Crisis: a connection catalyst
A cursory glance through the history books shows us how patterned and predictable the impact of a crisis is on innovation.
The 1918 pandemic brought to the fore the importance of the Bell telephone. One ad reported that the telephone “brings cheer and encouragement”, as “friends, whether close at hand or far away, can be easily reached.” In an era of despair, loss and isolation it offered community and connection.
Amidst extreme hardship, the Great Depression spawned the invention of the car radio. The Motorola radio went on sale in 1930 for USD $110 at a time when new cars cost USD $650. Radio changed lives. It brought nations together and offered people a new way to communicate and interact. It fostered connection.
World War II acted as a catalyst for ‘intelligent machinery’ including the Enigma and Turing’s Bombe which offered new ways to communicate, to understand – to connect.
Innovation is borne out of catastrophic global events. Crises drive our behaviour to change. Crises give us new problems to solve and those problems are more often than not addressed through new forms of connectivity.
Covid-19: Connecting together, while apart
Covid-19 is no different to these past crises. The effect of the pandemic on society is highly patterned and predictable. It too has spawned innovation. It too has created new needs to be met and in turn, it has necessitated new products, devices and services which are designed to engage and connect. There are examples everywhere we look.
New technologies have sprung up to connect consumers at a time of increasing distance. Substack, Patreon, Discord, and Clubhouse have enabled consumers to become one-click content creators, and mind-sharers whilst connecting people globally.
The world of gaming evolved to connect entertainment, fashion and consumers on metaverse platforms such as Roblox. Consumers have rushed to meet up for digital try-ons; cloaked their avatars in the latest threads and bought non-NFT Gucci handbags for $350,000 Robux ($USD 4115).
The IoT continues to connect devices to the internet and to each other to share data and enable more seamless interactions.
Want a new shirt? Go voice shopping with Amazon Alexa (voice shopping will reach USD $40 billion by 2022 alone).
Tired of generic retail experiences? Craving personalisation? Netomi chatbot can help you out with its multilingual, omnichannel, conversational abilities and 70 per cent resolution rate. Business Insider reports that by 2024 retail spend through chatbots will reach USD $142 billion up from just USD $2.8 billion in 2019.
The boundaries between the virtual and digital worlds are increasingly ceasing to exist. Our homes, workplaces, and transport are becoming smarter, more interlocked and also more conversational. Our world is becoming more connected.
The possibilities for increasing consumer engagement and consumer connection are endless.
Extended reality (XR) technologies are already being developed to integrate seamlessly with the human body. AR glasses (think Facebook’s future Project Aria) are already evolving to AR lenses. In 2020, California-based start-up Mojo Vision announced it was developing AR contact lenses with micro-LED displays to connect information directly into the consumer’s eyes. The AR market is set to reach 2.4 billion active users by 2023.
The point? All of these moon-shot innovations hold immense potential for the retail sector.
In the not-too-distant future, these inventions could be integrated with physical store experiences to support retailers and enhance the customer experience. Entire digital catalogues will be customised and instantaneously generated. The shopping experience will be deeply immersive. Most importantly, consumers will be even more connected in an all-encompassing, all-sensory experience.
Marketers will no longer have to think about how to behaviourally engage consumers to participate in the shopping experience.
Passe loyalty programs built on transaction, not transformation and transcendence will retreat into the history books as a ‘nice to have.’
Omnichannel will no longer be a relevant concept. It will be replaced with omnipresent.
Strategic discussions over physical initiatives such as micro in-store activations and pop-ups that are so prioritised today will be replaced with visionary brand-storming around points of phygital experience-intersection in the consumer journey.
The future shopping experience will need us to undergo a lens change. It will be based on enhanced engagement, automatic participation and hyperlocal data that will drive the shopper experience.
And the lynchpin? It will be all about connection.
A crisis brings a new wave of thought leadership and futurism. Shirley Bassey certainly hit the nail on the head when she sang: “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
The continuously connected customer
When it comes to consumers, the consumer mindset during times of crisis also follows predictable patterns. Consumers respond to crises emotionally and irrationally. Plato recognised that “Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.”
All consumer decision making becomes shrouded in an extra layer of emotionality. There is a heightened need for affiliation. And this translates to a search for deeper meaning, engagement and connectedness with everything surrounding the consumer, including brands.
When we feel uncertain, or anxious; when we are facing a battle, we naturally look for allies and points of connection. Those connections aren’t just limited to friends and family. Those connections extend to the brand connections that we form.
Brands are not inanimate objects, they are anthropomorphic.
They are relationship partners. They are supporters, guides, friends, casual acquaintances, even perhaps lovers. They provide comfort, security, stability, structure, continuity, solace and joy. We marry them, have flings with them, and form friendships with them. They reflect our personas, needs, characteristics, our aspirations and desires.
As Aristotle so eloquently put it: “Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.”
Brands provide connection. They provide meaning. And that’s exactly where the opportunity lies for retail brands today – to capitalise on consumers’ new needs for connection and to nurture new long term, deep and value laden relationships.
Delivering the connective glue
But how do you tap into consumers’ needs for connection at a time when the world has turned on its axis and is continuing to evolve?
Just as economists, historians, and psychologists have studied the past to predict its implications for the future, so can we.
To stay relevant brands’ need to understand the current consumer mindset, align themselves and translate that into a connection strategy.
As opposed to being difficult, understanding the consumer is as simple as finding the intersection between the consumers’ new core needs of connection, technological possibilities and their new vision of fulfilment that they are building for their future.
There are exponential opportunities for engagement, for connection, and they can be approached in a hierarchical order – dealing first with connection at the big picture enterprise level, before drilling down to deliver the tactical level connective glue.
1. Connecting through brand purpose
The pandemic has fuelled social change, placed a spotlight on issues of morality, and accelerated discussions around equality. Fundamentally it has made consumers question their own values.
Brands today must be clear about why they exist and who they exist to serve irrespective of what they sell. It is no longer adequate for brands to develop grandiose statements about what they do. Tone-deaf marketing messages that fail to read the room are like nails on a chalkboard to consumers and during a crisis like Covid-19 they will leave a permanent scar on the brand well beyond the pandemic.
Consumers want authenticity. They want their brands to connect with them as people. They want their brands to live and breathe community, deliver upon real issues that matter and have real impact.
Tokenistic brand purpose at the expense of visible action on key societal issues risks alienating consumers – 71% of customers said that brands which place profit before people during the pandemic would lose their trust.
2. Connecting tactically by delivering the emotional experience
Crises bring about innovation and much of that is delivered via technological productivity. But is productivity and getting the job done more important to the CX than the emotional experience (EX).
Do consumers want chatbots to offer technical fixes, or do they want brands to empathise with how they feel including understanding their frustrations, and anticipating their next needs?
The answer is all of the above, but without an emotional connection consumers are less engaged and they’re left with an emotional deficit – a relationship void. Pivoting to offer the best tech experience in an era of digital disruption is essential but accompanying it with an emotional connection is non-negotiable.
To avoid falling into the transactional debt trap brands need to put consumers’ feelings front and centre. Data driven insights across all touchpoints will give brands a 360 degree view of the consumers’ ever evolving value shifts and this in turn will give brands a crystalised view of their emotional needs.
When brands connect with consumers emotions the benefits are huge.
Emotions are the super weapon of branding. Emotions provide a new strategy. A new layer of value for the consumer. They inspire consumers to chase brands and choose them. And they are a better predictor of value than mundane, mostly cognitive measures of transactional value like customer satisfaction.
An emotionally engaged consumer expresses more pride, more passion and more enthusiasm towards the brand. Emotions quite literally light up the brain – MRI imaging has shown that consumers primarily use emotions, rather than brand facts when evaluating brands.
Consumers buy feelings, not things.
We should be assessing a brands’ emotional quotient (the why), not just how many advocates or detractors it has (the what).
Brands need to know what the value of an emotional connection is and how their consumers’ progress from:
1) being disconnected to
2) being merely satisfied to
3) showing brand preference and ultimately to
4) being emotionally connected to the brand.
My own research on consumer-brand engagement and its dimensionality demonstrates that a fully engaged and emotionally connected consumer is qualitatively and significantly different to a merely satisfied one.
Rather than creating a ripple effect, Covid-19 has generated a tsunami and it has forced brands to work both smarter and harder to re-engage consumers, especially in retail. The changes are no longer located in the markets, they’re located in the consumers’ psyche.
But if we follow the predictable patterns that this crisis has given to us we can capitalise on consumers’ new needs for connection – and all it takes is a little focus and a large serving of emotional brand excellence.
Aristotle and the history books had the answers all along: “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
This article was originally published in the quarterly issue of Inside Retail Australia November 2021