Brand Messaging in Times of Crisis: 8 DTC Brands Worth Celebrating

Quarterly Learnings Report: Customer stories and lessons learned, delivered quarterly

Last updated
Apr 30, 2020

It’s rough out there right now. We’re all struggling on so many levels, personally and professionally, and figuring out how to keep business going without coming across as insensitive is really, really difficult.

As a marketer myself, I’m struggling a lot to find the “right” path.

I don’t know if there really is one- but finding tactful, meaningful approaches is so, so important right now.

So I started paying really close attention to how DTC marketers were responding. I looked to some of the most authentic, consistently gold star brands out there to see how they were handling messaging in a crisis.

What I saw was a fascinating range of approaches. Beardbrand, Blume, Pattern Brands, Oui the People, Unbound Babes, Scratch Pet Food, Rothys, and Supply are all putting out compassionate, thoughtful messaging in a difficult time.

Authenticity demands imperfection. And right now, perfection isn’t even an option. These brands are leaning into that.

Here are some of the most authentic, impressive emails we’ve seen so far (plus some notes on each).

Read on to learn how top brands are doing right by their customers (and how the people behind the emails chose their approach).

1. Beardbrand

covid email 1
  • The super personal approach to this email from founder Eric Bandholz is a great start.
  • It’s really clean, clear, and simple.
  • There’s a genuine sense that this message is coming from an individual more than a brand- almost always a good move, but it’s particularly important in difficult times.
  • It’s really tough approaching product emails right now (no one wants to look like they’re profiteering in a crisis), and this message walks the line really carefully.
  • Notice how Beardbrand does it: this is a product that relates directly back to the health concerns people are experiencing right now, but the messaging isn’t fear-based.
  • Instead, Beardbrand focuses on a really simple impact: we’re all washing our hands constantly right now, so they’re discounting a product specifically around that need.
  • The note at the end reinforces the genuine recommendation over sales approach- it’s all about making informed, rational decisions when things are tough.

Eric Bandholz, CEO and Founder of Beardbrand:

“As you know the COVID-19 situation is madness. I’ve been getting several emails that have been very safe and written in corporate speak. That isn’t our brand at all, but also we are very much aware of the situation and don’t want to seem tone-deaf. It was important to address the issue, come up with solutions to help our customers, and deliver it in our own words. We don’t normally discount products, so having a lower price for the Utility Bar 3 Packs was a pretty big impact. We saw a nice response from our customers and it’ll help level out the challenges that we’re facing (and might face in the future).”
Reported Results:
“We also did an A/B test where we had a nicely written email and a blunt to the point email. In the early testing results we saw nearly 2x conversions over the blunt email and a higher click through rate.”

2. Pattern Brands

Screen Shot 2020 03 24 at 12.15.24 PM
  • If there’s a theme to the “best” emails right now, it’s giving something without really asking for much (or anything) in return.
  • It's about brands finding ways to help out as things get tough and stressful, and leading with a focus on the needs of their customers rather than a focus on their own products.
  • This email from Pattern starts by reiterating the company’s mission and ties it directly into their approach to the crisis right now.
  • Basically, the steps they’re taking are a natural outgrowth of the values they started the company with.
  • From here, they tie their response directly to the goals of the brand (in a nutshell: We’re all spending more time in our homes, so let’s make it the best that we can).
  • Everything that Pattern is doing right now focuses around the heart of the brand and that feels authentic.
  • Keeping it text-based here is nice as well- it feels genuine and less product-focused.
  • My only note here is that the message is a little long and the copy could probably be tightened up a little. After all, consumers are overwhelmed with messages from brands right now, so keeping messaging short and sweet is especially important now.

Michael Shoiock, Senior Manager, Retention Marketing:

"We started Pattern as a family of brands with the mission to help our generation enjoy daily life. Over the past few weeks, the daily lives of our community have been universally impacted by this unprecedented health crisis. We personally have felt anxious, exhausted, and unsure of what lies ahead, and are trying to figure out our work from home routines - and we are lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

We knew we wanted to say something to our audience. We are all going through this very strange time together, so we wanted to make sure to acknowledge that, and provide the solutions we had already built out for our brands to anyone who wanted or needed them. We started building a communications plan over the weekend, as many of us started adjusting to our new reality of social distancing ourselves.

For Equal Parts, we texted all users who were part of our text-a-chef program reminding them we were here to help. We wanted to share with everyone that this program is free for anyone who was looking for help in the kitchen. The day we sent out this email and texted our customers, we saw a usage increase of more than 2000%, which helped to confirm that this was the right thing to do for both our customers and people everywhere in need of guidance.
When we built Open Spaces we wanted to guide users through this journey of organizing their home, and we brought on professional organizers to help. Again, we realized with people spending more and more time in the home, that we were in this unique situation to offer up this service that we hope will truly help, so we shared out our
10 Step Guide and opened up a ‘Contact Us’ form where you could ask a professional organizer for help with whatever you needed.
We still have more communications planned that will go out about our goal of raising enough money to donate 50,000 meals to the NYC Food Bank and making sure our users (and really anyone) know we are here for them with our
Text-a-Chef program and our Open Spaces Guide to home organization. 
We founded Pattern on the principle that building long-term, genuine relationships with consumers through guidance and support was the right thing to do: not only to drive retention and LTV, but more importantly, to become a business that helps our community make progress in their lives. That’s true now more than ever. We are all in this together, and we at Pattern are here to help as best we can.”

3. Oui the People

  • So this email makes an interesting move- it dodges the topic of COVID-19 for most of the copy at the same time as it’s totally about COVID-19.
  • That’s because Karen’ focus here isn’t on the disease itself. Instead, the email is all about community and the ways that we look out for each other in a time of crisis.
  • The message also covers a few practical notes:
  • The supply chain is fine, so customers can expect to see their orders as usual.
  • Breaking down the supply chain specifically for a natural beauty brand is great marketing at any time, and it’s really subtle here.
  • Karen connects the lifeline of business back to the lifeline of our human experience in a fantastic way.
  • The email also makes the point that Oui the People is going to let other groups cover COVID-19- this is all they’re going to say. It sets expectations for upcoming emails.

Karen Young, CEO and Founder of Oui the People: 

"We've always erred on the side of the human approach with our customers, thinking through, and ASKING!, about the people behind the purchases. We send two campaigns a week, and one of those is always centered on more of a conversational approach. After a lot of consideration we opted for a letter to our customers from me, and segmented it to our most engaged audience."
Reported results: 
"We're pretty pleased with an 18% open rate given the information overload in all of our inboxes."

4. Blume

Screen Shot 2020 03 24 at 12.24.50 PM
  • This email works so well because it’s really not about Blume.
  • It’s not even about connecting the community more closely to Blume as a brand- instead, the focus is on connecting people to each other. It’s using Blume’s position to facilitate community without really tying it back to the business .
  • With the amount of messaging brands are sending out right now, this messaging is refreshingly short, tight, and to-the-point.
  • It’s a great example of thinking about the brand more broadly than just as a set of products.
  • It connects back to the heart of what Blume is about- creating a space where their customers can focus on taking care of themselves, together.

Deanna Gee-Wing, Head of Social Media at Blume:

"During this time of physical isolation and uncertainty, we wanted to find a way to bring warmth, good vibes and social closeness to our community. Sending Love Notes with our orders for the month, sourced from our audience, is a simple and special way to amplify their voices and strengthen our community’s connection.

The Blume Community has always loved engaging with each other — sharing their best-kept self care tips and fave skin care trends! We see this all the time in our comments and tagged posts on social.  
More than ever, self care is the new going out and we could all use a little reminder that we are cared for, appreciated and going to come out of this stronger together.

5. Unbound Babes

  • Seriously, Unbound, if you’re listening- I LOVE YOU.
  • The design work on this email is amazing, but there’s still something a little rough, almost homemade about it. Obviously a lot of time went into crafting really great messaging, but it’s informal enough to feel like it’s coming directly from a friend.
  • What I love here is that this isn’t a collection of recommendations from the brand- it’s a space for the community to build up their own base of content.
  • It’s all grounded in their trademark sense of humor, but the focus is really broad.
  • We’re all relying really hard on our networks right now to fight a larger sense of isolation, and Unbound opens up a super inclusive space for that connection.

Check out the Google Sheet here.

Sarah-Jane Co-Founder of Unbound Babes:

"We started the spreadsheet for our team. We're a very "in office" team during normal times and we're also very pop culture obsessed. We love to chat about what we're all watching and reading.

As for the penpal tab, I actually got a text from a wrong number a week or so ago. It was from a basketball coach in Ohio reaching out to his players about precautions and cancellations. We had a really nice exchange that stuck with me throughout the day and I wanted to try and replicate that feeling for others.
Connection is incredibly important right now. If brands can offer their customers a sense of connection, they should look to do it.
We decided on a spreadsheet because it is fast and unfussy. We're an approachable brand and I think that means we get to interact with our audience in a way that's more authentic and perhaps unpolished too.
Reported Results:
"We've consistently had roughly 50+ people in the doc since it launched a week ago.  We've heard from more people about the success or usefulness of the spreadsheet than we have about concerns re: COVID-19. I think that's as much as we can hope for. I've also scored some penpals and that's really been beautiful."

6. Scratch Pet Food

  • We’ve all been barraged with COVID-19 emails over the past week or so, and they start to blend together pretty quickly.
  • They also feel less meaningful the more we receive. It’s easy to feel like, yeah, we get it, and that can be frustrating.
  • So Scratch takes a different approach, trying to create a little moment of normalcy in the inbox.
  • By specifically calling out the moves they’re making at the beginning of the email, Scratch acknowledges the current crisis and moves in a different direction.
  • Notice that there’s no sales focus in this message.
  • Basically, Scratch is working to give their community a space away from the constant COVID-19 news cycle.
  • We’re all looking for interesting content to help us deal with isolation, and Scratch has this down.

Mike Halligan, Co-Founder of Scratch Pet Food:

"We have both the Scratch brand and Off The Leash media side which is online magazine/social/newsletter. For Scratch we decided not to email or post anything particularly addressing COVID19. We felt that most are doing it because everyone else is, and that no-ones emails actually say anything unique or important. 
If customers are concerned, as soon as they log into their account page, it reassures them, but we made a promise to always have fresh dog food ready for them and they're really only expecting to hear from us in case we can't fulfill that promise. Everything else is just noise.
On the content front, we looked at it and thought that we had a role to play in making people smile, even if just for a moment amongst this all. So our challenge as a content team hasn't been to address or even remind people of anything fearful, but simply to make them smile and give them a break for a bit.
Reported Results:
"We got a 22% click-thru on that email, and for the first time, it got shared around quite a bit. "

7. Rothy's

  • This is another email with a really genuine community-building approach. Rothy’s is working in a similar vein to Scratch here with a focus on creating a bright point in uncertain times (plus, doggos).
  • The subject line says it all: “We hope this makes you smile today. 💙”
  • It’s a great way to humanize the brand and showcase the faces behind the business.
  • The email does end with a link to shop, but it’s framed more as an act of self-care, a chance to get away from the news and just enjoy some color.
  • The copy is quick, clean, and generally top-notch:
  • It’s all about connecting the humanity of the brand with the humanity of the customers- a really powerful move in a time like this.
  • The note about hand washing is also a nice little touch.
  • P.s. the puppy dog image is a GIF: Click here to inspect the full GIF.

Lindsey Fahy, Senior Director of Brand, Rothy’s:

"During this noisy, anxiety-inducing time in our world, we wanted to bring our community a moment of relief— and hopefully a smile. While it was important to level with our customer and acknowledge that things are not normal, it was even more important to delight her. And there was no better way to do that than by sharing the adorable pets of Rothy's."
Reported Results: 
"The response from our community went beyond sales, with hilarious dog photos flooding in via social and email. It was a moment of light during an otherwise dark week."

8. Supply

  • This email feels incredibly personal, and almost painfully earnest. Total honesty moment, this email reinvigorated my passion today. So powerful.
  • It’s a reminder that even really sleek, stylish businesses are still made up of individuals.
  • Supply does some amazing design work (their site is incredible) and it’s hard to believe that they pull it off with such a tiny team.
  • While Patrick is definitely the central voice of this message, it’s not just about the founder- it’s focused on the whole company.
  • There are even subtle nods to the differences between small business and big enterprises (“Even my salary is stupid low.”).
  • The danger with a message like this is that it can come across as desperate, asking too much from the brand’s audience. Instead, Patrick’s tone is reassuring, focused on the broader world rather than their own particular struggles.
  • The notes about shipments continuing as usual and the current promotion are concrete, important points to make, but that’s not the heart of the email- not really.
  • There’s a big focus on a different kind of community. Small businesses as a whole are struggling and this email really puts the focus (and the main call-to-action) there.
  • What makes this message stand out is that it’s just loaded with gratitude.
  • Patrick shares the things that he’s thankful for and it adds so much warmth to the message. The family photo at the end really drives this home.
  • There’s a lot of hope here, and a general sense that things will get better- our job now is to ensure the best outcome that we can.

Patrick Coddou, CEO and Founder of Supply:

"As a small brand with a loyal audience, we value transparency and honesty above anything else when we're communicating with our customers. But I'm also personally concerned about how this situation is affecting small businesses across the country.
As concerned as I am for my business, I'm more concerned about the impact on hundreds of thousands of other business owners that are not as fortunate as we are.

Biggest Takeaway: Be There For Your People

So what do all of these messages have in common?

Well, the customer person, rather than the product, is the main focus of each email. Each of these messages is about connecting the values of the brand directly to the struggles that people are facing day-to-day right now.

Whether it’s needing a break from the back-to-back crisis coverage right now, craving a sense of connection in social isolation, or rethinking your home space during quarantine, the moves these brands are making feel natural because they’re an outgrowth of the values they already had in place.

The biggest takeaway here needs to be this: with all the uncertainty people are experiencing right now, hard selling is the wrong approach. The short-term is a world of unknown, so your priorities have to shift.

Chasing quick wins is really dangerous right now. Where you can, focus on the long-term relationships you’re building. This crazy time will show people which brands are here (just) for the money, and which ones are here for the people.

Be the latter.

Right now, it’s time to be real for your people.

Remind your community about the faces behind the brand.

Think about each communication point, and pause campaigns that don’t feel on-message.

Most of all: keep your messaging personal, authentic, and provide more than you ask.

Note from the author: I’m struggling, too. This is really hard, guys.

I don’t know what’s up or down- what is “normal” or okay. But we will get through this together.

If you’re still feeling overly lost, Val Geisler and I recorded a quick conversation just for you. Our goal with this is to bring you a little sliver of solace, peace, and inspiration. Plus, we even managed to make ourselves giggle—maybe you need a bit of that too.

If you want to listen to this recording anywhere else, go here!