Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.

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For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.

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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.

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.

 

Anthropology, Ethnography and Insights

Someone recently asked me,”When working with a retailer or brand, how do you conduct your research?” It’s a simple but extremely important question.  We do a mix of ethnographic field work, Proxemics studies, biological analysis and dramaturgical analysis, all of which sounds very technical and jargony. The point is to, well, make a point. Ethnography is simple one of a number of tools and good qualitative work that is rooted in an anthropological perspective should make that clear.

Over the past decade, ethnography has been embraced by the business community. But the term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. As I have written before, anthropology provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic. What this means is that anthropology provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. The point is that we think about shopping in its totality.  If you want to sell more beer, you have to look at how people understand social and private drinking, how they provision their homes, how they think about the “appropriate” place to buy a product. Once those cultural, behavioral and biological/cognitive elements are teased out, we build prototypes, test them, break them and build them again. Or at least, we should.

Shopping the Day After Christmas: Doing More Than Deals

It is the day after Christmas and my initial plans involved spending the day in beat up pants and slippers, indulging in a cigar and diving into my new Steven Pinker book.  Not a bad day.  But the operative word in all of this is “involved” – the past tense.  It turns out that while I will be able to do a bit of this, shopping is also on the agenda.  And I am far from alone. Between gift exchanges, product returns and shoppers (members of my immediate family included) eager to redeem gift cards, the day after Christmas has become a very busy day for retailers.

Last year, the day after Christmas obviously fell on a Sunday.  While blue laws are largely a thing of the past, there are still parts of the country where stores don’t open or have limited hours on Sunday.  Add to that the fact that Sunday is traditionally a day for family time for a large portion of the population, and the limitations to draw people into a store become clear. But retailers are under no such constraints this year. At the same time, many people still have the day after Christmas off from work. This adds up to making a prime shopping day.

In a survey released recently by American Express, 57% of Americans said they planned on shopping on December 26. That’s a 14% jump over last year.  Of those surveyed, more than 1 in 5 said  they’ll be cashing in gift cards, while 36% will be buying gifts for themselves. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the gift card has become a pivotal element in most of our last-minute shopping agendas (I myself picked up several when I ran into the wall of shopping fatigue).  And while I am predisposed to think of gift cards as a clear indication of a lack of imagination, this is my own bias and one that hardly applies to the rest of the world.  So, armed with cards, people are ready to break free from the confines of their homes and buy those things they really want in lieu of that reindeer sweater they received.

Granted, part of the post-Christmas shopping is a byproduct of the economy. Millions of Americans decided to delay some of their Christmas spending this year because of a lack of money or uncertainty about the economy in the new year. Some have postponed gift exchanges while others just wanted to wait to take advantage of the huge discounts widely available in the days and weeks after Christmas. Everyone, after all, loves a good deal.  But the deal is only part the attraction.

The day after Christmas has become a day for many people to break out of the confines of a house swimming in scattered toys, torn wrapping paper and a seemingly endless river of leftover ham. For example, it is a major day for theaters, as people swarm the local Cineplex. There is a significant spike in restaurant sales as people look for a healthier alternative to mashed potatoes and less dehydrating experience than the afore mentioned ham. So, yes, people are looking for those things they didn’t find under the tree, but they are also looking for entertainment, release from normative family obligations and a bit of indulgence.

And this is where the brick and mortar shopping experience becomes just that, an experience. No doubt, big box stores will see a spike in sales as people look for those deals, but the same will hold true for retailers that offer a bit more. Locations with a café or shopping-focused entertainment (e.g. personalized augmented reality applications for that new Christmas iPad) will keep people in the store longer and sell more products. Manufacturers that partner with retailers to place merchandise in areas of the store where they will be “found” by people looking to outdo the rest of the mobs with their shopping prowess will sell more of their goods – shoppers see themselves as skilled hunters and foragers, so to speak, improving their moods by making them feel superior. Retailers that make people feel good about the shopping experience help combat the fears people have about the economy after such an extended period of uncertainty.

The point is simple.  We know shopping will be big today. As such, it makes sense to think about how best to capitalize on that behavior.  Sales are a driver, perhaps THE driver, but the fiscal benefits are not enough.  There is more to shopping than getting your stuff. If you have a strategy that speaks to the deeper cultural patterns and psychological need as of shoppers, the better you’ll do and the more you’ll make.

 

Mobile Design and What the Numbers DON’T Tell Us

I, like so much of the Western Hemisphere, spent part of my weekend shopping for dolls, pajamas and the latest electronic gadget.  And like so many others, I turned to my mobile phone for support on more than one occasion.  I am far from unique in this regard.  What caught my eye was the number of children I saw with a cell phone in hand – not their own (although there were no doubt some pre-tween kids among the throngs who did indeed have the pleasure of owning a very expensive smart phone, though I hesitate to think they were the norm), but a parent’s phone, which they used to play games, watch YouTube and generally make the tedium of shopping less pronounced.  What struck me as relevant is that when asked in surveys, the data frequently comes back saying that parent’s rarely give over their phones to the kiddies while shopping.  Observations in the field would imply quite the opposite is true.  Mobile phone use in a shopping environment is not just about the owner of the phone, it is about the parent/child dynamic and the underlying practices that go beyond procurement of goods.

Why does it matter?  It matters because while we have plenty of data about what people say they do, we have precious few insights about what’s really going on.  We are still in the wild west mentality of mobile design and need to get a better understanding of the range of contexts as we design mobile experiences for shoppers.  One size does not fit all and the numbers, while compelling, mean little if we don’t address the bigger questions under the surface.  It matters because a good mobile design and a creative mobile strategy can mean the difference between a useful application and a waste of millions of dollars in development, reduced brand equity, etc.

As another example, look at the numbers around the Hispanic market.  The numbers show that Hispanics are generally younger and more technologically savvy. AOL’s Hispanic Cyberstudy reports 46% of Hispanics who are actively online are under the age of 35.  32% of Hispanics access the Internet through their smartphones, compared to 20% of the general market. With roughly $1.3 trillion in buying it’s no wonder that Hispanics are a significant target for marketers.  But the numbers don’t address the bigger questions.

First, which “Hispanics” are we talking about?  Do the numbers refer to 3rd generation Cuban Americans with money or 1st generation Guatemalan farm workers? While or bias would probably lead us to assume the latter isn’t using a smart phone to shop, there is neither qualitative nor quantitative evidence to support this; is simply a matter of our own prejudices and preconceived notions about immigrants.  Second, Hispanics skew younger as a whole when compared against the total US population, so of course they are accessing the web through their phones more frequently than the general market – the data show that this is the case for all younger shoppers, so the difference between Hispanics and everyone else is misleading.  Finally, simply being online via a mobile device doesn’t necessarily mean ecommerce is taking place or that it is even desired.  Is the phone being used to supplement computer-based online interaction or is it a surrogate?  Do the numbers even reflect  use or do they reflect self perceptions, desires, the search for status, etc.? The point is that while we can infer quite a bit from the numbers, we are filtering them through our own biases.  Until we rethink the questions a bit we are designing based on potentially false assumptions.

Regardless of the populations to which we want to cater, designing a good mobile experience should entail getting on the ground and spending time learning what’s really going on.  And sometimes that means getting inventive about how we gather insights.  For example, if you want to understand how a good mobile banking site should operate, it isn’t enough to know the numbers of people using financial apps.  You need to understand how they conceive of money, when they do their banking (e.g. work, at home once everyone is in bed, on the train, etc.), and how they view their bank (many people hate their bank, but the cost of switching doesn’t outweigh the pain).  If you want to understand what the ramification of something going wrong are, spend time looking at mobile transactions in a place like Afghanistan, where banking can be a deadly affair – whatever people are doing in a place where bad mobile design can get you killed will probably shed some light on what is and isn’t necessary the world over.

The point is simple.  Good mobile design means getting your hands dirty and learning how context shapes how people use a given app or mobile site.  If all you have are statistics, you’re bound to create a solution that addresses the wrong problem.

Staging Retail

Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc. Shopping is seen as a function first and something that serves emotional and social needs second. But as incomes have grown, not just in North America but across much of the globe, access to goods has exploded and free time has increased.  And it isn’t just things we need for survival – brands, design, luxury have al begun to drive how and where people shop. Shopping has become an increasingly socio-cultural process that is used to define status, world view and a host of other things.  Granted, shopping has always been about these things to one degree or another, but in this postmodern world where we are increasingly defined by the things we own and the places we go, the intangible increasingly outweighs the tactile, the symbolic supplants the functional.  Shopping, as I’ve said before, is entertainment. Even in an unstable economy, the decision to buy is driven as much by value as it is by need (perceived and real). In fact, entertainment and a memorable in-store experience probably have more to do with a sale than the product or the ease with which people find it. Choice equates with enjoyment, turning shopping from labor to leisure.

As I have said in the past, entertainment is not the only way to look at shopping, but it does provide a different lens through which we can examine a retail space. Shopping becomes entertainment depending upon the function, need, and desire for the object being shopped. For example, shopping for bras can sometimes be a pain in the butt if it is “needed” for a “utilitarian function” (a “work bra”), but it can become entertainment if the bra is “desired” for other cultural functions. People can also use shopping at second hand stores as a form of entertainment if there is a piece of clothing that is “desired” (a cheap pair of designer jeans), yet if one “needs” to shop for work attire at second hand shops because of a limited budget, it can cease to be entertainment and fall into the world of “errand.”

However, even big box stores, seemingly devoid of emotional or cultural dimension are invariably about more than getting that 25 pound block of cheese.  As an example, a participant I worked with not long ago spent every Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at his local Coscto, even though the purchases he made “rarely added up to a car full of products,” or so he believed – in reality he spent quite a bit at Costco, quite happily in fact.  But he chose to think of himself as spending les than he did because Costco was a place of rich meaning to him, not a place of transactions.  And as we talked, it became evident that believing he spent less than he did was a way of diminishing the transactional element of the shopping trip. He used Costco as a destination. It was a cheap lunch for his kids, it was an inexpensive adventure for his children while he gave his wife a break from the kids and it was a place he could teach his children about the value of a good deal.  Costco became a setting for instilling certain cultural values in his offspring.  It was also a place where both he and his children could play (indeed, he referred to it frequently as a play ground). While this example may seem extreme, it is meant to convey a simple point: people use retail spaces in unexpected ways.  The more you understand what the retail space means beyond the obvious location of things, the more likely you are to create a repeat customer.

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. According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2010. More stores means more opportunity win customers. Or to lose them. Increasing sales revolves around more than getting people in the store, it involves getting them to think of the store as a destination and thinking of it as a “Place” rather than a “Space.” Place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. One of the most affective ways to do this is to incorporate people into an entertainment experience and directly involve them in the story.

Again, there are a host of ways to think about the retail environment beyond functionality, entertainment being one of many.  It just happens to be an approach I find very useful.  The point is to think about the space more broadly and consider dimensions that you may have overlooked in the past.  So what are some of those dimensions?

Language:

In the past, language emphasized the skill and mastery involved in shopping. There were very real, practical results stemming from skill as a home manager. With time, the primal need to “hunt” has changed. Hunting and production are no longer about survival, but about the challenge and the social capital it brings. Lines between work and leisure are blurred. Language used in advertising and inside the retail space needs to speak to the romanticized view of the hunt as much as it does the material benefits of the products. Rather than speaking about functional benefits, the focus needs to reflect on the social capital gained by the shopper and the storyline of the shopper’s life (or desired, projected life).

The Stage:

The store is indicative of a theater. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space 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 retail space 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 facade.

Foster Social Roles:

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 has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Natural space is replaced by constructed space. Retail spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space leads to a greater sense of calm and reinforces 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.