Direct to Consumer brands are disrupting traditional retail companies, but what’s next? Get a behind-the-scenes look at how D2C teams use content to build customer relationships. Learn what’s working, what’s not, and what is poised to change.
P: Hey everyone! This is Patrick Costello at Naytev and I’m here with Dan Ucko the Director of Content from Nectar Sleep. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
D: Good to be here Patrick! Nice to Talk to you!
P: To kick things off, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your role as Director of Content at Nectar.
D: I’m owning our brand blogs and our content destination. We’re actually a portfolio of brands and right now that’s a couple of mattress brands, we’re expanding into furniture - 3 of those brands have blogs now and we’ve built to content destinations/content hubs. One is called Sleep Authority and the other is called Home Well Designed. I basically own the content output that comes from those places and how those results drive sales.
P: That sounds like taking a portfolio approach to content is a key part of your strategy. Are you seeing people taking more of a portfolio approach now in the B2C marketplace than they have in the past, or is that something that y’all are trying to uniquely use as a strategy?
D: I think it’s a little bit unique to us actually. I think what we’re seeing in direct consumer brands is everyone starts off as a company doing one thing and then realize that they want to expand/get bigger own more market share, and have more diversified revenue they need to have multiple products and multiple revenue streams. And so you see Harry’s going from just razors to a whole shaving and men’s care line and that can expand to health and all kind of things in the future, but that’s all under the Harry’s brand.
For us, you know, I like to say that we’re building multiple trains while driving them. So it’s a lot to build a portfolio company from scratch as you go, but nonetheless as crazy as it is, it’s what we’re doing. It is a different approach to brand build multiple companies at the same time under one roof.
P: It sounds like a huge opportunity for your team to stand out and build a relationship with people across their consumption patterns. Not just on the mattress side, but moving into home furniture as well.
P: What trends are you seeing more broadly in direct to consumer marketing?
D: Yeah - I think a couple come to mind. It’s always hard to filter out what’s trends in the industry and what’s my focus at this point in time. I will say with content marketing, most people think it’s a top funnel activity and can easily dismiss it despite it being a regular part of marketing teams for the last 5-10 years as it has grown in popularity. What we’re seeing in terms of technology advancements, new tools out there connecting the dots between revenue on content, banner blindness and even the same idea happening to Facebook ads and sort of direct response sale activities not always working or as sustaining as they used to be. People are finding new ways to talk to people and reach people.
I compare to a lot to people on teams where the difference between a landing page and a content page on one of our ecommerce websites. Even if the text and pictures are sometimes identical, I think a lot of the difference in the design and the language of how you talk - what you end up seeing with a landing page, just a regular old webpage, you just skim it and that’s what they’re built for; you bounce back and forth looking for specific information. Whereas with content landing pages and articles you’re writing a story and you end up forcing people to read from beginning to end and it can have a greater impact when you reach them that way.
P: Absolutely! The storytelling side is pretty critical to building relationships as opposed to pumping content out. It’s great to hear you guys doing that.
D: There are different layers. There are quantity plays and quality plays and we’re always trying to balance that too.
P: I’m curious across content marketing right now, what are the particular strategies you think are overplayed or overhyped?
D: I’m trying to think...you can say that there’s some hype in the podcast space. You can quote me on that if this goes into a podcast (although I do love podcasts!). I just read an article today that some research in the UK said that publishers have the “new shiny object syndrome” the sort of pivot to “X”. Because content marketers are thinking like publishers, but on the marketing side, I think we have the same tendency to sort of get wrapped into that - kind of into that focus of what’s the new channel, what’s the new medium? Ok we’ve been writing text content for years now, do we need to start doing videos, doing podcasts, do we need to do everything?
Undeniably the answer is that all things should be considered, but gauge your resources and the impact of what you’re doing across new channels. I think accomplishing that is pretty challenging especially at scale.
I think there are always challenges with the new shiny object syndrome. In terms of new other trends that are being hyped - it also falls into the “What are you doing in AR/VR?” conversation; all stuff that’s too new to really talk about.
P: Switching gears a bit, do you see investing in influencer marketing as still attractive?
D: Yeah, that’s a good question and something we’ve spend a lot of time digging into this past year. Back to new shiny object theory, I think this falls into that category to some extent. Not in the sense that you shouldn’t do it, but in the sense how do you make that work for your brand. There’s challenges in terms of just trying a new type of marketing when you don’t have a clear-cut strategy, thinking overall how this fits into that strategy and what is your unique strategy with influencer marketing.
We do influencer marketing. In the early days we paid mico-influencers on Instagram to create lifestyle photography for us before we had the in house capabilities to do so. Because we have a higher value product that mattresses start at $800 we were able to exchange product at a minimal cost to an influencer with 50-100,000 followers on Instagram for one or two posts and a series of photographs we could use in our own advertising. That was really useful until we brought in the in house creative studio aspects in house and starting doing our own lifestyle shoots. We had also dealt with challenges with logo changes and consistency and getting influencers to create the photos exactly as you like them on brand is difficult to do while hoping to have them maintain their authenticity. What we’re sort of at the point now is, you know we’re focusing on brand this year. We’ve traditionally been a very performance driven company, but we’re slowing down our influencer efforts to take a step back to take two steps forward. For us that means longer term relationships, not so much pay for play or pay for post, and sort of going back to fewer more quality people that we can get involved with in our space. As we branch out into furniture, home decor and interior design, we just don’t need photos. We want the influence, but how much are we willing to pay for it when you can’t directly attribute ROI to it? So we’re looking longer, saying OK let’s develop a six month or one year relationship with just a small handful of people. You know, we’re thinking for our our Home Well Designed content site they [influencers] could write an ongoing series for us, like a column they report every week or every month and share that and as well do some other sort of other creative activities in a package.
Today, I think marketers are always trying to figure out what goes into the production bucket of the distribution bucket, and this falls more squarely into production. Because we’re tapping into their personality and having them as an established presence on our site and then we’re happy to pay to do the distribution. But at the same time, you’re going to promote this to your network, but you’re invested. You wrote a series or ongoing piece for us so hopefully you stand by it.
P: Well on the topic of influencers, when people usually think of them they’re typically human. What do you think about using pet influencers to help out in the B2C marketplace even if the product doesn’t relate to pets?
D: Haha, well pets perform really well. My cute French Bulldog, Murphy, he’s almost a year old now is in some of our mattress photos and he’s definitely one of the best performers. I’ve heard other mattress companies talk about dogs or pets in photos performing well. Just from a creative standpoint there’s something there. People like looking at cute animals on the internet - since the internet was around.
As to creating influencers around them I think there’s absolutely value in character driven marketing, whether it’s a real character such as an influencer, or a character of a sort — be it an animal or completely fake like a cartoon. I’ve been looking at Geico’s Gecko, it has its own Twitter handle, and Flo from Progressive is her own personality. There’s things like that. There’s little Mikaela, the CGI influencer - that people were talking about last year. I’m definitely bullish on that trend. In fact it’s something that we’re exploring, we’re thinking of taking a character that was in some popular videos in the past and we’re seeing if we can build up a whole persona around that character and do marketing that way. You run the risk of going wide instead of going deep, so it’s just important to evaluate that in the scheme of things.
P: For people listening this, we’ll be sure to share a link to Monsieur Murphy, Dan’s awesome dog, so you can follow him on Instagram and see him in some Nectar Sleep photos as well.
D: You might hear him in the background too. He’s with me today, if you hear any barking that’s him not me.
P: We’ve seen that the strategies leading B2C companies disrupting traditional retail companies probably won’t take the D2C market to the next level. What’s on the horizon?
D: That’s a tough one. I think D2C brands right now have the advantage of being nimble, owning the customer, by having their own digital and physical footprint. And sort of using data to inform all their activities, as opposed to what we’re seeing with physical retail. Especially in the mattress industry. Mattress Firm and a whole bunch of others are going through bankruptcy by expanding too fast and all of a sudden being disrupted by digital natives like ourselves.
There are a lot of advantages and our team focuses a lot on measurable marketing. We’re very focused on reducing waste when it comes to ad spend. What most of these companies do at the same time is investing seriously in building a brand that will maintain and keep customers happy.
There’s a lot of things we’re doing right like putting the customer first and being customer centric that will keep us going. I think all the big companies take a lot longer to learn from all of this. There’s always Amazon looming in the not so far distance that will continue to challenge us. I think it’s a matter of both creating products and a brand that people will love and be loyal to.
I think for our company, having a product that you only buy once every 7 years - since it’s a mattress - as we expand our portfolio and have new brands how can we reach say a Nectar customer that just purchased a mattress and put our latest brand Wovenly in front of them and say “Hey are you interested in a new area rug?” Having new offerings to keep that loyal customer interested and part of your ecosystem is important. That would be one hedge I would go on the record saying.
P: I think you’ve seen that approach work really well for folks who have a similar challenge of the initial thing they were known for is a once every few years or once in a lifetime experience. XO Group comes to mind - where they were really focused on helping people initially with The Knot around marriage, but obviously there are a lot more touch points with people over the course of the rest of their life. Whether it’s marriage or moving in together or having a baby, portfolio brands can capture that loyalty for many, many years.
D: Yeah, right. I mean that whole lifecycle makes a much stickier product in the long term. I think there’s so many things that D2C brands are doing right, right now that will last through the next decade. Because you know we’re already going into retail talking to the consumer at all their touch points and I think what you’re seeing is the line blur between the traditional companies and the new companies. I think there will be a lot of fallouts, a lot of companies merging because they’re the same, and a lot of competition — and that’s the way that markets end up going. Not everyone will last and I would say to last you have to bulk invest in performance marketing, invest in brand, invest in the customer and invest in the product and build that whole ecosystem.
P: Looking 5 years down the road from now, what do you think it will look like for B2C teams to find an engaged customer?
D: The things that come to mind are the things that we’ve talked about character/personality driven marketing has huge potential. I think native advertising even outside Facebook and Google is an area that we’re investing in (just made a key hire for!) In the grand scheme of our marketing, this falls into new channels, but it’s a bet to say that we should be live a couple more places outside Google and Facebook. It’s a dedicated effort to: How can we make our efforts custom to all different platforms? I’m always interested when Quora and Reddit are starting to offer more sophisticated ad products along with your traditional Outbrain and Taboola. I think as the brand dollar comes into question when you have the smaller upstarts that aren’t investing in the same way as PG&E, and Coke and Pepsi. It’s up to a lot of the platforms outside of Facebook and Google to come up as offering that will sort of function, if not as a direct response, at the very least full funnel and drive acquisition and not just awareness.
I think from my standpoint there’s a lot that could and should be made more simple in digital marketing. I would like to see that barrier to entry even lower. Sure it’s easy to jump start it and run some ads on Facebook, but you know I see a world where a couple of things that exist already really take off. We’re seeing Messenger AI conversations where people are just chatting with a bot, so why can’t you do the same for advertising? Marketers know what they want: “I want to reach people 18-34 in the NY area who have a household income above $100,000” “Great, what’s your daily budget?” “$100” If I could just say that and then the bot asks “OK, what’s your creative?” I could just talk to someone to launch campaigns. To me that is a huge area to unlock - that’s a key, key ad tech thing that I’d love to see come to fruition and I imagine some of the bigger platforms could adopt something like that.
That and more conversational marketing and more character driven marketing.
P: Do you think that physically experiencing a product will play a really big role or not in future B2C marketing?
D: Yeah Absolutely. Millennials are very much digital focused but they do like to touch and feel. It’s still unconventional to some extent for some people to order a product that is large and at times as expensive as a mattress online and get that delivered to their door, but we do that delivery for free and we give people the longest trial in the industry from all of our mattress brands (Nectar, Dreamcloud, Level, and Awara) Nectar Sleep and Dream Cloud have that year-long trial so it’s the type of product that’s very subjective and custom to different people and their different needs, in that it’s about how they sleep. Are they side sleepers? Are they back sleepers? Are they stomach sleepers? Do they sleep cold? Do they sleep hot?
We could list off the aspects of how great our products are all day, but ultimately people don’t know until they touch and feel it. In this case, more than touch and feel it - sleep on it. And even more than sleep on it, sleep on it for just under a year in order to give it the l amount of time necessary to fully evaluate if this is for you. De-risking the purchase is how we see it and I know that makes a big difference in people’s desire and intent to purchase.
To add onto that, many B2C brands are investing in retail in a significant way through both wholesale and direct. We have our first pop-up store right now in Tyson’s Corner, a high-end mall in Virginia. We’ll be at the biggest Las Vegas furniture show this month and the retail team that we’ve just staffed up is working on getting us into all the physical stores (we just announced a partnership with Mattress Warehouse where 250 of their stores will be selling Nectar mattresses). It’s a tricky world to navigate especially if you want to start getting into the complexities of attribution, but ultimately the hunch is that having physical places where people can try, touch and feel and learn more in person should also reduce the marketing costs to acquire customers online.
P: We’ve seen a lot of interesting approaches for D2C brands whether it’s Warby Parker going with the more traditional store experience or pop-ups with Glossier or a novelty experience like Casper’s the Dreamery Nap Store. I don’t know if anyone has taken a nap in that store yet, but definitely intriguing concept.
D: Yeah, what do millennials love more than the internet? Or alongside the internet? They love experience. Not that this is all about millennials, by all means our customer base expands significantly beyond that and does not skew too much on the younger half of millennials right now (the 18-24 side). But, you know, when we’re talking about the future. That’s sort of the current next big or one of the current largest purchasing sets and will only grow for as we wait for future generations to go even further down that path. I think that anything from pop-ups to festivals to all those sorts of experiences are important. We don’t have a defined event strategy, but you know in addition to retail sales that I was mentioning we tried a couple of things this past year.
One was a collaboration with Athleta, the leisure brand, inside their NY studio our Dream Cloud brand hosted a “Beditation Event” - that’s meditation but with a “b” for bed. So we brought in a whole bunch of our luxury hybrid mattresses and hosted a meditation class led by a local instructor. The press came, students came, people came and experienced the different ways they could meditate and stretch on our mattress. That was really successful and people got a kick out of that.
On the other end of the spectrum, we hosted an influencer event in Venice Beach for Nectar Sleep called Nectar Dreamscape, where it was very ethereal and less product focused. It was more experiential, so captured the photographs and captured the feeling. That was with live music and interpretive dancing, interesting food for influencers to experience.
We’re looking at all those as different experiments.
P: To what extent have you taken those in person events and tied them in with your digital content marketing?
D: That’s a good question. The number one way is that we’ve used any in-person activations to create really nice content. We have a blog post on our website for DreamCloud that walks people through the 8 key exercises that were part of the Beditation event. We’ve created some really nice videos for each event. So, that’s one way.
We haven’t gone sort of the official way where you’re using events as a lead generation activity and capture those leads and remarket through digital. That’s something we’ll probably do this year? It’s something we’re definitely talking about.
P: You mentioned that there’s certainly the “shiny object challenge” that faces a lot of folks especially if you’re talking about technology that’s not nearly mature enough. Research and development in virtual reality has continued to skyrocket, and immersive VR with haptic feedback isn’t that far away. What would D2C marketing would look like if you had widespread immersive VR.
D: I think that with furniture you see AR, just to go there for a quick second, immediately starting to capture hold in small ways, where you can evaluate the size of objects and see how they look in your space. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think for Home Decor and Interior Design that’s a gimme at that point. If you’re not looking into that or sort of looking to be a part of that I think that’s really important. To your point about touch and feel - this is not touch and feel, but with haptic feedback and VR that’s feel...it’s a lot closer than looking at a still image on your computer or your phone screen.
What everyone wants to avoid is the pop-up and banner ad style of advertising that the internet is known for and no one really likes anymore. It’s very much still around and a huge business, but people are and have been complaining about it for some time. What we don’t want to see happen is you’re immersed in a VR experience and we pop up and interrupt your experience and say “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the latest deal from Nectar Mattresses!” I think that’s a great example of what we don’t want to do.
I think the people involved in those platforms are along the same line of thinking. It’s an easier sell with content marketing than with marketing. Where we can offer, ok, what’s the VR version of “Beditation” let’s take the video we shot with the instructor at the Athleta studio and you can for free experience the class on your own bed. Great! If you do the whole experience, we’ll unlock a coupon for a discount Dream Cloud mattress. Because, hey, wouldn’t this be even better on a new Dream-Cloud Mattress?
So I think that’s one offering. I think that being in the sleep space and being involved in a lot of the advice we’re putting out there about falling asleep, staying asleep, and staying pain-free are some of the major issues people deal with.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity for VR to - I hate to say unplug, because you’re not unplugged when you’re plugged in - but unwind or relax perhaps? Or find more closely integrated ways of doing something like that. I know that just turning on a meditation app on my phone when I go to bed or something if I can’t sleep doesn’t always do the trick. I don’t have the candlelight or the incense and it’s just a voice over a crappy phone speaker. The more you can simulate the experiences you do like, I think, it will help sell people on at least the idea what you’re trying to sell.
P: I do like your idea of a VR experience with Dream Cloud and in the far distant future we’ve all seen in sci-fi in one way or another in maybe Minority Report - we have full body haptic feedback suits in the year 2050. Between now and then you need somebody like Matt Damon from the Martian to come along and be like “I’m going to science the shit out of this” to make that reality. In this case, you’ve identified a solution that would not require Matt Damon to science the shit out of it.
D: No, but we’ll still take Matt Damon.
P: I really appreciate your time, Dan, and sharing your insights and perspective with me.
D: Thanks a lot Patrick this was a lot of fun.
*Note, transcript edited for clarity