kind of epic.
kind of epic.
First off, I’m really excited about the next generation – Generation Z. There’s so much talk about Millennials that I think Generation Z has escaped the public eye.. for now. They’re incredibly smart, self-aware and are really lucky to be growing up in the time that they are.
Really? Now.. during a recession, political unrest, unstable times? Etc. Well.. it’s hard for me to personally relate to various generational theories as someone born smack in between Gen X and Gen Y. But I will say that growing up in the 80’s, high school in the 90’s and entering the work force post dot.com crash meant that the world had great promise. I was fortunate to have missed out on having massive college debt.. but there was still this undertone that us Millennials – or my in-between peers had great promise. That we were going to save the world. Not just be ordinary – but be extraordinary. Beat the system. Excel. Except that other than having Facebook to share and complain – nothing in the world has really changed.
Gender inequality still exists and is a factor that can’t be shaken off as those who rule the workforce come from older generations. White men still rule. Many people in power, whether economically or politically, still view those different than them as the “other” – failing to see how the problems of one group of people is a problem for us all. And various groups are still kept down through antiquated, false stereotypes and old unresolved, past battles.
But with this new generation – I believe it’s all going to change. A life spent with literally the world at their fingertips has made them more worldly. Instead of pen pals, they literally have a window into someone else’s world. In their eyes – will there be an “other?” They have little to stop them in whatever their endeavors. Do they want to code? They can look up a free video or website on how to do it? Become a photographer – download a $2 photo editing app? Learn a new language? The possibilities are endless. They’re reaping what we’ve sowed – the free information that we’ve created. The insistence on gender neutral toys. The changing perceptions of what it means to eat healthy. What it even means to get an education.
I’m really excited about what’s ahead.
I came across this while working on a global project. I’m sure anyone who’s traveled outside the U.S. or spent time with people from outside the country will notice that there are distinct differences in how people behave. Do they tend to seem warmer? More emotional? Rational? Impulsive? Or respectful and hold tradition over everything else.
On Sunday, I attended the Climate March in New York City. 100,000 people were expected to show up. Instead, it was estimated that 400,000 people showed up. I’m excited that there seems to finally be a huge shift in how we perceive climate change. It’s reached a tipping point as widely accepted to be a man-made phenomenon that will have dire consequences in the near future if we don’t act. But is it too late? There are so many mass behaviors that people participate in as preventative measures despite not knowing 100% if something negative will happen to us. We purchase car insurance, home insurance and health insurance on the off chance things go wrong. We invest in our financial future early on through social security and 401K’s on the off chance we don’t fall into large sums of money before retirement. We even ward off the effects of aging and the possibility of cancer through sunscreen.
On a corporate level, companies protect themselves from unforeseen issues through insurance, savings and even hiring practices. It is considered a wise business practice to smartly prepare for the future even if that means making sacrifices and expenditures during this preparation.
So why do companies, policy makers and governments so widely question the importance of preventing climate change? At this point in our scientific understanding, it’s become clear that further damage can cause irreversible damage. We’ve already seen billions of dollars spent and millions of lives lost from the effects of climate change, from draughts to hurricanes to heat waves. Is it worth waiting and questioning this statement when so much is at stake? What are we waiting for?
This winter, I applied to the Admap Prize 2014 through WARC on how brands are built in the digital age and was shortlisted. Here’s my entry and thoughts on building brands in the digital age.
Approximately two to three times a week, I purchase my morning coffee at a charming French café that’s slightly out of the way on my morning commute. I allow myself this small luxury, despite owning all the necessary requirements for home-brewing. The moment I step into this café, I am magically transported from the realities of fast-paced New York City to every American’s romantic notion of Paris. Furthering this illusion, I am surrounded by elegant French expats energetically catching up after dropping their children off at the Lycée Francais, ordering their cafés and croissants. As I approach the register, the refined Scottish barista, Andrew, greets me with a familiar hello and how are you, already knowing my usual order. I am not just a customer, but am the mayor (according to FourSquare). And this café is not just a caffeine and gluten–dispensing establishment, but a well-curated experience. Every employee, cake, cup and decoration has been specifically chosen to appeal to a particular customer. Impeccable service and friendly employees engage customers, while goodies like imported French treats delight them. It’s no surprise that I am not their only loyal customer.
Frank Rose points out in The Art of Immersion that “[The Internet] is the first medium that can act like all media—it can be text, or audio, or video, or all of the above. It is nonlinear … inherently participatory … constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in. And it is immersive.” (1) The Internet is not just immersive, but mimics real life, in-person experiences. It can replace the music we hear as we walk into an establishment; the patterns, textures and colors specifically chosen to tell a story about that store; the stories and information the sales clerk tells us about their products. It can even substitute how employees interact with customers with a virtual “How can I help you?” through Twitter. As brands show up in our social network feeds, the line between “Would I like to buy this product?” and “Do I want to have a relationship with this brand?” has blurred.
As marketers, we are tasked with understanding how our brands should behave in the digital age—with wondering how to unlock the magic formula, the right amount of customer data with the appropriate social channels and mobile apps. But what if there is no magic formula? What if succeeding in the digital age, regardless of the customer or location requires a different attitude from brands, one that involves genuinely caring about their customers to create a unique, branded experience. Digital technology enables brands to infuse genuine human touch in all communication points – a two-way conversation and personalization that mirrors the types of in-person interactions that have dominated seller/customer relationships throughout history.
“May I help you” begins with actually being there. An establishment carefully picks their location to cater to a specific clientele—to fill an unmet need. Although businesses are developed with the intent of making a profit, successful brands are also closely tied with the intent of helping people – either through their location or actual products. For my favorite café, the owners may have been compelled by the intention of giving French expatsa place to connect. For Warby Parker, their purpose may have revolved around giving customers affordable glasses, shipped online. But most importantly, both establishments carefully picked their location based on their customer’s needs, whether it’s choosing a particular neighborhood to deciding on an online distribution platform. Brands who genuinely care about their customers’ needs and behaviors have an obligation to continually track where their customer may want to purchase products in the future and to serve those unmet needs.
Tesco famously catered to the buying needs of their customers when they created a “virtual store” in a Korean subway, allowing busy customers to conveniently scan products using smartphone-enabled QR codes. Kate Spade did something similar, creating a 24-hour virtual store in front of a few New York City empty storefronts, allowing customers to purchase products via the window screen and have it delivered within an hour. While the focus of these examples are often on the technology used, at the heart of these executions was a recognition by brands that they could use technology to better serve their customers’ needs.
A brand that genuinely cares about their customer delivers what they say they will deliver, and understands exactly what their customer values and needs. At a basic level, a person entering a coffee shop might value impeccable customer service and delicious pastries, but nowadays, a caffeine junkie might also seek reliable Wi-Fi. My favorite coffee shop offers free Wi-Fi, a service that has delighted Starbucks’ customers for years. By anticipating and catering to customers’ needs, brands are building their reputation one customer at a time. In the digital age, reputation is critical –the shareable nature of social can cause one bad Yelp review to go viral. A quick Google search can make it easy to tell which companies genuinely care about their customers and which companies one suspects are only focused on short term gain. In fact, the only types of companies that have survived despite bad reputations are those that customers have had no choice in supporting—from cable to health insurance. But even those are seeing a decline in sales as alternatives become available. Even brands that compete on price, most famously Amazon, work to ensure quality customer service and products, showing they care about their customers’ needs.
At its core, what a customer seeks in a product is unlikely to change with the introduction of new technology. Even purely digital brands, built in the digital age, like Facebook have revolved first and foremost around needs of their users. Apple understood that buying expensive electronics requires extensive research and the assurance that the product will continue to work. Consequently they have built their brand on excellent customer service that they have extended to online tools. With banks, people value security and customer service. In person, that might mean money held in a secure vault and helpful, well-dressed clerks at bank locations. In the digital space, that could translate to 24-7 online chat access, a user-focused mobile app and online, informative content. Citi has a history of using technology to serve their customers’ needs—first with the introduction of ATMs, and most recently with a mobile app that allows customers to scan checks into their accounts. Nike sells the promise of fitness whether through their athletic gear, mobile apps, FuelBand or even in-person athletic events.
Millennials, as a consumer group, are particularly important for brands to understand in the digital age, since they are the demographic most likely to be heavy consumers of digital technology. In December 2013, The New York Times published an opinion piece called Millennial Searchers, noting the ways in which Millennials seek meaning and purpose in their lives. For them, it is no longer enough to purchase something that will give them a fleeting sense of happiness—they seek more meaning in their purchases. Across categories, we see older brands tying themselves to a bigger purpose –showing they care about bigger issues and using social to spread that purpose. From IBM’s Smarter Planet to Dove’s Real Beauty, each seeks to convey that their products help fulfill a bigger mission. On the flipside, brands built within the digital age started with a genuine purpose: TOMS’s Buy A Pair, Give A Pair campaign was based on the premise of philanthropy, allowing the average person to be a philanthropist. Warby Parker followed suit. For younger brands, especially those appealing to Millennials, what you do as a company is more important than what you say because it helps establish you as being genuinely focused on customers. Each brand helps customers fill an emotional need with their purchase.
It has never been more important to ensure that at the heart of your brand, you care about customers. Digital technology has pulled away the curtain that marketing previously created around brands. Each communication and customer touch point becomes an opportunity for everyone to see how a brand treats their customer. Brands like United (Breaks Guitars), JPMorgan (Ask JP Morgan) and have learned that infusing a customer-focused culture is critical in maintaining the reputation of the company. On the flip side, companies with excellent customer experiences, such as Apple, Virgin America or Zappos, have grown in the digital age. In fact, their success is often attributed to a strong company culture. Employee and in-person experiences have the potential to represent the brand, and interactions can easily go digital through an online review or public Tweet.
Finally, a brand that truly cares will add that little bit of delight, fulfilling a human desire and want. It’s asking how your day is in a way that makes you feel special. Carefully wrapping your purchase. It’s the décor that provides a mini escape to Paris. Or the music that puts you in a better mood. It’s an employee that goes above and beyond for their customer—remembers their order, ensures a particular product is in stock. Or the particularly knowledgeable store clerk, who, like a good friend, gives you an honest opinion as to why you shouldn’t buy something in their store.
For the online experience, decor can be translated into a well designed website that takes you to another place as you browse during your lunch break. A busy shelf of curated objects can be turned into a Pinterest board meant as visual eye candy, as in Anthroplogie’s merchandising. It could be having a well-designed e-commerce site that allows customers to browse thoroughly and uninterrupted before purchasing. It’s the technology a company can harness to predict what a customer wants based on their interactions. Or six-second how-to Vine videos bringing out fantasies of DYI home improvement. Brands can even create physical spaces to cater to customers’ desires.
In December 2013, Samsung created a pop-up experience store in New York’s Soho. Customers were treated to free coffee, and the ultimate indulgence- cupcakes while enjoying a space to relax during the busy shopping season. In the digital age, what may once have been a local stunt can now be shared instantly and globally through people’ssocial feeds, allowing everyone to see how a brand caters to the hidden desires of their customers.
Two-way interactions can be built with a brand over time through social media—an exchange never achieved through traditional advertising. A barista can facilitate conversations between like-minded customers, playing host or even matchmaker. Social media communities can be built and nurtured by community managers with no direct intention to sell products, only a direct intent to care about their customers’ wants.
Traditional advertising plays a critical role in adding to people’s desires and wants. Now that a Google search (ZMOT) has taken over the role of conveying detailed product benefits and reviews, traditional advertising, more than ever, is a place to tell a compelling story. Budweiser’s “Puppy Love”—a heartwarming story of love between a dog and a horse—was voted one of the most popular ads of the Super Bowl in 2014. As viewers, we may not exactly understand how the commercial fit into the heart of the brand, but our hearts were filled with warmth as we viewed the commercial. Popular viral ads of 2013 were likely to illuminate bigger issues that we are often too afraid to discuss on our own but want to (Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches), act as a purely distracting entertainment (Evian’s Baby & Me), make us laugh (Kmart’s “Ship My Pants) or make us cry out of joy (GoPro’s Fireman Saves Kitten). Ads that “go viral” are emotive, story-driven, funny and genuinely entertaining—all qualities that compel us to share so that we can fulfill our desire to connect with others, using them as conversational fodder.
While print ads are still a place to inform people about product benefits, they’ve also always been a place to inspire. Just as people have always cut out print ads and posted them in their spaces to inspire and aspire to, we can now “pin” and share visuals created by brands. A traditional print ad might be more product-focused, whereas brands can now create inspirational, shareable online images with quotes or content that touches on that hidden desire of constant self-improvement.
Regardless of the medium or execution, every point of communication for a brand is connected and conveys whether or not a brand genuinely cares about their customers. For brands with exciting products and strong, customer-focused values, there is a world of opportunity in the digital age. But for brands with a weak product that is not customer-focused, succeeding in the digital age will be an uphill battle.
To the naked eye, it appears that digital technology has revolutionized our universe. It has changed how we communicate and how we interact with each other, with ourselves and even with brands. But ultimately it has brought humanity and a new sense of intimacy back into our lives that brands can now tap into. It’s that human touch, that feeling that a brand genuinely cares, brought to us through a personalized Facebook exchange, a convenient mobile purchase or inspiring branded content. After decades of impersonal, mass marketing, digital technology finally enables brands to reach across the counter—warmly shaking their customers’ hands.
Ever since the NY Times wrote an article back in February on the eroding middle class effecting major restaurant chains, I’ve been interested in this phenomenon. How do companies survive and even shift their business towards the growing upper class without neglecting and even disappointing their base? Interestingly enough, many companies catering to the middle class were founded on the very principal of bringing that product to the masses – whether it was coffee (Folgers) or seafood (Red Lobster). What was once a luxury is now attainable. But over the last few decades, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say many businesses have taken advantage of their middle class customer, sacrificing quality for cost, focusing heavily on promotions and hoping a gimmick would get people through the door. So beloved brands have become just another cheap deal – quantity over quality. With the conversation shifting from “I got this at X” to “I got this at X% off.” Brands have fallen into a price war arms race, lowering the value of their products and brand. What once was a semi-annual special trip to a restaurant may now be a regular, monthly routine. Or once cherished clothing is now discarded with the seasons.
Where has this gotten us? Americans are now more in debt, overweight, and it’s safe to assume based on the rise of the self-storage industry, have more stuff than ever. Companies are struggling to keep up with customer quantity demands, hurting the environment and navigating murky labor practices as they continue to cut costs.
While they’re struggling, a counter-trend is rising. Fast food is being out run by fast casual with sustainability-focused companies like Chipotle leading the charge. Even McDonald’s has decided to rebrand. Online retailers focused on sustainability or ethically sourced materials like Zady, Accompany, Everlane and Warby Parker are popping up every day. And trendsetters like Millennials are shifting their spending – focusing on pure utility rather than the emotional benefits that come from owning a brand. For instance, car sharing companies have been proven to displace car sales. On a smaller scale, the growing number of subscription coffee services and even ingredient delivery services like Blue Apron show that people are choosing to forgo the prestige of eating and drinking out in order to save money – but they still want a high quality experience.
What do I predict will happen when brands like Red Lobster go back to their roots and offer the high quality experience they once did? First, they’ll attract a whole new customer – the upper middle to upper class who may have even had positive associations with the brand from their childhood. Red Lobster may lose customers who were driven by discounts and deals but most importantly, their core customer – a true advocate of the brand – may learn to shift their budgets. What was once a cherished, special meal will become a special, occasional meal once again. Bringing Red Lobster out of the red.