Plato Knows About Direct-to-Consumer Brands

Plato believed the soul has three parts: reason, desire, and, most importantly, thymos, the need for recognition.  Thymos, Plato thought, is the cause of political action.  Everyone wants recognition.  Everyone wants to feel important and part of something.

Plato’s insight not only explains the mechanics of democracy but also social commerce, a system on which many direct-to-consumer brands are built.  As democracy depends on the vote, which turns ballot boxes into instruments of self-expression, social commerce enables D2C brands to build products that incorporate consumer feedback and make ecommerce a reflection of personal preference. 

Glossier’s founder Emily Weiss, for instance, believes women’s opinions of beauty have “never been more valuable," as she told The Telegraph.  Glossier hears these opinions by inviting roughly 2 million Instagram followers to share product feedback, seeking their advice when brainstorming new products. 



Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser, for example, is a direct response to consumers’ 380 comments on Weiss’ Into the Gloss blog post asking “What’s your dream face wash?”  

On Slack, Glossier exchanges thousands of messages weekly with its top 100 consumers, encouraging them to express what they want and when they want it.  Glossier’s four consecutive years of triple-digit revenue growth, motivated by examples of savvy social commerce, prove its ability to satisfy consumer thymos.   

At its core, social commerce depends on bringing interpersonal relationships online to create spaces, like Instagram, where we compete for recognition.  Trying to win this competition, D2C brands tell stories that, while accumulating valuable first-party data, appeal to their buyers' personas of self-worth. 

D2C luxury apparel brand M.M.LaFleur’s recent “What Are You Made Of?” campaign, for instance, uses an Instagram questionnaire asking for information such as your work motto, a moment you’re proud of, and the best work advice you’ve ever received. 

Once you submit this questionnaire, letting M.M.LaFleur know details of your moral identity, the company may feature you on its Instagram feed alongside the likes of Melanie Elturk, founder of Haute Hijab, and Natasha Nurse, co-founder of Dressing Room 8. 

This campaign is all about thymos, enabling M.M.LaFleur to celebrate its consumers’ lived experience, imbue its dresses with moral purpose, and recognize the dignity of working women.  

Thymos applies not only to social commerce but also to offline commerce and media.  Bonobos’ brick-and-mortar “guideshops,” for example, offer one-on-one attention from knowledgeable guides who help you find the right fit, place your order for free delivery, and process returns or exchanges free of charge.  At each turn, Bonobos recognizes its consumers’ importance. 

On TV, Bonobos’ recent commercial features singer Bobby Rush’s “Just Be Yourself” and ends with the message “Bonobos fits you” and its motto, “clothes for every man.”  This narrative recognizes consumers as they are, not as they fantasize about being, fulfilling consumer thymos and echoing populist rhetoric from leaders like Huey Long, Governor and Senator of Louisiana in the 1930s, who preached that “every man [is] a king.”

TV, it bears mentioning, is a uniquely trustworthy medium because it helps brands fulfill consumer thymos at scale.  Some 63% of respondents to a recent Nielsen survey, for instance, trust TV ads versus the 48% who trust online video ads.

Its savvy for public trust and branding make TV a persuasive moral and visual authority.  Whenever D2C brands use TV to deploy thymotic messages -- think Brandless’ recent “Everything for Everyone” commercial that declares that “Brandless cares about the same things you do,” explicitly legitimizing its consumers’ beliefs -- the resonance of TV becomes self-evident.

Direct-to-consumer brands are uniquely talented at satisfying consumer thymos, our persistent need for recognition, by telling and hearing stories full of first-party data and using brick-and-mortar and TV to legitimize our beliefs.  Do you agree?

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