Bricks, Clicks and the “New” Retail Paradigm

Since the emergence of internet shopping, companies have tended to structure their way of thinking about shopping channels in silos that reflect their operations. Shopping behavior is segmented according to the channel and the shopper is relegated to a specific trajectory. Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc.  Shopping is seen first as a function and secondarily as something that serves emotional and social needs. Even as we talk about retail therapy, we revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior.  But it isn’t so simple anymore. Unfortunately, with the ubiquity of internet access, be it from a fixed location or via a mobile device, the truth is those lines between the off-line and online experience have become so blurred as to be meaningless.  Rather than individual silos, shopping processes function as part of a complex, adaptive system that is increasingly driven by social interaction and socio-cultural needs, not transactional needs.

If a company is to grow its brand (and thereby its bottom line), it is wise to think about how this system emerges and understand how the act of shopping has fundamentally changed at a deep cultural level. What this means for shopper marketing is that the best retail experiences, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales, are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative.

Bricks

Fifty years ago, the retail space was the only real way to interact with customers.  Yes, there was the option of the catalog, but it was, and is, a one-way conversation.  The retail space was more of a transactional space and advertising was simply a list, though cleverly done, of the goods available.  As shopping has become more convenient and the transactional element has been driven into new realms, and the retail spaces and brands that everyone admires have begun to touch shoppers on a more visceral level.

Shopping is about more than getting more stuff.  Brick and mortar shopping as it is practiced today in particular jumps the line between a functional/transactional and social/symbolic experience. Shopping is as much about entertainment, establishing cultural roles and teaching cultural norms (or rebelling against them) as it is about anything else. Often, the decision to enter into one retail space over another is about experiential elements more than it is price or convenience. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate.

Clicks

Digital shopping (online or with a mobile device) is highly personal, portable and an increasingly participatory experience. When it first began, the online shopping experience was largely fixed in one location and the interactions, primarily transactional in nature, were almost exclusively between an individual and what a company chose to present to them.  But this process was quickly modified as people began posting product reviews, blogging about their experiences, etc. Even so, the process of investigating a company was largely between an individual and either an institution or an abstract person in an unknown location.  And then social media was born changing the nature of the web and the shopping landscape forever. The highly individual, highly transactional nature of the online shopping experience became subject to the same social and cultural drivers as the brick and mortar experience.

Shopping ahs become as much about structuring peer groups as the transaction. The shopping and the purchase itself represent the groups we interact with and our places/roles in them. Because social media tools help us craft public identity, so do our purchase choices. With the increased use of mobile devices online shopping, and hence social media interaction at the point of shopping, has moved from the individual sitting at his or her kitchen table to a very public dialog. Peer group members (no, Ginger, we didn’t say “demographic” or “segment”) interact with each other and the retail environment simultaneously, creating a shopping experience that can draw literally thousands of people into the conversation from the point of consideration to the point of purchase.

Blenders

Retailers can blend the physical and social experience of brick and mortar shopping with the participatory (read: social network) experience of digital shopping to achieve a greater percent of brand loyalists (which currently and historically sits at 5%) and higher multi-channel revenue streams.

The first step is to examine in a bit more detail why people participate in digital shopping and what it means for the retail experience in its totality.

  • Social network: When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and being an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs. It doesn’t matter if the shopping is in a physical location, in virtual space or a blending of the two.  Shopping has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Retail spaces and social media spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the brand lead to a greater sense of belonging and reinforce the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. For example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store (returning to our bra example) increases the sense of romanticism and allows people to “play” to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking. Add to this the ability to share that experience with others and it becomes more real, more meaningful.  That in turn builds both interest and loyalty amongst your shoppers.
  • Entertainment and gaming: The store is indicative of a stage, a field on which we play games.  The same is true in social media.  People assume roles which they use to create a game-like environment, one-upping others and competing for cultural, psychic and monetary capital. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space and the social media environment should still conform to some very basic principles.  Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological triggers of enjoyment and participation. People create memories within places if storylines develop and form personal connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to buy. A good brand needs to be create a shared identity, connecting the company and the shopper by developing clear imagery and displays that create the sense that there is a narrative behind the façade.
  • Rewards as social influence: Rewards and bonuses are about more than getting goods for cheap.  The underlying motivations are largely drawn from the need to attain a sense of mastery that isn’t too far removed from the pleasure our ancestors derived from the hunt.  Not only do you get the good deal, but your sense of self worth and accomplishment is inflated.  Going beyond the need for mastery is the pride derived from demonstrating to the world that you are skilled.  You gain influence and cultural capital.  Add to the mix the element of social media, mobile social media more precisely, and the validation you receive is immediate and more expansive. The entire world shares in your success and you gain a degree of prestige that is tied to the exact moment of shopping, not as an afterthought. The result is that the brand, the store and the online presence become an integrated experience that is far more powerful for the shopper.

The trick for retailers is determining the proper mix of each of these elements to create the ideal shopping experiences for their brand. In the end, retail shopping is becoming more complex. With the increased use of online shopping and the ease of access to a more and more locations, people are making choices based on underlying desires, not just functional needs. Anything a retailer can do to improve the experience is a key differentiator. Differentiate your store and you increase loyalty and sales.

From Personas to Stories: Creating Better Tools for Design and Marketing

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct meaning of their lives are contextually mitigated, highly variable and culturally specific. on the central premise of ethnography is that it assumes that we must first discover what people actually do and why they do it before we can assign to their actions and behaviors to design changes or innovation. The ultimate goal is to uncover pertinent insights about a population’s experience and translate their actions, goals, worldview and perspectives as they directly relate to a brand, object or activity, and the role that these pieces play with regards to interactions with their environment. Often, the information results in a large-scale, broad document, but it also often results in the development of personas.

The idea is that personas bring customer research to life and make it actionable, ensuring the right decisions are made by a design or marketing team based on the right information. The approach to persona development typically draws from both quantitative and qualitative tools and methodologies, but because of the very personal nature of ethnography, the methodology often leads the charge. The use of ethnographic research helps the creation of a number of archetype (fictions, in the most positive sense) that can be used to develop products that deliver positive user experiences. They personalize the information and allow designers and marketers to think about creating around specific individuals.

But there are problems with personas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe personas can be useful and help design teams. But I also believe they can reduce the human condition to a series of attributes and lose the spirit of what personas are designed to do. First, in terms of scientific logic, because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customers and therefore cannot be considered scientific. So much for the science.

For practical implementation, personas often distance a team from engagement with real users and their needs by reducing them to a series of parts. The personas, then, do the opposite of what they are intended to, forcing design teams down a path that gives the illusion of user-centricity while actually reflecting the interpretations or the individual designers. Creating hypothetical users with real names, stories and personalities may seem unserious and whimsical to some teams within an organization and be, consequently, dismissed as so much fluff. But by far, the biggest problem, at least to my way of seeing things, is that while we want to use personas to humanize potential customers and users, we in fact reduce them to objects and a laundry list of actions, personality quirks and minimalist descriptions.

I’m not advocating the dismissal of personas, but I am suggesting that perhaps there are alternatives. One place to start is to admit we are writing fiction when we construct these tools and expand upon that notion. We should be adding to the mix humanistic narratives. Customer novellas, so to speak. It requires more time and effort, both on the part of the person/people creating them as well as those using them, but it also gives greater depth and insight into the needs, beliefs and practices of the people for whom we design and to whom we market. Rather than relying exclusively on a dry report or a poster with a list of attributes.  In this model, the idea is to create a short story in which actors (the eventual personas) engage with each other, a wider range of people, and a range of contexts. Doing so allows us to see interactions and situations that lead to greater insights. It allows us to look at symbolic and functional relationships and tease out elements that get at the heart of the fictional characters we create.

Why is that important? Because it does precisely what personas are meant to do but typically fail at – provide depth and characterization, establish a sense of personal connection between designers and users and provide breakthrough insight and inspiration. Anyone who has read history vs. historical novels is familiar with the idea. It is easy to reduce Julius Caesar to a series of exploits and personality traits, but in doing so we lose the feel for who the man was. A historical novel, in contrast, adds flavor by injecting conversation, feelings, motivations and interactions. We walk away with a feeling for who he was and what affect he had on others, good and bad.

Imagine developing a persona for Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. We could say the following and attribute it to all Hobbits: Frodo is enamored by adventure but frightened by it. He loves mushrooms, has no wife, is extremely loyal to his friends and will work at any task he is given until it is done, regardless of the difficulty or potential for personal harm. He disdains shoes and has a love of waist coats.

There’s nothing wrong with this description, but for anyone who had read the trilogy or even seen the movies, the shortcomings are obvious. We miss the bulk of Frodo’s personality. In exploring the novel, we come to develop a rich understanding of Frodo, a deep understanding of his motivations and personality and his relationship with other members of the party, including the Ring.

For the literalists out there, I am not suggesting we create anything as vast as a novel, particularly one as expansive as The Lord of the Rings, but I am suggesting that we move beyond attributes and create stories that more fully develop the people behind the personas. Several pages of engaging writing is sufficient. Not only does it provide deeper insights, but it engages the reader more fully, inspiring them to go beyond the “data” and explore a wider array of design, brand and marketing options. Again, it isn’t meant to replace personas (or the research report), but to add to it. It requires more effort and time on the part of the person creating it as well as the person consuming it, something people are often disinclined to do, but the end result is better design, greater innovation and a more complete vision of what could be.

Poetry, Semiotics and Brand Building

Though the custom of memorizing poetry in public school is largely long gone, I was part of perhaps a last generation to have to go through the process.  And I will no doubt remember the following lines until my last breath:

‘TWAS a death-bed summons, and forth I went

By the way of the Western Wall, so drear

On that winter night, and sought a gate–

The home, by Fate,

Of one I had long held dear.

At the time, I failed to realize the significance of poetry, but with age comes some degree of wisdom and I have come to the conclusion that what we do today, be it as a researcher, a copy writer or a designer, can indeed learn a great deal from poetry. It is, sadly, a forgotten but powerful medium. A poem does not convey a message is the same way as prose, it does not signify in the same manner. When poetry is consumed, so to speak, words are judged in relation to things, and the text is judged in comparison to reality. A poem establishes a system of significance, generated by processes such as accumulation and the use of descriptive systems.

Prose is generally interpreted along a vertical axis, known as the paradigmatic axis or the axis of selection. On this axis, we look for the meaning of the text based on selected referents and terms, following the metaphors and metonymies, or by trying to attribute a coherent meaning to the passages. The message is typically fairly straight forward and the associations with other words clear. But unlike prose, in the semantics of the poem the axis of significations is horizontal. The poem doesn’t attempt to refer to reality, but to establish a coherent system of significance. As such, a poetic text must be interpreted and analyzed in terms of the relationships that develop amongst the words along the horizontal axis (the syntagmatic axis or the axis of combination).

There are four structures that make up the horizontal axis of significations:

  • Linguistic
  • Stylistic
  • Thematic
  • Lexical.

This structure  involves similarities in form and position among certain words in the text, similarities that are rationalized and interpreted in terms of meaning. Each word is made up of one or more semes (minimal units of meaning, or semantic features). For example, the word “monster” contains the semes: living being, big, ugly, frightening, inhuman, etc. These are the semes in the poem that are used in the process of accumulation.

This process occurs when the reader encounters a series of words that are related through an element of meaning that links them together, that is, a shared seme. As the reader progresses, accumulation filters through the semantic features of its words, thereby overdetermining the occurrence of the most widely represented seme and cancelling out the semes that appear less frequently.  For example, if we encounter the words “rose”, “tulip” and “sunflower”, then we might think that the shared seme is /flower/; if to this list we add the words “grandiose”, “woman” and “art”, then the overdetermined seme will be /beauty/. In this way, the semes take the place of the words, and by substituting in this manner, the reader will come within reach of the poem’s significance.

In other words, a descriptive system that emerges in poetry is a group of words, expressions and ideas that are used in the text to designate the parts of the whole that the author wants to represent.

The system is usually a set of stereotypes and conventional ideas about the word with which it is associated; this is how the reader realizes, when we make mention of nothing more than dancing, for example, that we are talking about an youth.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because at the heart of any brand or design lies the poetic expression of what we want the brand to mean. Whether we are crafting a series of words in an add campaign or developing a stylistic “language” for a group of objects to be associated with the brand, we are attempting to develop a system of meaning that overdetermines and allows the customer to interpret a range of finite meanings at a glance. The Nike swoosh, the phrase “Ram Tough”, the “story” conveyed in a billboard for Schlitz, they are all extensions of poetic discourse. And like the poem from Thomas Hardy that I learned so long ago, a poem lasts, tying meaning to the things the things we value in our lives, including brands.

Co-Creation and Managing What Matters

Co-creation has become a central theme for brands and innovators over the last decade, and rightfully so. The idea of collaboration in a postmodern world where information and opinions reach millions in the blink of an eye is a necessity. But what do we mean when we talk about co-creation and is it the panacea it’s made out to be?

Co-creation views products, brands and markets as forums for companies and customers to share, combine and renew each other’s resources and capabilities.  This creates value through new forms of interaction, service and learning mechanisms. In other words, it ideally establishes a dialog between all actors involved in the company’s offerings.  Co-creation is about collaboration. It’s about working together to solve problems, uniting a range of perspectives and approaches to an issue. Very often this collaboration involves consumers working directly with professionals from inside and outside a client organization, to define and create a range of outputs, from strategy to communications, from products to experiences.

Value is co-created with customers if and when a customer is able to personalize his or her experience using a firm’s brand promise and product/service proposition to a level that is best suited to get his or her tasks done or need fulfilled. This, in turn, allows the company to derive greater value from its product-service investment in the form of new knowledge, higher profitability and/or increased brand loyalty.  The interaction established through co-creation produces a sort of community where the company and the user/buyer engage in an ongoing, continuously evolving relationship, defined by and defining a shared set of actions and beliefs.

A key element in all of this is the notion of personalization on the part of the customer.  But what does personalization mean? Personalization is about the customer becoming a co-creator of the content of their experiences.  This doesn’t mean providing products and content that can then be tweaked to meet their needs, because that is still largely a passive process – the company makes it, the consumer buys it and then reconstructs it in something of a vacuum. There is no feedback loop.  In a true co-creation model, customers and actors inside the company are taking active roles in developing and sharing new ideas. Competencies of the consumer and stakeholders within the company come to interact and harness a range of ideas, functional and symbolic.

This is done along four axes: engage in dialogue with customers, mobilize communities, manage customer diversity and co-create experiences with customers. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage customers for a shared creative experience, going beyond insights and creating a constant interaction that produces brand experiences and better products and services. The increase in the number of collaborators and the numerous interactions among them, across each stage of development, leads to products and services that better meet customer needs.  We see a greater diversity of individuals, functions across organizations and stakeholders across the product/service/brand ecosystem getting involved.

While I am a proponent of co-creation, there are problems with a co-creative model. A customer who believes he or she has the expertise and chooses to co-produce may be more likely to make self-attributions for success and failure than a customer who lacks the expertise. A customer who lacks the expertise but feels forced to co-produce may make more negative attributions about co-production. The dialog can backfire.

The second pitfall is that co-creation assumes customers can readily articulate what they want and need. Customers take on roles, which means what they tell the stakeholders inside the organization may not reflect anything more than a whim. Think of cars with 17 cup holders and fins a mile high. What we can articulate is often a manifestation of something else, something we can’t articulate well, which may lead to creating the absurd. Rather than taking suggestions at face value, ideas need to be analyzed through the lens of detachment and we need to tease out meaning and innovation from the unsaid as well as the said.

Finally, co-creation often assumes a fixed identity for the customer, meaning that the person with whom we’re working and the person for whom we’re building changes according to context. If the co-creating customer is in the role of “mom” in one instance, she may be in the role of “artist” later in the day. The dramaturgical shift in identity will shape what he or she says and does as it relates to a brand, product or service at any given point in time. So even though the idea is well developed and well thought out in the co-creation process, whether that be an ideation session or an online forum, it may have little relevance once that stage is abandoned and the customer moves on with the rest of his or her day.

Co-creation can help break the yo-yo effect of research and development, where clients go back and forward between creative agencies, research agencies and their audience. By working with your consumers, rather than directing stuff at them, companies get a real sense of what works and what doesn’t as the ideation takes place. But it is not without risk. As co-creation becomes a mainstay at companies, we will need to figure out how to keep a diverse set of participants engaged, how to share the risks and value of innovation, how to manage the complexity of the system without laying out too many constraints. We will need to learn how to tease out what is actually needed and what are simply flights of fancy. We will need to learn to balance the said and the unsaid. But in the end, the payoffs can and will be tremendous.