Phoebe O'Connell

23 March 2020

Contagious Book Report: Billion Dollar Brand Club 

Contagious reviews Lawrence Ingrassia's book investigating the direct-to-consumer model's successes and failures, and tells you whether and why you should read it

Billion Dollar Brand Club: How Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker, and Other Disruptors Are Remaking What We Buy, by Lawrence Ingrassia

What’s the book about?

How DTC (direct to consumer) success stories like Casper, Warby Parker, and Away rose to prominence using convenience and customer service to cut into the market share of incumbents.

Who wrote it and why should I care?

Seasoned journalist and author Larry Ingrassia. He’s a former business editor at The New York Times, who went on to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times before writing this book.

How will reading this book make me better at my job?

Reading how companies like Dollar Shave Club became billion dollar brands despite inferior products will really help focus your mind on the importance of putting customer convenience ahead of everything else. Also there are some good lessons about creating powerful, data-driven marketing techniques on shoe-string budgets.

Will I enjoy reading it?

If Casper’s disappointing IPO or the failure of Brandless left you forlornly pondering the future of DTC or if you’re wondering what it takes to turn cheap razors into a $1bn cheque from Unilever, Ingrassia’s got optimism and anecdotes in spades.

‘Under the shiny veneer of personalised subscription services, trendy packaging and creative storytelling, most DTCs make products that are pretty similar or even inferior to the existing version’

Phoebe O'Connell, Contagious

What interesting things did you learn from reading the book?

DTC brands sell lifestyles, not just products: Ingrassia talks to the Warby Parker founders’ Wharton professor, David Bell, about why DTCs are all about ‘bonding, not branding’. ‘A bond is something much more personal, where you feel an affinity with the seller, as if the seller were talking to you directly,’ says Bell.

They’re all the same: If you hadn’t guessed it yet, under the shiny veneer of personalised subscription services, trendy packaging and creative storytelling, most DTCs make products that are pretty similar or even inferior to the existing version. As investor Ben Lerer (of VC fund Lerer Hippeau) tells Ingrassia: ‘[Warby Parker] showed you don’t need innovation around what you sell. You can succeed with innovation around the way you sell it.’

No one knows what they’re talking about: Ingrassia covers a lot of different companies and markets in the book, but a common theme is that many founders know little or nothing about their product before they go to market. Take Josh Udashkin, the founder of luggage startup Raden, for example. ‘Like many other founders of new digital brands, [he] knew next to nothing about the product he had decided to launch.’

Does the book suffer from any obvious flaws, errors or omissions?

With such an array of different companies that have had different levels of success, with different products and services, in different markets, using different advertising models and different retail channels - it’s hard to pin down what, if anything, these brands have in common beyond being middleman-free.

The examples are numerous and disparate so it's hard for us to pinpoint what's so great about DTCs because Ingrassia jumps from lenses to bras and success to failure willy nilly. 

Tell me flat: how vital is it that I read this book? 

It’s probably not required reading for all marketers and agency folk. But if you’re curious about the DTC scene, or you have to put together a presentation on the subject, then it’s great for inside info on the main DTC players and a balanced view of the model’s merits.

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