Building a Direct-to-Consumer Strategy Without Alienating Your Distributors

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Companies increasingly use digital technologies to circumvent distributors and enter into direct relationships with their end-users. These relationships can create efficient new sales channels and powerful feedback mechanisms or unlock entirely new business models. But they also risk alienating the longstanding partners that companies count on for their core business.

The auto industry is a case in point. Porsche’s Passport program allows consumers to subscribe via a phone app to a range of vehicles for a fixed monthly fee. Your chosen Porsche is delivered to your house with insurance and maintenance as well as unlimited miles and flips to other models included. But if you’re a Porsche dealer, how do you like this idea? Now consider that similar subscription services are being offered by Volvo, Lincoln, BMW, and Mercedes, with more to follow.

These direct-to-consumer offers threaten the very livelihood of dealerships, who historically have owned the customer relationship. And many dealers are pushing back. The California New Car Dealers Association lobbied for a law that required subscriptions to go through dealers. Volvo’s program has elicited so much criticism that dealers have mobilized the Indiana state legislature to outlaw the business model.

This is but one example of the digital Catch-22, the dilemma that most manufacturers and service companies face when creating new distribution channels. As a result, many B2B companies remain stuck in a stalemate. Writing in the Sloan Management Review, Boston College professor Gerald Kane noted that 87% of executives surveyed indicated that digital technologies will disrupt their industries to a great or moderate extent. Yet fewer than half felt that their companies were doing enough to address this disruption.

We frequently find that executive teams understand the potential of a reinvented distribution strategy; however, they are unclear on how to proceed. While the opportunity is compelling, so is the potential to upset existing distribution partners and thereby damage the core business. Disgruntled distribution partners may retaliate in ways such as switching to rivals, favoring competing products, or even lobbying for legislative remedies.

How can companies position for the future without putting their current business in jeopardy? Here are three strategies for developing digital distribution approaches that minimize risk:

Embrace Stealth

In the past, companies looking to test new business models could quietly enter a new geography free from restrictive distribution contracts that limit their ability to go direct in their traditional geographies. But that is harder to do in the digital age, as customers and partners anywhere can easily see what you’re doing online.

Alternatively, the company can operate in stealth mode by targeting customer segments that have been poorly served or ignored by traditional distributors.

Recently, Verizon quietly launched a startup called Visible which offers no-contract mobile phone service subscriptions for a $40 flat fee and is only available for purchase through an app. This model competes mainly with smaller-brand, low-end providers and may not be seen as a direct threat by Verizon’s massive distribution network of company-owned, partner, and authorized reseller stores that are selling higher-margin services.

Sometimes, an entirely new product provides the right entry point. Starting in 2011, Mercedes chose to develop direct distribution capabilities for electric bicycle sales under its Smart brand.

Mercedes’ strategy preserves its traditional distribution network for its major lines of vehicles, while enabling the company to build the capabilities and infrastructure needed to support a reinvented distribution strategy — selling to consumers rather than through traditional dealerships.

Create Hooks

Distribution partners willingness to retaliate can be minimized if companies are able to create hooks that compel and reduce their negotiating leverage. There are many ways to build hooks, including bundling products, monopolizing a category, or developing features that are indispensable to a subset of customers.

For example, Cree Inc. made a splash when it introduced affordable consumer LED lightbulbs in the early 2010s. For several years the company was both a cost and product feature leader in the category. This enabled Cree to command significant shelf space in Home Depot, while simultaneously building a direct-to-consumer business. During this period, Home Depot was compelled to carry Cree products. This dual distribution strategy resonated with both consumers and investors — as Cree’s stock price tripled from 2011 to 2013.

In 2012, with the launch of the Surface product line, Microsoft began directly competing with the manufacturers and OEMs who had been its distribution partners for decades. Microsoft was able to do so largely due to its monopolization of the desktop operating system market. Traditional Microsoft partners such as Acer, Lenovo, HP, and Dell were already hooked on Windows and had little choice but to accept Microsoft’s direct-to-consumer strategy.

In fact, many of Microsoft’s partners, at least publicly, were supportive of the Surface. In 2012, Acer’s founder, Stan Stinh, indicated that he believed the Surface was only intended to stimulate market demand and that “once the purpose [was] realized, Microsoft [would] offer more models.” Today, the Surface product line has a greater share than Acer does in the U.S. market for personal computers.

Minimize Pain

Supporting downstream partners’ business can also reduce the risk of retaliation.

The heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, for example, introduced a vehicle management platform that provides customers with insights on vehicle utilization, health, and location. The platform is sold directly to customers — frequently removing downstream partners from the sales process. Ultimately, though, the platform benefits partners because it alerts customers when they need to get their equipment serviced by these local partners — a key revenue stream for Caterpillar’s distributors.

UnitedHealth Group, one of the largest health insurers in the U.S., is on the verge of becoming the nation’s largest employer of physicians. But under its subsidiary Optum, UnitedHealth Group has pursued an aggressive M&A strategy to build its direct-to-consumer capabilities while being careful to not upset traditional healthcare providers. For example, Optum has continued to accept over 80 types of health insurances across its facilities and has avoided restricting United insurance customers to Optum-owned providers. Optum’s deliberate strategy has caught the industry’s attention, but to date has avoided direct retaliatory actions by incumbent healthcare providers.

Digital represents a significant opportunity for many B2B companies, but also risk. Failure to act enables competitors and new entrants, while action risks retaliation from existing partners. To break this stalemate, leadership should align on the imperative to act, acknowledge the risks of action, and identify the right strategy with which to move ahead. Your long-term partners are more likely to stand by you if they see your direct-to-consumer move not as an act of aggression but as a plan for growth.





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