Digital-Native Brands: The (Almost) New Face of Modern Marketers?
There's lots of buzz surrounding digital-native brands and what's making them so disruptive and relevant today. While the definition of digital native is evolving, they are companies that launch as web-only retailers with the belief that superior technology can be a differentiator. They often engender loyalty by projecting authenticity and effectively leveraging social media. More importantly, they believe in a few core operational traits that can serve as a template for larger companies to try to emulate.
Digital-native brands act like startups. They move fast, iterate and quickly reconsider failed initiatives. Don’t look at this post as another definition of digital-native brands; rather, look at the principles of how they operate and the collective cultures and thinking involved with outpacing competitive options in a super competitive, if not challenged retail industry.
Consumers want authenticity, trusted brands, and brands that are agile enough to match the pace and relevance of their interests, moods and device-switching worlds.
Digital natives don't run on conventional thinking. Being digitally native is about being unconventional, fluid and agile — and sometimes it’s about being ready to let go of some control.
Here are a few traits that are catalysts to the culture of digital-native brands:
Digital Native is Not E-Commerce, it’s Vertical Commerce
In vertical commerce, where retailers serve a niche audience and its specific needs, product gross margins are at least double that of e-commerce (e.g., 65 percent vs. 30 percent). The contribution margins can be four times to five times higher (e.g., 40 percent to 50 percent vs. 10 percent). Vertical commerce radically transforms the economics of e-commerce. Vertical commerce can make money. E-commerce, not so much, especially with third-party e-commerce dominated by Amazon.com.
To live vertical commerce, you must love data, automation and artificial intelligence. All three in concert yield customer intimacy, ability to act, personalize and apply the proper connections through shopping, buying, fulfillment and post-purchase remarketing.
Digital-Native Brands Are Not Technology Companies
Some investors have skewed this, and who’s to blame them after Unilever acquired Dollar Shave club for $1 billion in 2016? However, don’t pretend digital-native retailers are technology companies investing like technology companies. They're still retail. The subtle difference is they see brand as the platform vs. technology as the platform, and use it ubiquitously across the customer experience in very agile, personalized ways. Don’t look further than Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, LinkedIn as examples of where technology is the foundation, but the brand is in the end the platform.
Going online with a brand and targeting millennials doesn't make it a digital native. Some big brands believe they can build a native brand, but they struggle to move at the speed of their typically smaller digital-native competitors. As the old saying goes, “It’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow.” Digital-native commerce requires an agile startup culture that's out of reach of many large, established brands, but not completely out of reach, as many brands are striving to kick-start these cultures in big companies. The path for many is through acquisition vs. organic culture design.
Digital-Native Brands Are Hyperfocused on the Customer and Experience
Successful digital-native brands create thriving user communities that rely on content, experience and product to attract loyal customers. With customer centricity, agility and integrated technology stacks, digital native and/or modern marketing brands are embracing change.
While born digitally, the digital-native brand need not end up digital-only. This means the brand can extend offline. Usually its offline incarnation is through its own experiential physical storefront, pop-up strategy or highly selective partnerships. In nearly all cases of partnerships with third parties, the brand controls its external distribution. Any offline retail is not about warehousing product, it’s about marketing the brand and delivering great one-to-one customer service.
You know who figured this out first? Steve Jobs. The Apple Store was the first scalable, experiential, vertical-retail concept, capitalizing on great product and innate commitment to the customer and experiences.
There are many parallels to the terms digital first, digital native and modern marketing models. They all look similar, yet operate so vastly different. eConsultancy is doing a variety of work on a new modern marketing model and characteristics that make these so nimble.
Don’t let yesterday take too much of today. Strive for change, strive for speed, and be as flexible as you can, with the customer at the center. It starts small, yet needs to be ingrained in the culture, or road maps and strategies will flounder in times of stress.
Related story: Ready or Not, Digital-First Retail is Here
With more than 25 years of experience in digital marketing and marketing technology, Baker is an award-winning industry thought leader, columnist and speaker. He has held executive roles at publicly traded, leading agencies and marketing services providers including Razorfish, Targetbase, Agency.com and Acxiom. Direct Marketing roles at American Airlines and Franklin Covey as well as startups including Cordial, TwelveHorses, MindArrow/RadicalMail — a first generation rich media messaging company — and DigitalThink, the first eLearning Platform that went public in 1999. He has served as strategic advisor to various media and technology companies.
Baker is one of only three individuals to be awarded the MediaPost Lifetime Achievement award (in 2012) for his contributions to the digital marketing industry, and he was also the recipient of the DMA-EEC Thought Leader of the Year award in 2016 for his positive impact on digital marketing. He is a MediaPost “Email Insider” columnist and former “Email Insider” Summit Chairman and program director. His works have also been published in iMedia Connection, Internet Retailer, Adweek, Direct Marketing News, ClickZ, The Drum and Chief Marketer.