Landing on the shelves of a major retailer can feel like a “look Ma, I made it!’’ moment for many direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands, and for good reason. There was a time when selling in a national chain store was the best way to reach a mass of new customers, increase brand recognition, and ensure sales. Even with the rise of online shopping, DTC brands were still looking to diversify outside of ecommerce by opening brick-and-mortar stores and partnering with big-box retailers.
But as 2020 proved to us all, in-store retail isn’t as reliable as it once was. To adjust to the changing ways people are shopping, DTC brands doubled down on their previous efforts to establish themselves in the digital space amid new technology solutions and software as a service (SaaS) products.
As more people flocked online to fill the void left by a world on lockdown, the nimblest brands followed them. Relying on new online channels, new advertising strategies, and the renewed interest in digital marketplaces, these brands found ways to stand out and are well-positioned to flourish.
We spoke to the three DTC businesses who emerged strong from 2020 and found out how selling more than a product, keeping an agile mindset, and letting tools like PayPal fill in the gaps helps set them up for success.
Finding Value in Selling More Than Products
“Oh, I think it’s everything for us,” Branch Basics CEO Tim Murphy says, referring to the company’s digital content. “I think it’s beyond an advantage. I think it’s the reason that we’ve been so successful. I mean, sure, we have a kick-ass product — we wouldn’t be successful if it didn’t work — but I think people come back for the content.”
According to Murphy, the brand’s collection of non-toxic cleaning concentrates is the least exciting thing about the company. That’s not to say the plant-and-mineral based solutions aren’t great — it’s just that there’s much more to the brand. “We always say that we’re an education company first and a product company second,” he says. “The fact that there are people out there that don’t use Branch Basics but follow us because we’re providing such amazing educational material, that’s what I’m most proud of.”
It makes sense, considering the brand’s founders Allison Evans, Kelly Love, and Marilee Nelson started Branch Basics out of the desire to help people lead cleaner lives and help improve overall wellness. Inspired by their own health experiences, the trio discovered that removing specific chemicals from the home made them feel better. According to Love, it was a simple idea, and creating an all-natural cleaning solution seemed like the best way to start.
“It’s just something that we use as a tool to get people to start thinking about what they are bringing into their homes,” she says. “Then, hopefully, we draw them in with more education about all things healthy living and show them other ways to create a healthy home.”
Evans goes so far as to credit their overall success to a digital, content-first model. Branch Basics’ site is broken into one section for shopping and another for education. Their Wellness Center is a hub for articles and videos on topics ranging from cleaning to food, and even helpful guidance for maintaining a safer home. The engaging scroll of quick tips, digestible breakdowns, and shareable guides makes their Instagram and Pinterest feeds a must-follow for fans of the brand and health-conscious consumers alike.
With more than 200,000 Instagram followers, it would appear their approach is working. At the start of the pandemic when cleaning supplies were in high demand, they sold out their entire inventory and had to make the difficult decision of restricting the sale of starter kits for new customers to focus on products for existing users in the months ahead.
While that decision could have backfired, it did the opposite. Customers were patient, staying glued to the brand’s newsletters and social channels waiting for a restock. They had a captive audience a mere click away – and PayPal helped make it easy to turn their followers into buyers as soon as products became available through seamless checkout.
“Given that we do a lot of education and that most people access that education on their mobile phone, they learn about the products and end up buying,” Murphy says.
Make the Most of Everything in Your Toolkit
Flower Bodega started as a one-woman show, and in some ways, it still is. As a floral design and content studio founded by Aurea Sanabria Molaei, a former producer and experiential production manager, it was bound to be a business filled with creativity, energy, and spirit.
“I think I learned that being personable and letting my personality shine was going to be the thing that really set us apart,” she says. “So, what I learned was that I had to share more of myself in order to get people to resonate with [my business] in a way that would get them excited about joining.”
Virtual visibility was one of the first tools that helped Flower Bodega and its more tangible elements, like floral workshops, succeed when everything shut down.
“My good friend Crystal saw some bars in her area offering to-go cocktail kits and suggested we try to do something like this for our workshops,” Molaei says. “We packaged up Flower Bodega Workshop kits including tools, a vase, and a bouquet of fresh flowers, then delivered them to each [participant] the day of the workshop.”
As these workshops took off locally, Molaei had the idea to expand to other states. Advertising on Instagram through paid ads, sharing updates in her newsletter, and gaining exposure via interviews helped her extend Flower Bodega’s reach. By fall 2020, she was shipping workshop kits overnight to excited attendees across the country. That’s when she realized: this seemingly short-term response to an uncertain circumstance had become a valuable part of her DTC model. She had translated her product into something tangible that floral enthusiasts could take into their own hands. “They can receive the flowers that we’re working with,” says Molaei of the widespread participants in her Zoom workshops, “and have the same tools and really be a part of it in a way that they didn’t have access to before.”
But the workshops provided something more than just at-home floral arrangements: Molaei was creating an experience for her consumers. “I’m not here to teach you how to become a florist,” she says. “I’m here to take your mind off of all of the sadness that’s going on, share something beautiful, teach you some tips and tricks so that you can create something beautiful on your own.”
As one might imagine, being the active face of a brand and the person managing all the pivots it takes to run a successful business can be overwhelming. One thing she’s had to learn is when to step back and let someone (or something) else do the work. PayPal has become indispensable for managing invoices, collecting payments for workshops, and making payments (for things like marketing materials and supplies) through her PayPal business account. “As a small business getting started, I think it’s incredible the resources that PayPal has available,” she says. “It really feels like a one-stop space to oragnize your financials.”
Molaei uses PayPal on both the merchant and consumer side because it’s a name both she and her customers seemingly trust. “When you have a PayPal badge on your site or when you offer an invoice link to pay through PayPal, no one’s sketched out by it,” she says. “There are so many new apps and forms and methods of payment these days that no one really knows what’s legit. PayPal has been around for so long, and it’s also very user-friendly.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Start Small
Something about being stuck indoors brought out the puzzle enthusiast in many people. Stores couldn’t keep them stocked, and soon after, online shops were sold out, too. By the 2020 holiday season, Teresa and Echo Hopkins — the mother-daughter duo behind Ordinary Habit — were well-prepared to help puzzlers discover new finds.
As Echo Hopkins recalls: “The demand for puzzles generally, coupled with the holiday rush, was something you can’t imagine until you’ve done it. … For the puzzles that sold out, we were able to re-order and have them back in stock early in 2021.”
In an effort to keep up with demand, the team struck a deal with their manufacturer to add additional products to their existing order. Meanwhile during sell-out periods, they provided regular updates to their customers to keep interest in Ordinary Habit going, and even started a virtual waitlist to help reduce the volume of email inquiries they were receiving from interested buyers.
Launching the brand at the height of the puzzle craze was more luck than strategy, but the pair made the most of it by leaning into their brand identity. Instead of modifying their approach to marketing online by simply buying more in-feed ads, they changed their digital positioning to stand out from the crowd. These weren’t just puzzles; they were a grounding, meditative, tactile experience that took three years to develop. With their background in art, they also knew they wanted to feature artists and spotlight small creators who developed their puzzle designs.
“For our first collection, we did interviews with all the artists, and those are up on our site,” Echo Hopkins says. “We really wanted to promote them and tell their stories. Their bios are on the back of our boxes, and it’s very front and center. We kind of have an equal playing field across the design of the box. It’s our name and their name on everything.”
Their relationship with the artists helped to create a community out of Ordinary Habit’s customer base. The founders communicated with them personally about products and ideas, something they don’t think they’d have been able to do if they weren’t a DTC brand.
“We’d wake up one day and say, ‘You know what? Today would be a good day to let people know about this,’ and we’d just do it because we could,” Teresa Hopkins says. “We didn’t have to talk to a team — our team was right here.”
Even though they love the freedom of being a small team, it means that they’re also responsible for all of the logistics, from finding manufacturers, to getting the feel of a puzzle just right, and to making sure artists are paid on time. With PayPal, the duo can manage most of the financial work in-house, freeing up time to focus on other parts of running a business.
“We’re having to pay artists, and we often pay them through PayPal,” Echo Hopkins says. “You can also send invoices through PayPal with a template that they already have set up for you…. Aside from that function, it’s also just a nice option to be able to have checkout integrated into our Shopify.”
The benefits of using PayPal don’t stop at making their workload easy, she says. It also helps their customers. “We honestly see so many people paying via PayPal. We get a separate email, so I always can see exactly who’s using it, and that’s been really great too,” she adds.
Although the business has grown since its launch, they want to keep that small, scrappy mindset when strategizing their next moves. “Because we’re able to kind of do the gambit, not only researching new products, but also being able to make these changes really quickly, we know we will need more people when we grow,” Teresa Hopkins says. “It’s not humanly possible to do everything forever. But it’s been really wonderful to be able to talk to people in the beginning stages, and to be able to take the feedback and really think it through.”
Like Branch Basics and Flower Bodega, Ordinary Habit has found strength in starting out slow and steady. By rethinking how — and what — they’re selling, these three DTC companies have found their small business identity, in addition to a new set of customers, eager to fall in love with their products.