British DTC brands are eyeing the US as their next big market

Digitally native British brands are coming.

A number of British startups have made their American debut in the past year. In the past few months, British luggage company Antler and shoe brand Vivobarefoot have launched direct-to-consumer websites to introduce themselves to American audiences. On the consumer packaged goods side, digital brands like protein and supplement startup Form Nutrition and sustainable diaper brand Pura officially debuted in the U.S. last year.

This wave indicates how much the large US consumer market desires such brands, especially at a time when the UK retail industry faces harsh economic headwinds. As executives from these companies told Modern Retail, being a brand with British roots can be a differentiator in the competitive e-commerce climate. But it also poses transatlantic challenges such as high marketing and implementation costs, which already plague US brands.

For some of these brands, such as Form and Antler, the US represents their first major expansion outside of Britain – which they see as a major growth opportunity due to the size of the population. Some, like Vivobarefoot, expanded to other European countries like Germany and the Czech Republic before jumping across the ocean. But many of these brands expect the United States to become their largest overseas market in the coming years.

Antler, a 109-year-old luggage brand, is not a new player in the region. The British brand collapsed into administration during the pandemic after travel ground to a halt. But now it has used the opportunity to reshape itself as a modern luggage brand that wants to find new ways to appeal to younger audiences. It, in turn, is following DTC’s lead in the US, where it launched its website for US shoppers in May.

The U.S. launch had been in the works for more than a year before its U.S. debut, which is also in line with Antler’s rebranding, said Antler managing director Christy Glenn. “[The rebrand]introduced a completely new aesthetic to the brand and marked the start of our strategy to position ourselves as a British travel brand with global appeal.”

Antler’s focus on durability, innovation and “our rich British heritage really sets us apart,” Glenn said. After launching in the U.S. this summer, Antler’s e-commerce sales rose 96% year-over-year during the May-August period. The company, which has a global travel partnership with Soho House, plans to add more strategic travel partners in the US this year – in markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Texas.

As is the case when entering any new market, UK startups are trying to figure out which messages will resonate in the US compared to their home country.

Being earth-friendly is at the forefront of its messaging in the United States, said Asher Clarke, co-founder of UK-based Vivobarefoot, a barefoot shoe brand founded in 2012. Vivobarefoot began selling in the US through its website earlier this year, “and the US is now our biggest growth region,” Clark said.

Vivobarefoot’s U.S. sales come mostly from New York and Los Angeles, but Clark said the company is looking to grow its presence in markets like Colorado “where outdoor lifestyles align with our mission.” The company will also launch a 100% natural shoe at the end of the year. “I don’t think it has anything to do with us being British, but we have an offering that feels different to a lot of shoe brands,” Clark said.

Damien Song, founder of six-year-old British nutritional supplement brand Form, said his company originally planned to make its U.S. debut in early 2020, but those plans were halted by the Covid-19 outbreak.

“In many ways, it was social media and organic demands from American consumers that gave us the confidence to take those first steps into a new market,” Song said. After testing the market by shipping to U.S. customers, Form officially opened a warehouse in 2022 and began selling on Amazon and retailers like The Vitamin Shoppe.

“We don’t play with Britishness too much, but we find that some of our best-performing ads are ones where I explain the product in a British accent,” Song said. “There may be truth to the myth that Americans like British accents.” He added that many new customers are largely attracted to Form’s simple, plastic-free packaging, along with its stricter ingredient standards as advantages in the crowded dietary supplement category.

On the other hand, being a British brand does not necessarily guarantee worldwide sales. Topshop is an example of this: despite being a beloved brand among American expatriates and travelers, the fashion retailer has failed to translate the hype into sales in the United States. In 2019, the company declared bankruptcy in the United States and liquidated the American stores that it began opening in 2014.

UK-born DTC brands find the US “a very attractive region to enter because of the size of its market,” said Jane Phillips, insights editor at London-based consumer insights agency Canvas8.

However, Phillips said there are some cross-border challenges that need to be taken into account. “Despite having a common language and many cultural similarities, the purchasing habits of American and British consumers can differ significantly,” Phillips explained. “Americans are known to buy in bulk and have loyalty to big brand names, while UK consumers shop in smaller quantities and are less brand loyal.” Moreover, she added, people around the world “are still cutting back on their spending, as we are still in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.”

Song agreed that the US presents challenges for a new e-commerce brand looking to gain market share, given that the US market is about six times larger. For example, raising brand awareness to a new audience via digital advertising has become very expensive, pushing the model toward organic and affiliate marketing. In January, the company announced that Orlando Bloom would join the company as an investor and chief wellness officer to help build awareness in earned media in the United States.

“(The launch) was a lot of work,” Song said. “From registering our factory with the FDA, to producing packaging artwork to meet US regulatory requirements, which of course differ slightly from those in the UK in how a product’s nutritional information is displayed.”

Before entering an area that’s already competitive, brands can leverage partnerships and collaborations to test demand locally, Phillips said. “Social media is a great tool to use to see if a British brand might appeal to an American consumer, and to be a transatlantic success story, it can be useful to see if interest is there first before making any advertising.” American debut.”

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