Emily Singer on ‘Blanding,’ the worst DTC tactics, and what brands shouldn't do on Instagram
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The first thing you should know about Emily Singer is that she has a separate Instagram account just for following brands. Dozens of brands. Maybe hundreds of brands.
Well, okay, that’s only partially true. “I do,” Singer, Alma senior marketing manager by day, brand geek and Chips + Dips newsletter proprietor by night, says with a laugh. “But I don’t really use it anymore.” Still, appreciate the exercise for a moment: If for years you surrounded yourself with a never-ending feed of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand transmissions, imagine the level of expertise you’d develop on how brands think, breathe, and behave, too.
From her home in Brooklyn, Singer discusses the types of DTC marketing tactics that really impress her, how brands should and should not show up on Instagram, and why this new intersection of brands becoming media companies—and media companies becoming brands—is a phenomenon that’s maybe not built to last. “The reality of the situation is that media companies rarely make money,” she says. “They're not impressively profitable. [But] you can make a good amount of money by selling products.”
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Banknotes: What did you learn by following so many brands and how they behave on Instagram?
Singer: When I was actively checking, I think the thing that's interesting about filling a feed with hundreds of brands is that it's really hard for something to stand out. And so when I would scroll through, most often I was scrolling past stuff. I wasn't stopping to read. Occasionally, something would catch my eye, but anything that did catch my eye and made me stop was something that was out of the ordinary.
I think there's a lot of pressure for brands on Instagram to post consistently, and that often leads to a lot of filler content. The things that would make me stop and pay attention were interesting partnerships, or product launches, or something that felt like it was actually telling a story or doing something different—being additive in some way.
So my big takeaway from when I would use that feed was just that there was so much uninteresting content out there, because brands are playing Instagram's game. They're not necessarily doing what's right for them or what's authentic to them. They're doing what the tech company is telling them to do and what the algorithm rewards.
Banknotes: I wondered if we couldn't get into some dos and don'ts for how brands show up on Instagram. Let’s start with the good side. To your mind, what type of brands are doing it right on Instagram, and what are they doing?
Singer: Two brands that I am consistently impressed with are Diaspora and East Fork. And I think the common thread with both of those brands is that they have very clear missions. They make really high-quality products. They aren't forcing conversion on you. Because they have more expensive, higher-quality, higher-end products, so much of what they need to do is convince you that their product is worth buying and that it's worth the extra cost.
Diaspora does a lot of farm stories, where they'll post pictures from the farmer who's growing their coriander seed and talk about what makes that coriander so special. And the other crops that are grown on the same farm, and how that impacts the flavor of this one spice. So there's really robust storytelling around those products.
And then similar for East Fork, I think they do a great job of showing the people behind the brand, which is something that they care very much about. Their emails are very long and human, and they talk about the [chief financial officer] and the people behind the screen who are making the products, making the business run. That type of human storytelling makes a really big difference because their products aren't—yes, they have a factory where things are made, but they're handmade by humans, not [by] robots and then shipped overseas to sit in a warehouse.
It's their warehouse, their production studio. And so they do a good job of showing how the business operates without necessarily saying it explicitly. [They] share what differentiates them by telling stories about the people who work there.
Banknotes: And what’s the flip side of this? What are some brand behaviors that make you pull your hair out when you see what they're up to?
Singer: It’s the filler content. Like when it's just a product photo [with] a three-word caption. I don't know what I'm supposed to get from that, how I'm supposed to engage with it. I'm not going to do anything with it and I'm going to scroll right past it.
That's very specific to feed content. I know that Instagram is pushing Reels a lot. It's something that I struggle with and I've had a lot of conversations about at work. “How do we do Reels that are educational and informative?” The thing that I am most turned off by on Instagram is when I see so much of the same stuff from different brands and there's no original thought or creativity that goes into it.
Banknotes: You are in somewhat of a unique position, in that you have crafted a niche of expertise on being an observer of DTC brands. But you also got your start with one—you began your career at JackThreads, the online men’s retailer. What did you learn being on the inside about how DTC companies view their customers and how to acquire them?
Singer: I'll start by saying that I was so young and so inexperienced that I didn't have access to a lot of that information or strategy. I also wasn't thinking about that as an eCommerce job. At the time, I was really interested in media and wanted to work in a media company. I was hired to work as a writer at Thrillist, which owned JackThreads, and there was this new kind of experimental content and commerce pillar called Thrillist Shops that was going to sell JackThreads product to Thrillist readers [through] Thrillist articles.
So I was hired to produce content for that. It didn't work out after about six months—my whole team was moved over to the JackThreads side of the business. And my job there was still writing about products, but was more focused on products that JackThreads was selling. I would do brand profiles, kind of deep dives into the in-house product line, but it wasn't until actually towards the end of my time there that I started to understand brand marketing and think about the different levers that a brand would use to sell product.
Banknotes: Well, I'm glad you brought up your time at Thrillist, because I have a follow-up question here. I once interviewed Web Smith, and he told me that all media companies would eventually become brands and all brands would eventually become media companies. What do you make of this intersection between media and commerce as you see it?
Singer: From my perspective, the most natural intersection of the two comes from affiliate content, which I know a ton of companies do. Like, you write about a recipe and then you link out to tools that you can use to make that recipe or ingredients that you can use [to cook it]. There's natural synergy there.
Purely as an observer, when a media company chooses to launch its own products, I very often just don't get it. I don't necessarily see the benefit of going through the motions of product development, product marketing, all of that. That takes a lot of time and effort and expertise to really get off the ground, and I don't know that media companies are adequately investing in that. It's really hard to do both well.
I use Food52 as an example. They started with content. And they still publish content and they still produce content, but so much of their focus has shifted to selling products. I don't know that I've seen a media company find a balance between content and commerce in a way that feels [natural].
Banknotes: The big example of this working as a home run would be Glossier, right? It starts as a blog and now is a billion-dollar skincare brand. And then the other way would be a company like, say, Outdoor Voices, which starts as a clothing brand and then launches its own editorial arm to, I think we can fairly say, mixed results. So it's very interesting to see which ones of these work and which ones of these do not work.
Singer: Yeah, and I think the reality of the situation is that media companies rarely make money. They're not impressively profitable. [But] you can make a good amount of money by selling products.
So when you have a brand that's making a lot of money selling products, it's not uncommon for brands to feel like they're bleeding money by trying to invest in content when they're not seeing immediate returns. It requires a lot of trust from people at a particular company to really want to invest in [media], and understand that content is a long game and that it's also really hard to do well.
Banknotes: I’d love to talk to you about the famous Bloomberg piece from 2020 that made a lot of waves, “Welcome to Your Bland New World.” To way oversimplify its thesis, the piece critiques how so many DTC brands look and feel the exact same—that there are a very small number of true brands, and then a bunch of copycats the author calls “blands.” What is your view on how the perception of the “bland” has evolved since that story came out?
Singer: I don't know that the perception of early direct-to-consumer “blanding” has changed. I do think that we are still seeing many, many companies adopt that visual style and visual identity and visual sameness. I think the criticism [of the article] still stands. It's really hard to create something that feels unique and original. If you do create something that's new that no one else is doing, in six months you'll have 10 people copying you.
If you are running a direct-to-consumer company where you are competing with however many other companies, there's a benefit to that sameness because it signals that if you like this thing you're going to like this [other thing], as well, because they have the same visual identity. They're aesthetically aligned.
Banknotes: Let's see if we can give some examples. Who in your mind are textbook examples of “blands”? And then, conversely, who in your mind are genuine, true DTC brands?
Singer: A lot of the cookware companies that are offering ceramic-coated, non-stick aluminum cookware with bright colors are “blands,” and there's very little differentiating their actual products. It's more about price point or which logo you like best or—I don't know. But I think there's so many cookware companies that seem to be offering the exact same product, just in different colors.
Banknotes: (Laughs) Like my second Our Place pan that’s just about to arrive in the mail any day now?
Singer: I guess, yeah! And then when I think about brands that excite me—because I think they're doing things differently and have a very clear focus—I think Diaspora, which I referenced before, and Seed, the probiotics company. What's most interesting about both of those to me is that they view themselves as a small piece in a larger ecosystem.
One of the things that Diaspora is doing is giving farmers a living wage, like way above fair trade prices, getting to a point where they can provide healthcare to their farmers. And they're doing work that is striving to make systemic difference rather than just selling a product.
Similarly, Seed sells a probiotic pill to consumers, but they're also investing in science and research in ways that I think are really interesting that a lot of their consumers probably aren't aware of because it doesn't directly affect them. They've done things with coral reefs, they've done things with bees and colony collapse. And so I think the direct-to-consumer companies that I'm most interested in that feel like true brands are those that are trying to make a difference beyond just selling a product through Instagram.
Banknotes: Diversity among DTC brands is a thing that you track right in Chips + Dips. Any brand that appears in your newsletter, you say X percentage are white led, X percentage are Black led, X percentage are led by non-Black people of color, etc. Where do you think we stand today on diversity among DTC brands?
Singer: I don't know. I think there are a few ways of looking at it. I'm noticing companies target a particular audience and using kind of conventional direct-to-consumer strategies in the process.
There are a lot of really interesting telehealth companies. There's a company called Folx, which is providing gender-affirming care via telehealth. I'm starting to notice companies pop up that are supporting people who have previously been overlooked. And that's not to say that products haven't always been there for those people and for those communities, but maybe that the products are being presented in a way that feels more accessible, more contemporary, more modern maybe. And [now] you can buy them online on a website that seems legit and looks like a lot of other websites that you've bought things from, rather than something that is on a website that looks like it hasn't been updated since 1995.
Banknotes: In one of your newsletters from last year, you wrote this cool thing about the Instant Pot—basically, the patent for the pressure cooker had expired, and you wondered if Instant Pot, when it became really popular, had actually created a new product or just slapped a new label on an old thing and remarketed it. And you wrote, "The answer is, it doesn't matter."
In DTC, this makes me think of Casper. Casper didn’t invent memory foam, but being able to take a full-sized mattress, roll it up into a box the size of a mini fridge, and ship it anywhere in the world was a new thing. What other digitally-native brands are you seeing doing this best today—not necessarily making something new, but going about selling it in a new way?
Singer: My mind goes to the telehealth companies, like Ro and Hims. They both took advantage of the patent on Viagra expiring and were like, “Let's sell this to everyone.” I see it most with all of these companies selling generic versions of a particular pill product, whatever it is.
And luggage feels similar to mattresses, in that the innovations were the 360-degree rotating wheels and battery packs—like that is the defining characteristic of these [new] luggage [brands]. Meanwhile, Muji has basically an Away suitcase for a hundred dollars, and there's very little difference.
Banknotes: You have said before that you’re less interested in DTC companies who grow but do so just by throwing a whole whack of money at Facebook ads. Doing that was, using a term you said, “kind of lazy.” What are things a DTC company can do to build their brand outside of pouring money into social media ads that impresses you?
Singer: (Laughs) I feel like I should also caveat that by saying that, when I discover a brand, it's mostly because I've been served an ad.
I think the biggest thing for me now, and I do think that this has evolved over time, is knowing that whatever the company is selling is high quality, and is a good product, and is worth the money or won't fall apart. And I'm someone who will take like six months to think about something before buying it. I really don't buy much. Which is weird, because I'm interested in this space where consumption is being pushed.
For me, thinking about something—doing a lot of research, asking myself, “Do I really want this? Does this actually feel different?”—Is kind of what it takes to sway me. I think I approach a lot of direct-to-consumer brands with a lot of skepticism. It's rare that I actually buy from the companies that I'm writing about or seeing, or keeping an eye on, with very few exceptions.
Banknotes: I heard you once criticize the abandoned cart email that DTC brands send out. You said it was kinda creepy, like if a salesperson followed you around the store after you’ve tried something on asking, “Are you sure you don’t want this?”
Ironically, there's likely some playbook online about the things you have to do if you're a DTC brand to get started, and the abandoned cart email is probably right in the top five. From where you sit, what are things that DTC brands are commonly doing that are actually the wrong thing to do?
Singer: Leading with a promo code is something that—I know that it works—but it cheapens the product and cheapens the experience. Because if you are giving me a discount on this first order, what's stopping me from using my work email to then checkout and get a discount on my next order? Or if you've given me 20% off of my first order, I'm just going to wait until you're doing a sale, and then the thing is going to be 20% off again, because why would I pay full price? And so I think conditioning people to expect a discount—maybe in some ways it doesn't actually work against the brand, but it does bother me sometimes.
Maybe it's just me, but I also think there are a lot of companies that are clearly investing in super fast shipping in a way where I'm like, “I didn't need this overnight.” I can wait three, four, five days, even a week.
I've noticed it since working from home. I've started ordering cleaning supplies from Grove, and they arrive within 48 hours of me submitting an order every single time. And I don't need it that fast! I know from having worked at companies that they're spending a lot of money on shipping, and I kind of wonder if companies can save themselves a little bit of money by opting into slower shipping.
Banknotes: Pop-up stores. You have visited a couple in New York, like the famous one for Recess in 2019. Of all the considerations a company should have to run one—from first cultivating a customer base that you know will be loyal enough to visit, what location you choose to put it, how it should be promoted—from what you’ve seen, what is the best execution of how to pull off a branded pop-up store?
Singer: The best pop-ups allow you to try the product. Sometimes that's literally, sometimes [that’s] figuratively. Brightland, the olive oil company, did a pop-up in New York and they were doing lots of different sampling events, and had a chef bake cakes with their olive oil and then they were selling the cakes. And it was this thing that like, yes, you can make the recipe on your own, but you could never buy the cake through the company. It was a new experience.
Something that I'm also thinking about in real time: There are an absurd number of rapid delivery companies in New York now where you can get something in like 15 minutes, less than two hours, whatever it is. And I'm wondering if there's an opportunity for brands who host a pop-up in a particular location to tap into that as a distribution channel. I think pop-ups are still important. I think they're still really interesting and exciting. And I think we're starting to see a delivery or marketplace ecosystem grow, at least in New York, that I think a lot of companies might be able to take advantage of.
Banknotes: You’ve spoken once about Floyd, the furniture company, and they did this cool thing where they furnished a couple Airbnbs with Floyd furniture—that was part of their strategy for how they marketed the product and let people interact with it. And that was kind of this new dimension of commerce that we hadn't seen a lot before. What is the next commerce crossover like that you see coming?
Singer: It would be more experiential things like that. You can imagine a hotel that's furnished, and maybe there are QR codes—because everyone loves QR codes now—on every product there. And by scanning, you can add it to your cart, or buy the thing and have it shipped to your home. And then staying in a hotel becomes some sort of immersive shopping experience.
There's a shared kitchen, a ghost kitchen-type concept near my apartment. Over the summer, a [consumer packaged goods] company called Masala Mama—they make Indian simmer sauces—did a pop-up there and was [listed] on delivery apps, delivering food made with its sauces. It was really cool. If ghost kitchens are to proliferate in the way that everyone says they will, there might also be opportunities for food companies to introduce restaurant concepts and also sell product through that channel.
Banknotes: Two things I picked up on that you’ve mentioned were cool marketing efforts by DTC brands. The first one was by Haus, the alcohol brand. And they recently sent a holiday card to customers that was just best wishes for the season—no promo code, no sale, no ulterior motive. It was just a picture of the founders with their family. And I think you liked that simple gesture.
And another one was from Glossier, where an email promo they sent to their customers was made to look like actual email correspondence from people within the company. And that was a neat thing. I had never seen that before. Any other examples of that come to mind? Who else is doing neat, innovative marketing stuff like this?
Singer: It's funny because Glossier was the first company I saw do the forwarded email. And it's happened a lot since then in a way that, unfortunately, now feels kind of played out. Like, you're not fooling anyone by pretending that you accidentally forwarded this email to everyone on [your customer] list.
One thing that did just come to mind: The skincare company, Soft Services, they have kind of an emphasis on recyclability and reusing, using things up and then replacing them, and minimal waste. A couple of months after ordering their moisturizer—and they must have timed it in such a way—but they sent [me] a little rubber spatula. It was a practical tool that allowed you to scrape the current bottle of moisturizer empty, and it was meant to encourage re-orders because it had a code for free shipping. It just felt [different] than an email that says, “Oh, you might want to reorder this. Our robots tell us that time is up.” Having the physical thing felt different.
Banknotes: Last one, and let me ask you to peer into your crystal ball for us here. If we look at who are the real A-plus DTC brands today—I’m thinking Allbirds, Away, Casper, Gymshark, all these big companies—who would you place your bets on that’s a smaller company now but may become the next generation of really, really, big DTC brands like that?
Singer: Well, because you cited it as an example, I'm really interested in seeing what Allbirds does as it grows, because I think it has a lot of potential as a materials company. Not necessarily just producing product, but if part of what they do is innovating on sustainable, recyclable souls for shoes, in theory, that should be something that they can license to other shoemakers in the same way that you can have Gore-Tex-lined boots from all [kinds of brands]. I don't know if they will, but I think just for bigger, more established companies, how can they look beyond just selling products in the way that they are today?
They're not strictly direct-to-consumer now, but I'm really excited to keep an eye on Fly By Jing. Their product extensions have been really, really good strategically. In terms of quality, I think they're generally really well received, and so I think that's one that I'm really excited to watch grow.