The mantra for brands is “be experiential.” Brands are focused on creating enveloping, engaging, embracing, and all-encompassing total brand experiences for customers. In 2017, Starbuck’s founder and chairman, Howard Schultz, said that the way forward is making your branded space an “experiential destination.” The Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson said, “To survive, merchants need to create unique and immersive in-store experiences.” The focus on the total brand experience, as a physically and emotionally “immersive” destination, is not a new concept but a concept that developed increased traction as brands navigated a virtual, digital environment that was stressing retail.
The focus on brand experiences can be traced to a 1998, B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore pivotal article for Harvard Business Review titled, “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” The authors pointed out that experiences are distinctly different from products and services. They wrote, that businesses are “… explicitly designing and promoting” engaging experiences, and charging for these experiences. An experience happens when a brand “uses services as the stage and goods as props… creating a memorable event.”
A 2018 retail revitalization came about through using data to personalize experiences. Retail revitalization capitalized on the fact that while we love the benefits of modern technology, we also love the personal emotional connection that is part of the retail DNA. Retail’s brief resurrection used its traditional strengths of human contact to reconnect customers. But, coronavirus has wiped this all away.
The Threat Of Remote Transactions
We now face a future of remote transactions involving significantly reduced participation and human interaction. We have moved from swipes to waves at checkout. Do we want a future where our sense of touch and human connection are minimized? Do we want to be somnolent spectators rather than passionate participators?
Remote used to refer to the hand-held device that manages our televisions. Now, remote is fast becoming our way of life. Remote means distant, having very little connections, operating by infrared/radio signals. Originally, we can trace the meaning to the Latin word for “remove,“ as in “… to be removed from or separated from someone or something.” Once, at the dawn of the Internet and mobile phones, The Economist reflected that we were witnessing the death of distance. Now, we embrace distance as our most beloved dance partner. We are facing the re-existence of distance.
Brands are rushing down the detachment experience because we are fearful of going out into a potentially unsafe, Covid-19 environment. We desire contactless, touchless drive-thru, delivery and distance. Brands are extricating themselves from the in-person experience for an experiential disengagement of disconnect.
According to a recent survey by McKinsey & Co., the global consulting firm, “Many contactless services (e.g., buying online for pick-up in store, curbside pickup) have seen an increase during the crisis and consumer intent to continue these services range from 40%-65%.” Burger King, Starbucks, and Chipotle are maximizing drive-thru’s. Restaurant News, an industry trade press, published photographs of Burger King’s new store model with enhanced and expanded drive-thru lanes. Chipotle has created Chipotlanes while Starbucks, known for its experiential “third place” … “home, work, Starbucks,” is also focusing on drive-thru as the customer’s new, favorite way of getting their coffee. Starbucks used to be an actual place allowing us to belong to a relaxing, sensuous, communal coffee world where we could express our individuality every day with every purchase.
Last summer, CitiCard replaced old cards with a contactless payment feature similar to MasterCard and American Express. These cards provide customers with a touchless way to pay for goods by tapping the card on the point-of-sale terminal reader rather than swiping or inserting a card. Telemedicine is thriving, as we are concerned with venturing out and into the doctor’s office, a place where actual sick people go.
Telemedicine has become such a hit that Otezla, a drug for psoriasis, changed its advertising to having a woman showing her clear skin to her doctor on her computer screen. And, then, there is distance learning. Once the purview of colleges, universities, and MOOCs (mass open online courses) such as Coursera, distance learning has now become the way many children are going to school. Distance e-book lending is also surging, like libraries, the heart of many communities, closed due to Covid-19. Wired reports that e-book lending rose 52% in 2020 versus 2019. Carvana allows you to buy a car online and have it delivered to your door with zero human contact. Domino’s, already well-positioned for delivery before Covid-19, is now winning the pizza wars with its contactless delivery option. Chewy.com delivers your pet’s favorite foods and toys. Wal-Mart is upping the ante in web shopping with its Wal-Mart+. Wal-Mart+ is now an Amazon Prime fighter, without some of the perks, but with a lower membership fee and gasoline discounts. Nordstrom, in Chapter 11, now offers Contactless Curbside pickup for available items at your favorite store. And, of course, there is Amazon, the gold standard in arm’s length shopping.
Brands: The Antidote For A Transactional World
In this topsy-turvy world, we have extreme personalization without the personal. Detachment is now common. Delivery, drive-thru, and distance may be profitable. But, these tactics must stay true to the brand’s promises. Brands are built on more than features and functions. A brand addresses our emotional and social needs. Strong brands define a brand character that reflects our personal values and personality.
The challenge is how to maintain these special, defining characteristics in the new remote environment. The challenge is to keep the brand’s promised experience alive when defaulting to a marketing environment of delivery, drive-thru, and distance. Brands must not let relationships go back to being mere transactions. Brands must use delivery, drive-thru, and distance not as ways in which their customers can stay alive but as ways in which their customers can feel alive.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Larry Light, CEO of Arcature
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