Eclectic Thought Samples From Larry Burns

Embracing the Discovery Commerce Rabbit Hole – Tumble on in With Me…

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Discovery commerce has interested me for a few years now. At last check, I counted well over 100 different available “subscriptions” out there for the taking. And lately I’ve really been wondering… what itch is discovery commerce scratching?

A lot of people create ideas for subscription boxes, put them together and get them into the marketplace.  Consumers are finding the boxes and beginning to subscribe to them. What’s more, the concept is now cutting across many different markets. Categories and themes are beginning to emerge, from beauty and fitness to “eco-friendly,” crafts, pets, food, men’s, women’s, children’s and baby-themed boxes. This says something about entrepreneurialism.

Now, what does that mean for marketing? A subscription box is the quintessential example of “mass personalization” – but one that still allows “newness” to get through. From the onset of the discovery commerce movement, I believed that boxes with a curated purpose would have longevity, but I didn’t give the spirit of creation enough credit. Now, so many unique themes have emerged, along with the inevitable “knock offs” that so often follow. Celebrities have even joined in, lending their name value and/or creating their own line of boxes.

I would even suggest that completely new brands are being developed around specific kinds of consumer curiosities or needs, like the clothing box, Stitch Fix, or NatureBox, a truly interesting healthy snacks model. It’s fascinating to watch these new ideas and concepts pop up. To get an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available, check out It lists many of the available monthly (or quarterly, or whatever chosen timing) boxes and offers comments and reviews. The site itself is a terrific example of content curation by people for people – a trend quite worthy of attention on its own! General sites like this are quickly becoming a more prevalent intermediary stop on the “Purchase Pretzel” consideration path (what many of us still call the “path to purchase”).

While the general concept of subscription boxes remains the same, the content, approaches and business models differ widely. Some boxes represent a single company attempting to develop their set of products by offering them to you. Others use a club concept, where multiple brands participate. Love with Food is popular for good reason, with its theme of giving back; every time you order from them, a meal is donated to your local city’s campaign to help the homeless.

So, discovery commerce is apparently one way humans can and are expressing their personal desires, whether through identification with a specific theme, expressing a desire to be the first to try a product, or finding a way to connect to a celebrity like Pink (whose name was associated with a box). Via discovery commerce, a tangible, physical embodiment of your personal interests arrives in your home, as a kind of gift to surprise and delight you once a month, quarter, etc.

Putting on our marketing hats, this is all about identifying and understanding individual niches and markets that might be served. This could never have been done, and still couldn’t be done in a more traditional retail setting, aside from someplace like Bath & Body Works, where the overall theme provides a sufficient array of products to sustain a subscription model. (Of course, as I say that, BirchBox challenges my assertion with its plans to open a physical store location in New York.)

What is abundantly clear is that these concepts are changing the nature of how SOME human beings learn about and experience products. What else does it suggest?  One result is that major consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are now aware of these opportunities. They’re trying to figure out if and how to join the game. Large multi-brand firms and retailers constantly interact with people and collect data, so they are learning a lot about their consumers as they develop best practices for “test and learn” approaches and newer ways to engage consumers.

The discovery commerce concept also intersects directly with what I’ve been talking about for a long time – the notion of marketing to people one by one. What do I want, versus what the next person who you engage with wants? Treat me as a unique individual, then treat the next person as a unique individual; repeat forever.

Discovery commerce uses elegant curation, intelligent personalization and sincere efforts to match potential interested humans (who have expressed real interest/desire via payment!) with branded products that they “might like.” I have, of course, raised concerns about the longevity of the business model, and inventory availability that would satisfy the consumer beast of expectations…

But this is all still quite new and innovating in real time – quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my 35+ years as a researcher, practitioner and observer. I’ll keep watching and discussing it as it unfolds, and I’d welcome your comments and questions. None of us know for certain where this will lead, but the journey will certainly be intriguing.

Categorised as: Learning, Marketing, Sampling