How Digital Design and Authentic Storytelling are Boosting DTC Brands by Creating Loyal Fans

A look at the real differentiators in e-commerce

When we met Equator Coffees co-founder and CEO Helen Russell not long after we launched Pattern two years ago, she and her life partner and co-founder Brooke McDonnell had a cult following for the business they launched in 1995. 

They had started opening retail stores in 2013, were living their dream of delivering high-quality, positive-impact coffee to consumers, and sourcing the ingredients in a way that was making lives better for their partners and growers. Their commitment to sustainability and social responsibility—key tenets of their business—was good for the world and their clientele. To say they'd come a long way since their start in a Marin County, California, garage is an understatement. 

But they wanted to go further, so they turned to our ecommerce and digital design agency for help.

Always true to their authentic selves, Russell and McDonnell built their brand around their strong personal ethos. Named the first LGBT-owned Small Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2016, the founders opened stores in communities they bet would benefit from the uptick a locally owned café could bring. We were stoked to take on the task of sharing their amazing story with the masses.

We tend to work with founder-led companies—many of which retain Certified B-Corp status, like Equator and award-winning skincare startup Kinship. We have found a lane helping brands use design to differentiate themselves on the internet, including EO Products. The visually arresting site we created for EO right before the coronavirus pandemic hit had supplies already dwindling before quarantined consumers sought out organic and natural self-care products and hand sanitizer with ferocity.

Helping brands succeed in the experience economy—which has become increasingly web-based thanks to Covid-19—has a lot to do with creating experiences that are joyful so consumers engage and fall in love with brands. Using design to differentiate brands on the internet and generate fans drives sales. 

For Equator Coffees, for instance, we created a modern digital destination that bridged storytelling around Equator's core values of sustainability and investing in the greater good with an inclusive and accessible coffee exploration and shopping experience. The launch last November led to a 61 percent increase in overall conversion rate, a 200 percent rise in mobile conversion rates, and a 97 percent jump in overall revenue. Stories around coffee, community and culture were woven into features of the Michelin-star and James Beard-nominated chefs like Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn and Tyler Florence, who crafted coffees for good causes. Redesigning Equator's DTC experience with a beautiful digital brand aesthetic, a heavy focus around the Chefs Collection, and a constant narrative around positive impact boosted ecommerce and in-store sales.

When I opened Pattern with my partner Isaac Newton, we knew we wanted to focus primarily on emerging brands that were startups or digitally native. Helping them tell their stories and grow through a digital lens was our ambition. We fully grasped the power that well-crafted experience design could play in e-commerce as a differentiator.

We were right. And after working with more than 30 clients in the past two years, we have the metrics to prove it.

Many of our clients, including Equator, are heavy into performance marketing. They focus on a certain subset of metrics, like conversion rates and return on ad spends, to gauge success. Going long on brand storytelling ups reach and engagement tremendously. We look at performance marketing like e-commerce. We knew in real time what worked for Equator and what didn't, and were able to quickly pivot. 

For Equator, we quickly realized what was working well for them was a focus on a particular age range. Not so much a demographic but a psychographic with a narrow set of interests and pursuits. Really leaning into the characteristics of Equator customers, who tend to be active lifestyle enthusiasts in the creative class with passionate pursuits like surfing and biking, was a game changer. It provided a system of funnels for storytelling that got people to engage with the Equator brand story in a holistic way. Not at all something advertisers can do in expensive 30-second spots.

Brands that tell great, authentic stories and don't fake it find their audiences fairly quickly. With just seconds to attract the attention of consumers clicking across their social platforms, authentic storytelling lets sponsored posts pop and perform. TikTok just got started with its ad business and is already proving a great way for brands to reach younger cohorts. Most consumers, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, learn about brands through social media so they know exactly what they want when they shop. They shop with precision, having become curious or increased loyalists online. Getting in and out of stores quickly is what consumers want more than ever as a result of the pandemic. E-commerce is the linchpin connecting brands to consumers, and contextualizing messages through digital design is the way to do it. 

Turns out truth and advertising really do belong together.

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Michael Janiak
Michael Janiak is co-founder and executive creative director of Pattern.

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