Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

woman-driving-car.jpg

The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, 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 making alterations and refinements. 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.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more 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 an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

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. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. 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 the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.

 

 

Advertisements

Brands, Ads, and Culture

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which could be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe.

PREFUNKING: Ethnography, booze, and neon drink

First Published in Peeps Forum:

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that caught the attention of twenty-somethings. They were the people in the know; tattoo chic, experimenting, and bringing trends to life, not the people on the cutting edge of what is cool, but not the late comers to the subcultural party. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Sparks was bought by Miller Brewing in 2006, but for all its success, Miller’s initial marketing campaigns fell flat. Sales, though strong, remained essentially unchanged from one year to the next. While the success of Sparks was tremendous, they hadn’t a clue about the people drinking it. There was plenty of data about the age group, but when it came to the lives and habits of the consumers, they really didn’t “get” them. Despite all of the traditional marketing data they held in their hands, Sparks was shaping up to be a puzzle they couldn’t solve. And so they reached out to ethnographers to get at the heart of the matter. What was it about this drink that Miller just didn’t quite get? After spending millions on the product, Miller was decidedly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery.

SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN

Initially, Miller had relied on a traditional campaign strategy – images of people at fairly tame social gatherings, savoring Sparks the way one might savor a beer after a long day at work, focusing on flavor. They even considered changing the formulation of the drink to offer an array of flavors that weren’t so dramatic, packaging the cans in twelve packs for sharing and easy storage, and mimicking other beverage producers with on-premises promotions that emphasized flavor and direct competition with the Red Bull and vodka crowd. In the end, Miller chose a different route, based on what came out of the fieldwork. The strategy focused on the one thing that made Sparks special; its sheer absurdity and embodiment of sanitized rebellion.

Sparks was defined by its users. They felt a large degree of control over it and a deep appreciation for the fact that its ingredients simply weren’t meant to go together. Sparks represented a categorical frame that defied convention and the campaign we helped them develop reflected that. The focus moved away from traditional advertising and competing directly with the competition. Instead, the strategy was to become a presence at transitory events such as raves, mutant bike rallies, skateboarding competitions, music festivals that weren’t in the mainstream, but not so far outside the norm as to be overlooked. Event were chosen that reflected a sanitized sense of rebellion. Photo-bombing was encouraged and recipes were shared. One Brooklyn kickball team took it upon themselves to use the Sparks can as their mascot, shooting it “doing things” before every game, which led to competition between teams for posting the best shots.  One woman and her roommate gave the world their recipe for a Sparks float. While the drink is interesting, having had a couple of Sparks before trying it helps with the flavor.

The other central aspect of the campaign was to focus on small, stop-and-go liquor stores and groceries, rather than worrying about what happened at the bar. Bars are about projection of sophistication, group affiliation, and building group identity in a closed environment with certain social rules. Sparks was all about the individual drinking it and being part of a group activity defined by being temporary and over the top. The places where Sparks was consumed were about mutability and liminality, which fit right in with the places it was typically bought. Finally, the product itself saw no change. Making it taste “good” defeated the purpose and devalued the drink. It was one thing to introduce Blackberry Sparks, but quite another to mask the strange, chemically flavor notes that made the drink cool. Equally important to keep the unusual flavor, changes to the packaging were made to reflect its utility, giving it greater symbolic credibility and making it something you could show off to your friends and strangers.

All of these elements came together to ignite a simple idea: Sparks isn’t something you drink so much as it was something you used, whether for the obvious physical effects or to set the stage to an evening (or, less often, a day) where abandonment of social norms was the rule.  This meant Miller had to embrace greater risk and deviate from its normal operating procedures. They couldn’t stick with a brand image that was intentionally subdued. They could focus on the middle of the bell curve, but had to embrace the people who were setting trends. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Under the new campaign direction, Sparks saw sales and awareness increase 20% after having been stagnant for well over a year. So how did we get there?

GETTING DIRTY: PREPARING AND PLANNING

Everything begins with a solid methodology. Defining our target was based on Miller’s data, but went beyond basic demographics, the reason being twofold. First, traditional segmentation is often, if not always, too restrictive and not designed to reflect the fact that people are social creatures, not individuals who function outside of cultural realities. In other words, while we like to think we’re individuals, we are products and shapers of our cultures and context shapes how we think, act, and believe. Rather than going after individuals, we designed the research to focus on cultural groups and settings.  What are the situations in which drinking is occurring? How do we type different drinking situations? How do they change through time? How do people outside the target segment reflect and shape a given context? Treating the moments in which interactions occurred is if they were also the sample allowed us to look at Sparks from a different angle, not just from the position of product and/as person.

Once we began defining who we would use as our person of entry into a given setting and thinking through the possible drinking contexts we would need to see, we began the process of developing field teams and determining where geographically we would go. Developing field teams involves more than simply picking out observant individuals with a knack for interviewing and conversing with strangers, it meant taking time to reflect on strengths, individual psychologies, and interpretive skills. Taking more than two ethnographers into the field is, in my estimation, a mistake but the same can often be said about taking a single ethnographer. Having more than two people simply makes the situation awkward and leads to a lab-rat situation where people are more concerned with feeding you what they think you want to hear than letting you into their world for a time. This was extremely important for the Sparks work because we wanted an “inside/outsider” approach; someone the participants could teach and another they felt comfortable bringing into the group. By having two sets of minds with different views and backgrounds, it’s easier to triangulate observations and determine what is interpretive bias vs. what’s actually going on. Individually, what we learn may look very different, but together we start to see patterns emerge.

Deciding the locations of study was, perhaps, an easier task. Sparks had a fairly finite range of consumption – the hipper parts of town. Initially, the client wanted us to focus exclusively on their three largest markets, New York, Chicago and LA. We, however, thought that while these were certainly legitimate, the cities were limiting. The reason is twofold. First, if were going to grow the market we needed to see what was happening in places other than the Big 3. Second, if the defining characteristic of the Sparks buyer (and potential Sparks buyer) was being part of a cool group, we needed to see how that was defined in cities other than the top trend setters in the US. All this guides the decision about the field sites we choose. In the end we settled on the New York metro (primarily the Williamsburg area, but also the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village), Portland (smaller population), Austin (college town defined as a bastion of weirdness in an otherwise conservative state) and Atlanta (emerging as a major music hub at the time). With the planning and prep out of the way, and with the blessing of the client, we were ready to go.

HEADING INTO THE FIELD

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process.

So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town, so to speak, as they engaged in any number of activities. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research. One of our key informants had us meet in her Williamsburg apartment the night she was throwing a party. Much to our delight, nearly everyone attending had a couple of cans of Sparks with them, along with a six pack of something else, usually an import. The six packs went in the fridge or on the fire escape, it was a brutally cold winter, so people took advantage of the situation, but the cans of Sparks stayed with the owner. What we discovered was surprisingly simple – one can was used to kick start the evening and the other was downed at about midnight or 1:00 to keep the party going. Functionally, the product was all about what several participants called the “pre-funk”.

But Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. And more importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something more than a casual get together. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview. We had to be in the moment.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. For example, what do you do when it turns out a recruit doesn’t fit the sample defined by the client segmentation? You can, of course, always walk away, but you run the risk of missing a moment that would otherwise be overlooked. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. Marco clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became a something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

HEADING HOME: MOMENTS OF INSIGHT

After leaving the field the hard work begins. Literally hundreds of pieces of information from different field teams have to be synthesized into a meaningful set of patterns, and the final output can be large and daunting.  That works well if your goal is academic, but when all is said and done, our clients are looking for direction and specific ideas on which they can act. In the case of Sparks, several key conceptual points bubbled to the surface. The first was to capitalize of the idea of function vs. connoisseurship. Sparks has a fairly clear purpose of establishing a physical state vs. status. Unlike, say Oban (seek it out if you’re unfamiliar), Sparks does not convey taste or knowledge about culinary matters. It does convey knowledge about being part of the inner circle of cool.  Above all else, Sparks functions as a means of kicking off the night and gives the drinker license to behave in unexpected ways. Second, Sparks has an undertone of humor to it. Throughout the research, participants talked about the cartoonishness of the drink – the “absurdity” of the battery-like can, the color, the very idea of combining malt liquor and an energy drink. Sparks was a manifestation of incongruity in beverage form, bricolage in a can.  Not surprisingly, urban myths and folklore about Sparks were in ready supply. For example, more than one participant told us, “If you drink more than three you may die”. Another told us that if you leave a glass of it out overnight, it would eat through the bottom, though they had never tried the experiment themselves. One participant firmly believed that if taken to a picnic, Sparks would be the only item ants would avoid. None of it was taken all that seriously, but that simply added to the fun. The brand’s very absurdity was a major strength.

Finally, Sparks tied in with symbols of youth. It signified rebellion and a lack of inhibitions. It also represents a sense of abandon where mortality is challenged. Almost everyone we spoke with commented at some point that they would stop drinking the stuff before they were thirty. As one participant said, “I know this stuff is killing me, but I’m still young, I have time.” Sparks tempts fate, it reifies the drinker’s youth and briefly puts them in opposition to the larger culture without having to commit to a permanent state of rebellion.

All of this led to a number of clear recommendations, some of which flew in the face of what the data and the focus groups said. First, it was extremely important to keep the flavor funky. Tasting strange, like the color of the drink, gave it credibility. Tasting strange solidifies it as a symbol of absurdity, making the drink a publicly displayed symbol of their “inner cool.” Second, Miller had to rethink packaging. Like the flavor, the can itself is a symbol drinkers use to let others know that social norms are fluid while drinking it. But this is not a drink you share. You only drink 2-3 in a night, which meant six packs are useless. It’s all about grab and go, not something you stockpile, savor, or sip with friends. That means designing two packs and three packs. Third, the brand had to accept that on-trade is not where success lies, at least not initially. Cans in a bar are unacceptable, unless the product is seen as a throwback drink (i.e. retro beers, etc.). On the surface, Red Bull and vodka might not appear that dissimilar from Sparks, but what they convey in a bar is vastly different. Cans are acceptable in public space when it is truly public. Finally, Miller needed to rethink traditional media. Because of an inherent distrust of advertising, the rise of social media, and word of mouth being the most trustworthy means of communicating “cool”, print, radio, and TV had little relevance. Live events and being in unexpected places, such as sponsoring a last-minute street party or having a presence at a mutant bike rally, adds credibility and cache to the brand. Sparks, unlike the other products in the parent brand’s suite, needed to break away from everything the company was comfortable with. Indeed, it needed to work in opposition to it.

THE SAD DEMISE OF SPARKS

Unfortunately, for all its success, Spark has faded into the background, the reason being that all the “good stuff” was removed, stripping it of the very things that made it work. In September 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, sued MillerCoors (Miller Brewing and Coors had merged the year before), claiming that its Sparks alcoholic beverages that include caffeine are a health hazard. Next, Congress began a probe. But the suit never made it to court. Three months later, at the behest of San Francisco and 13 states, distributor MillerCoors  buckled and announced it would remove the caffeine and other energy-drink ingredients from its Sparks line of energy drinks, and would change its marketing campaign. With the ingredients gone, Sparks simply didn’t have a campaign or a product that mattered. The drink still exists, but the brand has fallen into the shadows of the broader MillerCoors portfolio as sales have declined over time.

For better or for worse, the work we did increased awareness, market share and sales. Unfortunately, it also helped put the brand squarely in the crosshairs. Had Sparks remained quietly in the background, it might not have garnered the ire of watchdog groups. The drink was representational of the people who drank it: outsiders, rebels, people who are often seen as a threat by the standard order. Sparks, like heavy metal or punk in the 80s, was more than a potential health hazard, it was a threat to the status quo. By bringing it into a more accepted space, it challenged what drinking “should be”. And so, Sparks became a target as it grew in popularity, and ultimately was undone by the very factors which had driven the marketing campaign that had made it so successful.  Even so, what the client and our team learned from the research done on this project continues to be used to this day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest compliment a project can receive.

 

Liminality and Shopping: Retail as a Shrine of 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 house 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.  

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.

Smoke Signals: Information in an Age of Selective Bias

In the quest to connect every citizen of earth and expand the ideal of the Renaissance Man that we’ve held so dear since time immemorial, (which was allegedly sometime in the 1500’s) we’ve instead reverted to a tribal method of information consumption that shrinks our individual perspective and is creating a fragmented and myopic population.

Think of information consumption as a parallel to food consumption. On an individual level, we crave sugars, salt and fats. For most of human history, these were difficult to obtain, so when these are available our instinct is to gorge. Now, while all three are difficult to avoid, we still have an urge to consume as much as we can, leading to obesity.

On a macro scale, we learn to love certain foods. We typically are conditioned to prefer local or regional cuisine and ingredients. It’s why everyone thinks their mom has the best pot roast or the best spaghetti. It’s also why if you’re a Texan in China and see BBQ on the menu, you’ll linger over the menu even if you know it won’t be the same.  The behavior that informs media consumption is remarkably similar to these same concepts, now more than ever.

Why? Choice and availability. Instead of allowing media and information to broaden our perspective we are instead picking our  sources for information a la’ cart that already conform to our worldview. Think Fox News pundits for conservatives or Air America for those left of center. One can also compare media sites in America to sites based in the U.K. (BBC) or Saudi Arabia (Al Jazeera) to see how the culture reflects in the presentation of news. An individual’s worldview can be described as the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual that includes normative postulates, philosophy, values, emotions and ethics. It is the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world.

How does one develop their worldview? As with your palate, familial, social and cultural factors play a large role in shaping a worldview during development. As one gets older, the sphere of influence expands from family to family friends to peer groups and trusted informants.The twist is, with greater interconnectivity and communication than ever before, it appears that worldviews are shrinking. The amount of information an average American ingests daily has increased exponentially, while the range of information has decreased; evolving us into us into an arguably more myopic nation than we were 10 years ago.

Considering the fragmentation of media sources, it shouldn’t be surprising that news and information consumption is looking more like a landscape of competing tribes than a multi-channeled entity. Social media, the internet and smart phones allow us to talk to anyone at any time. They’ve also given every consenting subscriber a platform to publish or share ideas. If we’re not turning into our favorite news channel or reading our segment or demographically oriented magazine, we’re reading opinions and “journalism” from blog websites or social media figures we trust.

Why do we trust them? Is it because they’re operating as transparent entities? Do they have a track-record for accuracy? More often than not it’s because they tell us what we want to hear, or at least in language we understand. It’s the concept of subculture as applied to media. We trust and give attention to outlets or channels that conform to us.

So what? How do businesses and media outlets evolve to succeed in this rapid paradigm shift? Do we as capitalists find ways to exploit this for monetary gain, even if that means our culture is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator? Do we redact our fragmented news landscape to put action behind the words of praise we offer to the Renaissance Man ideal? In reality, the only way to do that would be censorship. Perhaps the real question is, “How do we monetize the new paradigm without compromising our culture?”

Cognition and Collective Awareness: Creating “Place” in Retail

Humans favor certain environments that satisfy survival needs. Through millions of years of evolution we are hardwired to seek out environments that signal an increases sense of comfort and  a higher probability of survival.  We seek out evidence of:

  • Abundant resources
  • Minimal threat from predators and aggressors
  • Shelter from the outside world

Much of this is subconscious, but it remains deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Consequently, humans have evolved a visual preference for spaces that allow us to see without being seen when we so choose.  From a retail perspective, this means developing enclosed spaces that downplay threat and encourage complete emersion in the experience.

Even as we seek out environments that speak to our needs of comfort and survival, humans are inherent risk takers. Enticement and peril are part of the exploration process and without this deep-seated need to explore and take risks, we wouldn’t be human.  Humans need to seek new information and test their skills.

Consequently, we seek out new experiences that can be differentiated from other experiences.  We categorize these experiences, giving them greater meaning and a higher probability of habitual use.  Categorizing and differentiating suggest:

  • Diverse resources
  • Greater stability

Ultimately, this appears to be a contradiction. But there is the possibility of resolution.  Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone. On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Uncovering those cultural processes and designing a retail experience around them offsets the impact of cognitive responses to an environment.

So what do we do to provide a sense of security while playing to the underlying desire to explore and learn knew things?  We strike a balance.  And we strike that balance by thinking in terms of converting space to place.  Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users. People create memories within places and form personal and collective connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to bring new people to that place. The goal is to endow a venue with symbolic meaning, memory and significance.

The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the setting, or the setting it attempts to project, being written about, being party of stories handed down over time, being portrayed in art or being part of the collective myth.  It can be established through modes of codification aimed at preserving or enhancing places and traditions felt to be of value. All this creates a “database” for framing the socio-physical settings we experience.  By providing customers with symbolic cues in the environment that set it apart from the surrounding area, we cater to the need to delve into the new while subconsciously establishing an element of the known, the safe and the familiar.