The marketing brilliance of chart-topping brands Allbirds and Casper, curated newsletters, and websites that are paid to make our decisions
Walk into any tech startup in San Francisco and a third of the team’s feet will be clad in merino wool. Not just any merino wool, but a dark gray, ZQ-certified, merino wool of New Zealand origin. This wool could be sourced from wild sheep grazing on a rugged coastline during magic hour. Who would have known, but “turns out superfine merino wool makes the world’s most comfy shoes.”
Allbirds, the creator of a glorified orthopedic that has taken San Francisco by storm, goes hard on its brand promise: thoughtful comfort.
It’s website is a love letter to merino wool, with images of plush fabric, bouncing feet, and wiggling toes. Why? Because “materials matter,” both for ease of use and for ease of mind.
This is not the first shoe to sell on comfort. Crocs, Uggs, and even NikeFree built empires on the promise of spinal alignment and saving the planet. But Allbirds has taken its brand promise to the extreme, and it’s working.
The company is tapping into several powerful marketing forces: simplification of choice, consistency of message, hyper-targeting of audience, and familiarity of experience.
- Simplification of choice: With over a year in market, the company still only offers two styles and a handful colors, many of which are limited edition. Allbirds admits there is a lot of complexity involved in shoe design, but it removes that thought process from its customers and merely exposes the result, not the research. There’s no real decision to make — the experts have done it for you. Wear Allbirds, feel good, look good, donzo.
- Consistency of message: Every word on the website reinforces the promise of thoughtful comfort. Its founder always reverts back to the comfort message in the press, while the images and illustration connote the same.
- Hyper-targeting of audience: Allbirds is going after an early adopting, style-ish, standing desk tech worker. This audience cares about how things are made, where, and by whom, which mirrors the company’s brand ethos. They go where their customers are; they have a video spot on Virgin American flights between SF & LA, they pitch Fast Company and TechCrunch, and they have a B-Corp status (signaling “we work hard while doing good.”)
- Familiarity of experience: The look and feel of Allbirds’ branding taps into a familiar visual aesthetic. When browsing the website or getting shoes delivered, customers experience the “exposure effect” of similar up and coming brands. Recycled cardboard boxes, whimsical black line illustrations, bright lifestyle photography. For the initiated, you’ll see the creative genius of branding agency Red Antler.
As a marketer, I bow my hat to the team. The brand is authentic, consistent, and scalable. They nailed it.
One hit wonders for the win
Allbirds is not the only company successfully marketing a simplified product to a specific audience. Several direct to consumer brands created this playbook (Warby Parker, Dollar Shave Club, Bonobos) and others are following suit.
- Simplification of choice: One “perfect” mattress, available in several sizes. And a few pillow cases for the occasional upsell.
- Consistency of message: Casper sells mattress, but really, they are selling sleep. (See: greeat deep dive in Wired.) Their website, blog, apps and advertising all revolve around their expertise on the moments before, during, and after a restful respite.
- Hyper-targeting of audience: “Millennials” is too broad, but essentially they are targeting anyone who is ready to upgrade from IKEA and balks at the idea of walking into a mattress store, lest they get bed bugs or have to converse with an actual human retailer.
- Familiarity of experience: Similar aesthetic choices to Allbirds, friction-free e-commerce experience with 100-day return policy, and strong word of mouth as friends don’t let friends not buy their favorite mattress.
A few years ago, I would have advised companies like Casper that removing choice could hinder sales. Behavioral economic research suggests that showing people at minimum a few options can help prime someone to expect a certain quality at a certain price. Moreover, the early e-commerce winners are essentially marketplaces of abundant choice: Amazon, Etsy, and even Kickstarter.
But gone are the days of massive marketplace wins, at least for e-commerce. Casper, Allbirds, makeup company Glossier, and others have proven: consumers want the perception of choice but not the action of choice. I want to buy the best thing, for me, at the best possible price, with the least possible mental effort.
Beyond brands — enter the curator
Beyond brands, there are a host of curators making names and bank off their finds. While the formats vary, they still offer simplicity, consistency, and familiarity to a cohesive (and often narrow) audience. A few include:
- Curated newsletters — The Skimm, The Hustle, NextDraft, REDEF, and more. From unique interpretation to simply sharing links, these newsletters and their brethren are rapidly growing in audience as news becomes too overwhelming to consume. Each is known for a different tone and type of curation.
- Affiliates — Wirecutter tops the charts. What brilliance. High-quality, in-depth product reviews, with a summary that instills enough trust in 100 words to drive millions of dollars in purchases. Beyond Wirecutter, the affiliate marketing industry is massive, with over $5 billion in spending projected for 2017. Scott’s Cheaps Flights is another to watch.
- Bloggers and influencers — Fashion bloggers, mommy bloggers, and other vertical experts are the early winners of curation. Their Instagram followers, blog views, and Facebook fans are the currency for sponsored posts, though the space is somewhat crowded compared to its early days (see New Yorker #vanlife, in which two beautiful people ride around California in an Airstream, somewhat funded by brand sponsorships).
Why simple? Why now?
Why is this formula working? Simply put: we want to minimize our choices and feel good about our decisions. Derek Thompson argues in Hit Makers:
“Audiences are hungry for meaning, and their preferences are guided by an interplay between the complex and the simple, the stimulation of new things and a deep comfort with the familiar.”
Beyond the psychology, though, there are simply too many choices to be made. Free, or at least democratized, distribution has created a proliferation of choices that is not just overwhelming, it’s unfathomable.
With news being “created” for pennies and distributed for “free” across the web and social, how can I even begin to figure out what’s important to read beyond my go-to publications? With new consumer products hitting my Instagram feed daily ready for direct purchase without a merchant to curate, how do I decide what to buy?
Brands — individuals, companies, and those in between—are the filters of our time. The best brands convey the essence of who we are and want to be, and reflect that back to us in micro moments across every experience. They minimize choice by flexing their expertise. And those who do it well reap the rewards.