I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

The purchase funnel was relatively straight-forward. Media channels were few and generally well controlled. The consumer’s access to product and pricing information was limited. Distribution channels were highly disciplined. Communication was largely one-way. Marketing plans were often drawn up just once year and any changes required substantial lead times. Mass marketing ruled the day.

Today? Well not so much.

The shift of power away from brands to consumers has been swift and profound. The advent of search unleashed a tsunami of information access that tipped the balance of power irretrievably. The rise of social networks allowed for tribes to connect more easily to share ideas, reviews and instantly understand that people like us do stuff like this. The rapid adoption of smart devices has meant that most consumers now have access to just about anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyway. We no longer go online, we live online.

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

They continue peddling average products for average people, when no customer wants to be average. With nothing new and interesting to say, they simply shout it louder and more often. Many retail brands continue to rely on one-size-fits-all strategies when those programs rarely get noticed, must less drive any profitable business. In today’s attention economy these efforts remain merely a dim signal amidst the noise.

The power shift away from the brand to the individual consumer and the power of the tribe is upon us. Retail has a new immediacy. Retail is now much more ME-tail and WE-tail than some holistic top down strategy cooked up in a conference room. Don’t kid yourself–you’ve never been less in control than right this very minute. And that’s not changing.

The individual is the captain. The collective “we” increasingly rules the roost. And unlike in Captain Phillips, no one is coming to save us. We can only accept this reality, let go of the past and work with a new set of rules and tools.

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The new retail ecosystem: NRF edition 

For quite some time, we’ve thought about stores, catalogs and the internet as distinct shopping entities. Today the blended channel is the only channel.

For quite some time, we’ve run our retail businesses as a loose affiliation of vertical departments and systems. Today we see that brands are horizontal and that silos belong on farms.

For quite some time, we’ve talked about customers “going online.” Today, most customers practically live online and there is a “nowness” to marketing that we’ve never experienced.

For quite some time, we’ve said that product is everything. Today, product is clearly important, but experience has a way of making product secondary.

For quite some time, the front door of our store was literal and faced the street or the interior corridor of the mall. Today–increasingly–it is often virtual. And dynamic. And you’re probably holding it in your hand right now.

For quite some time, we started to believe that physical stores were dying and that most categories would be revolutionized by “online only” brands. Well, physical retail IS becoming different, but it’s not going away. And–plot twist–pure play retail is on its death bed.

For quite some time, we’ve evaluated store closings on the straightforward four-wall profit contribution and costs of exiting a lease. Today, a physical location is merely one manifestation of a brand, serving to fulfill a digital intent while also serving as a gateway to e-commerce–a relationship portal of sorts.

For quite some time, marketing was mostly one-size-fits-all. Today, as the world grows ever noisier, it’s harder to detect the signal amidst the clutter, the cacophony and the downright boring. The burden has shifted to becoming more relevant, more personalized, more remarkable.

At NRF, we’re already hearing some speakers make some or all of these points as if they are revelations, when they are merely after the fact observations and, more likely than not, strong evidence of a lead from behind strategy.

The new retail ecosystem has been coming into shape for more than a decade. The most salient and actionable points have been obvious for years. That is, if one were really paying attention and truly committed to a plan of action.

As much as I might hope that the really juicy and useful stuff were shared at a conference in a room filled with the competition, alas, my experience tells me otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

Confusing the offering with the story

We’re typically pretty good at laying out the features and benefits; at explaining all the reasons why our product offering is superior to the competition’s and why it makes perfect sense that you should choose us.

Unfortunately when the consumer is overwhelmed by choice, when it’s hard to get them to even notice us–much less take the time to do the rationale calculation we are depending on–and when all too often price can be the default tie-breaker, all that focus on defining and hyping our offering may not benefit us very much at all.

If you think Apple wins because of its superiority in a head to head features comparison, think again.

If you believe folks pay a huge premium for a Louis Vuitton handbag because of the demonstrably superior raw materials, fabrication and stitching, I’d beg to differ.

The idea that the $250 cream or scent being hawked at the cosmetics counters at your favorite fancy department store “works” meaningfully better than what’s readily available at your local drug store is pure folly.

Unless it’s all about price, people buy the story before they buy the product. We get in trouble when we don’t understand the differences and the priority.

The road to your brand

When the customers you wish to acquire and grow think about your brand is there a closeness and connection that instantly arises, or do they see it as far off with the road to relevance marred by potholes and other sources of friction?

Are they moving closer or drifting farther away? Do you even know?

In an attempt to draw distant consumers closer we are often tempted to create an express lane paved with discounts and other give-aways. While this serves the purpose of shortening their journey (and goosing our top-line) this frequently proves to be uneconomic and unsustainable.

As we craft a more compelling customer growth strategy a few things are worth pondering, I think.

How far is the distance to our brand?

Are there customers that are simply too far away and should be ignored?

For each of the segments we desire to grow, what does the road to our brand look like?

What can we do to smooth the journey?

Once they arrive, what can we do to make them feel especially welcome?

And what can we do that is so remarkable that they will want to invite their friends?

A place to buy things

What do your customers really think of you?

Do they have a compelling story to tell about your brand? Have they had experiences that deeply resonate with them? Do they proactively advocate on your behalf? Can they easily justify the premium they choose to pay? Would they give you another chance if you screwed up?

Or, when it comes down to it, in their minds and hearts, you’re merely a place to buy things?

And when there’s a slightly better price–or a marginally more convenient option–they jump at the opportunity, without a trace of regret.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff

We live in a world of expanding choice. A world where–if we are fortunate enough to have the money–almost anything can be purchased from almost anywhere in the world almost anytime we want. With the smart phone as a growing (and often omnipresent) access point, the web provides the portal to nearly infinite information and virtually unlimited products and services.

At one level this is a consumer bonanza. Limited data can now rarely be seen as a barrier to purchase. Prices are down, selection is up. A click replaces waiting until the store opens. Products come to us, rather than us going to them. Consumers are empowered in ways never thought imaginable.

Yet, more and more, we are faced with a tsunami of stuff. A bewildering array of seemingly undifferentiated products. Look-alike websites and marketing schemes. In-boxes chock-a-block with one-size-fits-all promotions. Spam, spam, spam, spam.

This growing mass of information and options–often combined with unrelenting interruption marketing–can be overwhelming. When the distracted consumer is the norm and it becomes increasingly harder to separate the signal from the noise, more is often less.

As our customers’ world grows ever noisier our reflexive response is often to dial things up to 11. Resist that urge.

The new battle ground is for share of attention. And we earn and command attention not through shouting louder than everyone else, throwing more at the wall to see what sticks or defaulting to using price as the only arrow in our quiver.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to know more about our customers than the competition and to turn that insight into intensely relevant products and experiences.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to eschew mass marketing techniques and to move aggressively toward more personalization and customization.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to embrace editing and curation as a fundamental competency.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to ruthlessly root out the friction in our customer experience and to distort those things we wish to amplify to the truly remarkable.

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HT to Barry Schwartz and his TED talk on the The Paradox of Choice