Great retail today is as much about selling ideas as it is selling merchandise (we all have too much stuff anyway). It’s about creating “movements” that customers can buy into, rather than just flogging them products that they may not even need.
Over the last decade, Apple has been a master at this strategy (as has Nike for that matter). Millions (or maybe even billions) worshipped at the Church of Jobs, and signed up for the next version of the gospel each time it was released, racing to their local Apple Store temple for a shiny new iPhone or a MacBook. We weren’t just purchasing a piece of technology, but investing ourselves in the brand and what it said about us. And we were choosing sides too, proclaiming “I’m a Mac”, definitely not “I’m a PC”.
In recent times a new breed of online entrepreneur has taken a leaf from Apple’s playbook, launching brands that set out to disrupt the marketplace and are freshly and smartly executed.
One example is DollarShaveClub.com, a Santa Monica-based company (now also selling into Australia), which delivers inexpensive, quality razors direct to home. Founder Michael Dubin started out with an audacious plan to challenge the behemoths of the US$13 billion global razor market, dominated by Gillette, which is in turn owned by Procter & Gamble.
It was all about addressing a pain point for men. I was fortunate to spend some time with Dubin in the US in January, and as he explains it, many men are “totally flummoxed” by the price of razor blades, and intensely frustrated by the experience of buying them. “You go into the drug store to pick up razor blades, only to find the ‘razor fortress’ is locked”, says Dubin. ‘Then you can’t find the kid in the store to unlock it, and when you do, he’s texting. The whole process sucks. And when you do buy the blades, they’re ridiculously expensive and over-engineered.”
In 2010 serendipity struck. A father of one of Dubin’s friends happened to have been in product development, and helped Dubin source some razor blade prototypes. A fledgling business then began, initially run out of Dubin’s apartment in the typically hands-on way of start-ups.
But where things really took off was in the execution of the idea…and in particular, in the way it was packaged and promoted. Dubin had spent 8 years learning and practicing improvisation comedy in New York City. He wrote, directed and starred in a US$4,000 video to tell the Dollar Shave Club story (http://www.youtube.com/user/DollarShaveClub) and uploaded it to YouTube. The hilarious piece was entitled “DollarShaveClub.com – Our Blades are F***ing Great” and when it broke online in March last year, it was an instant sensation. (As I write this blog, the video has received 9.7 million views.) The only thing Dubin regretted was that he “hadn’t rented enough servers”, because his site went into meltdown.
Many viewers thought that the video was a spoof and that “someone should actually start this business”. When they found out it was genuine, Dubin attracted customers, and that in turn led to significant seed funding.
An edgy and jokey brand language (with every word crafted by Dubin) permeates every facet of DollarShaveClub. It goes from the overarching positioning of “Shave Time. Shave Money”; into the product, with the top-of-the-line “The Executive” described as “muy sexy”; into customer communications that warn, for example, not to “drink and shave”.
It’s all designed to build customer affection and loyalty beyond price. Dubin bristled when I described DollarShaveClub as a subscription service. It is, after all, a “club”, and Dubin prefers to frame it as a “membership” concept, with the idea of “belonging” fundamentally critical to the long-term success of the business.
So yes, on the surface, Dubin is selling “value” razors by the month. But what he’s really trying to pitch is an idea (a movement) that allows customers (mostly men) to join in and beat the system.
A year on from that video launch, DollarShaveClub has attracted many competitors – including RazWar, and a new entrant called Harry’s, from the founders of Warby Parker (a company I wrote about recently in Inside Retail – read it here). How Dubin survives will be down to not just the quality of his service, but also how strongly customers have bought into his brand.