Cofounders Chris White and Jens Nicolaysen launched the outrageously UNPC partywear brand Shinesty from a UC Boulder college apartment in 2014. Today, this world-leading purveyor of denim-look jeankinis and pink pineapple formalwear has taken four rounds of venture investment and is still growing at breakneck speed.
The Shinesty Mantra: entertain first, sell second.
Shinesty doesn’t attribute their success to a whizbang retargeting strategy, a powerful suggestion engine or frictionless cart functionality. Its success came from its ability to quickly draw a huge and devoted community of followers thanks to their insanely entertaining PDP copy and email newsletters.
Their product stories and newsletters that “don’t suck” became so famous in fact, they garnered Shinesty a feature on Good Morning America while they were still a two-man show operating out of Chris’s apartment. Two years later, it landed them their own MTV reality show. Then beer brands like Budweiser and Guinness came knocking, wanting product placements on Shinesty’s PDPs in order to reach the young, lucrative millennial customers that love Shinesty and tune out traditional advertising.
When I tell people I’ve spent most of my career helping brands tell better product stories, I wish it was Shinesty’s product pages they conjured up in their imaginations. Sadly, more likely than not, it’s something akin to the lifeless Payless PDP below they imagine:
In Payless’s defense, the text above does accurately describes the shoe to its left. But the subtext tells shoppers: We don’t care about our products and neither should you. For over 60 years, Payless was the place where people who didn’t care about shoes went to buy them. Unfortunately for them, the world has a new place to buy all the things we don’t care about. It’s called Amazon.com.
By selling the stuff we all need but don’t care about, Amazon has scooped up an estimated 38% of all US online sales. That stat has many brands quaking behind their digital shopping carts. But there’s a young crop of brands like Shinesty that aren’t only surviving Amazon, they’re experiencing explosive growth right there in the shadow of the largest retailer the world has ever known.
They’re called DNVBs (Digital Native Vertical Brands). Some, like Glossier and Everlane, have nine-figure revenues and billion-dollar valuations. Others, like Tracksmith and Shinesty, are still early in their growth trajectory. But as a group they’re growing nearly three times faster than total U.S. e-commerce (Source). And they’re all backed by VC funds who simply don’t invest in companies that aren’t — at a minimum — doubling revenue each year.
How are these companies experiencing explosive growth while so many mature retailers with far greater brand recognition are barely scraping by or worse? The key is to understand that, when we talk about being “digitally native,” it doesn’t just mean having a better handle on the latest digital commerce technology — though that’s usually the case. Being digitally native goes deeper. These DNVBs are a very different kind of company from the inside out. And they approach the market very differently than their competitors that rose to dominance in the wholesale era.
DNVBs: The story doesn’t just sell the product. It is the product.
DNVBs like travel brand Away understand the affluent, influential young customers you need to grow a strong DTC channel don’t buy what you make, they buy why you make it. These customers believe in voting with their dollars and want to know your products are a worthy cause created by a trustworthy brand. If you gain their trust, you’ll gain their loyalty. And the content they produce is the rock that trusted relationship is built on. Which is why the Emily Weiss quote, “Content is at the heart of everything we do at Glossier,” is echoed by most every DNVB founder.
Most of us have heard the mantra “content is king.” For DNVBs it’s no marketing cliché; it’s the golden rule. Their content — and the editorial point of view that guides it — is the most valuable asset these brands own. Paging through their ecommerce site and reading their product stories feels more like you’re listening in on a conversation between two friends than a slick sales pitch. Below is the story you get if you ever find yourself on Glossier’s Eye + lip cream PDP.
It sounds like one human speaking to another about something they’re excited about and believe in. It’s full of chatty language, specific details and interesting facts — just like the real-life conversations we all have. It tells the backstory of why Glossier created it and how it actually does what it says. It also tells readers Glossier really cares about and thinks through the products they make.
The story that comes with a similar product sold by Glossier’s legacy competitor L’Oréal, on the other hand, is written as if it were a print ad torn out of a ’90s glamour magazine (see above). It’s short, to the point and full of meaningless marketing speak. I’ve never used a twist-up lip crayon and never will. But I guarantee I could’ve easily written this in less than three minutes with no prior knowledge of the product. (Side note: Based on long experience as an overworked copywriter, it’s very likely that is how this description came into existence.)
The fact that all of these DNVBs have deep, well-written product stories on every PDP isn’t a coincidence. It’s the core strategy they use to outmaneuver competitors hundreds of times their size. In an interview on the website leanlux.com, Tracksmith founder Matt Taylor says, “Tracksmith is more committed to the little things that don’t have an immediate return but that do pay dividends establishing a connection with our customers and instilling our brand values.”
The professional investors pouring billions of dollars into these brands agree. They see their focus on getting the small, day-to-day interactions — like the product page story — right as a key competitive advantage. It’s easy for big players to launch a high-profile media campaign. But it’s much harder, on a global scale, to speak authentically to each customer in every corner of your brand.
If you still think DNVBs aren’t so different than your brand, consider this: 20% of Glossier’s workforce on LinkedIn are writers, editors and proofreaders.
In her medium post, Camille Kriebitzsch, Principal & Cofounder of Eutopia, a venture fund dedicated to investing in DNVBs, says, “The inherent promise of the DNVB model is…to offer a buying experience as memorable as the product.” She goes on to highlight the role of the product story: “Content is specialized and created by experts allowing for a more pertinent conversation with each visitor.” (Translation: If your product managers are writing your PDP copy, it may already be too late.)
I know you’re probably thinking: “We just don’t have the budget and people power to create that much great content on every PDP. Besides, management is so tied to our wholesale channel, committing resources like these to DTC is out of the question.” DNVBs and their investors know you’re thinking that too. In fact, they’re betting on it.
That is precisely the reason they see such a golden opportunity. They know there will be thousands of legacy brands so chained to the old, wholesale way of doing things that they won’t be able to make the sharp turn it takes to reach the new DTC promised land. And it’s already opening up miles of running room for digital native challengers.
In commerce as in life, the small things are actually the big things.
DNVBs and their investors understand that interesting product stories on every PDP are to building a devoted community what nightly dinner conversations are to building a tight-knit family.
As a child, would you rather take a trip to Disneyland once or twice a year with an otherwise-absentee mom? Or would you rather have a mom who takes the time to chat with you every night about what’s happening in your life? If you’re not sure the answer to this question, ask your local family therapist.
The same is true with customers. Glitzy ad campaigns are great. But like trips to Disneyland, they’re meaningless unless they’re built on a strong foundation of thousands of smaller, positive interactions. Customers — especially millennials and younger — put a very high premium on companies that listen to their needs and show it day in, day out on every product page.