How Brands Can Pivot In A World Beyond Lockdowns

Andrew Dunbar, General Manager EMEA at digital consultancy Appnovation, explains why brands should draw on a hybrid commerce model to thrive in the post-Covid age. 

Much has been made of the Covid-fuelled digital transformation over the past year, with brands deftly fitting an average of seven years of progress in online presence and products in a matter of just months (McKinsey). But, as we look ahead to a new wave of winners and losers – yet to be decided in the post-Covid flux – businesses that walk the line between digital and real worlds may well come off the best.

To understand this logic, you only have to look at the market uncertainty that has accompanied global lockdown easing efforts. With Netflix shares tumbling in the latest quarter, investors are weighing in behind a new wave of post-sofa hopefuls; including restaurants, high street retail, travel firms and even cinemas.

These businesses are buoyed by forecasts of pent-up consumer demand, accrued through months of at-home living (indeed, many UK pubs have run dry from the sheer volume of punters since reopening on April 12). But the situation is far from clearcut. Even as Netflix subscribers fall short, other “victors” of the pandemic – including the booming cycling sector – continue to gain pace.

With volatile headwinds swirling, brands urgently need agility on their side: a quality that increasingly depends on their ability to fuse on- and offline delivery. It’s only with a hybrid, non-siloed approach to commerce that retailers can outstrip consumer expectations, and remain flexible in the face of increasingly fluid demand.

The rise of ‘surprise and delight’ collaborations 

One way to pull together digital and real-world offerings is via unexpected partnerships. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty teamed up with bubble tea makers HEYTEA last year, promoting its new “Cheeks Out” cream blush collection via a Weibo lottery of limited edition products available to dedicated fans. Meanwhile, Oreo recently unveiled “pink-colored Golden Oreo cookies” in collaboration with Lady Gaga and her sixth studio album, in a fusion marked by a digital scavenger hunt. And fashion powerhouse Fendi partnered with New York visual artist Sarah Coleman for a “disruptive” SS21 capsule collection this spring, featuring limited edition items such as a Fendi Polaroid camera, Bento box and even Fendi camping equipment.

The joy of collaborations like these rests in their power to surprise and delight consumers. By conjuring up bold and fanciful product releases spanning oppositional worlds, they tap directly into that money-can’t-buy value of original experience. And CX, as we know, is a key differentiator at a point when consumers are saturated in options and choice. The parameters of brand loyalty may be shifting due to the pandemic, but – because they can’t be replicated – imaginative partnerships are still effective in cutting through unpredictable demand.

Products curated by intention and outcome

Another advantage of collaborations is that they can stitch together audience reach across brand demographics that would normally be distinct. For example, not many people would think of South Korean cult beauty line Etude House in the same breath as chocolate giant Hershey: which made their 2020 candy-inspired fusion collection all the more genius. Not only was the makeup edit – including moreish products such as a Cookies ‘N’ Creme eyeshadow palette – in hot demand, it also put Etude’s audience in direct alignment with Hershey’s. 

Another way to attract new, cross-pollinated audiences for conversation and conversion post-Covid is by thinking holistically in product curation. Brands that navigate the digital-first landscape most successfully will look beyond traditional product categories to examine wider consumer purpose and motivation in the retail space.

Take the $1.5 trillion wellness market, now more mainstream than ever with the pandemic driving home focus on self-care. Gucci’s unlikely collaboration with The North Face made the most of this groundswell, bringing a high-fashion edge to outdoor gear. The collection saw two polar-opposite brands unite and cross-sell opportunities on the mantle of wellness; as seen through a prism of values around exploration and the Great Outdoors.

Leveraging the relationship between real and digital touchpoints

So collaborations go some way in creating a strong hybrid model, with digital and physical innovation coming together within the realm of standout CX. But for brands to cement this relationship between online and physical spheres, a watertight omnichannel strategy is all but essential.

Online-led clothing retailer Everlane, for example, allows shoppers to check the inventory of its “modern basics” collections at any brick-and-mortar store within 50 miles of the customer’s location. The same customer can then order kerbside pick-up of their online orders, for minimal interaction and queues. Streetwear brand Culture Kings is another great example of the interplay between online-to-offline commerce. Culture Kings joined forces with Shopify Plus to overhaul its online presence, including a “Shop The Look” page where stylists curate digital outfits and make personal recommendations, replicating in-store services.

The result is an online arena that mimics the “streetwear utopia” of Culture Kings’ flagship brick-and-mortar stores. The latter delivers a must-try experience, featuring everything from quirky venues and giant LED screens to in-store DJs and art installations. It’s there to offer an immersive shopping experience and double down on brand positioning – but without the expectation of sales, which are now 60 percent online (with YoY growth of +40% each year since 2013).

This kind of approach shows how well online and offline channels can work together to enhance one another (sometimes with a physical retail location delivering stronger spend results, too, as is the case with luxury resale marketplace The RealReal).

Digital tools aren’t a replacement for real-world shopping; instead, they can tether physical engagement in a post-lockdown era. It’s the perfect structure for a period that will usher in multiple online and offline touchpoints in the customer journey, demanding a flawless pendulum between both.

A powerhouse infrastructure to seal the deal

Those hoping for calmer seas after the storm of Covid are in for a disappointment: with some brands thriving and others disappearing altogether, the tumult will continue for some time yet. As with all crises, however, this one comes with opportunity. With most businesses having supersized their digital capacities under lockdown, now is the time to keep the momentum going.

Carving out a call-and-response dynamic between online and offline commerce – rather than treating them as separate entities – will help navigate the new consumer environment. Exclusive partnerships, purpose-driven curations and multiple touchpoints are all part of this vision. But perhaps the most vital part of the puzzle is technical maturity, allowing for fast ideation and agile development in any local market worldwide.

This revolves around the important mainstay of headless commerce architecture, to deliver content and products to any screen or device with the help of APIs. Technology like this should be increasingly accessible and repeatable, so that all business strands of a brand can use it to experiment and iterate, adapting to the kind of lean success mentality that is so central to competitive advantage in a post-Covid age.[adbutler zone_id=”376259″