Once upon a time, there was a woman who desired a new pair of shoes. She knew the pair she wanted (she’d coveted them from a particular brand for years) and she went to the store to find them. Inside, surrounded by the magical world of the brand and among carefully curated products, she saw them. A sales assistant helped her find her size and fit, all the while explaining the inspiration behind them, their place as a signature style for the company and even a couple of anecdotes about famous fans of the very same pair. Delighted with her choice, the woman watched in eager anticipation as her shoes were wrapped and boxed so she could take them home. She excitedly called a friend on her return to share new shoe news and the friend, upon hearing the tales of the many wonders in store, decided to pay a visit the very next day…
Of course, this story is now more a legend of history than common experience. Not necessarily the in-store purchase, but the end-to-end offline influence on the purchase. The woman today would have been targeted by the shoe brand on every social channel, or perhaps seen it as a display banner as she caught up with the Oscars gossip on Marie Claire online. Once clicked, even fleetingly, those shoes would follow her around the web, sitting prettily just in eye line. Retailers have got exceptionally good at selling to you when you least expect it. You don’t have to be primed for a day in Westfield to be open to new purchases – you could be reading the paper on your iPad, or scrolling through your friend’s Facebook updates, and before you know it you’re two clicks from the shoes. Or a saucepan. Or a car.
Deloitte, in its Consumer Review on 'The Growing Power of Consumers' explains how digital disrupted the traditional path to purchase and the shift in power from the brand, to the consumer:
"Instead of a funnel-shaped selection process, consumer journeys are now subject to interruptions, diversions and delays. Moreover, when considering a purchase, consumers prefer to ‘pull’ information, rather than have businesses ‘push’ it to them. For example, consumers are now actively looking for inspiration by exploring other consumers’ social media profiles rather than expecting brands to inspire them through traditional advertising."
The opportunities offered by the last decade’s digital disruption have seen brands, and especially the luxury brands that I work most frequently with, shoring up resources to be ever-present in the customer’s digital universe. What may have once been considered pushy marketing or over-zealous product hawking, especially in the lofty world of luxury, has now given way to teams of digital advertising and CRM experts getting you onto their site, and that new pair of shoes into your cart.
All this is brilliant for the online retail teams and their supporting satellites. Company's digital flagships have seeing exponential growth in their digital sales, often so far ahead of store sales that even bricks and mortar flagships on New Bond Street are a distant second place. There is no longer a stigma in buying (or indeed selling) luxury products online, and customers are spending more and more without ever seeing a product in real life. But the trade-off for being so good at selling so quickly online is that a brand's story or purpose can be lost, overlooked in favour of robust conversion rates and impressive numbers in Google Analytics. After years of a go-hard-go-fast approach to pushing online retail, brands have fallen into the shadow of the products they sell. All very well when one pair of shoes goes viral and sells out, not so helpful when a brand is trying to stand out in a marketplace overcrowded with similar propositions and product categories.
A decade ago, the 'quick buy' approach offered by a digital store was considered the end goal, dangling the new and shiny carrot of instant gratification in front of a new generation of consumers. Yet now, with Millennials holding the consumer power and demanding different experiences from the web (and from life) the conversations have turned to authenticity and the reasons to buy beyond the product. They, and the next generation of consumers, grew up digitally and so aren't impressed by the mere fact that they can buy online: it is expected. Instead, they are demanding more from the brands that present themselves in their digital universe.
Luckily, many brands (and their agencies) have started to remember that they have stories to tell and are finding innovative ways to immerse customers in their world, rather than just selling them things. Without a fleet of store staff trained to tell the right stories at the right time, brands need ways to create more meaningful, engaging moments online. The likes of Facebook and Google responded in kind, introducing advertising formats such as Canvas and 360 ads to encourage customers to engage with the brand behind the product. But while we can now all step inside a London Fashion Week show or take a virtual tour of a new store in Tokyo, the sweet spot is finding authentic ways to use all this new technology to tell a brand's core stories and share its philosophy. But before that, to even to know what the story is at all. After years of 'buy me now' digital strategies and the temptation of innovation (sometimes adding value to the consumer experience, more often than not used for PR gimmicks), the most common marketing challenge facing both new and established brands is the existential crisis of communications: what do we stand for? What are we trying to achieve? What is our WHY?
After leading the charge as digital content pioneers for the best part of a decade, Burberry realised that the core brand story had been lost in its race for innovation and shoppable catwalks. Their solution was to redress the balance with a beautiful film in late 2016 about its founder, Thomas Burberry, with a Hollywood cast and feature-film-worthy budget to do it. Supported with, of course, a 360 marketing campaign that included its in-store experience and out of home advertising, the film was seen by the industry and by the customer as a brilliant piece of genuine brand storytelling, with only indirect commercial intent. I’m usually cynical about the over-promotion of brands who can afford to saturate the advertising space with blanket coverage, but it warmed my heart to see a brand go back to its roots and champion its heritage over the shiny magpie 'just buy this' approach.
Very few brands have Burberry's budget or resources in their quest for good brand storytelling. But it is not about producing a feature film or immersive 360 ad. It’s about a new approach (or, actually, a back-to-basics approach) to marketing that is not confined by reach or conversion but rather by asking – what’s the story? Sure, a Facebook canvas ad or targeted Instagram Stories campaign are the ways to get it in front of your audience, but they are the tools, not the story. The glossiest of films is not a 'purpose' in itself. We're all tired of there conversations around 'content' but that's because everything is content. But what is relevant? What is authentic? Why are you producing that photoshoot or video? The best advice is this: slow down and stop creating advertising for advertising's sake. Instead, remember why you do what you do rather than what you sell.
British brand Jigsaw did this in a wonderful way with their recent 'Britishness is not 100% British' campaign. Born out of their internal team's thoughts on Brexit and the narrowing perceptions of immigration, Jigsaw wanted to reinforce that they were proudly British and champions of British style, but wanted to explore what being British meant to them, and to their customers. Although it was reported that there was some negative backlash against the campaign and there was an assumption that Jigsaw might lose some customers, it was also seen as a refreshingly strong statement of brand purpose and philosophy in a sea of vapid communications from fashion competitors.
If you define a strong brand purpose then you can be proud of who you are. Your stories will be authentic and will allow customers to fall in love and be drawn to you, rather than being chased as a transaction. It is important, especially for luxury retailers, to leave room in robust commercial calendars for inspiration and intrigue. To invite customers into your brand universe online in the same way you tempt them into stores. Once you have the story, you can then find the most meaningful ways to reach your customers. It's not always about appearing everywhere (and for most, it's just not possible) but rather about appearing in the most genuine, relevant places for your audience. Whether you’re a new brand trying to find your voice or an established one who’s gone a bit off-track, try going back to the why. There are so many tools to help you amplify, a veritable technology candy store – but you need to know your story first.