If you're looking for what's wrong with legacy brands, look no further than body hair. In 2018, Billie, a direct-to-consumer brand, launched Project Body Hair to spotlight women's razor ads that show airbrushed legs and not a follicle of hair. Billie wanted women to throw out sham standards of beauty dictated by brand managers and to celebrate every twist and curl.
Brands such as Billie have altered the nature of branding. Unfettered by legacy messaging, and unburdened by the incumbency of customers, they go for relevance, especially among younger consumers. They reject static, monochromatic standards—namely white, heterosexual and colonial. Beauty is now freedom, with all its quirks and caprices. Brands don't always get to make the rules anymore.
This subversion of authority doesn't favor legacy heavyweights. Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble, told me that legacy brands are adept at building products around which they wrap a brand; brand management then kicks in to drive awareness, trial and loyalty. The d-to-c insurgents, however, each build a brand from within, and often from a place of empathy and personal pain. Around this personality, they assemble a tribe, united in their belief in how the product or service connects them to their individual lives and to their communities.
To better understand how the soul of branding is changing, we researched more than three-dozen health and beauty brands, studied their communications using sentiment analysis, engaged consumers through online focus groups, and fielded a survey to more than 1,000 U.S. consumers. What we found were six themes that set d-to-c brands apart from legacy brands.
First, what used to be an impersonal transaction between seller and buyer has transformed into a relationship between three roles or identities:
The empowered self
Brands cede authority to consumers, who make the rules. Consumers demand a voice and access that's simple and affordable.
The communal other
Brands build communities that forge meaningful bonds between consumers. As a result, the community as a whole feels justified in its faith in the brand.
The ally brand
The brand is inviting, with a relatable ethos. It exists to enable, foster and serve the customer and community relationship.
Glossier has built a community of empowered users. It rejects what CEO Emily Weiss calls the "You don't know what you want, let us tell you what you want" mentality, and along with its blog, reinforces the idea that we're all experts who benefit from the shared relationship of a community of experts.
The three new themes of expression describe how brands find cultural relevance through the promise to be:
These new brands are built on a bedrock of data and analytics. They possess the hyperintelligence to tailor their offerings in a way a manufacturer's brands sitting on Target's shelves find harder to do.
Communication is direct, sincere and stripped of euphemism, whether the topic is premature ejaculation or heavy periods.
These brands have pitched a wide-open tent that welcomes everyone—especially those left behind. They're sensitive to attitudinal shifts, not just because that's helpful research insight, but because they themselves embody that shift.
Brands like Roman and Keeps use telemedicine and straight talk to address conditions like erectile dysfunction and hair loss, serving those that the legacy system failed.
Consumers of color are now served by the likes of Rihanna's Fenty Beauty and Mented Cosmetics, whose products embrace skin tones traditionally ignored. Other brands such as Morphe work across a fluid gender spectrum, forming partnerships with YouTube stars such as James Charles, who at 17 was CoverGirl's first CoverBoy.
The brand of the future, be it direct and hungry or traditional and lumbering, will have to deliver on a different set of expectations. If Gillette's attempt at undoing "toxic masculinity" is any indication, this will not be an easy road for most traditional brands.
We don't know yet how many of the legacy brands will make it. The ground will continue to shift as the insurgent d-to-c brands wrestle it out with the incumbents. But this much is clear: Irrespective of how the ground settles, the likes of Billie, Roman, Lola, Hims, Curology and Volition Beauty will incontrovertibly change the nature of branding.