Around this time last year, just as most of us were tucking into Thanksgiving turkey, the sleepy world of consumer packaged goods was stunned by the news of Procter & Gamble’s $100 million cash acquisition of Native, a venture-backed natural deodorant company based in San Francisco. Why was the company that gave the world such iconic brands as Ivory soap and Scope mouthwash interested in a tiny armpit of a startup whose claim to fame was a pumpkin spice SKU and a slogan that beseeched users to “take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live”?
The answer, of course, was the stunningly rapid rise of DTC: the direct-to-consumer brand revolution, an army of 21st-century David-like underdogs whose sole purpose was to slay a shelf’s worth of increasingly irrelevant packaged-good Goliaths. No long-standing brand was immune to it, and decades — in some instances, centuries — of margin and market share were crumbling at the expense of these comers. Warby Parker blackened the eye of Sunglass Hut; Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club gutted Gillette; Glossier was leaving L’Oréal red-faced. The disruptive unicorn list went on and on and on. Indeed, according to the highly respected boutique investment bank Luma, there are now more than 400 DTC brands, with some 45 newbies attacking P&G alone. Which is likely why the incumbent concluded it was better to buy Native than let it become a threat. “There’s a competitor for everything,” says Terry Kawaja, CEO of Luma. “For legacy brands, this should be terrifying.”
This Thanksgiving, another rapidly spreading plague is terrifying the citizens of brandland, and this one is casting an even darker shadow across the business models of the P&Gs of the world: the rise of the white-label brand, aka the anti-brand. The deus ex machina driving this change? A little product called Alexa and the rise of voice-driven e-commerce, perhaps the most significant change in shopping behavior since the 24-hour supermarket.
Today, thanks to Alexa, as we all know, consumers can finally shop with their voice, and more and more are doing it. This is a huge development, one with disruptive implications that are not yet fully understood. One thing that’s perfectly clear, however, is that Alexa is a Trojan horse of sorts for Amazon’s own version of the DTC phenomena. For many commerce companies, the ability to sell more Ivory by letting customers simply say “buy Ivory” would be a revolutionary breakthrough. But Amazon is not most companies. And since when has it been willing to leave well enough alone?
Having already secured your trust and built an unrivaled distribution machine, Amazon is now manufacturing its own white-label brands, like soap and deodorant, among others. And if, as it’s safe to assume, Amazon can sell its own products for less than the products it is displacing, well, you don’t need to be a Harvard behavioral economist to predict who’ll win that inevitable tug-of-war for the customer’s wallet and that both dowagers and the savviest DTC brands could be vulnerable. After all, why say “Alexa, buy Ivory” or “Alexa, buy Native” when you can just say “Alexa, buy soap” or “Alexa, buy deodorant” and save a few shekels? It all depends on how devoted you are to your brand of soap or antiperspirant.
Ivory, Native, and hundreds of other consumer brands, old and new, have spent years in an impenetrable armor of ingenious brand ingenuity based on a story they told us to help differentiate themselves. If you don’t believe they now face an existential threat from Amazon plus Alexa, ask the people at Energizer and Duracell how their battery business is going these days.
Once upon a time, Energizer convinced us they were special, thanks to… an energetic toy bunny. That was a good brand story, I know; I was weaned on it and bought a lot of those batteries as a result. Then Amazon found a way to tell a different story about batteries, a story about price and speed, a story rooted more in the authentic narrative of cheaper and pretty much just as good. And no bunny, no matter how cute, could compete.
Which brings us to what I call brand devolution, a process in which some consumer packaged goods will break loose from the brands that made them seem special and revert to the primordial ooze from whence they came. No more need for a brand story. Just the thing, unfettered, a correction of sorts. A battery is a battery is a battery.
That’s certainly the premise behind Brandless, a new packaged-goods company that embodies the post-brand thesis and sells everything in the form of its generic name (“tissue,” “lotion,” “cotton balls”) for the cheapest possible price. The CEO of Brandless has said that her mission is to “democratize better,” which is nice, though I never felt there was anything undemocratic about Ivory or Energizer. And then there’s Italic, the soon-to-launch company that seeks to divorce luxury products from their costly brand names.
Will all brands ultimately devolve? Will we return to a world in which every product reverts to its generic self? No, of course not. That’s the good news, especially for people like me, who help products find true purpose via authentic stories. And thus we close with a paradox: In the future, brand will no longer matter — except when it does. If a product’s story is compelling enough to truly differentiate, then that story will continue to resonate. If it doesn’t, it won’t.
Amazon might do to soap what it did to batteries (though you can be sure P&G will put up a fight), but it’s hard to imagine ever saying, “Alexa, please buy me a German luxury car” — at least while cars are still available to the general public.
That’s a story for a slightly more distant future.