Three Lessons From Successful Brands Today

While Buzzfeed created listacles of employees to lay off, the New York Times saw $700 million in revenue, hitting its largest headcount ever. This was somewhat surprising for a media format that was supposed to be dead.

From a marketer’s perspective, I see the New York Times’ runaway success as a tribute to to brand trust and the way it’s wielded, with some surprising similarities to trust weapons leveled by the new wave of Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) companies, like Allbirds, Casper, Warby Parker, and Quip.

But first, a confession.

For the past couple of years, my favorite slide in my deck showed logos of Shazam and the Washington Post, side-by-side.

Shazam may be installed on almost every phone but its rarely used. Then Apple dropped $400 million for it. Meanwhile, in 2013, Bezos picked up The Washington Post (The Washington Post!) for just $250 million dollars.

One was an app with a very limited use case. The other, a top ten newspaper with its own zip code.

Hey,” thought Very Wrong Me, “here’s proof that the written word is so cheap that the most venerable media platforms are by definition cheap too.”.

Nope.

Sure, there’s way more writing than in the past. So most words are cheap. But more content makes it harder than ever to establish a connection with readers. So, if The Washington Post can actually cut through to readers, that makes it more valuable, not less valuable.

That same attention saturation dynamic is being played out in the consumer retail sector. We don’t care about Gap, Victoria’s Secret, or J.C. Penny. We buy everything on Amazon. We trust Amazon and its rankings to find the right product.
But, like media, the retail landscape becomes saturated with cheap brands. As it becomes cheaper to create, it becomes more expensive to create an emotional, meaningful connection with users. So, again, brands that can create an emotional connection, are worth more than ever

Enter Casper and the Economist.

Successful media companies and successful direct-to-consumer product companies have evolved to fight attention saturation, creating emotional connections by building – and then communicating – trust directly with the end-user. Here’s three ways this happens:

1. Whitelists, not Blacklists:

We once read everything we encountered. No more.

We don’t have the attention assets for that, so we dole out trust to specific brands. We don’t scroll through Facebook feeds for news; we whitelist The Skimm, Morning Brew, or the New York Times, and ditch the rest. Similarly, with consumer goods, we either find a trusted aggregator (usually Amazon) or connect with one retailer that does one thing really well, and outsource our decisions to them – AllBirds, The Honest Company, or  Harry’s.

That’s why brands like AllBirds, Bloomberg, and Baron Fig stick out. They know exactly who they’re building (or writing) for and nail it, time after time.

2. Owners, Not Surfers

When you buy on Amazon or read on Drudge, the original creator is on borrowed time.

The strength of their brand voice is validated only by trust by the parent brand… and since they don’t own the connection, the parent giveth and the parent will, eventually, taketh.

Buzzfeed built its empire on Facebook virality. You didn’t visit Buzfeed, you got click-baited into visiting. So when Facebook switched its algorithm, the heyday ended.

D2C companies do everything to get your email and maintain that relationship, making sure they’re not just another result on your Amazon search. The New York Times owns the relationship with you because you have a subscription. Whether its Away’s email or the New York Times with coffee, there’s a direct relationship that makes sure you’re not algorithm’ed out.

3. An army of promoters

Trust isn’t just about direct connection.

When something appears in the Economist or the Atlantic, it sparks debates. It’s divisive and, inevitably, the promoters promote. Ardently.

Good D2C companies create an army of promoters. Think back to Dollar Shave Club’s “viral” video (26 million views). When was the last time someone shared a video with you from Gap?

Of course, brands know this and exploit it. The New York Times positions itself as a guardian of transparency, encouraging you to save journalism by backing them and then encouraging you to share articles further. Oh, and that “viral” Dollar Shave Club video? There was a massive campaign to make it go viral, from $10,000/daily in paid spend to pre-releases to media companies.

That quasi-emotional manipulation doesn’t change the fact that when you get an article forwarded, or a rave review from a MVMT-wielding friend, it goes far.

What it all means

Forking over $595 for a Casper mattress or $180/year for the New York Times comes down to trust.

Trust is the rarest asset in any company’s arsenal.

The best-of-breed brands build trust by speaking directly to us. Building on an incredibly well-structured idea of what we want, their brands ooze authenticity and then build lines to communicate the authenticity, tapping into both direct lines and networks of influencers.

The P&Gs, now a styrofoam mishmash of brands spanning Bounty, Tampax, Tide, and Old Spice, or the mishmash of stale CNN articles without character, just don’t stand a change.

Trust me.