In the marketing world, there are some entrepreneurs and agencies that have an impact that reaches far beyond their clients. They don’t just deliver great results and reach lots of customers — they go even farther by helping to disrupt their industry as a whole.
Such was the case with Gin Lane, a New York-based digital agency focused on launching direct to consumer (DTC) brands. By understanding customer experience, helping create brands with distinct personalities and taking a digital-first approach to brand design, they successfully launched over 50 startups that generated nearly $10 billion in market value, including brands like Harry’s, Hims and Recess.
Despite this success, the founders of Gin Lane shuttered their doors in 2019 to launch Pattern, a multi-brand consumer goods venture studio. This left a sizable gap in the marketplace for direct-to-consumer brands looking for a similar caliber agency that’s just now starting to be filled by Darkroom, a direct-to-consumer agency founded by Lucas DiPietrantonio and Jackson Corey.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with DiPietrantonio, Darkroom’s co-founder and CEO, to learn more about how his company is picking up where Gin Lane left off, working with successful DTC brands like Everytable, Verb Energy, VYBES and more.
Recognizing a Legacy
DiPietrantonio was quick to espouse his admiration for Gin Lane. “Gin Lane was one of the major inspirations for what we’re looking to accomplish with Darkroom,” he explains.
“I think they understood the principles and importance of design so clearly — especially in a digitally native space like DTC, where there is so much competition. We’re an increasingly digital society, particularly after this year. Startups are understanding that focusing on customer experience design and brand identity can have enormous revenue-driving impact when you focus on digital touchpoints. This is part of the reason Gin Lane generated so much market value for the brands they launched.”
To that end, DiPietrantonio has based much of his agency’s work in launching DTC brands around the principles espoused by Gin Lane — though Darkroom’s process goes a few steps further by focusing heavily on the output of design and creative on growth marketing. The foundation of Darkroom’s process begins with branding and customer experience design before moving on to conversion-oriented digital applications.
Next comes creative production and growth marketing. By emphasizing lean campaigns that utilize channel-specific creative, the agency is able to maximize revenue and help its clients grow at scale.
Putting the Brand First
One thing that became abundantly clear during my conversation with DiPietrantonio is that building a strong brand comes first and foremost.
“Too many of today’s brands are following what they think is a DTC blueprint — they don’t have a truly defined personality to call their own,” he says.
But a brand with authenticity is what drives growth and gives you lasting strength in the marketplace. A well-defined brand personality and voice shapes everything — how you communicate and engage with your customers, the type and tone of content you produce for retention campaigns and paid media and so on. This is when digital marketing can really have impact.
The pushback against what DiPietrantonio calls “blands” is a relatively recent development, and he isn’t alone in this desire to re-emphasize the importance of creating distinctive, memorable brands.
Bloomberg’s Ben Schott noted that the prevalence of “blands” is especially problematic in the DTC space, citing how the majority of these companies vaguely target “the Man” who controls their industry, while creating narratives that are often little more than “personal exasperation with the existing options.”
“The problem is that when you have so many brands telling the same story, it doesn’t matter if they’re selling different products or in completely different industries — it can come off as redundant or inauthentic,” DiPietrantonio says.
“They all become indistinguishable. Creating a distinct voice rooted in engaging storytelling is what truly captures an audience’s attention and allows the rest of your marketing to work.”
Seeking True Disruption
DiPietrantonio, for his part, views Gin Lane as a pioneer in the DTC space — an agency that helped brands launch with authentic stories and serious success.
“The DTC landscape today has become much much more competitive. That’s why design professionals who can take a vision and turn it into a compelling voice and identity are some of the most important partners in today’s direct to consumer landscape. At Darkroom, we do this with an entire growth strategy in mind, so we can tie all of our activities back to measurable results. That’s a key difference.”
Darkroom has invested in integrating creative and customer experience design in each step of their process. Practices like building an agency with employees who have deep industry expertise in e-commerce launches and building an in-house content studio ensures faster, enhanced results for brands they work with.
This approach is helping Darkroom and its clients become true disruptors in their industries. “Building our entire agency experience around this segment—direct-to-consumer and brand launches—allows us to be deliberate and highly effective,” says DiPietrantonio.
Terri Williams shed light on what causes disruption in The Economist:
“Large, successful companies make the mistake of thinking what got them to the top will keep them there. They don’t just underestimate the competition—they don’t understand the battlefield.” This allows new players in the field to gain significant market share in a short amount of time.
Particularly in the relatively young and quickly evolving space of digital commerce, successful entrepreneurs aim to build off those who came before. In direct-to-consumer, new brands are popping up every day, taking inspiration from the direct-to-consumer household names that came before them. However, in this space, in order to be high-growth, differentiation and marketing from launch are the key signs of success.
By understanding what today’s marketing “battlefield” requires and building off the strong legacy and reputation established by Gin Lane, Darkroom appears poised to do even more in launching direct to consumer brands for the next generation of direct-to-consumer powerhouses.