The retail apocalypse is here. COVID-19 instigated an industry-wide meltdown that has led stalwart fashion giants like J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and Brooks Brothers to file for bankruptcy. A freeze in foot traffic, an enormous recession, and a total upheaval of consumers’ work and spending habits have contributed to the fashion industry going up in smoke. In 2020, as many as 12,000 brick-and-mortar stores could close in the United States alone.
But not everyone is faring so poorly. Even as retail chains smolder, certain DTC brands are rising from the ashes. Consumers who still have expendable income are itchy to spend money on brands they feel an affinity toward. Scrappy direct sales clothing companies like Summersalt and Lunya are building strong followings and reaching new consumers.
In a very real sense, COVID-19 is rewriting the retail rules, and that’s not going to change once the pandemic passes. There’s no waiting this one out. Brands need to adapt now if they want to survive. And evolution means more than just slapping up an ecommerce store. The brands that are winning the fashion wars are using creative messaging, inclusive community-building, and targeted outreach to play a long game for consumers’ hearts and wallets.
Here’s how four direct sales clothing companies aren’t just surviving but thriving in our new retail reality.
Summersalt Spreads Joy and Builds Brand Affinity
In the darkest days of the pandemic, when consumers were canceling vacation plans and hunkering down, it was hard to imagine purchasing something as frivolous as swimwear. Undeterred, cult-favorite swimwear brand Summersalt built brand affinity by launching mood-boosting products and services.
While monitoring their Facebook and Instagram communities, Summersalt’s social media team noticed that their customers seemed anxious and sad. To connect with and cheer up loyal fans, the company launched Joycast, a free emotional-support texting service. Customers, or anyone, can text the Joycast line, and a member of Summersalt’s Customer Happiness Team will respond with puppy gifs, meditation-videos, or other self-care suggestions. This emotional-support hotline is agenda- sales-pitch-free.
Summersalt accompanied this initiative with their Simpler Summer campaign, which featured pared-down swimsuits for a pared-down summer. The campaign emphasized the importance of simple warm-weather joys— the kind that even a global pandemic can’t cancel.
Image source: https://www.summersalt.com/pages/simplersummer
These two campaigns helped Summersalt walk a tricky line. With the economy in free fall and the future uncertain, few consumers were in the mood to shop for $95 swimsuits. But the Joycast line helped the company stay on customers’ radars and provide vital emotional support during a rough time. A sturdy referral program also encourages customers to spread joy to friends by giving them $10 off a future purchase.
The reciprocity principle states that if you provide value to your potential customers, they will respond in kind. Summersalt spent the long, scary spring of 2020 building up trust and goodwill that will undoubtedly spur future sales.
Hill House Home’s Nap Dress Goes Viral
The premise of the “Nap Dress” is simple: It’s a daytime dress that’s also comfortable for napping. It’s a hybrid of a nightgown and a floaty garden-party frock. Is it any wonder the internet quickly became obsessed? This floaty and ambiguous garment was the cornerstone of Hill House Home’s wider brand success.
image source: https://www.instagram.com/p/CB1euWjAkE8/
The Nap Dress actually debuted in 2019. But, as the lines between work and homelife blurred, the Nap Dress became emblematic of 2020’s strange limbo state. Spurred on by Hill House Home founder Nell Diamond’s massive Twitter following, the Nap Dress went viral in April 2020. Search volume for the term increased twentyfold, and the company sold out their year’s production run in a single week.
The brand converted Nap Dress fanatics into brand evangelists with epic invite-a-friend deals. Instead of professional photoshoots, Hill House Home invited women to photograph themselves at home in their Nap Dresses. The company then used the amateur photos in their Instagram marketing. Their Instagram following swelled to over 70,000.
The referral program and Instagram campaign ensured that Hill House Home’s viral word-of-mouth marketing campaign didn’t end with a transient Twitter trend.
The company sold a lot of Nap dresses, but that’s not all. The once little-known brand built up brand recognition using only free, totally organic PR. The Nap Dress is a hero product, a gateway to its other cottage-core bedding and apparel offerings. Even if potential customers didn’t manage to get one of the coveted dresses, they were now familiar with Hill House Home and more likely to buy something else.
Athleta Builds an Online Community
Athleta is the only brand on this list that also operates hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores. But it was their online community-building that saved not just them but their struggling sister brands.
In addition to Athleta, Gap Inc. owns mall mainstays Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Of these, the women’s athletic-apparel brand is the only designated B Corp, a company intended to balance both mission and profit.
When the pandemic hit, Athleta doubled down hard on its community-building mission. They began hosting online Empower Hours, online group workouts and inspirational talks with professional athletes and motivational speakers. With gyms closed and classes canceled, this was a way for the wellness community to connect virtually.
image source: https://athletaempowerhour.splashthat.com/
Athleta’s Instagram account provided similar inspiration and connection. One day there might be a community meditation session; on another day, a story about an inspirational Muay Thai fighter, using Athleta’s branded hashtag #PowerofShe. None of the posts were overtly sales-y. Instead, they were friendly and encouraging.
But, foremost, Athleta is an athletic-apparel company, so they tied their community message to their clothing offerings. They started selling masks engineered for running and working out. They also offered virtual styling appointments to replicate the in-store shopping experience.
The result of all this work is that Athleta is thriving. Workout apparel is one of the few clothing types that people are still buying, and Athleta’s efforts kept them top of mind for customers. Athleta was the only one of Gap Inc.’s brands that exceeded expectations in 2020.
Lunya’s Altruism Helps Build Brand Awareness
The luxury sleepwear company Lunya originally planned to spend 2020 expanding their brick-and-mortar presence. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, they pivoted their strategy to launch a series of altruistic social media campaigns designed to amplify their brand and raise public awareness for causes close to founder Ashley Merrill’s heart. These timely campaigns helped them stay relevant and increase brand awareness.
First, there was the #ShareALittleHope campaign. Lunya encouraged its fans to tweet optimistic messages. For each message sent using the hashtag, the company donated $20 to the COVID-19 Retraining & Recovery Fund (CORE), a nonprofit that reskills workers to take in-demand technology and health care jobs. They followed this with their Nominate a Nurse campaign, where fans could nominate a health care worker they knew to receive free merchandise.
Most ambitious was their Vote in Bed Campaign, where customer service reps helped Lunya customers register to vote and request mail-in ballots for the 2020 election. Customers could request free stickers proclaiming that they “Voted in Bed.”
image source: https://www.instagram.com/p/CGQy2vyls89/
While Merrill has a strong altruistic streak, these brand initiatives were also great marketing. Each campaign was paired with a hashtag and was designed to generate shares and likes across Instagram and Twitter. This social media amplification put the Lunya brand in front of new eyes.
Their altruism also helped build brand affinity. Consumers now associate Lunya with issues they care about: fighting poverty, supporting frontline workers, and increasing voter turnout. This association makes them more likely to support the brand. Although buying a washable silk nightgown isn’t an act of charity, supporting an altruistic brand can feel like one.
Direct Sales Clothing Companies are Poised for Continued Success
Even though COVID-19 will someday be a distant memory, retail is never going back to before. McKinsey data shows that customers are likely to retain many of their COVID-19 shopping habits, eschewing the mall for the comfort of shopping from home. What they buy, and who they buy it from, will also be affected.
Enterprising DTC brands can use this shift to their benefit by building strong connections with their customers that inspire loyalty and even evangelism, as customers happily share their interests with friends and family.
One of the easiest and most impactful ways to build this affinity is through customer loyalty programs and referral marketing. It’s cheaper and more dependable than advertising, and it ensures that even during the lean times, your product will never go out of style.