Basic Instinct: The Human Truth About Retailing in a Digital World
The Store Conference
Sydney, March 8th, 2012
There was a time, not too long ago, when phones were attached to walls by curly wires, and had rotary dials. We didn’t have home computers. The internet did not exist. Apple was something that grew on trees. The word ‘Amazon’ suggested a Brazilian river or a large and scary woman. And social networking was what we did in bars on Saturday nights.
I’m talking twenty-five years ago. Half of my life. (The good half, one might suggest.)
The theme of this conference, like that of many conferences I have attended over the years, is how things have changed. How they are changing faster than ever, and how we, as retailers and marketers, must in turn change everything we do in order to keep up. Different speakers today have talked about new perspectives, new approaches in the face of fragmentation of media, and of society itself. In this new world how can we generate mass demand? How can we redefine the path to purchase? How can we reinvent value? How can we better apply mobile technologies to achieve our objectives? How can we increase people’s appetite for socializing with brands, and if and when we do so, how can we control it? Can we control it?
These are all important questions to which, over the course of the day, we have heard some pretty interesting answers.
But I wonder whether there might be another important question, which we should all be asking. Which we should be asking before we rush to embrace change, to dive headlong into the implementation of the new and improved. And that is,
in the midst of all this change, has anything stayed the same? And how should we, as retailers and marketers, react to that?
In attempting to answer this question, I’ll talk a little about retailing and retail marketing, but many of my examples will be drawn from elsewhere. Their relevance will hopefully be clear; I use them because what they all have in common, and what they have in common with all the good examples discussed so far today, is that they involve the exchange of money for goods or services, and they are examples of human interaction.
I’d like to start by going back a little further than the twenty-five year period of change that I mentioned earlier. Almost two thousand years further back, in fact, to the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which, one fateful day in August, AD 79, were buried by ash from an erupting Mount Vesuvius. The ash destroyed life in those towns, but ironically it also preserved it for two millennia for us to see.
And one of the things we can see in the excavated towns today is graffiti, which was, as you know, an early Latin form of blogging.
“What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper,” wrote one unsatisfied customer, on the external wall of the establishment rather than on Tripadvisor.com. “You sell water but drink unmixed wine.”
In the vestibule of another Pompeiian inn, we find written, “The finance officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison.”
And, outside an inn attached to Herculaneum’s baths, two reviews. The first reads, “Two friends were here. They had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus. They threw him out and then spent 105 and a half sestersii most agreeably on whores.” Another wrote of the same establishment: “Apellus, the chamberlain with Dexter, slave of Caesar, ate here most agreeably… and had a screw at the same time.” And I had always assumed that the Happy Hour was invented in Florida.
Across Pompeii one finds graffiti about bakers, wine merchants, fishmongers, brothels; about retailers of all kinds. Some is entirely self-serving, some is written to entertain, some to inform; some of it is positive, more of it is negative. Much of it, you probably wouldn’t want on your company website.
And that’s the point. Two thousand years ago, as today, people who have had a great experience may want to talk about it. People who have had an okay experience may not be bothered to share it with others. But those who have had a bad experience often want to shout it from the rooftops.
There’s much to be gained by promoting social interaction with your brand, but there’s also much to lose. Brand guardians of all kinds should be careful what they wish for. For while the basic instinct of wanting to complain and to get some kind of retribution for a bad experience might not have changed, we now of course have more than walls and jars of paint with which to make our point.
The interaction is harder to control, the audience potentially much larger, and the ramifications enormous. (Although I suppose at the time in Pompeii, the effect of someone painting a large sign outside your restaurant proclaiming that the food is ‘poison’ cannot be underestimated.)
Just about every week we hear about someone’s social networking strategy backfiring. Recently Bayern Munich Football Club told its fans that if they came to its Facebook site they would be the first to learn of a major new signing for the club. The fans came, they liked, they joined… to discover that the so-called ‘new signing’ was an app that made their face appear instead of that of a player wearing the Bayern uniform. They
were the new signing! How interactive. How involving! Fans, and the football media who had criticized the club for two years about the lack of new players, went crazy, and not in a positive way. A few days later, the signing of a teenage wunderkind from Switzerland was announced, quite possibly as a hastily arranged 18 million euro piece of damage control.
Successful human relationships are built primarily on trust. Social networking is no different.
The real issue we should be thinking about here is not how to deal with situations like that – although that is important – but rather how to prevent them from happening in the first place. What is a good experience, what is a bad experience, and how do you ensure that in both the retail environment and in interaction with marketing communications, the end result is a satisfied customer?
A few years ago I found myself in the unenviable position of living in the south west of the UK, about a three hour drive from Heathrow airport, and commuting weekly to New York City. I’d fly to New York on a Monday, work through Thursday evening, then return home to sleep, do my laundry, and be grumpy enough for my family to wish that I had stayed in New York.
Every Monday, around lunchtime, I would check into a W hotel in Manhattan, and the woman who had checked me out the previous Thursday would look right through me, recite out loud a statement that had something to do with welcoming me to the hotel and, having taken my credit card details, would direct me to the elevators. Which, not surprisingly, were exactly where they had been three days before.
We went through this bizarre ritual for months on end. Until, to my great relief, one week I had some meetings scheduled in London. I made a reservation at a hotel called the Athenaeum on Piccadilly, where I had stayed a few times the previous year, but hadn’t visited for several months. And as my taxi drew up outside, the doorman opened the car door and said, “Welcome back, Mr. Steel. We haven’t seen you in a while. How’s the family?”
I’ve subsequently stayed a lot at the Athenaeum. John, the doorman, always greets me by name, before Tony the bellman welcomes me like a long lost brother. Everyone – from the receptionist to the manager – knows who I am – and do their best to make me feel welcome. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and when I checked in, the manager came out and told me that the first night of my stay would be the 150th that I had spent in the hotel.
150 nights is almost six months of my life; that’s kind of scary. There are a lot of hotel choices in London, many just as convenient for my office, at around the same price, some with better restaurants or views, some with more heavenly beds and others with trendier bars. But I choose this one. I choose it because I like it. Because I feel comfortable when I’m there. Because it feels less like being away from home than some of the other choices.
Steven Spielberg was once asked to explain why he thought the movies he directed and produced had won so many awards and had so much box office success. He said, “I make movies for the masses, but I talk with them one at a time.” It’s a great explanation, true in the way that he tells big stories through a very narrow lens, in the way that he invites his audience to participate in the movie, to think about how they would react if they were in the protagonist’s position. Could I have done what Oskar Schindler did? Could I have jumped off one of those landing craft on D Day and run across the beach? What would I do if I found ET in my garden shed?
Beyond being a great explanation of his craft, it’s also a wonderful definition of how good marketers and retailers operate at their best. They may provide a product or service for the masses, they may communicate in mass media, but they allow for a personal, individual relationship with their brand.
I recently asked a British candidate for WPP’s graduate recruitment program whether there were any brands he particularly admired and, if so, why?
He thought for a moment, and then said that he feared his answer may not be what I was looking for. He was sure, he said, that most of his rivals would talk about Apple, or Nike. But if I didn’t mind him talking about it, he said, he had a particularly close relationship with a grocery store on his street in Nottingham. The store was run by a gentleman named Patel who, like the doorman at the Athenaeum, would always greet him with a hearty, ‘Hello Mr. Wilson.’ Favourite purchases would be kept to one side for him, and if they were not available he would be given – yes, given – something else to try instead. Unstocked items could be requested, and if purchases exceeded the volume and weight that could be reasonably carried, or if the weather was particularly inclement – not uncommon in Nottingham - Mr. Patel had been known to dispatch one of his staff or leave the store himself to drive a customer home.
Everything in that store cost more than it would have in Tesco or Sainsbury, but even on a student budget that wasn’t the point.
“I have often thought,” the candidate said, “wouldn’t it be great if Mr. Patel could run British Airways?”
Or Qantas, or American or United Airlines, or indeed pretty much any airline.
I was on a flight in the USA a few years ago, and happened to look at the safety card. It said, If you are seated in an exit row, and you are unable to read this card, please call a member of the cabin crew
It’s a great example of lack of common sense, but also lack of empathy. (Empathy, broadly speaking, being the ability to understand people and what they think, feel and need.)
It’s an extreme example – if you’re blind or illiterate, you obviously won’t be able to read the instruction that tells you what to do if you can’t read it – but nonetheless it seems to me representative of an inability of most players in the airline industry to fully understand what its customers want.
Earlier Nicolas mentioned loyalty programs that don’t offer any real reward…
I used to fly a lot with British Airways. In fact, in a fairly short time I flew more than a million miles with the airline. To mark this great occasion, BA invited me to a lunch at the House of Lords in London, along with ten or so other sad bastards who happened at the time, like me, to be among BA’s top 50 fliers. BA wanted to know what we thought of the airline and its frequent flier program. In fact we didn’t think much of it at all, largely because every time we wanted to use our frequent flier miles to take our families away (and thereby say sorry for being away so much) we were unable to do so: because of blackout dates or the fact that the kind of routes we wanted to use, to Australia or South Africa, were all booked up within about a minute of the passing of the 311 day advance deadline. Because we had unpredictable schedules and couldn’t book that far in advance, we could never use the miles. The system didn’t work for those the airline considered to be its most valuable customers, yet at the time BA couldn’t do anything about that. Computer says, ‘No.’ Maybe they have changed it now, but I wouldn’t know because I no longer fly with British Airways.
Nicolas also shared a slide that showed how different most CEOs believe their companies to be (80%), versus the view of consumers (8%). It’s a basic gap in understanding; a lack of perspective.
It seems to me that Airlines do much of what they do based on the premise that people love flying, which on the whole they do not. When Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic, he shaped his offering on the idea that long-haul flying was boring and uncomfortable. The only experience he had of the airline business before launching Virgin Atlantic was as a passenger – a bored, uncomfortable passenger – and he wanted to change that. ‘I’m not in the airline business,’ he said. ‘I’m in the entertainment business.’ Thus it was Branson who brought us a choice of movies, TV shows, music and games on our own personal screens. He brought ice cream and massage to the skies. He removed the hassle and uncertainty of driving to the airport for business travellers, by providing a car. He did away with an entire section of the plane by simply renaming his business class section ‘Upper Class.’ He did all this because he understood his customers
Let’s be clear: As Angela Morris said earlier, no one was asking for rides to the airport or clamouring for ice cream at 30,000 feet. No focus groups were saying, we think we should be able to play video games while flying between London and New York. But as Akio Morita, the founder of Sony once said, “We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready.”
Branson and Morita, and later Steve Jobs, were hugely successful because they understood how their brands existed, not in the narrow confines of a category, but rather in the broader context of people’s lives
. They made the connections between their products and deeper underlying human needs, and broader cultural needs. Branson built a better airline by understanding that people get bored easily. Morita, with the launch of the Walkman, changed the relationship between young people and music, making it portable for the first time. And with the iPod, and maybe more significantly with iTunes, Steve Jobs later changed it again, allowing people to organize their entire music library, carry it with them, and in changing the purchase model, transformed the music industry itself in the process. These inventions, were not just technological accidents – they were based on real insight about the way people feel about music, interact with music, organize music, share music.
It may be heresy to say this, and it may mark me as a Luddite, but what I have to say is no more relevant in a digital world than it was in the analog world. For when it comes to retailers and marketers bringing their A- game, it makes no difference. The tools may vary, but the purpose, the ideal, remains the same: To find a way to fit our product, our service, our store, our brand, into the lives of those we serve, not the other way around
When Barack Obama ran for President in the United States, he talked in his campaign about Hope, and he talked about Change. He wasn’t very specific about either, the advantage of which at the time was that Americans were able to personalize his message, to interpret it in the context of what they
were hoping for, what they
would like to see change.
‘Yes we can,’ was his rallying cry. It was a stolen rallying cry, as any of you who have ever watched Bob the Builder with your children will know, but nonetheless the majority of those who voted for him felt not just that he had won, but that they
had won. They’d done it together. It was a first person plural election victory. Obama used their experiences, their frustrations, their hopes and their fears to give his message its power. He didn’t set his message in the context of his own political aspirations; he set it instead in the context of their lives.
People tend to like others who ask questions, who listen to the answers, and behave accordingly. They like other people who ‘get’ them. They like other people who are interested in them. They always did. And they always will.
As the great Bill Bernbach once said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop, and it will take millions more for them to even vary. The real motivations stem from the unchanging instincts and emotions of people, and from nature’s indomitable programming in their genes. It is un
changing man that is the proper study of the communicator.” And, I might add, of the marketer and retailer too.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the Apple Store and how great it is. There are many theories about why it is so successful. My own is this: while obviously the products, service, and design of the store are all great, they alone don’t explain its popularity. That, I believe, stems from the decision to allow customers to use every computer, laptop and iPad in the store to check their email. It ensures that the store is always full, and we all love a place that’s popular. It’s also solving a problem: it’s hard for many people to keep up with their email when they are away from their homes and offices. (And, let’s face it, we all get a little twitchy if we’re away from it for too long.) It solves that problem in a way that gives them a personal experience of the brand. It’s their relationships, their messages on that screen. And it’s entirely counter-intuitive. For years, stores had been telling people not to touch. (“You break, you buy.”) Apple went the other way because they knew that once someone touched, they wouldn’t want to let go.
I’d like to finish this afternoon by making seven suggestions for how, in this time of rapid change, we might all as marketers and retailers deal with both the change – the things that really are different – and what we might call the un
change – the things that haven’t, and won’t change, because they have to do with the fundamentals of human nature.
First, you have to know what problem you are trying to solve
It’s often not what it appears to be, and a great deal of marketing time, effort and money is spent creating the right solutions to the wrong problems. Apple could have set up its stores to maximise sales, but they would have been wasting their time had they not first figured out a way to get people into the stores, and engaged with their products. Morita and Sony launched the Walkman based on a problem people didn’t know they had, which was that they couldn’t take their music with them, without creating a nuisance.
The real problem becomes much easier to identify if you follow my second piece of advice, which is to always look at the situation and the problem in the context of life, not the category
. That’s the way of the Athenaeum hotel, and of Mr. Patel’s grocery store, of Richard Branson, Akio Morita and Steve Jobs. And of many of our earlier panellists.
I recently saw a tip jar in a coffee bar in Perth that had a label above it saying, creatively and unexpectedly, ‘Tips.’ A jar full of coins, what else could it have been? Yet within a week, in two neighbouring coffee bars I saw other signs above tip jars that show an understanding of this broader life context. One, in a café owned by two fanatical surfers, said, “Mexico 2012.” Another, in an affluent, airy suburb, said above its coin jar, “Good tippers make great lovers.”
My third suggestion is to try and resist the accountability mindset that afflicts so many companies today
, and leads to too many decisions being made on the basis of measurability. Just because something can’t be measured doesn’t mean that it’s bad. And just because it can be measured doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.
I recently heard a senior British police officer defending the reduced numbers of officers on the streets in the UK, on the basis that in the days when there were more officers on the street, there were fewer arrests. Against an objective of making more arrests, the statistics proved that his officers today were doing a very fine job. What he didn’t seem to understand was that with more officers on the street in the past, there were fewer arrests because they acted as a deterrent to crime. Which is the better objective? I’d say less crime, but it’s harder to measure crimes that might have been committed than it is to measure arrests. Thus efficiency overwhelms effectiveness, and that’s a very steep and slippery slope.
Number four: don’t just do things because you’ll look old-fashioned if you don’t
. Because too often, these days, if it’s digital, if it furthers the cause of social networking, and if it allows us to “start a movement,” we recommend it.
Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can. And today I fear that many marketers are following the same logic.
A couple of years ago in Australia and beyond, everyone seemed to be talking about the “Best Job in the World” campaign for Tourism Queensland. Against certain (measurable) objectives it was a great success, with massive PR coverage, 34,000 applications for the job, and numerous top-shelf creative awards to its name. But I have yet to see any evidence that it positively influenced the numbers of tourists visiting Queensland, which is the client’s entire reason for being.
The unfortunate postscript to “The Best Job in the World” is that the winner of the competition to be caretaker on Hamilton Island, Ben Southall, was stung by a potentially lethal Irukandji jellyfish during his last week on the job. Fortunately Ben survived, but the world’s media – the same magazines and newspapers whose reporting of the initial competition formed the basis of the entries for effectiveness awards - gleefully reported his symptoms of fever, headache, lower back pain, chest tightness and high blood pressure, and noted that other tourists had died from similar stings in the not-too-distant past. All very good, I’m sure, for Queensland tourism. The lesson here, as my old friend Ivan Pollard – now with the Coca Cola Company in Atlanta – recently wrote in an industry publication, “We are quick to sell the fantastic possibility rather than research the rational suitability of our ideas.” I think we are not quick enough to apply common sense.
Just because we can do things in this brave new world, it doesn’t mean that we should.
Now, having identified the right problem, understood it in a life context, figured out a solution that is right and not just measurable, and ensured that it might actually work against your business objectives, my fifth suggestion is to keep things as simple as possible
For in this world there are two types of people: simplifiers and complicators. Make sure you surround yourselves with the former, and remember that there is no such thing as a complicated, game changing idea. When Watson and Crick finally hit upon the double helix structure of DNA, they worried that it might be too simple. And I’m sure Einstein worried a lot about e=mc2 being a little light on numbers and letters. But simple works where complicated does not. Always.
Six, as I’ve said many times today, and it’s worth repeating, keep it personal
. The Japanese writer Saki once wrote, “when baiting a mousetrap with cheese, be sure to leave room for the mouse.” Allow room in your message, allow room in your planning, for your customers to inject a little of themselves; to join up the dots and complete the communication.
And finally, seven, never forget you’re talking to people
. They are not demographics, they are not ‘consumers,’ they are not numbers. They are human, just like us. The key to your success as retailers and marketers is much less likely to be found in your retailing and marketing experience than it is to lie in their human experience.
The human truth about retailing or e-tailing in a digital world is that the rules that have always guided human relationships and communication still apply. And as much as we might be attracted by the new, bright, and shiny methods of engagement, we ignore these old rules at our peril.
Thank you very much.