The V-Commerce Paradox

Breaking down the model that claims to be the future of ecommerce

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As a kid, I loved deconstructing toys and trying to put them back together. While some toys never made it back, I learned to enjoy and value thinking about complex systems and tinkering with progressive concepts. Today, in the playground of ecommerce, Andy Dunn’s “V-Commerce” model as the future for online retail is an irresistible new toy to take apart and study.

The four tenets of Dunn’s model — (1) ecommerce companies born and operating online; (2) brand, not channel, as its core asset; (3) maniacal focus on customer experience and intimacy; and (4) eventual offline extension — speak to an obsession about total control. Control of message. Control of merchandise. Control of pricing. Control of delivery and post-delivery support. Control of technology and data.

The prospect of such total control is undeniably attractive for its strategic value. As Dunn says, “…creating a V-Commerce brand gives you an opportunity to combine the growth of being an E-Commerce company with the margins of being a brand, and with a proprietary selection of merchandise where you control distribution and your own destiny.”

But can you ever truly achieve total control as a strategic mandate? Or can you only hope to enable it through the activation of an audience?

The audience seems to play second fiddle in Dunn’s model, when I wonder if it should play first. It feels like a classic chicken-or-egg paradox. Will a fully (i.e., vertically) integrated brand produce an engaged and loyal audience? Or is audience building and engagement the prerequisite for empowering a V-Commerce company to succeed as prescribed in the model?

Naturally, the two cannot exist in isolation — at least not to yield any meaningful result. Instead, they must be woven into a fabric of feedback loops between brand and consumer that engage the consumer, promote the brand, listen to the consumer, endear the brand, invite the consumer to critique brand quality, reward brand engagement, and nurture brand loyalty.

But what’s the catalyst of that chain reaction? What gets the flywheel moving?

Content marketing may be the best answer. Dunn points to the dramatic success of Dollar Shave Club as a watershed moment for the V-Commerce model. (He’s not wrong.) What put Dollar Shave Club on the map and really got its V-Commerce flywheel spinning? One of the best product marketing videos ever produced.

The V-Commerce model isn’t ignorant of the power and necessity of content marketing. In fact, the very first tenet states that “[A V-Commerce company’s] primary means of interacting, transacting, and story-telling to consumers is via the web — desktop and mobile.” The word “story-telling” is key. Content marketing is storytelling. And storytelling via the web (as Dunn specifies), as compared to classic advertising via traditional media, is the soul and strength of audience building for the progressively minded.

If anything, the role content plays in the V-Commerce model (as it’s currently described) feels small and out of proportion with the commerce side of the equation. Dunn’s Bonobos brand, as well as others like Warby Parker, Chubbies, Jack Erwin, MeUndies, and Casper, clearly “get” content. They are the vanguards of brands forking a new branch in the evolutionary tree of commerce. This fork is represented in large part by the union of content with commerce, as equals. Striking that balance appears to be an important unlock of V-Commerce’s true potential.

Content marketing should be acknowledged as a core competency and an inescapable responsibility for aspirational ecommerce brands.

And that true potential is the buying power and lifetime value of a V-Commerce brand’s audience. The audience possesses the potential, which gives it the power. Industry titans like Kevin Kelly and Seth Godin have espoused this power of “true fans” and “tribes” for nearly a decade. Authors, bloggers, podcasters, and other “new media” types were perhaps first to take notice of the commerce potential inherit in amassing small armies of followers who enjoy your content, find value in it, and, consequently, come to know, like, and trust you, and want to support you. Brands hell-bent on disrupting the traditional retail model are catching up.

As such, content’s influence on commerce seems to suggest that audience building and engagement, and the content marketing needed to achieve it, are central to the ethos of the V-Commerce model. If true, then content marketing should be acknowledged explicitly as a core competency and an inescapable responsibility for ecommerce brands that aspire to evolve.

The audience possesses the potential.

Ultimately, I like the V-Commerce model. It’s born from systems thinking that aspires to minimize variability of inputs and outputs while maximizing throughput via investing in quality of product and experience. That’s organized and elegant. But it doesn’t guarantee total control. Nothing probably can, because total control is almost certainly a unicorn.

An integrated and equal balance between content and commerce feels like it’s the best predictor of success for brands that embrace the V-Commerce model. I’m still unsure which is the chicken and which is the egg. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, because both are required. We’re early in this next evolutionary phase of commerce, so let’s all — at minimum — keep tinkering.

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