Qualitative Research

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_12745442″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/GavinJohnston/qualitative-research-12745442&#8243; title=”Qualitative research” target=”_blank”>Qualitative research</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/&#8221; target=”_blank”>presentations</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/GavinJohnston&#8221; target=”_blank”>Gavin Johnston</a> </div> </div>

Loyalty and the Global Stage

Loyalty is a very tricky thing to define. Traditionally it is understood as a faithfulness or a devotion to a person, country, cause, group, or brand.  It is anything to which one’s heart can become attached or devoted.  That goes well beyond the transactional elements of a retailer and touches ideas of identity, obsession and even love.  Loyalty can be rewarded, but loyalty usually comes from within, from a story we like to tell ourselves. We’re loyal to sports teams and products (and yes, to people) because being loyal makes us happy.

Businesses seek to become the objects of loyalty, in order to have their customers return. Brand loyalty is a shopper’s preference for a particular brand, be it a retailer or product, and a commitment to repeatedly purchase that brand in the face of other choices. Traditionally, businesses establish loyalty programs which offer rewards to repeat customers, and often allow the business to keep track of their preferences and buying habits.  But is it loyalty?  It could just as easily be understood as opportunism – it is transient and fleeting, driven by a transactional relationship rather than long-term engagement.  Truly loyal customers understand that there’s almost always something better out there, but they’re not so interested in looking.

And it’s wise to remember that loyalty takes on different flavors across the globe. In terms of loyalty programs, there is a wide variety. Hong Kong offers many loyalty programs which include Octopus Rewards, which started as a chip based smartcard for transport and now, the Octopus cards can be used to earn points in certain shops, including McDonald’s and Wellcome supermarket. The idea is that the rewards and loyalty are derived from the shared wellbeing of the group.  Loyalty is about more than an individual and the business, it is about facilitating interactions within the socio-cultural network as a whole.  It is a subtle difference, but important in that it moves the decision process away from simply finding “good deals” to a reflection of one’s place in the social structure, with Octopus Rewards becoming a facilitator of what it means to be a good person.  This is reflected in the historical and cultural underpinnings of China (see The Sociology of Loyalty by James Connor for more detail).

Increasingly, companies complain that loyalty program discount goods to people that are buying their goods anyway, and that the expense of doing these programs rarely pays. Other critics see the lower prices and rewards manipulate customers, providing them short-term gains, but ultimately leading to feelings of resentment. Loyalty programs established in Russia have been less successful than anticipated because they are seen as an intrusion into a person’s life.  To some, participating in a loyalty program funds activities that violate privacy (Doing Business in Russia by Sergey Kolpashchiko).  Again, as with China, history and cultural patterns shape expectations and beliefs about these programs.

So if rewards programs are no guarantee and significant cultural differences shape whether or not a loyalty program will take root, how do you establish real, meaningful, long-term loyalty?  Well, the good news is that there are universals.

As wealth increases and people have more free time to spend shopping experience and interaction with the retail space becomes more important (see The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller).  Loyalty becomes less about price incentives and more about catering to notions of identity, personal comfort and local identity.  It becomes intertwined with establishing emotional bonds that translate into devotion.  Part of why Heineken has done so well in the global market is that it appeal to a sense of nationalism when appropriate (sponsorship of soccer teams in Latin America).  The reward is being associated with a winning team and the Heineken give-aways that happen at games.  In retail the challenge has largely been overlooked, but the possibilities for establishing long-term relationships rather than short-gain transaction increases are virtually bursting with possibilities.

Loyalty, then, relies on shifting the conversation to achieve a specific paradigm: quality of product, service and experience leads to customer satisfaction, which leads to customer loyalty, which leads to profitability. Marketing and advertising draw upon the positive experiences of those exposed to a truly loyalty-centered business model inspired ventures to attract new customers.

Rewarding loyalty for loyalty’s sake is not an obvious path, but it’s a worthwhile one.  The idea that shifting the focus from paying people for sticking it out so the offering ends up being more attractive to one of deep engagement involves risk, commitment and a well developed strategy. But the payoff moves the business to one of volumes to one of margins. Tell a story that appeals to loyalists, engage them and you win. Treat different customers differently, and reserve your highest level of respect for those that stand by you.  That’s when you will see devotion and brand loyalty that cuts across global borders.

Upcoming QRCA webinar, May 11th

Presented by Gavin Johnston
May 11, 2012
1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time/GMT -5

What you will learn:
We tend to both develop and promote products and brands with the functional, rational side of our brains. But we are anything but rational – we make sense of the world through signs and symbols. In “Anthropological Analysis: Turning Symbols and Signs Into Revenue” we will cover the basics of semiotics and how the study of symbols and signs can be used to drive success of a product of brand. Drawing from case studies with Gatorade, Miller Lite and Owens Corning, participants will be given real-life examples of how understanding symbol systems can increase revenue and brand equity for their clients.

Gavin Johnston is a principal at People Path, LLC, a research and strategy firm emphasizing ethnographic and anthropological methods. With over fifteen years experience in the US and internationally and advanced degrees in cultural anthropology and HCI, Gavin spearheads incorporating research methods and findings into breakthrough marketing strategies, brand positioning, and retail design. In addition to leading ethnographic fieldwork, Gavin facilitates creative problem-solving sessions to ensure the insights are transformed into great ideas and that those great ideas make money for the client. Gavin has conducted research and strategic development projects for a broad range of clients including Kellogg’s, Ford, Kraft, GSK, Kimberly-Clark, Cars.com, MillerCoors Brewing, H&R Block, Belkin, Thomson Consumer Electronics, Motorola and Sprint.

Gavin gave a popular presentation at the Las Vegas convention.

 

https://m360.qrca.org/event.aspx?eventID=45413&instance=0

Gender and Shopping: The Hunter-Gatherer Myth

Hunter-gatherer societies are always a go-to topic of discussion when talking about gender and shopping. And there is some value in addressing it, considering for all our technology and complexity, we still have thousands of years of process in place that dictate, to some degree, how we navigate the world. In “simple societies” gathering edible plants, fungi, small game, etc. is traditionally done by women. In foraging societies, women return to the same patches that yield previous successful harvests, and usually stay close to home and use landmarks as guides. The process involves a great deal of evaluation of the locations used and the items gathered. Furthermore, foraging is a daily activity, often social and can include both young children and older members of the society, if necessary. Successful gathering requires that the person or people undertaking the process be very adept at choosing the right color, texture, and smell to ensure food safety and quality. They also must time harvests, and know when a certain depleted patch will regenerate and yield good harvest again. In other words, gathering requires a great deal of thought and the ability to evaluate the context in which the gathering takes place.

In modern terms, so the logic goes, women are much more engaged with the totality of the shopping process than are men. For example, they are more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale. Women will spend more time choosing the perfect gift, seeking out good deals and using shopping as a type of exploration in every sense of the word.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind when shopping and want to get in, get it, and get out. It is about targeted expediency. With men, so the logic goes, it was critical to make a kill, get meat home as quickly as possible, and limit the number of hunters injured in the process.  And taking young children isn’t safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress.

To be sure, there is some sound reasoning in all of this and in some ways there are no doubt elements of truth to it.  However, in a postmodern age where gender roles are far more fluid and shopping has become an ever-increasing mode of establishing identity, it’s not so simple.

First of all, these behaviors aren’t genetically determined and don’t apply to everyone.  Yes, there are consistent broad themes that can help to illuminate how behaviors evolve, but the key word here is “evolve” which means change. And gender determinism is, unfortunately, where the hunter-gather model sometimes leads when discussing shopping.

Second, in hunter-gatherer societies, gender roles as applied to labor and acquisition of goods is much more of a life and death issue. It consumes what people do. But in a post-modern world, shopping is rarely about survival and indeed the survival aspects (e.g. buying food) take up a very small portion of our lives. Shopping is as much entertainment or social activity as it is procurement of goods. That means that regardless of gender, shopping is fulfilling social and cultural needs unrelated to actually finding a thing.

Third, there is a flaw in the reasoning of how hunting and gathering unfold because it assumes that the actual tasks take up the bulk of the time of the parties involved. More specifically, hunting is seen as a quiet, straightforward activity where men track beasts in a quiet, manly way, kill them and bring them home. The problem is that it just ain’t so. The fact is that hunting, particularly for large game is a slow process that sees little action. Like foraging, it requires extensive knowledge of the terrain, migration patterns, an ability to judge the health and activity of game, etc. Furthermore, while very young children are not able to join in the hunt, young men are expected to be a part of the process because it teaches them hunting skills and, just as importantly, serves as a way of teaching cultural norms of a society. And all of this assumes an activity involving a small band of men. In large scale hunting that involves large kills, such as running bison off a cliff, the entire society is involved in a coordinated effort. Gender roles still factor in, to be sure, but the difference between men and women as laid out in the traditional hunter-gather reasoning simply don’t hold up.

What all of this means to someone interested in gender differences in shopping is that applying a hunter-gatherer model is just too simple and leads to fallacies of logic that in turn lead to lost revenue (or at least untapped opportunities). The better question might be, how do women and men use space differently to achieve a sense of meaning and how does that influence shopping patterns? Or how does the product category type shape gender roles and shopping? Or how does shopping reflect and co-create notions of self-worth?  The point is that while the hunter-gather model is a neat, clean way of thinking about the role of gender in shopping, shopping simply isn’t neat and clean. It is complex and reflective of the changing dynamics of our culture. That isn’t necessarily the answer marketers want to hear, but it’s the truth. And if your goal is to sell more products, grow brand equity and increase market share, going down the simple but inaccurate path simply won’t get you there.

Context and the Lives of Devices

We spend a great deal of time talking about context, but rarely use models to define elements of it.  This particularly true when talking about mobile devices and accounts for the hit-and-miss quality of  most apps available on the market.  It is one thing to design a usable app that conforms to human factors and cognitive requirements, but it is quite another to design a stage in an environment, or an environment itself, when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating an swirl of information.  Consequently, it makes sense for us to think about how we structure context so that we can determine what exactly we can affect.

Physical Context

From the computational side of things, physical context refers to the notion of imbuing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” at any given moment and react to them. But this is much more difficult than it at first appears. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond demarcation of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with place (as opposed to space).  That in turns having to be “aware” on some level.

Think of a mall.  Within that mall are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices and/or nodes of information. The device now has to decode what information is most relevant to itself, what information is most relevant to the user and how it will deliver that information.  Returning to the mall example, we have to think about a host of things in order to make any app relevant.  What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer from one store, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers?  When someone else is hold your device for you (say, while trying on clothing but needing to set the iPad aside), how will the device know what incoming content is private and what is public?  How will the device communicate with a location or with other devices as it moves throughout the mall?

Device Context

Just as various kinds of sensory apparatus (GPS-receivers, proximity sensors, etc.) are the means by which mobile devices will become geographically aware, another class of sensors makes it possible for devices to become aware of each other. There is a fundamental difference between the ability to transmit data between devices and the ability (and desire) of devices to discover each other. And this presents a series of problems that are different in nature than those of physical context. Because this deals with choices of communication.

We are on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. That means that devices are in a potentially constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall for a moment, imagine that your are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In there mall are a couple of thousand devices, all of which are discovering each other.  What happens now?  Assuming we’ve dealt with the problem of my mobile phone communicating with my friend’s phone while blocking out the other 2000 devices, we still have several thousand potentially “identities” that may have useful information for us.  How do we select how to manage that without devoting a ridiculous amount of time to setting up the hundreds of variables that shape what we do and don’t want at any given time? And all this is couched in a neat little world defined within a single, bounded  geographical unit.  So understanding device context is as important as understanding physical context.

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture, plain and simple.  But with the advent of pervasive mobile, this topic is becoming even more complex.  Specifically, data no longer resides, literally or figuratively, “in” our computers.  Our devices are extensions of the cloud and exist as something akin to perceptual prostheses.  They exist to manipulate data in the same way a joy stick allows us to handle the arms of robot in a factory.  And this is important because it reflects a shift in how we think about and use information because all information (and the aps that carry that information) are transitory and by and large public.

This changes the nature of what the device has to actually be. Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. All content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. This leads to the point that devices, and the people who use them, will find themselves in the 4th kind of context of social interaction, with all its peculiarities and contingencies. Just as our behavior and worldview shapes and is shaped by the moment in which we find ourselves, so too will our apps and information need to adapt to the moment.  In other words, devices will need to be more human.

Socio-Cultural Context

The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word.

And it is at the point of socio-cultural understanding where gain a better perspective on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe.  We need to understand the essence behind the veil of design and usage to uncover meaning.  Take the beer pouring app as an example.  Here we have a simple app that mimics the pouring of a beer when you tilt your device.  On the surface it has little relevance to our daily lives.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been tremendously successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks from the mundane, the ability to show off the newest thing, male-to-male pair bonding, etc.  It’s absurdity is precisely what makes it relevant.  But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts and meaning change to fit that particular milieu.

The nature of our successes lies in understanding the reasons behind our beliefs and actions, in the symbolic exchanges we are part of and our abilities to code and decode those symbolic exchanges.  The nature of our mistakes essentially lie in a lack of comprehension. It leads to UI and app development that speak to a minority of the population even as they try to sell to the masses. Without understand the underlying epistemological constructs of a group (or more accurately, a mix of often associated groups at different points of interaction and interpretation) then we miss opportunities.

So What?

So why does any of this matter?  It matters because good design and messaging are increasingly difficult to master.  Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, which in turn leads to a greater need to make sense of what is “going on” in the broadest sense of the term when it comes to gathering insights and translating them into design and business applications. Without a means by which to categorize context, we can’t isolate those things that matter most.  And we miss enormous opportunities.

Remembering Ethnography

If you want to innovate, you have to look beyond the problem at the world in which that problem exists. Ethnography is about looking at the world as a complex system and understanding what elements you can affect.  If you want to understand the opportunities for your product or service, then you need to think about how it fits into the bigger picture of people’s lives. Ethnography provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic.  What this means is that ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method, which insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data and not a focus on the most dramatic video clips or quotes. The risk in marketing and new product development is very real: misinterpret what people need, say and do and your idea will fail, costing you not only lost revenue but also lost brand standing. What do ethnographers do differently than other kinds of market researchers who study what other people’s lives are like?

Ethnography is a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. It evaluates what people actually say and do through observation and interviewing techniques. It uncovers not only what people do but why they do it. Ethnography does not assume that people are lying during an interview, but that their perceptions and ideals may not correspond to the realities of their daily life.  People often “weed out” information that they believe is extraneous, may be embarrassing or that they simply forgot.  The skilled ethnographer samples the “context” surrounding the topic at hand; paying attention to human behavior from many angles and uncovering opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.

  • Ethnography is always inductive. This means that our approach to research is exploratory and does not start with a hypothesis. An inductive approach takes best advantage of ethnography’s spontaneity and its potential for discovery, for finding those hidden discoveries that we, our participants and our clients, have never thought of before. Ethnography links the little details of life to larger cultural patterns, treating the consumer, the shopper and the passerby as part of a complex adaptive system. So layouts of retail space, front yards, and food storage are not seen as ephemeral but are linked to big issues of world view, consumption and social organization.
  • Everything is data. The furniture, how people decorate, what they throw away, what people say and what people don’t say, it is all data. There’s substance in every inch of someone’s home, in every movement, in every glance.
  • Useful ethnography is more than observing or conducting a good interview. It is much more than that, and it has to be  grounded in some knowledge of what to look at, what to observe, and what to record.  Just coming home with a stack of videotape about, say, how breakfast is done in a culture is not ethnography. Good ethnography lies in the analysis and the ability to work collaboratively with other researchers (qualitative and quantitative), marketers and business development teams to create new ways of solving problems and understanding your business.
  • Finally, ethnography is one link in a process.  It is not a panacea and should be used as part of a larger discovery and innovation process.  Work may begin with explorative ethnography, but ideas need to eventually be built, tested and quantified.

What this all means is that ethnography aims to tease out the whole story behind a product, activity or service. The benefit of ethnography’s holism is a multi-dimensional understanding of consumers that lends to genuine innovation. Having this holistic understanding ultimately helps reduce risk even as it sparks radical new ideas for design, marketing and business development.  And that leads to a better bottom line.

 

Function and Symbolism: Going Beyond the Obvious Message

To the credit of marketing, advertising, and research people the days of talking about the consumer as the sole focus of shopping activity are essentially gone. We recognize that the shopper and the consumer are not always the same. Indeed, it is often the case that they are not. The focus has shifted to the process that takes place between the first thought a consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item. While this is a reasonable approach to understanding the people who buy and use a company’s products, it still has one principle flaw. Namely, it focuses on individuals rather than systems of people and the behavioral and cultural drivers behind their actions. The distinction is subtle but important because it assumes the shopping experiences goes well beyond the product itself, which is largely functional, and considers the product (and brand) as a means of facilitating social interaction. In other words, it thinks about shopping as a means of establishing cultural norms, emotional bonds, and identity.

Shopping as a Function
Think of the shopping experience as a continuum of cultural patterns with the shopper moving along the line as influences shape their intent and behavior depending on context, consumer, and people of varying influence falling at different points along the line. The baseline goal may be as simple as getting groceries in the home with the consumers all adding to the shopping list. On the surface, it is a reasonably simple process to understand. We need food to survive and we need to make sure the food we buy reflects the realities of personal tastes within a household. This is the functional side of the shopper experience. First, shopping is viewed as a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a social unit for its survival (such as procurement of food). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function (caloric intake). So shopping is seen in terms of the contribution that the individual shopper makes to the functioning of the whole or the consuming group. Of course, this is part of what we have to market to, but it is only one part of the shopping equation,
The problem is that this approach is unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict. It is predicated on the idea that shopping is designed for or directed toward a final result. Shopping, it assumes, is rooted in an inherent purpose or final cause. Buying cookies is more than getting calories into your kids. In fact, it has precious little to do with the kids at all and it is at this point that the shopper begins to move to the other end of the shopping continuum.

Shopping as Part of Something Bigger
Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others. So, back to cookies. The mom buying cookies is rewarding her children, but in doing so she is expressing to herself and the world that she is a good mom, that she is loving, and that she understands her role as a parent.

As another example, imagine a husband who buys all organic vegetables for his vegan wife. He is expressing solidarity, support, recognition of her world view, etc. He may, however, slip a steak into the basket as a personal reward for having been a good husband which he expressed through accommodating her dietary needs. The fundamental question is not whether or not he responds to advertising describing the products, but what are the social and cultural mechanisms under the surface that shape why he makes his choices. What the shopper buys and the consumer shares are individual, rational choices. They are gifts that create an obligation to reciprocate in some way. Through the gift, the givers yield up part of themselves and imbue the product with a certain power that helps maintain the relationship. The gift is therefore not merely a product but also has cultural and social properties. In other words, the shopper and the consumer are doing much more with products than fulfilling the need for which the product was designed. The product becomes a tool for maintaining relationships.

This has implications for where and how we do fieldwork. For example, if we’re interested in, say, how teen and collegiate athletes think about and use sports drinks, we need to think about how teen and collegiate athletes drink in general. What do they do before a night of partying and how can those rituals be used in product development and marketing? How can “pre-gaming” be transitioned from the bar to the locker room?

What that means for a marketer is that when we design a shopping experience, we need to dig deeper than the product. We need to address the underlying social and cultural patterns in people’s lives.

So What?
All of this means that when we are develop a new means by which we target shoppers, we need to remember to speak to both ends of the continuum and remember that shopping is both a functional and a symbolic act. While the argument could be made that there are countless ways to categorize shopping and consumption, for ease of application shoppers and shopping break into two categories. On one end is the purely functional element and on the other is the structural/symbolic element. Shopping for nuts and bolts clearly falls on the functional end, but not necessarily the tools with which they are used. Understanding and talking to both ends of the continuum leads to a broader audience and that leads to increased sales and brand recognition. Which is, when all is said and done, the ultimate goal.

 

Adding Value to Social Media Monitoring: More Than A Word Search Game

It is difficult to get an accurate reading on how commonly a word is used in a given society. In fact, the task of measuring word frequency fully objectively is inherently impossible. The results will always be affected by the size of the corpus and the choice of the texts entered in it. On a global scale, where words take on subtle new meanings as they are appropriated into the semiotic structure of the actor and thereby changed, the problem becomes even more obvious.  Frequency means nothing without cultural context.

This is not to say that frequency isn’t important. It is important and revealing. Frequencies are only broadly indicative of cultural salience and they can only be used as one among many sources of information about a society’s cultural preoccupations. But measurements only tell part of the story. And when they are decontextualized or proscribed meanings based on the person developing the algorithm that assigns sentiment. They give a potentially false understanding. To be correctly interpreted, figures have to be considered in the context of an in-depth analysis of meanings.

If four thousand people call a product “shitty,” it is fair to say that four thousand people reacted negatively to it. But that measurement can’t tell us about the culture of those people – are they engineers addressing it from a technological angle? Are they Venezuelan students reacting to a larger political issue? We assume that a word can be easily categorized along a linear trajectory – negative/positive, etc. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Words can be studied as focal points around which cultural domains are organized. By exploring these focal points in depth, we may be able to show the general organization principles which lend structure and coherence to a cultural domain as a whole, and which often have an explanatory power extending across multiple domains.

The underlying principle lacking in current social media monitoring processes is allolexy. The term allolexy refers to the fact that the same element of meaning may be expressed in a language in two or more different ways. Just as one word can be associated with multiple meanings, one meaning can often have two or more different lexical exponents. For example, in English, I and me are allolexes of the same primitive concept (In Latin, Ego).  Often allolexes of a semantic primitive are in complimentary distribution. So in English, a combination of the semantic primitives someone and all is realized as everyone or everybody. In these particular contexts –one and –body can be seen as allolexes of someone; and –thing can be seen as an allolex of something. This notion of allolexy plays a particularly important role in social media monitoring because it allows us to build inflectional categories. For example, the forms  am doing, did, and will do used without temporal adjuncts convey different meanings, but when combined with the temporal adjuncts now, before now, and after now, as in the sentences below, they are in complementary distribution and can be seen as allolexes of the same primitive DO:

  1. I am doing it now.
  2. I did it before now.
  3. I will do it after now.

When we apply an approach derived from an allolexical perspective, we can start to determine where sentences or words “match,” semantically, across languages, even though inflectional categories can differ considerably from language to language. In other words, if a word is taken out the process of discourse, it loses meaning and is therefore subject to interpretation that lacks a way of accounting for either semantic variance or semantic stability – it is nothing short of a guess.

In a sense it is true that words have no “fixed” meanings because meanings of words change. But if they were always fluid and without any “true” content, they could not change either. Words do have identifiable, “true” meanings, the precise outlines of which can be established on an empirical basis by studying their range of use and articulating the contexts that subtly repurpose them. The key point is that social media monitoring today does not account for semantic deviation and language as fundamentally tied to speech and discourse. For companies that take the time and effort to do that, the financial rewards are tremendous.

Loyalty, Consumption and Religious Experience

Loyalty is the focal point of many, if not most, brands. Understandably, getting repeat customers who will also serve as advocates is a smart move in a world where, due to the ease of online transactions, volume simply isn’t enough. But is loyalty enough or should we strive for something more? Should we strive for developing a shopping experience or brand that is largely impervious to economic conditions and the small mistakes and hiccups that all brands have to deal with during their lifetimes, no matter how good they may be at avoiding missteps? Of course. The question is how. The answer lies not just in how we execute the experience, but in how we conceive of the shopping experience. Shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and relationships. Loyalty stems from the development of these relationships but loyalty, though a strong influence on the power of a brand, has limitations and is subject to cultural shifts, a weak economy, etc. The goal is to move shoppers and consumers to the level of the truly devoted. In other words, we need to think of shopping in the context of sacred devotion.

Devotion is an ardent, often selfless dedication to a person or belief, but it can be extended to a brand and retail setting. Loyalty, in this sense, goes from feelings of strong but limited dedication to a state that borders on the divine. Like religious experience, it might even begin to manifest elements of cosmology. From my point of view, this is a far more powerful position for a brand to be in, but it requires more work. And to those who would question whether or not it’s worth the effort I would point to the growth of Apple stock in the last five years and the near fanatical nature of its devotees.

Devotion in the religious sense means paying homage and this carries over to brands and retail in that the devotee-shopper ritualizes the experience and treats the brand and retail space with a higher degree of engagement and devotion. In this case the nature of devotion is consumerism and the forging of identity through shopping. There is a public expression of respect to someone or something to whom or to which one feels indebted, as through an honor, tribute or reference. In the case of a brand, the devotee makes “pilgrimages” to its retail outlets and uses both logo and products as badges to signal inclusion for fellow believers, to recruit new believers and to keep non-believers away. After all, the goal is not in bring the half-hearted into the fold, but to draw in those who will embrace brand with the same degree of devotion and come to see the retail space as a manifestation of identity. When a consumer/shopper transitions from loyalty to devotion justifications of function and costs are set aside because they lose meaning to the devoted. All that really matters is the object of the devotion and the losing of one’s sense of self in the shared experience.

But it is not as if the devotee doesn’t get something in return. The devotee gets something back – a sense of fulfillment, a sense of greater meaning, a sense of belonging to a “special” group of people, a sense of ownership in the belief system. This leads to a sense of love that goes beyond romanticism and takes on an element of duty and personal involvement – and devotion. Rational interest becomes an expression of love which is not just an externally-focused love, but one that is co-authored. It is not the love of eros (passionate love, or the love of sensual desire) but the love of agape, or the notion that love is based on adulation, which being transcendent is not based on appraisal but rather the totalizing of otherness. It is not love subject to reason or explanation and is therefore unqualified. The aim of this sort of love is the loss of self through the merging with the beloved other. It is a creative act.

Devotional space leads to long-term repeat behavior on the part of the shopper. Even if they don’t make a purchase every time, they come to see the retail environment as a place of worship and the brand as a focal point in their own sense of identity. This leads to two centrally important points. First, when they do make a purchase cost is of minimal issue, though they may say otherwise. New product releases will garner immediate attention and devotees will wait an almost unimaginable amount of time to buy the product in the retail space. It is not enough to buy it online or at another venue – communion with the retail space is a rite. Second, devotees will bring others with them or advocate wherever they can, going from advocates to apostles.

So how does a brand achieve this level of devotion? There are several key points that lead to transforming the retail space to devotional space, all of which work together. It is an all-or-nothing proposition, but the payoff is worth the effort.

1. The Products

While it may seem obvious, retailers often forget about the power their products have on deep, social and cultural levels. The products must be of good quality, but they needn’t be the pinnacle of the industry. Retailers tend to spend a great deal of time talking about features and not enough time talking to shoppers and consumers about what the products do for them in terms of creating an image, a feeling, or a sense of well-being. It can be extremely difficult for us to remember that our products may be the best in the world, but if we do not articulate how they fit into the daily lives of our consumers they lose their relevance.

2. The Environment

The retail space is an extension of the brand, not simply a place to display merchandise. This means that in addition to the consideration put into the initial design of the space, a retailer must think about the space as a destination, a place of pilgrimage. Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. Differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space are internalized by all people at an unconscious, usually shared level, and can lead to serious failures of communication. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. This also means that settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame. The surrounding stores and neighborhood need to be a reflection of or antithetical to your brand, the goal being to produce strong emotional responses. Products need to be displayed in such a way as to make them visually reverential (e.g. on a pedestal and under directed lighting). Touch needs to be elevated to tactile play and experimentation. Events must be incorporated into the retail space, allowing people to ritualize their visits and feel as if they are part of an ongoing, transformational experience. It isn’t enough to make the store look inviting and to reflect the brand standards of the company. The retail space needs to become a destination and take on a sense of “place.”

3. The Re-creation of Self

From an anthropological perspective, the individual is less of a coherent whole and more of a collection of various cultural identifiers. Culture, as a social practice, is not something that individuals possess. It is a process in which individuals participate. As such, culture is an important factor in shaping identity. In a retail setting this means that identity is developed as part of a shared system and that the retail space becomes a focal point around which people gather to find unity and shared understanding. As with religious communities, devotional space produces a heightened sense of belonging and a sense of being part of something “bigger” than the individual. Staff must appear to be part of the elect and use language and non-verbal communication to signal that the shopper has left the mundane world and has joined a special group, embodied in the retail setting. Architecturally, the gateway into the store must signal a transitional zone. Every element  of the entry process must let the shopper know that he or she is now part of something pure and experiential.

Increasingly, retailers are getting the point that loyalty stems from a more intricate retail experience. But it isn’t enough to cultivate simple loyalty. Understanding the retail experience as devotional space means thinking about the retail experience and the brand in general in a more holistic sense and thinking about how it can be used to cultivate a sense of shared identity among consumers. Again, shopping is a practice that has ritual structure and involves the creation of value and relationships. It is, or should be, a practice that goes beyond transaction to a sense of transcendence. Make your retail space a point of sacred devotion and you become inseparable from the lives of your consumers.