The new rules of engagement

To engage with consumers today, brands need to be agile, innovative and more surprising than ever. Senior Editor Alison Krog spotlights 6 specialist retailers who are leading the way

 

‘Putting customers at the centre of everything we do’ is something many brands proclaim in their mission statements. But how can businesses persuade consumers that’s actually the case? The rapid advancement of digital technologies demands more agile, creative and personalised communications than ever before.

As Deloitte’s 2018 retail, wholesale and distribution report points out, along with the challenges come exciting opportunities to those retailers who are open to embracing “the sophisticated use of customer insight toward creating more customer-centric, outside-in experiences”. And there’s no better resource than content to achieve that end.

Today’s consumers have got ‘chore’ shopping nailed (Alexa, reorder Purina cat food). And according to Vend’s Retail Trends and Predictions for 2018, they no longer want to leave the house to buy commodities. What will stir their hearts and spending habits, however, says Vend, is ‘cherish’ retail. So here’s our round-up of six specialist retail brands who are making customers feel wanted by putting content at the heart of their appeal.

1. Patagonia: seeking out like minds

Patagonia is on a mission to save the world. And no brand wears its environmental credentials on its featherlight-padded sleeves as boldly. Back in 2011, this self-named ‘activist company’ marked Black Friday by taking out an advertisement ‘Don’t buy this jacket’, deploring the ‘culture of consumption’ and urging the public instead to ‘reduce, repair, recycle, and reimagine’. Then in 2014, it launched a ‘Worn Wear’ programme that encourages customers to repair their old outdoor clothes rather than buy new and celebrate their stories at #wornwear. It’s an approach that flies in the face of mass-market convention, but is designed to resonate with the niche audience that shares Patagonia’s passion and values. And it is communicated with an editorial sensibility that exploits the power of storytelling over hard sell. In 2014, Patagonia’s then VP of Global Marketing Joy Howard explained in an interview for Fast Company: “We want to use our stories as a way to provoke other people to not only take action but to inspire others to act as well.”

2: Glossier: stepping up social media

In 2017, when Price Waterhouse Cooper asked which online media sources inspire purchases for its annual Total Retail report, social networks turned out to overwhelmingly influence respondents: 47% chose either ‘social networks’ or ‘visual social networks’ as their main sources for inspiration. The global survey also revealed that last year social media interactions with favourite brands led 44% of the sample to spend more with a brand, and encouraged 46% to endorse a brand more than they usually would. A rising star in the beauty sector, which truly understands the importance of listening and responding to its audience via social, is US cult phenomenon Glossier. Founder Emily Weiss first gained recognition for her beauty/lifestyle blog ‘Into the Gloss’, and especially its #ITGTopShelfie series, which invites readers to submit their own images on Instagram for a chance be interviewed. The insights she gleaned from fans sharing their stories led to the launch of her own pared-down product range. Now Emily describes Glossier as a “socially driven brand” – product ideas are crowdsourced through ITG and Instagram – and fans create the buzz that ensures their covetability. When Glossier finally started shipping to the UK last October, Vogue hailed its arrival as one of ‘The Defining Beauty Moments of 2017’.

3. HelloFresh: making it personal

Personalisation is a topic that’s only going to get hotter, and is a key competitive differentiator for those brands who offer customers a truly curated experience. A Demand Metric benchmark report from 2016 found that 80% of marketers say personalised content is more effective than content that hasn’t been ‘unpersonalised’. While in its 2017 Digital Trends in Retail Report, Econsultancy highlights ‘targeting and personalisation’ as the top priority for retailers: 33% cited it as one of their current three areas of focus, and 57% of retailers said they were planning to further invest in personalisation last year. Standing out from the crowd in the subscription commerce market is HelloFresh. Having a meal kit box delivered to your door is hardly unique. But what gives HelloFresh the edge is the added-value content – personalised recipe suggestions – that are delivered by an interactive ‘Flavour Generator’ tool at the HelloFresh blog. Just select the type of food you like, and the flavour you fancy, to be served up delicious recipe suggestions with no obligation to buy.

4. ao.com: edutaining and empowering

Make it easy for your customers to make the right choice, and they’ll come back time and time again. That’s why online electrical goods retailer ao.com relies on great content to give visitors greater insight into their products than just product descriptions and pricing. The website is rich with written content: features and reviews. But it is ao.com’s use of video to bring its product range to life that is exceptional. In The State of Video Marketing 2017, Wyzowl reports that 83% of businesses believe that video gives them a good ROI, with 97% saying that an explainer video has helped increase user understanding of their product or services. That’s something ao.com realised back in 2010, when the company launched its own in-house video production unit. Today, the facilities have grown to include three studios and a small team of presenters, with video reviews featuring across the site. In an interview with Retail Week, director of marketing Dominic Starkey reveals: “We track the purchase path of our customers and know that our conversion rate is higher when people engage with a video.”

5. Mr Porter: putting quality first

Sometimes, searching for content on retail sites can feel like an excavation task it’s buried so deep. Not so at luxury menswear etailer Mr Porter. Right up there on the top navigation, along with ‘Designers’ and ‘Clothing’, is ‘Editorial’. Click, and you enter the world of ‘The Journal’ – a content resource with all the values of a high-end men’s glossy magazine that’s as integral to the brand’s identity as its covetable fashion collections. Stunning photoshoots, of-the-moment celebrity interviews, food, travel, lifestyle features and more… Mr Porter understands that all content is not created equal. And its underlying commercial purpose is woven seamlessly into the user experience to enhance rather than detract from the expertly written reads. “We build the stories and the how-to’s around every product that we sell to ensure it’s an easy journey for the customer,” says Jeremy Langmead, the site’s brand and content director in an interview with GQ.

6. Tillington Group: building and nurturing communities

With so much current focus on online shopping, it’s easy to forget that brick-and-mortar locations are still the lifeblood of retail. New research by Vista Retail Support reveals that four in five (81%) of UK consumers see the physical store as vital to the shopping experience and 70% say they enjoy the full experience of going into stores to browse, see what’s new and buy what they like. A consortium of retailers who truly understand the importance of using content to prise people off the sofa and drive footfall through the door at key moments in the retail year is the Tillington Group. Haymarket Network works with the 11 independent, and largely family-owned and run, garden centres to create annual spring, summer and Christmas magazines – complemented by a constant flow of social assets. Beautiful Gardens may have a multi-million print run, but it’s far from a mass-market magazine. We create 22 different versions that reflect the distinct character and target customer of each centre by combining a raft of generic content with personalised regional pages and individual covers. This exploits the bond that consumers have with their local, independent garden centre, enhancing their sense of belonging and helping to build a community around each garden centre brand.

So with more channels than ever available to get your message across, there’s never been a more pertinent time to exploit the power of content to influence consumers on their path to purchase. As Shopify’s content marketer lead Casandra Campbell points out, it’s far more cost-effective to use a chatty blog or quirky video to create ‘warm traffic’ you can remarket to later than rack up the expense of paid-traffic acquisition costs trying to win over cold audiences.

Specialist knowledge – communicated by expertly written and executed content – is a sure-fire way to attract attention away from the crowded mass-market. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Identify and focus on the target audience who will benefit from your connection the most, and you’ll create a community that will keep on growing.