As retail rapidly digitises, driven even further and faster by the global pandemic, have we lost something tangible in the process? Does the rise of tools like AI and AR, a focus on logistics and statistics, and the complete takeover of commerce by bytes and bots reduce or enhance the brand love bond between retailer and shopper?
Once upon a time, the humble shopkeeper ruled retail. He or she lived or died on an ability to greet customers in the local area by name, know their needs intimately, and exceed their expectations. Over a century ago, the founder of U.S. drugstore chain Walgreens, Charles Walgreen Sr., famously took customer orders over the phone and was able to maintain a conversation long enough to fulfil and deliver before the caller had hung up. (Talk about surprise and delight - take that, Amazon Prime Now.)
Of course, in the language of the digital present, that kind of approach is not “scalable”. But the principles of initiating and building a relationship – and engendering brand love - remain intact.
As retail evolved from single stores to chains, and from the immediate community to a global audience, there was still something about the physicality and humanity of a store experience which (when done right) created shopper chemistry. All the senses were stimulated in a way that a digital screen could never hope to match.
But perhaps as we transition to a post-pandemic world, that thinking is as old-fashioned as Charles Walgreen’s mortar and pestle. Could a well-executed digital strategy be sufficient to make a shopper’s heart race?
The just-released Global “Most Loved” Retailers Report from BrandAsset® Valuator* (BAV®) helps to shed light on that question. And the answer is: “it depends”.
It depends upon what kind of love you are trying to foster for your retail brand. As the Report details, there are four different flavours of brand love – “Dependable”, “Aspirational”, “Inspirational” and “Spirited”. (Yes, love is indeed a many splendoured thing.)
If your goal is “Dependable Love”, a digital-first approach is essential. Number one on the U.S. Top 20 of “Dependable Love” retailers in the report is Amazon.com. Robust and innovative technology allows Amazon to (literally) always deliver for customers.
Conversely, if you are an “Aspirational Love” retailer, like Gucci (#1 on the U.K. list), a high touch, high service bricks-and-mortar store experience is part of what adds lustre and love to your brand.
As an “Inspirational Love” retailer, you may need both digital and physical. Although it’s interesting to consider that four out of the top five in this category in the U.S. chart are heavy on tech – either in their route to market (e.g., Amazon.com) or the products they sell (e.g., Best Buy and Apple).
Finally, if you are chasing “Spirited Love”, an interactive store experience like craft retailers Hobby Lobby or Michaels (#1 and #3 in this category in the U.S.) could help in “bringing joy and giving (customers) a good time.” (Which is how BAV® describes the desired customer response.)
The framework of adopting a digital or physical bias given the type of brand love a retailer is seeking is useful, but it’s not a black and white solution. The best retail brands today think holistically, not in silos, and anchor what they do in an amazing customer experience, no matter the channel or touchpoint.
Amazon understands that four walls can sometimes beat a 2-D screen – hence their rollout of physical stores (turbo-charged by tech). Nike uses its flagships to imbue a sense of love for its brand, but digital is brought heavily into the experience. McDonald’s is fundamentally physical, yet technology enhances love for the brand – from ordering via mobile, to license plate recognition in the Drive-Thru.
It’s also important not to slavishly pursue just one type of brand love. Amazon.com wins on both “Dependable Love” and “Inspirational Love”. Nike is prominently featured in both the U.S. and U.K. charts for “Aspirational Love”, but it’s also right up there for “Inspirational Love”. The secret may well be to strive for fame in one kind of love, and then support strongly with another.
Which brings us back to the headline question at the beginning of this article: can a chatbot generate brand love? Well yes, if that love is “Dependable Love” (being there 24/7/365 for the customer), it can help. And it helps even more if the bot can hand off effectively to a living, breathing person at the appropriate stage of the process. Like the shopkeeper of old, there is still a very important place for humanity in building brand love and encouraging long-term customer relationships.
*BrandAsset® Valuator (BAV®) is the world’s largest and leading empirical study of brands, and a proprietary brand management tool of BAV® Group. BAV® Group is a global strategic consultancy and part of WPP, the world’s leading creative transformation company.
Download the full BAV® Most Loved Retailers report