We did it wrong too.
Most founders do what Jeremy and I did at Tortuga. They experience a problem, build a solution, then try to sell it to other people.
This formula is a great way to find yourself sitting on inventory or, in our case, taking two years to sell our first 100 backpacks.
Now we're in the era of content marketing and of content/commerce hybrids.
The order of operations has inverted. Now you start with the customer: feel their pain, understand their problems, build an audience of them. Then build a solution tailor made to them.
In the future – brands will begin, not by immediately selling products but by curating an audience first.
In a follow-up post, Content Before Commerce, Web suggests:
Brands should consider launching their media and community operations long before their first products hit the shelves.
(Note: 2PM is a must-read newsletter and database for decision makers across the commerce landscape. Some content is paywalled but worth the price.)
He makes this point in the context of rising acquisition costs (on Facebook), more frequent and heavier discounting, and rising competition in the vertical commerce space. However, the lesson holds true for all brands.
In the article, Web cites the Kardashians/Jenners and Rihanna's Fenty Beauty as brands that started with an audience then built a product for that audience.
This playbook isn't limited to celebrities though.
Emily Weiss built Into the Gloss then launched Glossier with the former now serving as the editorial division and a marketing channel for the latter. Buzzfeed launched Tasty to cater to its existing audience. Gear Patrol built trust among its readers for years before launching Gear Patrol Goods. Crooked Media built a podcast audience first then launched merch.
Tortuga started with a product, not an audience, but we didn't find real traction until we hit upon the right combination of product and audience. We built that audience by helping our potential customers with their packing and gear questions on our blog, Packsmith. Our blog is our most important acquisition channel.
Influencers, Instagrammers, YouTubers, and bloggers will have a unique advantage in starting their own brands. Most will focus on what they do best (creating content) and monetize through advertising or affiliate revenue by recommending their favorite products. Others will do "Influencer X Brand" product collaborations. The most ambitious will become the white-label "brand" on top of a product made by another company. Think Kylie Jenner and Seed Beauty.
Here's the last wrinkle: the expertise and trust that you build with your audience must be able to influence a purchase. This won't be the case for every topic of interest. As Web notes later in the brief (emphasis mine):
Build a product-focused audience, establish social proof, deepen trust and loyalty over time.
Packsmith is able to influence purchase behavior because we've built an audience of people interested in the best gear for travel and what/how to pack. Even when we write about things other than backpacks, like travel pants, we're able to turn visitors into subscribers and customers.
This is precisely what every "Best [Product Type]" post or site is trying to do. First, there was Wirecutter. Now every newspaper, magazine, and online publisher seems to have a "product recommendation" division.
Most of these sites rely on affiliate revenue and are built as a hedge against decreasing ad sales and the inability to monetize a paywall. As competition for these keywords increases and Amazon's affiliate fees decrease, we'll see some of these content/affiliate sites say, "Screw it" and make their own products like Buzzfeed and Gear Patrol.
As a product brand, where will your coverage and links come from then? How will you compete with a site that used to send you traffic but now makes the same products as you and has a built in audience to sell them to? Can a product brand become a publisher faster than a publisher can become a manufacturer? We're about to find out.