Now, retail experiences truly live at the intersection of brand, retailer and lifestyles."

As consumers and retailers continue to grapple with the global pandemic and the realization that a “new normal” is truly going to lead to long-term changes in buying and selling, we’re seeing a long overdue retail renaissance take shape.

COVID-19 has forced the slow-turning battleship that is retail to move faster, essentially packing at least five years of innovation and growth into mere months. As Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon said, “This is just speeding up the significant change the retail industry was already undergoing.”

The pandemic has brought the rapid development of what I call “contextual commerce,” spurred by the need to better understand and engage people on two levels: how they live and how they shop in stores and on their devices. Brands and retailers are compelled to better empathize with what people are going through while giving them avenues to purchase the things they want or need.

Now, retail experiences truly live at the intersection of brand, retailer and lifestyles. Marketers who want to better understand and live by what “being in context” really means must closely scrutinize their messaging with these four facts in mind:

1. We are talking to “people,” not “consumers” or “shoppers.” We’re engaging real humans who happened to have wants, needs and desires — and the context in which they want and buy things changes rapidly.

A great example of a company that has realized this is Unilever. Its Dove brand has related to the context of peoples’ lives for more than 20 years now. Dove’s 2020 #PassTheCrown campaign refreshed its messaging around the passing of The Crown Act, which ensures protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles and continues the brand’s conversation around natural beauty and positive body image.

Laws based on The Crown Act have been passed in seven states and more than a dozen localities.

2. Engagement and purchases are happening within the context of people’s lives. Marketing strategies need to consider what influences specific consumers and where they’re most likely converted to buyers.

Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear clearly understands its target audience of teenage girls and why traditional in-store approaches may not be effective as they’re more likely to engage with visual, highly sharable content. Part of the brand’s contextual marketing strategy has revolved around creating sharable electronic postcards that teen girls could send to each other, allowing the brand to meet the person in context of her life rather than trying to force brand engagement in places the target wasn’t as receptive.

3. Brand equity equals the aggregate of interactions and experiences. Simply put, a brand is only as good as how it goes to market, allowing people to see and hear the brand story, be a part of it and buy into that brand or product story.

At Bank of America that means bridging online and offline worlds with a seamless experience. Bank of America is the fintech frontrunner in omni/contextual commerce, allowing customers to hook up to free WiFi to continue a bank transaction while waiting at a branch, to offering a tablet while sitting in a kiosk with a bank manager. With its Advanced Center “robo-branch” initiative, customers may speak to remote advisors. Its Erica tool, a voice- and chat-driven intelligent virtual financial assistant inside the Bank of America app, gained more than 1 million users per month during the early pandemic, March through May 2020.

4. Success comes through understanding pivots in human behavior. Marketers must ensure all messaging, across all channels, lives within the context in which people find, buy and love brands.

Sephora is a master at this, offering a seamless blend of online and off-line experiences. Brick-and-mortar locations apply a consistent brand experience with beauty tips, informed salespeople, free makeovers and products to try. But online, they’ve pivoted because they understand the digital context of how people use and look for their products. Instead of trying to market all their offerings in an omni-way, they’ve focused online and app experiences around a person’s Beauty Bag (their account and preferences). Shoppers can track purchases (“What color was that lipstick again?”), see tutorials, keep a wish list and, and through the app, get exclusive access to previews and promotions they won’t find anywhere else and recommendations based on their beauty traits. There’s an online community, too, where Sephora shoppers can ask questions, join challenges, be part of topic-specific groups, share their looks and swap tips.

With “everywhere commerce” emerging as a force brands must adjust for, the classic sales funnel no longer exists. To counter that, agencies, brands and manufacturers need to look at their specific channel strategies to ensure they don’t live in silos, as brand loyalty and conversion can come from anywhere.

The real opportunity is focusing on long-term conversion through diligence of consistent messaging that is maintained in the context of people’s lives, instead of focusing on short-term market share shifts. The “how” to do it is the complicated part. A great place to start is investing in optimizing people’s brand experience and engagement across all touchpoints to encourage that coveted “human” loyalty.

Advantage Solutions

Bryan Forbes
Vice President, Strategic Planning
IN Connected Marketing

Bryan Forbes is responsible for devising and implementing strategic consumer and shopper insights, approaches and behavioral directions for key clients for IN Connected Marketing, an Advantage Marketing Partners agency.

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