The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed

While many brands were slow to drink the omni-channel Kool-Aid, failing to recognize a fundamental shift in consumer behavior that began over a decade ago, most are now throwing gobs of money at various cross-channel marketing and “seamless integration” initiatives. Breathless pronouncements fill industry presentations and press releases. CEO’s throw around terms like “channel agnostic” and “the blur” as casually as they talk about the most recent quarter’s earnings per share. Many have even created new positions with “omni-channel” featured prominently in the titles.

As someone who has been beating the one brand, many channels drum for a long, long time, I’m hardly one to criticize the thrust of these efforts. Yet as many brands invest people, technology and dollars in search of a cohesive blended channel, frictionless commerce strategy, one very critical consideration must be kept front and center. I call it omni-channel’s migration dilemma.

The growth of online commerce and digital marketing impacts different brand’s marginal economics differently. We know for sure that building out e-commerce, mobile and other digital capabilities is expensive. Investing in consumer friendly technology like order online and pickup in store requires costly technology and process redesign work. If all that happens is that companies spend a bunch of money to merely spread the same amount of revenue over their traditional and digital sales channels, profits gets worse not better.

The story is even more depressing if a company sells lower priced items. In most cases, the marginal profitability of selling an item online is lower than selling it in a physical store. Every sale that migrates from a brick and mortar location to e-commerce not only lowers the productivity of the store that lost the sale, but it erodes total company profitability. This can actually be the start of a cycle of store closings and assortment narrowing that is almost certain to end badly.

Some companies clearly understand this phenomenon and have either gone slowly into digital commerce and cross-channel integration or have basically sat on the sidelines. H&M and Primark are some examples. While this may have short-term financial benefits, long-term it’s hard to imagine how these brands can ignore a fundamental and profound shift in consumer dynamics.

The implications of all this are two-fold.

First, most retailers must think of enabling their omni-channel strategy as necessary, but not sufficient. And rather than blindly embracing all things omni-channel, they need to have a deep understanding of their core customer segments priorities and their relative competitive position against those needs. Armed with this information–and rooted in an understanding of the underlying economic drivers–a phased, multi-year and well-reasoned roadmap can be implemented.

Second, and by far most importantly, if a brand lacks a compelling value proposition that generates above average, incrementally profitable future growth, moving into the omni-channel future will only portend lower returns on investment and, potentially, a trip to the retail graveyard. The dynamics of an omni-channel world can be a source of competitive advantage, but only if the underlying brand promise and delivery is relevant and remarkable. Far too many brands are treating omni-channel capabilities as a panacea, when in fact it may ultimately be poison. Unless you’re Amazon (and let’s remember Amazon has never earned a profit) you can’t and shouldn’t avoid being thrust into a blended channel world. But how you do it matters a great deal and you can’t use au courant new tools and technologies to mask problems with your core business model.

The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. Those brands with strong value propositions and compelling economics will use leadership in customer-centricity and frictionless commerce to extend their competitive positions, create strong brand advocates and generate extraordinary financial returns. Those brands that already suffer from a lack of customer connection and relevance will only see their weaknesses made more obvious by the sea changes that are sweeping the industry. Investing in omni-channel may allow them to continue to tread water for a bit, but eventually they will go under. Brands that are stuck in the vast, undifferentiated middle need to pick a lane and get busy. Without breaking out from the pack, investment in omni-channel may allow them to hold serve, but they will never win the game.

 

 

Where were you when the middle collapsed?

In case you haven’t noticed, most markets aren’t growing much–if they are growing at all. In many cases your top-line only expands through stealing market share.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting harder to garner even a modicum of attention. In a world where the amount of noise grows louder by the day and the consumer is deluged with information–and often overwhelmed by choice–if you haven’t amplified something remarkable you’re probably on a fast trip to the brand graveyard.

In case you haven’t noticed, average doesn’t work anymore. Good enough just isn’t.

More and more, success is found at either end of a continuum. At one end of the spectrum, you can go big, winning on scale, assortment, price, convenience and efficiency. At the other end, you can get small, intensely focusing on a comparatively narrow group of consumers and delivering a set of powerfully relevant and highly valued benefits.

More and more, a fundamental choice is emerging. Hazy value propositions, sort of good prices and one-size fits all strategies are losing steam. Trying to carve out a sustainable strategy somewhere along the continuum is becoming untenable. You need to pick a lane, to push toward one of the edges.

Eventually you’re going to get asked: where were you when the middle collapsed?

bridges_down_01

But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.

 

 

No customer wants to be average

It’s only when our experience is terrible that we’d settle for average treatment. But what customer truly wants to be average?

average person

Most of the time, we hope brands know us, show us they know us and show us they value us.

And to do that, companies need to break out of a one-size-fits-all paradigm.

It’s not easy. Which is why so many stores are still filled with average products for average people and our mailboxes–virtual and otherwise–are chock-a-bloc with largely irrelevant pitches and promotions.

It also feels safe, even though it’s anything but. Relying on newspaper circulars and big TV ad campaigns and “Super Saturdays” and the same promotional calendar we ran last year, may bathe us in the warm water of familiarity, but more and more mass marketing strategies are delivering less and less.

Getting closer to the customer–making the choice to treat different customers differently–needs to be more than a slogan. It means busting the silos that get in the way of a unified and seamless experience. It means investing in deeper customer insight and the tools and techniques to deliver progressively more personalized interactions. It means embracing a test and learn mentality.

Mostly, it means radical acceptance of the reality that, for most brands, the only way to grow faster than average is to eschew the average.

 

Unified. Personalized. Amplified.

More and more, the customer is in charge. More and more, your best hope for superior growth–much less staying in business–requires stealing share from the other guys.

Unless you compete primarily on price–and your cost position allows you to win the inevitable race to the bottom–I suggest focusing on three guiding principles if you want to win in an ever noisier, omni-channel world.

Unified.

The lines between shopping (and media) channels grow more blurry by the day. The growth in mobile is making the demarcation between e-commerce and brick & mortar a distinction without a difference. Increasingly, the blended channel is the only channel.

For companies that hope to thrive, this means taking a sledgehammer to silos. Customer data silos. Inventory silos. Organizational silos. This requires eliminating the friction that exists throughout the consumer’s decision and purchasing journey. It necessitates an intense focus on integrating the way the customer interacts with your brand and connecting all the dots on the back-end.

Ultimately, you may tell yourself you have many channels, but from the customer’s perspective there needs to be one brand and a completely unified experience.

Personalized.

One-size-fits-all marketing strategies are becoming less and less effective. An explosion of choices means the battle for share of attention grows ever more intense. For many brands, it’s the end of mass and the beginning of us.

Understanding us–and consistently delivering remarkably relevant experiences and offers to us–puts a premium on deep customer insight. It requires developing ways to address us uniquely and in context. It requires a commitment to experimentation.

The notion of 1to1 marketing has been with us for some time now. At last, the tools to deliver on the promise are becoming readily available at scale. More importantly, the customer expects us to know them, show them we know them and show them we value them as individuals. Ultimately, he who gets closest to the customer wins.

Amplified.

In many industries there is a pervasive sea of sameness. Similar products and services. Nearly indistinguishable (and relentless) sales and promotions. Undifferentiated branding campaigns. Look-alike designs.

It’s always been a solid strategy to have a unique selling proposition. For a long time we’ve known that word-of-mouth is a brand’s most effective advertising. But in today’s world it’s harder and harder to separate the signal from the noise. Without the remarkable–without your purple cow–at best you’ll tread water. At worst, you are out of business.

Without something meaningful and relevant to amplify about your business it’s hard to imagine why anyone will pay attention for very long.  And without a remarkable story to share, it’s hard to imagine how your customers will help amplify your message.

 

Valued or a value?

Most executives will tell you that, regardless of the price point of their product or service, their customer considers what they offer a good value.

At one level, that’s obvious. Both the Dollar Store shopper and the Ferrari buyer must believe that the sum total of the benefits they are receiving exceeds the total cost they are incurring–or why else would they each part with their time and money?

While this sort of left brain thinking is important, powerful, enduring brands deliver something more. Brands that offer a deeper, emotional connection are able to transcend the occasional misstep. They are able to drive their business without layering on endless discounts. Their loyalty is earned not bought. Their customers’ testimony is their best advertising.

When a brand is intrinsically valued by the consumer, the entire relationship operates on a different plane.

Alternatively, if the customer fundamentally sees your brand as “a value” you had better have the sharpest price or the most compelling promotion. You also better be the low-cost competitor. Otherwise,  the inevitable race to the bottom is likely to end badly.

Oh, and if you’re having a hard time figuring out which you are, that’s an even bigger problem.

 

 

 

A-Always, B-Be, C-Connecting

Perhaps you know this scene from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (NSFW).

It’s a classic, not only for Alec Baldwin’s genius performance, but because of what it reveals about our own truth and experience with being sold and marketed to.

By now, we should realize that the pressure tactics revealed in the play and the movie rarely work. And they certainly don’t lead to building trusted long-term relationships.

Yet, many sales people, particularly those on commission, engage in this sort of hunt and kill mentality all the time.

Yet, non-profits relentlessly pitch donations way before we’ve gotten to understand the cause, the work and the lasting impact.

Yet, brand marketers bludgeon us with mass price promotions with little regard to understanding the unique needs and wants of their audiences.

Most people think it’s crazy to talk about getting married on the first date. But many of us engage in similar behavior through our jobs all the time.

Brands, whether they are focused on changing the world or maximizing shareholder value, become powerful when they establish and grow trust through mutually beneficial interactions over time.

If your focus is on closing, it’s easy to erode or destroy any trust that might have been established. If your focus is on engaging, learning, connecting, the opportunity to build something relevant,remarkable and powerful begins to emerge.

Always. Be. Connecting.