By Richard Palmer, head of strategy at digital consultancy Appnovation
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Covid-19 has brought out the best in retail brands. This was especially evident on the supermarket frontline, where uncomplaining staff provided reassurance and support as anxious customers descended on food aisles last year. But it has also been apparent in other ways, from Dermalogica’s “in this together” live streams offering self-care and financial tips, to Deliveroo providing half a million free meals, to NHS key workers. Free Covid tests, medical supply and food donations, designated shopping times for vulnerable shoppers, and support networks for employees have all been hallmarks of the sector’s dynamic prosocial response.
With the success of the UK’s vaccine programme now promising a social and economic recovery, there’s an obvious temptation among retailers to go back to the way it was before. But the reality is that the empathetic approach that has accelerated during the pandemic should be as much a part of the new normal as booster jabs.
In part, this is because the post-Covid period will continue to present consumers with serious economic and mental health challenges. But it’s also because the nature of consumer/retailer relationships has changed fundamentally as a result of two key factors that accelerated during the pandemic. Firstly, a greater emphasis on social inclusion and embracing diverse voices. Secondly, a much broader usage of digital channels – initially enforced by lockdowns but now habitual consumer behaviour.
Against this backdrop, retailers will quickly realise they need to keep up the momentum by asking audiences “how can we serve?” rather than “how can we sell?”. Below are four key lessons brands will need to absorb if they are to capitalise on their progress:
Empathy is integral to business growth: A recent study concluded that experience is now the top driver of purchase intent. In other words, brands need to stop dwelling on customer loyalty and price promotions, and start thinking about how they can function effectively in this experience economy. Key to achieving this in the current climate of frustration, anxiety and uncertainty is empathy. The ability to connect with consumers at an emotional level, often in surprising and unexpected ways, is a powerful way to win long-term friends. For example, sustainable sneakers brand Cariuma sends hand-written notes that explain exactly how many trees are being planted, and where, in return for each new order – a thoughtful gesture that chimes well with the company’s eco-conscious customers. Meanwhile, startup fitness brand Zaazee often gifts its customers with a surprise freebie on big orders, illustrating a personal touch that larger competitors are often not agile enough to replicate. That said, tissue brand Kleenex has proved it is possible for a large FMCG brand to connect with consumers, with its surprise “Kleenex Kits” of get-well items sent to those in need of a lift.
Brands must seek out customer pain points: Historically brands have been good at smoothing over weakness or deflecting blame. But that doesn’t work in a world where the smallest incident can blow up instantly on social media (Ronaldo’s Coca-Cola moment springs to mind). The best antidote is for brands to put themselves firmly in the shoes of their customers. They must identify the frustrations their target customers come up against, then solve them – becoming indispensable in the process. Amazon lockers are a classic example of how real world innovation helped tackle the bugbear of missed deliveries. Digital sizing tech, meanwhile, helps brands like ASOS to combat the problem of consumers picking the wrong garment. In a similar vein, Pinterest recently expanded its AR ‘Try On’ tools, with lipsticks and eyeshadows available in more than 10,000 shoppable shades – a neat replication of the in-store experience.
The process of understanding the customer perspective has never been easier thanks to tech advances in AI and social listening. Nike, for example, has its own reactive support hub on Twitter, Nike Service, that jumps in and helps customers with queries or complaints in three different languages. US burger chain Wendy’s famously changed the salt composition in its fries after listening to customer conversations.
A tangible sense of community is more important than ever: Uncertain times often trigger an instinct to sell hard – something that is currently noticeable among small holiday businesses as they try to make up lost ground. But progressive brands need to take a step back and consider how to consolidate the sense of connectedness and community many people felt under lockdown. This could be via a major initiative, e.g. the “Ebay for Change” programme, a multi-million-pound training and support package for small businesses that reinvests profits back into local communities. Or it could be by directly connecting charitable activities to business performance, as insurer Lemonade has done. While these are both bold large scale initiatives, community spirit can be fostered through smaller, iterative steps such as online masterclasses, user-generated competitions and a humorous, empathetic tone on social channels. Itzy Ritzy (parenting) and Gymshark (fitness) are just a couple of brands that have understood the positive energy that comes with online community activities.
Invest in omnichannel infrastructure for seamless UX: 51% of consumers claim that most companies don’t meet their expectations for a great experience. Increasingly, a key reason for this is that their ecosystems are out of step with the way people shift seamlessly across devices and channels. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a laptop, an in-store kiosk, an IRL sales person, or a phone call with an AI assistant, consumers should be able to start an interaction at any of these touchpoints and have it picked up seamlessly at their next encounter with the brand. To this end, brands which build for a constantly developing landscape, using approaches designed for modular management, are finding it easier to evolve with their audience. More and more brands are shifting to composable architecture which allows them to build experiences that consumers can access smoothly across multiple channels, even as those channels come and go.
Disney, Nike, Oasis and IKEA are just a few well-known brands that have reinforced the quality of their engagement with well-designed omnichannel models. And it’s perhaps no surprise that they also score well in areas like empathy and community.
The power of partnerships
A final message for retailers in the post-Covid age is that they don’t need to go it alone. Now, more than ever, collaborations are a way for brands to connect with new audiences that are demanding unusual and differentiated experiences. They just need to make sure that any partners are on the same wavelength when it comes to capturing values of empathy and community; as well as the centrality of the friction-free omnichannel experience.