When the news of Gymshark’s first physical store broke, it quickly became a topic of conversation among brand fans and industry peers. With the launch set for this summer, isin’s founder Daljit Singh takes a look at why digitally native ‘challenger’ brands are uniquely poised to win at retail. And how this mindset can be applied by any brand to leverage the power of social media, take their physical retail experiences to the next level and open up a new world of possibilities. 

Image via Gymshark

Gymshark and Glossier. Two digitally native brands that adopted the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model and flipped the script on brand-consumer relationships. They built communities. They inspired movements. And they cracked the code to online virality enabling them to build cult followings all without a physical store.

Aside from the obvious, successful DTC challenger brands are set apart from traditional retailers by their relentless pursuit of driving connections with their customers. They typically have a laser-sharp focus on branding, a knack for building community, exceptional customer experience and service, a philanthropic purpose and a strong relatable set of values. Empowerment, inclusivity and feeling comfortable in your own skin characterised many of these brand narratives – a direct backlash against years of unrealistic beauty standards in the media and a safe space for customers to feel heard.

Image via Glossier

Exploring the foundations 

Glossier is a great example. Founded in 2012 by Emily Weiss in New York, the beauty brand reached ‘unicorn status’ by 2019 and raised $80million in its Series E funding round in 2021. Glossier’s 2.6 million Instagram followers firmly put the ‘cult’ in ‘cult following’ after buying into the authentic brand messaging that helped to pioneer the natural beauty movement. There is no stronger marketing tactic than word of mouth and with its community flooding Instagram with product-focused content, unboxing videos and hype around new launches, Glossier was on track to global virality before it even stepped out of America.

Similarly, Ben Francis, the British entrepreneur behind Gymshark who also launched the brand in 2012, found its niche in the cultural wave of health and fitness becoming a lifestyle. The brand coined the tagline ‘Be a Visionary’, a powerful statement synonymous with the uplifting energy of the brand, strengthened by the family feel of the community and the notion that everyone is in it together. As a purpose driven retailer, one of its core values is ‘do the right thing’ – reminiscent of Google’s famous ‘don’t be evil’ motto from 1998. Not just meaningless words, Gymshark demonstrates its commitment to these values with a range of initiatives. Most recently launching a fund that pays personal trainers to live-stream workouts from home – a lifeline for many of the community in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Image via Instagram

Digitally native brands and physical experiences

Social media is key to brands like Gymshark and Glossier. They inspired movements. They built communities. They mastered the art of social listening, data collection and personalisation. They pioneered the trend of ‘Instagram unboxing’ with beautiful packaging. They leveraged the power of user generated content to make their communities feel like part of a family. And they could easily pivot to navigate change.

Once you’ve conquered that, what is left? For Gymshark and Glossier it was physical retail. While the world whispered about the death of the highstreet, they saw an opportunity to use physical retail to strengthen connections with their communities. To recreate the experience in real life and create a home for the brand off-line. To test the unknown waters of physical retail, both brands experimented with pop-up experiences and experienced huge success.

Image via Gymshark

Keen to get up close and personal with their favourite brands, consumers flocked to the pop-ups, flooding social media with snaps from inside the space. Glossier’s London pop-up welcomed over 100,000 people in just two and a half months, racking up the highest daily sales from any activation globally. As a result the pop-up was extended for the entire year. In Toronto, Gymshark’s pop-up event drew 8,000 customers on the first day alone with people waiting in line for over four hours to get inside.  

As digitally native brands ventured into the real world, the pop-up pilgrimage became a status symbol with people using it to demonstrate their affinity for their favourite brands. To their cult followers, these challenger brands are the new celebrity. The digital DNA of both brands enabled them to extend their reach and build global communities very far from home.  

Creating valuable brand encounters

For digitally native brands exploring physical retail, sales in the traditional sense take a back seat. These stores are billboards for the brand, typically in high-traffic areas. A physical expression of the experience that consumers have grown to know and love. A home for the brand in the real world, where they can take their relationships with their communities to the next level.

In the case of Glossier and Gymshark, these spaces are unapologetically authentic, completely ownable by the brand in question. Experience takes precedence over everything else. Like all good retail concepts, the brands make sure to reward the customer for their time spent in-store with a valuable encounter – the difference being that these brands are innately good at it.

In 2019, when Glossier launched its first London pop-up, the Guardian commented: ‘this is retail theatre and Glossier is a hot ticket.’

It described the space as reminiscent of an exclusive club, or a private viewing of a buzzy new art exhibition with a discreet “Glossier” on each door. Inside, the space is transformed into a Glossier-lovers dream with William-Morris inspired decor and colour-themed rooms for that added Instagram appeal.  At the heart of the design was the character of London and the lifestyle of the local community. This sympathetic design embodied the essence of traditional British social clubs – with a millennial, beauty-inspired twist, of course. Experiential elements included a life-size millennial pink Glossier Rooftop installation in homage to the iconic London skyline, ‘beauty editors’ in place of store assistants and feel good brand messaging on mirrors to boost confidence.

Image via Vogue

To the delight of British fans, a permanent store followed in December last year set inside the oldest building in Covent Garden. The first international store for the brand and third permanent retail fixture, Glossier describes the experience as more than just a place to shop; ‘it’s a central meeting place for friends, a landmark and a travel destination’.

On the other side of the world, Glossier famously created an LA retail experience that was reminiscent of driving through the desert, complete with the Glossier Canyon that went viral on Instagram, drawing further traffic in-store.

Image via Instagram

Now commonplace in most marketing strategies, Gymshark is widely regarded to have pioneered the use of influencer marketing with his use of ‘Gymshark Athletes’. Each one a lover of health and fitness in their own right, these influencers became part of the family, growing in popularity as Gymshark grew in revenue. It was a win-win for all involved. The concept of Gymshark Athletes became core to the brand and product development, leading to exclusive collections created by the community’s favourite fitness influencers.

Gymshark’s activations went beyond ‘retail’. Sometimes they featured free-to-join bootcamps with the athletes. Other times, the Gymshark community could meet their favourite influencers – and inspirations – in real life. For its pop-up in Toronto, a consumer drove through the night to arrive four hours early and secure his place in line stating:

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet everybody. Some of these people you will watch everyday. They become your role models.”

 

Applying these lessons to your brand

As these examples demonstrate, thinking like a digitally-native brand when approaching retail can open up new possibilities, enabling you to leverage the power of social media, build a more robust community and generate new levels of brand affinity. Not limited to DTC founded challenger brands, this strategy can be successfully applied to any retailer that is prepared to think differently and prioritise the wants and needs of its core consumers above anything else.

 

If you have a vision and want to explore how to think like a digitally native brand in order to take your retail experience to the next level, let’s talk