As expectations change, brands need to adapt their online and retail strategies to create a new customer experience.
One of the main reasons the notion of experience is so hard to nail down is that it encapsulates many different types of events, which are managed and controlled by different people including, but not limited to, me, the customer. Experience takes place from the moment I encounter my first touchpoint with the brand, and it goes on pretty much forever or until I choose to leave the brand for one reason or another. These touchpoints can be anything from my first search for a suitable present on Google to my store experience, from an Instagram post by a friend to the joy of giving my daughter her first watch. It is the accumulation of these different events and what they mean to me as part of my customer journey that constitutes my experience. No wonder it isn’t a unidimensional term.
Many, in fact most, touchpoints are not “brand-mediated”, meaning the brand itself may have nothing to do with my experience. If I see a lovely watch on my best friend’s wrist and she tells me how much she loves it, much of what makes this a positive touchpoint is not controlled by the brand, but by my relationship with my friend, her mood that day and so on.
One thing that most marketers are not sufficiently aware of is that experience is a co-created event. It is a collaboration between me, the brand, and whatever other people are part of that story. Knowingly or not, every single participant contributes to co-building an experience for me. If the salesperson is in a bad mood or poorly trained, that negativity is going to be part of my experience of the brand. If my daughter’s birthday is a success, that will also be part of my experience of the brand. Expectations and whether or not they are fulfilled are another important aspect of the experience.
The factors that come into play can be emotional, functional, cultural and social, and they all contribute to the integrated experience that I form of your brand. For low-involvement products like yogurts, the importance of these factors is fairly limited and short-lasting. For high-involvement products like Haute Horlogerie, each of these complex factors can play an important role and have a lasting effect. Every aspect matters, every detail counts in the co-creation of my experience between your brand, me and whoever else is part of that story.
As I mentioned, my customer journey is long and complex for a high-involvement product such as Haute Horlogerie. In order to gain as much control as possible over my experience, you, as the brand, should be doing everything possible to bring that experience in-house and to manage every aspect of it, so that you can meet me at those moments in my life when I am going to be most receptive to a positive touchpoint, and create the most relevance to my needs and emotions. Whether at an airport as I am about to fly off on a family holiday, at a private reception hosted by friends I trust, or over a relaxing weekend at a luxury spa, that touchpoint will be a great first step from which to build a long-term relationship and experience. From thereon, it is about managing my journey in a way that each touchpoint builds on the previous one, including at some point the actual purchase through whatever channel I choose as the most relevant to my own needs, and subsequently whatever other touchpoints can be imagined that will extend my experience and turn me into an advocate and a loyal customer.
So yes, traditional points of sale are no longer just for purchases. However, this also means that I, the customer, can create my own point of sale anytime, anywhere. If, after discovering your brand and learning to love it, I suddenly decide that the time has come to buy my watch on my smartphone as I am sitting on a plane about to take off for Tokyo, then meet me right there and then.
The first luxury brand that really got it is Burberry under Angela Ahrendts. She understood that luxury points of sale could be reimagined as points of discovery and engagement. She understood the concept of “anytime, anywhere” for luxury, and she revolutionized the brand to make it happen. I recently discovered the new Galeries Lafayette Champs Elysees store in Paris and its innovative approach to the retail experience, and I think they are a great example. They have taken human relationships and augmented them through technology and digital. The store is a place to have conversations and moments of discovery with Galeries Lafayette and with the brands they curate. Selling is almost an afterthought. That doesn’t mean the store is a museum, but it does mean they are thinking in terms of human journeys and not points of sale. But guess what? By focusing on interacting with me, they are also able to get to know me. They do so in a human way by offering the services of a shopping consultant, which all of their sales staff are, who can ask me questions and understand who I am. And they do so by grabbing data off of my store visit, for instance by providing a connected clothes hanger that augments my experience. It’s tech meets human meets data meets experience meets value all around.
The first competence that needs to be developed within your brand, in order to focus on customer experience, is empathy. In recent years and thanks to the advent of design thinking, empathy has been discovered as a key competence not just for marketing and sales, but for business in general. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has talked about empathy as probably the most important competence in business. Empathy is about putting yourself in my shoes. It is about being able to imagine what will make my experience better, what my next step might be, what I value and what doesn’t matter to me. Some people are born with more empathy than others, but it can also be developed over time.
Other high-level competences are creativity and collaboration. The first means that you can think broadly enough to reinvent my customer journey and imagine solutions for me across channels, that is in an omnichannel manner. The other means that you are able to work with lots of different people in your ecosystem in order to deliver the omnichannel experience that will bring me most relevance. Creativity also means you can ask interesting business questions that will allow you to shine even more.
Data comes as a complement to creativity and the two together constitute a powerful and often preemptive secret weapon.
Hand-in-hand with creativity comes the need for analytical skills that will allow you to understand how to answer the creative questions in a rigorous and systematic way. Data comes as a complement to creativity and the two together constitute a powerful and often preemptive secret weapon. Don’t think for one second that high-touch, high-involvement brands can get away without analytics – that is simply not the case and I can guarantee that if you make that mistake, your competitors won’t.
While there are definitely going to be some cultural differences between a typical Chinese or European or Latin American customer, I would say that many of these differences won’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny and will end up being more anecdotal than systematic. Particularly among a fairly affluent segment of customers who travel globally. I would much rather invite you to think of each customer as a unique individual with a unique job-to-be-done than to spend too much time making stereotypical statements about one culture versus another. I see more and more similarities between Gen Z’ers from different national cultures than between Gen Z’ers and their older relatives from the same continent. So, maybe generational distinctions can be used for segmentation, but I am a big believer in segments of one, or at least microsegments.
Communities play a huge role in the makeup of brands that drive passion. I have conducted research, for instance, on Lego communities, and they are hugely powerful and valuable for the brand. I also see the importance of communities around cosmetics and personal products. There is lots of evidence that communities can be highly impactful in the luxury sector. Not only are customers passionate, they often want to shout out both their affiliation with the brand and their mastery of the brand and its products.
So, yes, there is room for communities, and they can be extremely impactful in the Haute Horlogerie sector. But they need to be addressed in a highly respectful and empathetic manner. Remember the paid versus earned media rule of thumb: the more control, the less credibility. Communities first need to be empowered to thrive autonomously from the brand. Without autonomy they will simply wilt away because they don’t get a chance to weave the kind of social fabric that makes people want to engage. Once that social fabric has been allowed to develop, then it is a matter of forging opportunities for co-creation in a way that preserves their integrity. That requires building platforms, literally and figuratively, on which they can thrive alongside your brand. There is huge opportunity in this area. Maybe we’ll keep that discussion for another day!