Why direct-to-consumer brands are focused on category domination

When a brand is known for selling one hit product, how can it go about taking over an entire category?

Rothy's: no longer a women's-only shoe brand. (Photo: Rothy's)
TREND DIVE

When Rothy’s launched in 2016, it offered only two products: a ballet flat with a pointed toe and one with a rounded toe.

Despite adding heaps of different designs to its product portfolio, five years later, that original duo remains among Rothy’s bestsellers. “I’d like to think they always will be,” says Erin Dempsey Lowenberg, the brand’s senior vice president of merchandising and product. “We grew on the shoulders of those two shoes.”

She is not wrong: those two shoes have provided the blueprint for Rothy’s expansion across the footwear and accessories category, turning it into a near-billion dollar business in the process.

Rothy’s now has a firm foothold across the fashion industry, having branched out into children’s shoes in 2018, handbags in 2020 and men's shoes and accessories in 2021. Last year, it launched 30 new products while still maintaining profitability, according to Business Insider. It says that 50% of its female customers have been acquired by word of mouth.

It is not the only company that’s gone from having one, two or a small handful of hit products to becoming a fully-fledged lifestyle brand. Away has gone from smart suitcases to offering products across the travel and luggage categories, Casper is no longer just about mattresses, it sells sheets and bed frames too, and Starface’s evolution has seen its product range expand from yellow pimple patches to a whole suite of light-hearted skincare products. Some brands are in the process of category domination: Tekla is beefing up its range of home textiles, Kinfield is thinking about the kinds of outdoor skincare people might need beyond bug spray, and bed linen brand Parachute has just launched a furniture collection.

Rothy's ballet pumps, in production. (Photo: Rothy's)
The pursuit of profitability

There are several influences that encourage brands to wheedle their way into as many aspects of our lifestyles as they can.

It is much easier to become a true household name when there are more ways for people to interact with your brand — and when seeking investment, it's good for a brand to be able to demonstrate that it has new things in the pipeline that will bring customers back, or get new ones on board. Rothy’s added half a million new customers in 2020, thanks in large part to new product launches. According to Dempsey Lowenberg, 15% of Rothy’s menswear customers are now repeat purchasers.

In documents filed relating to its IPO application earlier this year, Allbirds revealed that while it was yet to turn a profit, it has a plan to increase brand awareness and provide more products for eco-conscious consumers. According to its filings, repeat customers accounted for 53% of Allbirds' sales in 2020, and those repeat customers typically end up spending 25% more in the second year they shop with the brand.

In August, shortly before its IPO paperwork was revealed, Allbirds — which is most commonly associated with the signature wool sneakers it launched with in 2016 — launched an activewear apparel line.

A brand’s world

Allbirds is laying the foundation for further product line expansions, describing itself not as a sneaker or sustainable sportswear brand, but a “material innovation company.”

Positioning a brand as something bigger than the products it currently sells is an important first step when considering any future category takeovers. Folden Lane, a storage brand which launched in April, is already thinking about what this journey might look like. “As a consumer brand, and a new one for that matter, you really need to have a laser focus on crushing a single product first, and expanding the foundation of your brand on that,” says founder Ben Spivack.

Today, Folden Lane sells a single style of storage box (which can be configured in a small range of sizes and colors) but over the next six months it plans to add a number of complementary products such as dividers, handles, lids and ID tags to its range. All of the products are relevant to the brand’s core mission to become a destination for home organization.

Waiting too long to think about a brand’s future beyond its debut product can cause problems. In 2019, when Ben Pasternak debuted his new vegan chicken nugget brand, the company shared a name with its flagship product: Nuggs. Exactly one year later, Nuggs announced it was rebranding.

Known today as Simulate, the brand’s community lead Andrew Watts says the new name reflects the brand’s broader ambitions, and the world of products it plans to launch in the future.

The word Simulate itself is a nod to a future world of food where one thing mimics another — such as a chicken nugget made from plants, but also possibly something beyond the world of meat analogues altogether. Watts says the brand prefers to describe itself as “a nutrition technology company,” providing some degree of fluidity as to where it can go next. “Even to put it in the box of plant-based limits what, in the future, we could be creating.”

The process of getting customers to know the brand as Simulate — rather than Nuggs — is a work in progress that has involved switching over its social handles, redoing its packaging and sending out emails to customers to explain the name change. Now, it’s a matter of waiting for the message to get across. “As we release more products into retail that are not Nuggs, it’s going to make a lot more sense to the user,” Watts says.

Nuggs' packaging, before (left) and after the company rebranded as Simulate. (Photo: Simulate)
The difficult second product range

Adding new products to a brand’s range takes time and costs money. Spivack says Folden Lane is currently in the process of closing a seed round, while also reinvesting a portion of its revenues into the business, in order to fund the production of new products.

To decide if new product lines are worth expanding into, therefore, requires serious thought. Straying too far outside of the current world of products that people associate with a brand is unlikely to lead to success — just two years after launching its Play line of colorful makeup, Glossier announced in January that it would be discontinuing the range. The disconnect from the core Glossier brand, which is all about emphasizing natural beauty, presumably proved to be too much.

Dempsey Lowenberg says that while Rothy’s has a “very vast” pipeline of products it’s considering branching into, “there is a lot to consider” when adding a product to a brand’s line-up. Whether a women’s handbag or a pair of men’s shoes, Rothy’s products all share a number of characteristics. They are machine washable, developed from recycled materials, and made by running yarn through the company’s 3D knitting machines.

Programming one of those machines to whip up a new design is pretty straightforward. What takes more time, Dempsey Lowenberg says, are the aesthetic decisions. “We really try to use restraint in design, so there aren’t extra pockets where they don’t need to be, or seams or layers of materials,” she explains. “[So] sometimes it takes longer to make sure we’re picking everything perfectly.”

It typically takes Rothy’s several months to get a new design out the door. This can be quicker if the new product is an iteration of an already-existing design, or much longer if there are issues with scaling up production. In 2019, Rothy’s pulled a sandal design in the week it was due to be released, citing quality issues that couldn’t be fixed in time for the summer season.

In these tricky moments, it likely feels easier to simply stick with the one product a brand knows it can make with its eyes closed. But the desire for world domination is a powerful thing. “There’s tons of companies that do a great job at selling one product and making that product as premium and accessible as possible,” Watts says. “We see ourselves not just as a DTC dropshipping company, but a fully-fledged business that’s going to make a real impact in the world. And to make the most impact, you need to have the most points of entry for people to experience your company.”

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