Why Rothy’s & Other Digital-First Brands Are Betting Big on Old-School Ads

When Rothy’s launched in 2016, it did what most digitally native direct-to-consumer brands do in their early days: invest in paid social campaigns, mostly on Facebook and Instagram, and let the power of ad targeting work its magic.

Today, though, the brand wants to reach present and future fans of its ultrapopular knitted flats in venues beyond their smartphone screens. So, like many of its peers, it’s breaking some of the rules set out in the nascent years of DTC: In March, it launched a national television campaign highlighting the shoe’s sustainable origins and easy upkeep (it’s made from recycled water bottles and is machine-washable), part of a traditional media push that also included radio and out-of-home ads. It’s also exploring customer meetups and events for women who want to touch, feel and try on the product in person.

“Digital is great. Digital is really measurable and reliable, but there are so many things that are kind of taking a full swing back to more old-school ways of marketing, which I think is really fun as a marketer,” Elie Donahue, Rothy’s VP of marketing, told FN.

Instagram and Facebook are still the most efficient ways of driving brand awareness, she said, but once the word is out, the hope is that customers themselves will become your best advocates. “With a good product comes a great flywheel of people increasingly finding out about the brand through friends and family, which is so amazing as a brand, because it’s the most trusted source for people,” she said. “So our reliance on paid social has really gone down.”

For the minimalist sneaker brand Greats, which launched in 2013, diversification has also been the name of the game in recent years — an effort made possible by building slowly and only spending on advertising once the company had the resources to do so (which, as it turned out, was about a year in).

“When you’re brand-new, you don’t have any data, so you have to be really cautious,” said founder and CEO Ryan Babenzien. “You shouldn’t just go out and spend and engineer traffic. I don’t think that’s the most efficient way to spend marketing. But I do think you spend something so you can learn and then start to optimize on top of that.”

Today, Greats can afford to run paid social campaigns, but Babenzien also credits the brand’s Soho store, street posters and physical mailers for driving awareness. The latter may seem counterintuitive for a digital-first brand, but there’s a reason that snail mail has become increasingly popular among consumer startups.

“From all the reports that we keep getting from Google, Facebook, Instagram and others, the attention span on digital continues to get smaller, and it’s already below a second,” he said. “So with that physical piece, you have an uninterrupted, noise-free moment. And even if you get their attention for five seconds, that’s longer than you do on digital.”

A glossy flyer also gives brands more space to tell their stories while using much of the same content (product shots, ad copy) that they employ online.

All of this, of course, is still for naught if a brand can’t back up its ads with best-in-class site experience, customer service and a differentiated product. In today’s crowded market, eyeballs and clicks alone aren’t enough.

“We all have the same toolkit, if you will, to identify customers and target them,” said Babenzien. “But what [actually] happens when they get [on social media] and what brand they’re coming to is where you can see a material difference in performance. And I think that’s often overlooked.”

For Rothy’s, enough customers are navigating directly to the brand’s website rather than clicking on a search ad or swiping up on Instagram Stories that it has become challenging to measure last-click attribution.

“My guess is, they’ve seen some social ads. They maybe saw a commercial. They heard about us on a radio, maybe read an article that mentioned us. And then a friend tells them about it, and then they type us in,” said Donahue. In surveys, the majority of customers say they heard about the brand through word of mouth, she said, “So that’s a really great signal that no matter how many ads they might’ve seen, there is this proof of concept or validation that they are telling their friends about us at the end of the day.”

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