According to market research firm Hartman Group, consumer loyalty is shifting -- from products and brands, to the experiences offered by retailers -- in a radical transformation that started before the recession.
I think the change is much bigger than that.
Hartman is onto something because it specializes in enthnographic market research (among other tools), which is an attempt to understand consumers in the context of their lives, both in terms of their knowledge and beliefs, and through their behaviors. I believe the firm is saying that capturing consumers' attention with creative and/or compelling marketing communications no longer carries the water in our busy, confused, noisy lives; experiences are what stick, bring differences into sharp focus, and compel purchases.
The problem is that retailers can't "own" experiences or, more broadly, experience is a synonym for the context of reality.
The more people know, or think they know, the less they believe (broadly), and more tenaciously hold onto what little they do (specifically). This is the intriguing dichotomy of our Internet Age; as consumers gain the capacity to explore and share, they lose the ability to trust and commit. Institutions are no longer credible, and historic truths aren't reliable; facts and fiction are endlessly available, and often impossible to tell apart; every subject is up for discussion and debate, which occurs in real-time, all the time.
No wonder people aren't willing to buy based on the intangibles on which brands have relied for almost a Century.
Reality is the new imagination, providing the context in which actions can assert truth (if not simply immediacy, and thus clarity) to consumers. This idea isn't limited to retailers; the challenge is for any business to make what it does, not just what it says, believable and compelling. Actions, and the myriad of experiences they enable -- from in-store environments, online glimpses of manufacturing, policy decisions, to the behavior of every employee and vendor, whether at work or not -- are what feed awareness, conversation, and thus brands.
Brands exist in this reality of experience. Communications can describe it, but marketing can no longer serve as a substitute or dictation for it.
It's a great opportunity, and it's bigger than, say, a social media strategy, or something that's experiential and in-store. These are tactics. The radical transformation underway in the marketplace started before the meltdown, and it's inevitably changing the very substance of what marketers do for a living.
The recession was a brief interruption. The challenge is to see past it.
The Bulb Asks:
- Do your customers know that you're telling them the truth because you say so?
- What percentage of your customers' belief in your product or service relies on third-party confirmation?
- What's the ratio of your actions that prompt marketing, vs. marketing that aspires to prompt actions?