Media is the New CPG

Jun 14, 2018


If media brands want to understand the future of digital connections to their customer they might want to look into wool sneakers…or toothbrush and Razor subscription services…home-delivered vegan meals…try-before-you buy glasses…mattresses.

No kidding. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands like Allbirds, Quip, Warby Parker, Harry’s, Purple Carrot, Casper and Purple mattresses have a lot to teach content providers about reaching new audiences, building consumer-first products, and service.

Most consumer brands are investing more in their advertising and experiencing revenue contraction. Consumer product brands, like media brands, like all institutions, are suffering a loss of recognition and respect. In its annual Meaningful Brand study, Havas finds almost a quarter of consumers admit they wouldn’t care if most of the brands they now use simply went away. Consumers say they would like their brands to make a difference and add meaning to their everyday lives, but few of these manufacturers do.

That is the wide opening the DTC brands have exploited. They are object lessons in how companies in short order can build brands by digital means quickly and out of nowhere, mainly because legacy brands don’t know how to talk to their own customers as people. It is all about super-serving tightly defined niches of interest, going local, being personable, being transparent their processes, and attaching some deeper meaning to the brand.

Almost all of these new DTC companies, some barely three years old, have most of these traits. They have highly personable, often light-hearted voices that come through in all communications. They demonstrate and show off their expertise about the niche they are serving. They are usually very transparent about how their products are made and who supplies them, adding a layer of values and meaning to what is otherwise a commoditized consumer good. They also focus on limited, highly curated selections – offering the value of quality over that of limitless choice. And they service the hell out of their customers, via persistent communications and often including these personal exchanges and input from customers in their content.

It seems to me that there are rough equivalents of the Warby Parkers, Allbirds, and Quips in the media world. And it is not surprising that these upstart media brands are among the fastest growing and grew up on digital. Brands like The Skimm, Quartz, Axios, The Information, and Thrillist are following DTC CPG rules of play. They focus on a narrow audience or topic in a voice that communicates enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, email is among their favorite channels – direct, convenient, voice-driven, stripped down. And they don’t flood the zone with content. Less is more here, and much of the content is pitched at how to make sense of a story. Likewise, they are often opinionated and unabashed about their values and perspectives.

Some of these brands also practice an almost radical transparency. Take Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight data journalism site, where these pollster aggregators explain in depth how they craft their data, what goes into the models, and even how they strive toward impartiality even though most of them have and share their political leanings.

Another exercise in extreme transparency is The Wirecutter product reviews site (now a New York Times Company). Read any review at The Wirecutter and it includes in almost comic detail an answer to every audience’s natural question of a critic – “who are you to tell me what is good?” The Wirecutter not only gives you background on the reviewer, but outlines the breadth of their product sample, the testing procedures, and criteria for rating. Likewise, they interact with readers extensively in the comments section. What Wirecutter is doing in every article is building trust and authority in a media brand from the bottom up. It is taking nothing for granted and presuming audience skepticism.

I think media brands should consider themselves in the same cultural and institutional boat as most other consumer brands. Consumers really don’t love or care about your brands the way your editorial and publishing teams fantasize. Worse, most media brands have been their own worst enemy in recent years. They chased social algorithms to flood us with me-too, me-first content. All this did was condition users to the disposability of any single media brand and empower aggregators that were indifferent to the survival of their “partners.”

As we start to see the social platforms falter under a multitude of weights, there is a window of opportunity for media brands to reconnect with customers more directly and build new kinds of relationships. The old formula of just giving consumers ever more content they like is a relic of the last mass-mediated century. Readers need to be treated like clients, even partners. Content needs to have meaning and purpose in their lives and not just swarm them. Readers need to see themselves in the content and see the content in some way as emblematic of who they are. Mechanisms need to be in place that over-serve readers’ concerns and include them in the development of the product. And content makers need to be transparent about their own processes of choosing and making content.

So slip on some wool sneakers, pocket an artisanal, locally-sourced granola bar, try that personalized, mail order dog food on your pooch, and consider the ways in which every one of those brands built direct connections to you not just as products but as experiences.


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