For the next generation of DTC companies, community is key

Why DTC companies are banking on brand loyalty over virality.
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P.F. Candle Co., Couplet Coffee

· 5 min read

You know that “Sure, Grandma, let’s get you to bed” meme? Imagine that, but with direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies talking about inexpensive Facebook ads, which dominated marketing in the 2010s.

“I think the general principle is that there was a time when Facebook ad costs were low and capital was abundant, and investor optimism was high, and lots of brands raised a lot of capital,” Dulma Altan, TikToker and former founder of a DTC fragrance company called Potion, told Marketing Brew.

Brands like Outdoor Voices and Glossier in large part grew by funneling ad dollars into Facebook and Instagram. Now, as DTC brands grapple with privacy changes on these platforms, not to mention layoffs and other issues, today’s DTC advertisers are taking a different approach: diversifying their marketing and investing in more organic, community-centric approaches with consumers.

Free-range, all natural

Gefen Skolnick, founder of Couplet Coffee, whose DTC site went live this February, said she’s yet to put a dollar toward paid marketing. “When I was first starting Couplet, I got a lot of advice from people who started brands during the Instagram ad era of DTC brands…kind of like a golden era for anyone who wanted to start a DTC brand,” she told us, but eventually realized “people actually need to build a true brand and not just try to sell SKUs with ads anymore.”

Instead Skolnick, who identifies as gay, decided to create Couplet’s own niche in LA’s LGBTQ+ community through queer art show and poetry nights. “I had never seen anyone in DTC really narrow in and understand their audience and do something like that,” she said.

Online, Skolnick has stayed true to Twitter, where she raised funding for the brand before it started and continues to engage with Couplet fans. She said TikTok has also been a big driver of organic brand awareness and engagement.

“I haven’t had any strategy at all with TikTok or Twitter,” she said. “I’m a very blunt and impulsive person, so I’ve just kept it authentic. And people have noticed that, and I just tweet what’s on my mind.”

Skolnick declined to share the company’s revenue or growth to date.


P.F. Candle Co. has also taken a more grassroots approach. According to its marketing manager Meghan Alfano, connecting with customers online by sharing the brand’s backstory has been a recipe for success when the small brand couldn’t otherwise afford an aggressive paid strategy. It’s also been investing in TikTok to broaden brand awareness, with about 90% organic and only 10% paid.

Alfano said TikTok has increased traffic in a way the brand hasn’t seen from running paid ads on other platforms.

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“I think we’re still kind of learning what works and what doesn’t in that channel, but it’s been really fun to see,” Alfano said. “And I think TikTok in particular is definitely a place where you’re not really selling a product necessarily; It’s really the place where you kind of come on [to] really tell who the brand is and what we’re about.”

According to Alfano, P.F. only puts about 8–10% of its budget toward Facebook and Instagram ads, though it varies by season.

While events have been paused since Covid, Alfano said she’s excited to start them up again and build relationships with customers in real life. “One of the things that we really love to do is to have more workshops, because that ties into the DIY aspect of the brand, but also, it gives us an opportunity to connect with people in a more real way.”

Making those real connections, she said, is one of her top tips for other brands hoping to make it in today’s environment. “I do think just being authentic—and I feel like that kind of sounds cheesy [and what] everybody says—but I do truly believe that brands who show the people behind the brand, and are just really being true to who they are, tend to create the best [work],” she said.

Playing the long game

Erifili Gounari, founder of Gen Z-led social media agency The Z Link, told us that most of her team’s work with clients like Sugarscape and Oohgah mostly involves community-based marketing on social media.

To Gounari, community-based marketing is about building loyalty with customers instead of targeting random people with ads they may never engage with. That means “focusing on creating content that would encourage active engagement and active interaction with your target audience so that they feel like they’re co-creating the brand with you.

It does not, she said, involve “growth hacking,” aiming for virality, or aiming for maximum views. If that’s the client or brand’s goal, she said, they don’t typically end up working together.

For short-term goals like online sales, Gounari said Instagram and Facebook ads can provide quick results, but ultimately advises organic marketing for long-term growth, community building, and engagement.

Ultimately, Altan said a big reason to invest in building a brand community is less volatility. “You do need to be willing to embrace a slower burn,” she said. “But that’s more worth it in the long term, because if you build a genuine sense of community, it’s harder to take that away. It’s more resilient.”

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