Opinion

Engaging Brands: The Human Touch

From ethical behaviour to hands-on brand experiences, the second part of D&P's Engaging Brands series explores how brands are adopting a more human touch.

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By Tony Parham
Posted 14. 01. 2016
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How can brands create more of a human and emotional connection with consumers in today’s omnichannel world?

Customer desire for real-life human interaction has never been greater, nor has the demand for brands to do social good. From communicating ethical behaviour to creating emotive, hands-on brand experiences, the second part of our Engaging Brands series explores six key areas where brands are adopting a human touch to win over today’s customer.

Speaking from the Heart

Customers are becoming immune to ‘brand speak’. More empowered and informed than ever before, they demand brands that act with integrity and responsibility. And they’re prepared to dig deeper for it: 55% of online consumers across 60 countries are willing to pay more for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact (Nielsen, 2014).

Start-up brands have led the way with dialling into the conscientious consumer’s mind-set; now major established brands are having to realign their brand values and business models to remain relevant in a new retail landscape where brand transparency and ethical credentials are essential to success.

With a brand mantra of ‘radical transparency’, US fashion e-tailer Everlane began running Transparency Tours in 2015 to give fans a behind-the-scenes view of its product production in various US factories. Meanwhile, the brand’s recent ‘Open House’ pop-up in New York displayed products with infographics explaining their origin stories, alongside social gatherings with ethical food brands.

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Many brands are signing up to group initiatives to show their commitment to changing the industry for the better and to reassure ethically-minded consumers. Encouraged by designer Stella McCartney, the Kering Group (owners of luxury brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Puma) created an industry-first open source sustainability model, The Environmental Profit & Loss Account, which measures every aspect of the group’s supply chain to improve ethical credentials.

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Also in the luxury sector, Positive Luxury has helped more than 200 brands evaluate and improve their ethical and sustainability credentials, awarding the Positive Luxury Butterfly Mark to companies meeting its criteria.

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Similarly, brands including Nike, Adidas, H&M and Timberland are signed up to the recently launched Social and Labour Convergence Project for improving working conditions in the apparel manufacturing industry.

Brands transform from ‘greenwashers’ into credible industry leaders by building ethical values into all activity through the entire process, from sourcing to purchase, and putting fairness before profit.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Recognising consumer concerns over disposable culture – a staggering 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill every year [Source: WRAP ‘Valuing Our Clothes’] – more brands are directly helping consumers give products a new lease of life through upcycling or repairing schemes.

British fashion icon Christopher Raeburn limits his collections to 50 pieces and makes the garments from recycled ex-military fabrics, parachutes and life rafts.

For American clothing brand Patagonia, the focus is on repair, operating a global scheme that mends thousands of own-brand garments each year. Not only does its global flagship concept in SoHo, New York include a ‘Worn Wear’ station staffed by full-time repairers, in spring 2015 the brand created a roaming biodiesel Worn Wear Truck to bring these services (free clothing repairs, mending lessons and a selling space for second-hand Patagonia items) to consumers from across the US.

Getting the customer to participate in achieving a sustainable lifestyle together is the driver behind H&M’s ‘Closing the Loop’ campaign, encouraging shoppers to recycle old clothes that the brand in turn uses to make new fashion.

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In the beauty sector, brands such as & Other Stories and Mac offer customer discounts as an incentive for recycling make-up and cosmetic packaging.

Waste-reducing initiatives and responsibly-sourced product ranges’ initially only found with niche brands’ are moving into mainstream retail. Brands that combine quality with ethics will succeed now and in the future.

Straight Talking

Brands that attempt to communicate heritage, provenance and authenticity with over-used ‘buzzwords’ alone are leaving a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. More than ever, they have an ear for authenticity and respond to honest, inventive or humorous storytelling that cuts through the marketing mire.

Haeckels of Margate communicates its brand ethos in such an honest and simple way – a tale of locally foraged seaweed and botanicals distilled and hand-crafted into natural hair, body, skin and fragrance products.

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Each fragrance carries its own unique GPS coordinate on the packaging identifying the exact place the local ingredients were found, surveyed and logged by the Haeckels exploration team. It’s a beautiful story of provenance, integrity and digital coming together.

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Mumbai-based slow fashion brand Obataimu brought its ethical fashion story to life as a full-scale virtual digital projection in its pop-up space at Tom Dixon’s Multiplex. In an engaging, humanised digital story Obataimu use the Japanese ‘Takumi’ tradition of masters passing on coveted knowledge to apprentices to communicate its brand mission, in which basic tailors are trained to become skilled cutters and pattern makers.

We’re also seeing the rise of ‘complicit commerce’, where brands and their customers come together to make authentic, empowering stories celebrating nowness, realness or the imperfect. Brands are giving loyal consumers the platforms to become brand advocates – side-stepping the rise of ad blocking and the growing rejection of pushed aspirational messaging.

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Brands are moving to Beta mode; reacting, collaborating and involving their customers in what they stand for, sell or say. Brands who tell humanised multichannel stories – becoming lifestyle enablers rather than vendors – will resonate in a retail landscape that’s always moving.

Giving Something Back

Brands acting generously – giving back to communities or offering complimentary services – are capturing the hearts of consumers. From Pret A Manger donating unsold food to the homeless to Club Monaco offering their menswear customers free whiskey tasting while they browse, the benefits are directed both towards customers and third party causes.

Soho House’s Barbour and Parlour and Cheeky Parlour are all-day hangouts for friends to meet, eat and drink around the core offers of hair and beauty. A great example of a brand making grooming and beautification a social event where bookings and time slots are redundant.

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US DIY computer brand LittleBits has taken generosity into the realm of inventing. Based on inspiration, creation and sharing, its New York lab store is a community hub where visitors invent things they want to purchase. ‘Customers’ are only charged for the materials they have used in their invention; there is no charge for time spent in the store or any guidance received during the creation of the invention.

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Our new store concept for French DIY brand Leroy Merlin includes a DIY School where customers can learn a variety of home improvement skills. Providing the space for the school and the people to teach the skills, the brand shows customers what they can achieve together.

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US prescription eyewear brand Warby Parker is a compelling example of making product sales give back. Every month the retailer donates a percentage of sales to non-profit partners who train people in developing countries to become opticians and sell glasses at affordable prices to their communities.

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Warby Parker has understood that donating can be a temporary solution, whereas offering people a living is a sustainable model of good all round.

Brands are making generous human touches a key element of their brand ethos, both for consumers and charitable causes. Moving beyond the buy-one-give-one model, savvy millennials expect brands’ good deeds to offer long-lasting support for communities in need.

Service is King

From face-to-face expert service to seamless digital convenience, service is still a key differentiator.

Successful brands have brand ambassadors rather than staff. Customers’ knowledge that John Lewis ‘Partners’ are a valued and integral part of the business is a fundamental reason behind the brand’s success.

Brands can adapt the human face of their service to better suit customer culture or even instil brand heritage through the way their people behave. With Chinese tourists forming a major part of Burberry’s customer base in its London flagship, the luxury fashion house has Chinese-speaking sales assistants on hand to tailor service, while Uniqlo trains its sales assistants worldwide to behave with a Japanese body language and gestures, enhancing brand heritage in store.

The path from inspiration to purchase must be intuitive and rewarding. But offering a personal and convenient omnichannel brand experience for customers on the move, or just too busy to visit a store, involves the tricky subject of big data and algorithms. Consumers are wary of sharing their personal details and the ‘big brother’ feeling that ecommerce can too often give. To humanise the digital brand experience, engaging brands are creating a natural synergy between human behaviours and tech by making the back end invisible, and clearly demonstrating to customers that handing over private details will bring them benefits and a more personal service.

Our work with Rockar is revolutionising car buying through a humanised multichannel concept and ‘auto boutiques’. The customer is put in complete control of the car buying process with an intuitive digital journey from inspiration to purchase on Rockar’s ‘friendly’ digital platform, which clearly communicates customer benefits.

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When a customer wants to visit the cars in store, the pushy salesmen usually associated with car dealerships have been replaced by ‘Angels’, whose role is to aid customers requiring assistance navigating the in-store digital browsing tablets.

As well as bringing inventive physical versions of their brands to the customer, successful e-tailers are engaging customers with real-time and on-demand services. ASOS’s personal shoppers are democratising a service once the preserve of VIPs, while Mr Porter’s personalised labels on delivery packaging is a simple touch that leaves a lasting impression.

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Ocado has even brought humility and service to online grocery shopping: After placing their order, customers receive a friendly, human delivery notification text – “Alan in the Herbet Lemon van is 10 minutes away” – and he will happily carry your shopping inside and collect any empty bags for reuse. Small touches like this bring human emotion to ecommerce.

Customers care as much about who serves them as what the brand is selling. Smart brands are investing in their employees’ wellbeing, who in return will give good service. These human interactions remain key for digital channels, where the briefest interaction can leave a lasting impression.

Experience is Everything

The store has never been more important, offering the theatre, immersion and sensory human experiences that digital channels cannot replicate. As Roger Wade CEO of Boxpark explains: “Retail is all about emotions. Not seeing, feeling and interacting with merchandise makes buying online like watching fireworks on TV.”

Our work is all about distilling a brand’s essence into unique retail spaces – from telling the story of Swedish design brand kikki.K instore through bespoke soundscapes and animated paper installations, to an immersive theatrical experience at Primark’s Madrid flagship, where pioneering digital design meets bespoke art installations to create moments of surprise throughout the customer journey.

The magic of human senses is at the fore of Lush Cosmetics’ latest flagship on Oxford Street. The store resembles a vibrant fruit market, where customers soak up the visual abundance and aroma of natural skincare products.

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London-based studio Bompas & Parr is a leader in multisensory immersion: projects include Yoga with Butterflies and an Alcoholic Architecture pop-up featuring a walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail.

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Tom Dixon’s recent Multiplex event at Selfridges took the pop-up format to a new level, a multi-sensory playground where sound, smell, taste and touch magically came together through specially selected brands and experiences (such as an inflated greenhouse filled with medicinal fog by wild skincare brand Haeckels of Margate and printing company Moo’s spray paint party hut) while indulging in whiskey, chocolate and ice-cream tasting.

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Such examples explain why e-tailers like Amazon are constantly looking for inventive ways to physically bring their inventory to customers. A new take on the ice-cream van, Amazon’s Treasure Truck is currently touring Seattle, where customers with the Amazon app can see what specially curated products are on the truck, then order and receive the delivery to their location.

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Brands are taking the freshness and energy of pop-ups in store to bring magical hands-on experiences to their customers. While e-tailers offer the convenience the busy consumer needs, they will increasingly look to bring humanised UExP to the customer in inventive ways.

Summary

Today, the total retail experience must offer magic, immersion and intuitive convenience. Successful brands bring a human touch to every aspect of their business: building emotional relationships with their customers, establishing trust through transparent ethical values and putting service at the heart of their proposition. Behave in a more human way as a brand to engage consumers in positive peer-to-peer conversations, and earn their loyalty and advocacy.

In case you missed any of the previous instalments:

Introduction: What Makes an Engaging Brand?

New Transactions
The Human Touch
Time Well Spent

Always with You
Brands Behaving Differently

If you’d like to discuss these themes further, please do get in touch.

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