Context and the Changing Mobile Landscape

Marketers increasingly think about consumers in complex ways. It is understood that in a changing digital landscape, the context in which they learn and shop influences what messages we deliver and how we deliver them.  But we rarely define “context”. 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 when there are innumerable semi-autonomous devices mediating in a swirl of information.

Physical Context

Physical context refers to the notion of infusing devices with a sense of “place.”  In other words, devices can distinguish the environments in which they “live” and react to them. But this is difficult. Mapping out longitude and latitude is one thing, but reacting to features (political, natural, social, etc.) is much more problematic. Getting beyond the boundaries of identifiable borders and structures, means coming to grips with “place”.

Think of a mall.  There are hundreds of stores, each with hundreds of devices. The device now has to decode what information is relevant and how it will deliver information. What competing retailer apps get precedence over others? When you receive an offer, will the device “tell” other retailers in order to generate real-time counter offers? The digital landscape is continuous at all points throughout the day and getting design right means understanding the systems in which people operate.

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. This presents a series of problems that are different than those of physical context.

Technology is on the verge of existing in a world with zero-infrastructure networks that can spring up anywhere, anytime. Devices will exist in a constant state of discovery.  Returning to the mall, imagine that you are with a friend whose device is communicating with yours.  In the 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 one friend’s device communicating with the other friend’s device while blocking out the other 2000 devices, you still have several thousand potential “identities” that may have useful information.  How is it decided what to manage without devoting significant time to setting up the hundreds of variables?

Information Context

This is the realm of information architecture. Data no longer resides “in” our computers.  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.  This reflects a shift in how we use information because all information is transitory.

Storage issues are essentially removed from the equation.  Content can leap from place to place and device to device in an instant. Content will be customizable and reflect the human-application interaction rather than shaping it. Devices will find themselves in the fourth kind of context of social interaction, with all its contingencies. Just as behavior is shaped by the moment, so too will the apps and information needed to adapt.

Socio-Cultural Context

Each person is unique to contrasting cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a county, a continent, a hemisphere. Cultural context provides a framework for what “works” for each consumer in the world.

It is at this point where a better perspective is gained on what will and will not be accepted in the mobile universe. Take a beer pouring app that mimics the pouring of a beer when the device is tilted.  It serves no direct function and yet it has been successful because of the cultural needs it to which it speaks – workplace breaks, male-to-male bonding, etc. But in another context, say Saudi Arabia, the context shifts. Success lies in understanding the reasons behind the consumers beliefs and actions in the symbolic exchanges, and the ability to code and decode those exchanges.  Marketing mishaps come from a lack of comprehension.

So What?

Our great technological leaps forward have also produced more complexity, leading to a greater need to make sense of insights. Without a means to categorize context, marketers will miss identifying trends that matter most. What to do?

  • Rethink the problem. Frequently, “the problem” is a facet of something else. For example, when researching an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it is understanding why people read different material in different contexts. It may be about displaying books as a means of gaining status. The point is the problem seen may not be the problem at all.
  • Define the contexts. Defining the contexts helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if the consumer behavior is drinking beer, all contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed need to be articulated.
  • Think through the sample. Who is the marketing targeting? What are the social circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural systems.
  • Make a plan that involves experiential information gathering, not just statistics. Develop a guide to navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (everything is data). Don’t  just think about the questions to ask, but also include opportunities for observation and participation.
  • Head into the field. This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper meanings. Because everything is data, from attitudes to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.
  • Do the analysis. Analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. The goal is to bring a deep understanding of cultural behavior to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and gets to the underlying structures of why people do what they do.

The process is more time consuming than traditional approaches, but it ultimately yields greater insight and reduces time and costs on the back end. The end result is that you create greater value for the client and for the company.

Liminality and Shopping

You will not find the term “liminality” in many dictionaries. For instance, at last check it is not in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary does, however, have an entry for “liminal,” the adjectival form, which it lists as a rare usage: “Of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both liminal and liminality are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.  And it is this notion of a doorway, or passage from one space to another, and the consequences of doing so, that matters to consumption and shopping, because in a world where the procurement of goods is increasingly simple the act of transforming a person from one state of being to another is more and more important.  We no longer sell just goods, we sell something much more profound – or we hope to, at least.

As a brief refresher, it was not until the second half of the 20th century, that the terms “liminal” and “liminality” gained popularity through the writings of Victor Turner. Turner borrowed and expanded upon Van Gennep’s concept of liminality, ensuring widespread usage of the concept in anthropology.

In 1967, Turner noted that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’” (1967: 95). That is, the status of liminal individuals is socially and structurally ambiguous. From this he further developed the idea.  “Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (1967: 97).

Fundamentally, the idea is relatively simple.  When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. He then goes on to name this state of non-structure or anti-structure through such concepts as the “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. He chooses the Latin term “communitas” to express this idea of anti-structure, and refers to social structure and communitas as two major models for human interrelatedness.”

The first model is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of “more” or “less.” The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.

Yes, yes.  All very interesting, but what does it have to do with consumption and shopping?  Shopping is, at a functional level, about getting things we need – food, clothing, shelter, etc.  But if it were as simple as that we wouldn’t have specialty stores.  We wouldn’t spend hours rummaging around a bookstore when we could simply order the product online.  As the outlets for acquisition have expanded with the growth of broadband, the nature of shopping has changed.  It is as much about fulfilling social, cultural and psychological needs and desires as it is anything else, perhaps more so. Which means it is often a transformational act of a transitory nature that takes us from one state of being to another, if only for a short while. And it is at the gateway that we find the symbols that successfully transition of from one state to another.  Retailers who do this well (Abercrombe, Anthropologie, Swatch) become points of destination and alter the nature of interaction, both with the store and with fellow shoppers, at the point of entry into their space.  They set the stage where shopping becomes akin to a rite of passage.  It signals that we have entered a special place and while we’re there, we are not the same person we were on the street.

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a new sphere of reconfigurement of who and what we are is symbolized by the gateway and harkens back to the worldwide womb image of myth.  It is the hero entering the belly of the whale and emerging transformed, carrying special knowledge or objects that can only be found by going through the passage.  This is why the approaches to temples are flanked by guardian symbols – dragons, angles, sword-wielding demon slayers.  These are the threshold guardians used to ward off those incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into the temple undergoes a metamorphosis.  Similarly, in a cultural construct where shopping and consumption have taken on the role of defining personal meaning, the threshold at the store signals a metamorphosis into the stylistically elite.  Those entering the space understand that they are unlike those outside the space and have entered a place that is beyond the confines of the mundane, daily life.  And like the hero, once having crossed the threshold, the postmodern shopper moves into a dream landscape of often curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.  It is here that shopping becomes something bigger than consumption.  It is here that the trial, the hunt, the act of self-becoming takes place, turning shopping into an expression of self-worth and of profound worth to the tribe (the family, the peer group, etc.).

Thinking about a shopping space and the symbolic cues to which we respond at the outset of the shopping journey means taking a more subtle view of how we promote our wares. Rather than screaming “low, low prices,” it means thinking about shopping and spatial design as promoting a change in the people to whom we would sell.  And it means putting as much though into the store front as it does the size of type on an end cap.  It means thinking of both the entry and the space as transitional, transformational structures that compel the shopper to alter his or her sense of being.  And this is where loyalty comes from.  Just as most people do not hop from on hose of worship every week, let alone from faith to faith, so too should they feel compelled to return to your space again and again.

Liminality is almost always a temporary phenomenon. That is not to say that the temporal nature of liminality should be one of its defining characteristics. Rather, human nature being the way it is means that liminality cannot be permanent. Either we are absorbed into the social structure or we shun it all together—we cannot remain betwixt and between.  But liminality can be something that draws people back to a retailer time and again.  It turns shopping beyond the ordinary and signals that your space is beyond the daily grind.  It signals a place of rebirth.

As Halloween Approaches (Even in September)

Halloween is more than two months away, but already I’ve seen products and displays going up in a few places. For better or worse, the holidays creep further and further out from their actual date as retailers see opportunities to sell their goods. And to add to the impending spookiness that awaits us, I spent part of my Friday night watching a scary movie with my children, fully aware that it would necessitate cramming four people into a single bed, somewhere around midnight – I was, of course, proven right.  All of this has me reflecting on the socio-cultural significances of Halloween as a reflection of cultural transformation, even if it is a single night. Yes, even the simplest things start the mind wandering.

A few years back, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Delaware County Campus, noted that parents need to realize that scaring our kids isn’t necessarily a way to mitigate kids’ fears of death and other things frightening.  Rightfully, she contended that Halloween is a time when we expose kids to behavior that is not the norm and that children connect the holiday with death.  The argument goes that we, regardless of who “We” are, typically distance ourselves from death and shield children from it, but in this case, young children encounter their fears when they face decorations of skeletons and tombstones. This can be scarring. This, of course, is bad.  Or is it?  Is it even accurate?

First, we expose our children to death regularly.  What we shield our kids from is pollution associated with decay.  In the case of Halloween, we are presenting our children with a sanitized, safe form of death that has none of the associations with contamination.  Second, children are exposed to death when they play video games, tune in to the TV or deal with the loss of a grandparent.  We may try to lessen the pain or deflect the underlying causality, but death itself is indeed part of a child’s upbringing, though it may not be as overt as it is at Halloween.  I will concede that we expose our children to death less than we perhaps did in the past, when people worked the farm together and were accustomed to things like slaughter, but to assume children are shielded from death is fantasy. We’ve simply changed the medium.

And should we even be shielding kids in the first place?  We often work under the assumption that it is somehow our duty as parents to protect children from any and all discomfort, but there is nothing out there to prove that doing so benefits the child. Fear teaches, particularly when it is safe.  Discomfort teaches, particularly when it isn’t overwhelming.  Children are, I would contend, smarter than we often think.  To assume they can’t make the leap between the literal and the symbolic is a bit obtuse.  While Halloween teaches children about death, it also teaches them about the nature of symbolism, rules of reciprocity, a sense of self-reliance, creativity and a host of other positive elements of personhood.

As my oldest daughter walked from house to house last Halloween with her friend from Egypt, getting treats from homes comprised of people from a wide range of nations (our neighborhood happens to have large south Asian and Middle Eastern populations) it struck me how important this holiday is, because it is so public and because it is wrapped up in a universal need to deflect the fear of death.  It is a holiday that encourages parents and kids of other cultures to join in the fun and feel like they are welcome and integral parts of the adopted culture.  It exposes the children and parents of the adoptive culture to people and worldviews they may not have otherwise interacted with.  The experience can be thought of as enculturation, the process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquiring values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.  This has often been conceived to be a unidimensional, zero-sum cultural conflict in which the minority’s culture is diminished by the dominant group’s culture, but it’s not that simple.  There is an exchange of sorts going on. There are a couple of ways a person learns a culture. Direct teaching of a culture is what happens when you don’t pay attention, mostly by the parents, when a person is told to do something because it is right and to not do something because it is bad. For example, when children ask for something, they are constantly asked “What do you say?” and the child is expected to remember to say “please.” A second conscious way a person learns a culture is to watch others around them and to emulate their behavior. But in doing so, they often alter elements of it and reshape the culture – culture isn’t fixed, after all, it is a matter of practice, negation and shared invention.

What this means is that Halloween becomes a way of learning and exchanging.  Day of the Dead decorations find new uses, costumes come to reflect the sensibilities of the minority population and new ways of defining and interacting with the world emerge.  And there are very real, very meaningful results.  Businesses alter their merchandise, retailers decorate differently and new modes of shopping arise.  People develop new interests and curiosity about their world.  So, yes, Halloween may indeed scare the children, but the benefits of being scared outweigh a night of belly aches and spooky dreams.

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.

Of Industrial Landscapes and Natural Space

Over the years the world of marketing and branding has come a long way in understanding how color and images combine to shape the brand experience, and the importance of considering these points when dealing with an array of cultural norms and expectations.  We know red is an auspicious color in China, but is often interpreted as being too aggressive and agitating in the US.  We know that choosing symbolically discordant images and colors can have a strong impact on the viewers psyche.

What hasn’t been touched on with the same degree of interest is Proxemics, the understanding that how the use of space, either literally or in visual representations, can have a dramatic effect on the person experiencing the brand.  It isn’t enough to understand the impact of lighting on cognitive processes of the brain, nor is it enough to understand what messages certain colors convey in different parts of the world.  To truly build a lasting brand presence, we need to understand how the consumers to whom we are marketing distinguish a “place” from a “space,” and what meanings they invest in a physical setting.

Proxemics is the understanding of space in the holistic sense, as well as the cultural association we place upon space.  It is the study of how an environment, at the interactive and interpretive level, is bestowed with meaning by people in daily life.  The term “Proxemics” was coined in the 1950s by Edward Hall to address the study of our conceptualization and use of space, as well as how various differences impact our experiences within a given area.  In other words, Proxemics is the study of place and space from the cultural vantage point.

Proxemics, in its simplest understanding, is broken into two wide areas.  The first is physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom or why front yards in America rarely have a privacy fence.  The second broad area is that of personal territory, the space we carry with us.  It is the space we keep between ourselves and the person with whom we are speaking. In both cases, having a solid understanding of how these dimensions manifest in our modes of communication is pivotal to a successful branding effort. But first, what are we talking about when we say Proxemics as it relates to a brand?

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. This means that 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 in cross-cultural settings. At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how streets, neighborhoods, groceries, retail settings, and essentially 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.  For example, the living room archetype has specific elements of light, furniture and furniture placement, color, and wall decoration that signal the space is a living room.  These spatial cues are very different from what we expect in a archetypal board room setting. When used in a retail or business environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “supposed to” be.  In some cases these spaces can typify and inflate the cultural frame, in others they are in some way disruptive.

The Apple Store exemplifies a positive and memorable experience by stripping away elements of a tech-centric environment and replacing them with features associated with a non-technology focused world.  Open space is used liberally and allows patrons to scan the store with few obstructions.  Computers are displayed on countertops, not shelves, along the outer walls.  Tables fill the central space.  Only accessory items are stacked, which allows the eye to easily scan the interior of the store. Warm, natural colors are used rather than loud or cold materials, making the store more inviting.

When all these pieces are put together, the environment signals both a sense of inclusion and exploration reminiscent of the natural landscape. This is lacking in most computer stores. Everything comes together in the physical space to create a distinct personality that is mirrored in every other aspect of the Apple brand, from the website to TV ads. The reasons are a combination of biological and cultural principles.  The eye follows basic evolutionary principals of horizontally scanning the horizon to gather information about the environment.  Rather than focusing on vertical scanning, as in done in most computer and consumer electronics stores, horizontal scanning also promotes eye contact and person-to-person interaction instead of interaction exclusively with the products.  Stools are available at display stations and invite patrons to sit as one would at home, rather than stand. The cultural signal is that we are in a home rather than a store.  Products are de-commoditized and given a warmth that is normally lacking in the cultural understanding of technology.

Contrast this with the layout of most computer/PC stores where items are stacked on shelves, the materials used in displays are sterile and cold, and the focus of the experience is on the technology, rather than how technology fits seamlessly into a consumer’s life.

Personal Space

Moving beyond public space, another important aspect of Proxemics, and one a business frequently has less control over, is the use of culturally constructed personal space. Briefly outlined are the four areas that Americans intuitively respect and use to define personal territory:

  1. Public Space ranges from about 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker giving an address.
  2. Social Space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, strangers using public areas (such as in a retail setting).
  3. Personal Space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines. Not surprisingly, this is also the distance assumed in certain retail setting where a greater degree of intimacy is to be conveyed (e.g. a lingerie store).
  4. Intimate Space ranges out to one foot and involves the possibility of (and sometimes probability of) touching. This is reserved for people with whom we are very close or for secretive actions such as whispering.

Personal Space varies dramatically along cultural lines and can have an enormous impact on how a brand is received.  As an example, when visiting Dubai, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to intimate space in the US.  You would probably find yourself unconsciously reacting by backing away trying to regain what you view as appropriate social space while your associate unknowingly pursues you across the floor trying to maintain what is the norm for him. The result is that you assign negative meaning to that behavior, considering it rude or odd. Now, imagine this happening in a retail setting, a car dealership, or greeting card store. The result is a negative or awkward experience for the consumer, though they may have difficulty defining what feels wrong.  By extension, the consumer then transfers the sensation of discomfort to the brand as a whole. This has obvious implications for the retailer, but what about the products a retailer sells? For these companies, the challenge becomes how to maximize response and design for different environments and cultural contexts while balancing the costs of producing multiple package designs, merchandising displays or in-store advertising collateral.

How personal space is used in messaging and advertising is equally important.  While you are viewing an ad, rather than participating in an experience firsthand, you still register what is and is not “normal” for those pictured in an ad.  So, for example, beer ads frequently make a point of significantly reducing personal space between men and women, while increasing the distance between men.  The subconscious registry is one of increased intimacy and sexual cues.  However, when these ads are run in parts of the world where sexual norms and rules around inter-gender behavior are different, these images signal improper use of space.

From Space to Place

What all of this means, is that cultural differences in how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.

Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is incredibly important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

Ultimately, Proxemics can be a remarkably powerful tool in determining how a brand will manifest itself and be assigned meaning in a range of environments.

I Am Robot: Mobile Technology and the Sales Rep

Mobile has become an integral part of the shopping experience. There are even some opinion pieces that propose retail “reps” as we know them will soon become obsolete, as information (often more accurate than that provided by the rep) is more quickly gathered by use of smart phones. The rep, in theory, is headed for extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Back in the 50s people contended that waiters would vanish with the advent of automats. By 2000 we would have flying cars and robots would do all our household chores. I clearly remember being told in 1999 (just prior to the bubble bursting) that within five years cable TV would vanish, there would be no more cash and the hotels would no longer require interacting with a human being at the point of checkin. Clearly these things didn’t happen, at least not as they were foretold.

Mobile technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals of communication, but it has made the process more complex just as writing did when it was introduced several thousand years ago (I have to wonder if there were Sumerians saying that the new-fangled technology of writing would kill speaking).  Sales folks are simply going to evolve into something new and mobile technology is going to be a tool, not a replacement. The challenge is developing mobile technology that is sensitive to the context of both employee and shopper.

Most of what research are finding is that mobile isn’t making retail interactions less important because we still prefer face-to-face interactions, but it is allowing us to be more selective. When the daily conversation is positive or intimate, we want face-to-face communication. But when the conversation is negative, we increasingly struggle with face-to-face interactions in part due to the ease with which the web has made it to avoid direct conflict. Similarly, in the retail environment, where the process is increasingly less transactional and more experiential, mobile is a tool that can facilitate or stop interaction. Long story short:

  • People want face-to-face interactions when it generates intimacy
  • Texting tools and apps are training us not to be able to deal with conflict in a face-to-face encounter
  • People use their devices to avoid interaction with strangers or to signal that they want to be left alone by their intimates
  • Think about how mobile can integrate with a shopping context, not replace it

While mobile technology definitely affects the interaction, it is a question of integration rather than replacement.  Retail shopping has become as much about the experience than the stuff being sold — the store is a media channel. That means reps will still be there but their roles will increasingly develop into mediators of a storyline than people simply pushing products. Think of the emphasis Southwest Airlines has put on personality as the top of the criteria for flight attendants. The interaction on the retail stage is about fulfilling the need for validation on the part of the shopper.

Shopping and Interpreting Space

Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. The physical construct envisioned by the architect, the interior designer, the store owner, etc. are all varied to some degree based on how they understand and respond to vague notions like “shopping.”  Add to that the varied, contextually mitigated understandings of the consumer about an activity and space, and designing the elements that are meant to fit into a space becomes highly contentious.  Frequently, retailers and CPG companies build around assumptions that rarely factor in the complex underpinnings of why people shop in a broader cultural context. The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy.  And that leads to lackluster sales.

While there are a host of theories and design doctrines that go into constructing a retail environment, methods for retail space design have largely cantered around atmospherics for the last 30 years. Basically, the model states that pleasant environments result in an approach response,  and unpleasant environments result in avoidance. Simply put, if the environment is pleasant it increases arousal and can lead to a stronger positive consumer response. If the environment is unpleasant, increasing arousal level will produce avoidance. The arousal quality of an environment is dependent on its “information load,” i.e., its degree of  Novelty (unexpected, surprising, new, familiar) and Complexity (number of elements, extent of motion or change).  People seek out novel experiences, but novelty becomes a burden and a threat if there is too much happening for the brain to process. Humans want to explore and be entertained, but not to the point of confusion.

The problem is that while the parameters of avoidance and approach, novelty and complexity, hold true at the cognitive and biological levels, they can’t compensate for cultural motivations. They are simply too simple. A contextual model expands on these principles and asks what cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids?  Are they seeking escape from a busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? The point is that brands and shopping serve a wide range or roles.  More so in an era of increasing internet shopping, increased expendable income and access to goods.  The retail space is more complex than cognition and biological responses to stimuli.

Indeed, cultural norms often dictate our notions of comfort and self-worth, as do the various shopping contexts in which we find ourselves. The good news is that the contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable brand identity. The key is understanding how the product, the retail space and conceptions of self and other work together as a system of meaning. Shopping begins long before the need to purchase an item arises and you get at a deeper understanding of what matters, in context, by exploring the deeper meanings behind the objects and the activities.  Once you understand that selling toilet paper is about concepts of hygiene and purity, that selling heartworm medication is about our deeper fears of pollution and impurity, or that shopping for clothing is frequently about sex, your range of options increase.

What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, shapes on how a promotion, a marketing message or a brand is perceived. Promotions in high-tragic, high-messaging location, for example, are easily passed over unless the offering has a very clear purpose – it can’t simply be clever. As another example, a high-end grocery isn’t just selling food.  For a husband trying to prepare an anniversary dinner for his wife, the store is selling self-assurance, facilitating love and helping lay the groundwork for a pleasant memory.  That means, potentially, decreasing efficiencies and helping navigate the shopper to areas of the store he may not have considered.

 

 

Trucks, Women and Unexpected Markets

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture.  Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, decorative additions are often made to trucks and these additions don’t always follow utilitarian functions.  Indeed, many truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston and it become quickly clear that the truck is as much a fashion statement as it is a tool.  Perhaps more so.  Rather, pickups help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity and femininity, and associations with class structure.  However, trucks don’t always present a seamless image, nor are the images always interpreted monolithically by those who own and decorate pickup trucks. There are a range of meanings associated with trucks and subcultures within the larger cultural framework.  But what is most important to this discussion is that trucks are far more than they seem.

Truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

As an example, when I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of them owned a truck as a function of her occupation.  Some used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Some used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway.  Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives.  The point is that the truck became a symbol, an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers and designers. The truck is a fashion piece. It is a mobile living room.  It is a toy.  It is many things, and those things become apparent from doing deep fieldwork, not through surveys and interviews.  And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc.  Regardless of your product or service, understanding people on a deeper level gives you a significant advantage over your competitors. That means getting out there and doing the kind of rich, immersive research that uncovers real insights, not just the low-hanging fruit.

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.

It’s Not Just the Products

Shopping habits can be observed in multiple ways: how people react during social interaction, how they present and see themselves, and how they define situations with others. In other words, people need emotional connections to what you sell and how you sell it as much as they need to know about the products in your store. They need to feel a sense of increased social and psychic capital when they enter your store and when they leave it. Apple, after all, sells computers just like everyone else, but they have successfully bridged the gap between customer emotion and product knowledge. Steve Jobs challenged Apple with “changing the world” rather than simply fulfilling a function. It’s hard to deny that Apple has changed the world of how people see computers, tablets and MP3 players, and Apple’s growing market share is a testament to the strategy.

In terms of marketing materials and communication with your customers, creating an emotional connection does not mean using clichés and gimmicky messaging. It means conveying the things your products enable. By the time many customers actually consider locating a retailer, they have spent significant time researching specs, consumer reviews and feature lists. Therefore, it’s important to interact with your customers and ask key questions accordingly – giving them the information they need based on what they already know about the product. Marketing materials that convey how a product or service will fit into their daily lives in a realistic way are far more likely to capture their attention than price listings and technical information.

Keep in mind when creating ads and promotional materials:

  • Incorporate references to how non-tech-savvy people might actually use the phone.
  • Explain benefits in a realistic way.
  • In addition to listing performance and feature information, list at least one direct connection between these things and an activity a consumer might engage in.