your recent predecessors act as a signpost for the next successful DTC brands to succeed.
Ten years ago, the first successful direct-to-consumer (DTC) supplement brands – like Ritual and Care/of – were launched in a landscape that is markedly different than today. How can entrepreneurs succeed within a shifting ecosystem where the cost to acquire and sustain customers is incredibly high?
Of course, that’s not the only question supplement entrepreneurs face: How can a new brand distinguish itself in a DTC marketplace that is becoming saturated? Does the increase in health consciousness and supplement usage that followed the pandemic provide a tailwind for new businesses?
We spoke with several founders of recently launched and successful DTC nutrition brands to gather their wisdom on what it takes to thrive in today’s environment. Here are common themes, lessons and guideposts for the emerging brand CEO in 2024.
1. Prioritize earned over paid.
No matter the category, size or stage of the company, we commonly see an over-reliance on the big three media platforms: Meta, Google, Amazon. While these are foundational channels for nearly every program, brand leaders tend to over-invest while struggling to efficiently attract new customers. Most entrepreneurs know they need to be present on the big platforms… but what else?
The early DTC brands were able to enter the market and thrive exclusively through paid channels. In 2017, Pure Branding supported Jason Brown as he built the Persona Nutrition brand and successfully brought the brand to market through Meta advertising. He reminds us that a short seven years ago, Meta was an arena for efficient new customer acquisition and organic social didn’t yet matter much. New successful brands will recognize the starkly different digital landscape they are entering today and the need to equally focus on earned coverage and partnerships.
We spoke to Ayla Barmmer, MS, RD, who founded fertility wellness company, FullWell in 2019. Their growth was driven entirely by earned marketing in the first year, as the brand built a strong network of practitioner affiliates, attracted coverage on mainstream health websites, and brokered key health influencer partnerships. This earned marketing did more than generate reach – it gave them credibility and incited early momentum around their brand.
Commonly, DTC brands are going to market with a disruptive message or innovation. These first-of-kind brands are often challenged with building demand for their product rather than simply capturing it. This should inspire a shift away from relying solely on lower funnel tactics toward earned marketing that can generate brand awareness, credibility and social proof.
2. Ensure your founding team has built-in aptitude for digital and marketing.
While you don’t need a career marketer on staff for launch, it’s important to have embedded comfort with basic digital acquisition and retention tactics. Today’s successful founders have an inherent understanding of the digital ecosystem and content creation.
Most entrepreneurs can relate to this ‘all hands on deck’ working style during their nascent stage. For today’s entrepreneur, that means that the founding team needs to be able to get their hands dirty – particularly when it comes to creating ownable, distinct digital content. Compelling, high-caliber content is one of the hardest components to authentically outsource in the beginning. And, for an early stage company, outsourcing to the wrong activation partner can turn into a setback that’s hard to recover from.
You can look outward for strategic guidance, creative design or channel expertise, but ultimately early business growth needs to be propelled from within.
3. Establish your brand identity beyond the science.
While supplement brands have always been tempted to lead with science, many of today’s consumers simply expect credible proof backed by the medical or scientific community. New DTC companies need to be built on credible proof, but they also need to establish an emotive brand around a core needstate.
In 2021, Eric and Stephanie Venn-Watson brought Fatty15 to market: the first essential fatty acid to be discovered in over 90 years. This breakthrough discovery was published in Nature and other top tier science publications. As the scientific community rallied around this innovative discovery, the brand brought a disruptive and digestible story to life on their website, through advertising and eventually through coverage on mass consumer publications like the NY Times. While consumers undoubtedly appreciate the cutting-edge science, they are attracted to the brand for their incredible origin story and mission.
4. Prepare for omnichannel shopping.
In the old paradigm, brands more commonly stuck to their respective lanes. Practitioner brands sold exclusively through HCPs. DTC brands sold only through their Shopify site. Small new brands could launch and grow exclusively on Amazon. Legacy retail brands weren’t investing in digital. These guardrails between shopping lanes no longer exist. Today’s entrepreneur needs to strategically plan for a consumer who traverses multiple channels as they research and shop.
In 2019, Lauren Picasso launched Cure Hydration, a plant-based electrolyte company, with the omnichannel shopper in mind. Before going to market, they promoted a wildly successful referral contest to build their DTC email list for launch. They launched on Thrive Market, Urban Outfitters and secured a CVS pilot shortly after launch. They now have wide retail distribution and a successful DTC subscription business. They saw retail as a revenue channel, but also a means for building brand awareness.
A beloved brand isn’t built on science alone. We support early stage entrepreneurs with brand identity development and go-to-market strategy.
5. Aim for brand transparency.
In the 2024 PureSegmentationTM Market Research, we found an increase in consumer desire for supplement brand transparency. Brands who are bold and honest in this regard will win.
Barmmer (FullWell) aimed for open transparency from the start. She sent personal emails to customers explaining why she made a certain formula choice, or why orders were delayed, or why a new quality control measure was put in place. She shared the good and the bad with her customers, it paid off. This built brand trust and equity with her customers.
From working with early stage entrepreneurs, we recognize the first year in-market can be sink or swim. These five pieces of advice from your recent predecessors act as a signpost for the next successful DTC brands to succeed.
If you’re a recently launched DTC supplement brand, we’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions to this article. Click here to send an email to Samantha Brewster, Pure Branding’s VP of Growth Marketing.
A version of this article first appeared in New Hope Network.