Having recently settled into the new year, companies across the UK will have taken some time to reflect upon some of the struggles of the 2017. It ultimately proved to be a year of grave misfortune for many on the high streets; retail sales plunged to record lows amidst growing Brexit related uncertainty which was then compounded by rapid inflation, leaving consumer confidence in its wake. Additionally, a succession of PR crises and scandals highlighted the perils of mismanaging a company’s reputation, as brand loyalties were eroded on a mass scale. The fallout from the YouTube boycott following concerns over brand safety crippled several companies, notably Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Mars who inadvertently saw their respective ads running alongside pro Isis and hate videos. Meanwhile, it emerged that Facebook had played a nefarious role in the 2016 US elections, dissuading voters from Hilary Clinton through the spreading of divisive Russian propaganda. Unsurprisingly, 2017 gave rise to an atmosphere of cynicism and many brands became equated with immorality. In this new climate, wherein people some semblance of honesty and humanity in brand equity, the cavalier attitude of the powerful will not longer hold water.
With the objective of reducing the chasm that has arisen between people and brands, new technologies ranging from AI to VR are being deployed to revolutionise the nature of in store customer experiences, tailoring it to individuals. The approach witnessed over the last 20 years has consisted predominantly of the use of vast amounts of qualitative data along with analysis to create predictive models which define consumer habits and behaviours. Owing much to these new possibilities, agencies have been able to establish unprecedented levels of insight, which has improved many aspects of consumer experience and driven sales. However, if we learned anything from 2017 it is that the landscape of the industry is indeed changing, and brands are being encouraged to follow suit if they wish to maintain their competitive edge. In truth, people have become increasingly skeptical and antagonistic towards what they perceive as invasive forms of advertising rife on their screens, and thus require new channels of communication. While the data driven strategies have been successful in expanding large scale customer engagement, what they cannot match is the ability to create an experience, either aesthetically or through direct interaction, which tells story about the fabric of a brand. There is now a growing emphasis on experiential marketing, which represents both a challenge and an opportunity for brands to conjure their own unique methods of interacting with consumers in a physical space.
Retail stores in 2018 will continue to redefine the shopping experience and the rise in advanced technologies provide brands with a creative license to produce their own localised, immersive performances in the interest of boosting levels of customer loyalty. Mindshare’s research found that 83% of respondents think stores are important as they allow people to see, touch and feel a product, something that cannot be replicated with online shopping platforms like Amazon, which are devoid of such interaction. Indeed, people still place a high value on good customer service and some of the features of many campaigns throughout 2017 used to entice people comprised a myriad of advanced technologies which improved their experiences. In-store image and facial recognition and advanced chatbots, to name a few, were some of the most common elements used in experiential campaigns. Adidas showcased some of the ways in which VR can serve as an effective marketing tool, partnering with Carbon of Silicon Valley to deploy a complex process known as ‘digital light synthesis’ which permits the creation of a customised midsole of a shoe that is tailored with precision to the fit the customer’s shoe and improve performance. Meanwhile, in December Marriott brought Lightvert’s Echo technology into play as part of it’s campaign to encourage travelling. Through this they projected iconic 3D images of European landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Colosseum across London’s Southbank. These examples, amongst a great deal more, have raised the bar for competing brands seeking to gain a market share this year. Pernod Ricard’s senior brand manager Steve Hughes spoke with Campaign magazine recently and communicated that there is a strong emphasis on creating these kinds of experiences ‘There’s just so much going on – brands are doing so much experiential these days, you’ve got to cut through and use the technologies that really enhance people’s experience.’
However, in order to maximise growth for 2018 agencies must also look beyond the experiential aspect. While improving the nature of in-store experience should certainly be high-priority, the capacity to effectively combine this with an improved and customised online experiences could prove to be a driving force in dictating the success of a brand. Online shopping is now a fact of life, due to its convenience in a world where people seem intolerant to leaving the house to do the groceries or to purchase a gift for a friend, instead opting to do so with the simple touch of a button. Eleanor Kahn wrote an interesting piece back in November in which she focused on ways to bridge the gap between offline and online retail. She cited the kingpin retailer Marks & Spencer as a compelling example of how the two experiences can be integrated to provide a high quality levels of customer service. Speaking with Erin Roy, its head of digital marketing, she was briefed on how “M&S is completely built on exceptional face-to-face customer service,” and how the Sparks loyalty card scheme essentially became an extension of this. “Customers can genuinely connect in store and online”, through personal loyalty offers. In doing so, brands have an opportunity to enhance their marketing potential and build strong foundations for future growth.
The industry as it stands today is oversaturated with those intrusive and obnoxious digital campaigns, which fail to strike an emotional cord. The sheer volume of data that agencies have at their disposal has become a complete disincentive to the notion bravery and in 2018 fortune is likely to favour the brave; that being those who are prepared to put in the hours into understanding and talking with their customers as ultimately, trust and loyalty are increasingly synonymous with profit. As Michelle McEttrick, Tesco’s former CMO put it, trust ‘starts from the inside out’ and embracing experiential strategies is a conceivable means of giving your brand a human face. However, the successful implementation of the vast array of new technological possibilities is likely to be a determinant factor in this.