Mastering Context: The New Digital Frontier
As brand marketers, we often believe we’ve seen the apex of new and unique ways to reach consumers as well as the levels of personalization a product can offer. As a brand marketer and digital strategist at Mars for eight years before joining Salsify, I’ve seen the struggle to maintain brand identity and relevance firsthand. However, the truth is closer to what Jeff Bezos wrote in a now infamous letter to shareholders: “customers are … divinely discontent.” The trajectory of customer expectations will always extend, and just when we think we’ve met those expectations and gotten “there," ”there” moves.
Personalization of Old vs. Realities of Today
When I was in middle school, my mom and I shopped for special occasion clothing at one local store. The sales reps, a pair of little old ladies, knew our family and they could personalize my shopping experience by combining their knowledge of me, the occasion, our budget and the inventory at the store. We trusted them and their recommendations, and purchased clothing each time.
It wasn’t too long before the mom-and-pop experience I had in that small dress shop was replaced by shopping malls and department stores, then departments based on gender and age gave way to departments led by brands.
Today I can more easily shop from a clothing manufacturer halfway around the world than a mile away, and I can probably get a better price and a bigger selection, but do they know me? Do they understand the occasion? Do they understand that it won’t feel like spring in Chicago until mid-May, and that I would never wear anything in millennial pink?
Context vs. Consistency
As a brand marketer, you're taught that brand consistency leads to increased purchases, that mental salience is built by repeated exposure to the same thing over time. You were conditioned to use the same colors, same words, same images, same font — you get the picture. Repetition as a form of brand loyalty creation was the name of the game for decades.
In today’s retail environment, this traditional best practice is being turned on its head. Brands are being asked to flex their identity to personalize experiences on the fly. Customers expect brands to understand their wants and needs and make relevant products readily available to them.
The Nike Melrose store is a perfect example of a brand's effort to flex its identity. While staying true to the core principles behind a Nike-branded experience — the concept of heroic athleticism and self-empowerment — even at a small scale, the look and feel as well as the merchandising of this store is based on of a subset of Nike consumers specific to a neighborhood in Los Angeles. This is a big change from the days we used to believe that every flagship experience needed to exist with the same language, in the same colors, with the same best-selling merchandise.
Mass Personalization of the Retail Environment
Let’s look at some other examples of brands leveraging their knowledge of customer preferences to drive superior experiences and sales. Whole Foods Markets recent digital product catalog is a good example of this trend. The Amazon.com-owned retailer announced the ability for consumers to tailor their searches based on dietary preferences. McDonald’s also recently announced its intention to use consumer data collected through its mobile app to determine what items are highlighted on all its digital menus. The goal is for McDonald's menus (both drive-throughs and in-store) to offer more personalized products and promotions based on who is there, favorite orders at the location, and local weather conditions (e.g., include refreshing foods on hotter days and comfort food on colder days). Grocery chain Kroger announced a partnership with Microsoft that includes digital shelves, which can be used to personalize descriptions and product experiences both in-store and online. This approach seems to be the digital equivalent of the little old ladies in the dress store, with data acting as our “trusted advisors.”
Advanced Personalization is Here, and it’s Hard
Beyond flexing brand identity according to who is purchasing, the same product — with a number of variants — might be sold using different language depending on what’s important to shoppers in one retail experience (price) vs another (ingredients).
You can think about this as the shift from brand loyalty to product loyalty. It's a focus on what something is, where it is, what it does, and how well it fits my need vs. searching for the same brand over and over again. Sometimes this will mean the same product showing up in a new occasion, and sometimes this will mean introducing a more personalized product into the market.
This type of personalization based on context relies on access to customer data and understanding. Most large global brands are still encountering challenges knowing and understanding their customers as retailers and tech companies add to the distance between a brand and its end consumer. Gone are the days of category captainship when brands understood their customers more than their retail partners. The requirements for retailers were less demanding and less complex. The retailer was the physical vehicle for the brand and a place for consumers to get ahold of the product itself. In this model, the in-store brand experience was determined and negotiated ahead of time, and brands could advise retailers on the ins and outs of a specific category and leverage new product launches or increased investment in marketing campaigns to gain more shelf real estate. The consumer was also a “captive audience” shopping the same store or set of shelves over and over again.
As the digital point of purchase becomes the key to understanding category buying behavior, and consumer expectations around personal, contextual buying increase, brands no longer have the same predictability of purchase and they don't have access to the type of data that would allow them to do enough innovation around consumer experiences. It's exponentially harder now to be an evolving brand. Brand marketers must develop creative ways to close the intelligence gap or risk facing invisibility and general irrelevance. My next article will be about the hard strategy and tactics brands should be thinking about and employing in order to successfully make the transition from driving volumes to exploring context.
Molly Schonthal is the vice president of strategy and innovation at Salsify, a product experience management platform.
Related story: Applying the Netflix Customer Experience to Retail
Molly Schonthal is the Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Salsify, a product experience management platform.
Sitting at the intersection between digital innovation, marketing, e-commerce and technology, Molly has succeeded in mobilizing large organizations like Wrigley, Mars and Nokia around important opportunities, re-framing strategies taking the (technology-enabled) future into mind. Throughout her career, Molly has been a pioneer in connecting technology to business growth. At Mars, she built the first cross-functional (sales + marketing), cross-segment (confections, pet, food) technology roadmap and tripled funding for these initiatives in just under 3 years. Molly, once a Salisfy customer, now sits on the "other side of the table in her dream job, helping Salsify and its customers imagine the future and balance what’s needed with what’s next.