Digital media’s explosion corrected the “asymmetry of information” that had previously kept the balance of power firmly in the hands of the brand. Suddenly, consumers could know all they wanted about a company, its products, its practices and its competitors. They could question marketing campaigns by comparing product prices and reviews. They could also exert their own influence and power — by complaining loudly (sometimes too loudly on social media!) and by blocking ads on their devices.
But the balance of power has shifted again. As consumers stocked up on all the information they could ever need, they also created more data, giving companies a chance to take back some of that power.
In the fight to retain and attract customers, many marketers — in retail and beyond — have rallied to create experiences that resonate and deliver interactions that are unique to their needs, expectations and interests. Many marketers consider this approach to be one of the few remaining ways to truly differentiate themselves. And for good reason. It is estimated that the customer experience will be more important than price and service within the next five years, according to a recent study conducted by Accenture.
As technology matures, the tools put in place to engage consumers could now help retail brands regain control while leading consumers on meaningful journeys.
If there’s one brand of late that’s mastered curating meaningful journeys, and that can be emulated in the retail industry, it’s Disney. Visitors to their theme parks can plan trips on their mobile devices, make reservations, order Fast Passes and view ride wait times from the Magic Band, which also acts as a hotel room key and photo storage device. Even if some of their rides and park offerings can seem like they are from yesteryear, the Magic Band helped Disney stay relevant to consumers and it is a great example of how data can change the way consumers interact with brands.
Like Disney, retail marketers must also leverage the highly detailed understanding of a consumer’s digital footprint to anticipate what a consumer might do next — and the experiences that may interest them. Data can provide retail companies a different type of power and control where they can proactively lead — rather than follow — consumers.
This is particularly true for Millennials who tend to be more open to sharing data. Their incessant need to tag locations, share images and like social media posts allows for brands to truly understand their thinking, oftentimes on a daily or even hourly basis. Smart marketers are paying close attention to this generation and its digital behaviors, seeking out trends and subcultures that influence their interest, expectations and behaviors.
One retail brand that continually gets this right (and reaps huge rewards) is Nike. Early on, Nike tapped into basketball culture when only urban Millennials were interested. By listening and giving consumers what they wanted early on, Nike was able to establish credibility with an influential and growing subculture that grew to become mainstream. Today the brand has incorporated technology into its customer journey with Nike+, offering members a personal store stocked with product recommendations and reserved invitations to their favorite sneakers.
It is no surprise that the most progressive companies are disrupting the journey by presenting a solution before a customer starts to consider their options — by circumnavigating the comparative process altogether. Think of L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius app that allows consumers to experience and simulate its products before purchasing it. There’s also Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service, which enables connected devices to order physical goods from Amazon when supplies are running low for the consumer.
But not all brands have been able to embrace and harness this power. Many retail companies are still largely playing catch-up to customer expectations. And if you look beyond retail, you find entire industry sectors, in particular in the telecommunications and health-care industries that are falling behind. Brands that don’t embrace these new strategies and tactics will struggle to remain relevant as well as competitive.
If your company is not on this path already, as a marketer you need to fully learn about your customers by understanding data about their attitudes, perceptions and behaviors. Then it’s time to integrate technology into your customer experiences, keeping in mind to inject relevance, personalization and emotional engagement.
Perhaps the future will resolve into an equilibrium where both the company and the consumer needs the other equally and the continual stream of cocreation results in mutual benefit. It’s also possible that some companies will use this newfound power to exploit their customers in the worst ways. It’s up to retail marketers to creatively activate this insight in ways that will develop memorable, personal experiences for consumers. It’s the only way to stay ahead of the power shift in this competitive digital age.
Linda Shea is global managing director of customer strategies, and Chris Robson is chief innovation officer, at ORC International.