Let’s get physical – the critical importance of space and place to brand engagement

 Part 1: The emergence of online retailing and the prevailing importance of engaged employees

One of the lines most frequently quoted from Ian’s first book, Brand Engagement is the bold assertion that “ brands are 20% physical and 80% behavioural” implying that HR, Comms and Marketing departments really should collaborate more . This is usually accompanied by the ironic news that the reverse ratio applies to brand development budget allocation, with Marketing departments commanding a lot more than the lion’s share of brand spend.

Regardless of whether you’re a designer or a behaviouralist; a communications specialist or so-called social media junkie, there is a very clear relationship between the physical environment and employee and customer behaviour. The impact the operating as well as shopping environment has on the ability of the brands to deliver on the range of promises made to customers and important stakeholders is often under-estimated.

Take the retail shopping experience for example. Store environments are probably the spaces we’re all most familiar with, where the various manifestations of the physical brand deliberately stimulate certain emotions, responses and decisions from consumers. So with retail shopping online increasing exponentially, bringing a brand to life in a comparatively expensive “in store” context is increasingly under the microscope to deliver and make a difference.

In basic terms the internet has polarised retail and the reasons for visiting and spending time in store vs. going online. For years traditional bricks and mortar retailers have talked about creating ‘experience’ and ‘theatre’ in store. Some of them have also grasped the importance of at least paying attention to the way their employees experience the brand. Now with commodity and price the territory of online retailers the physical experience needs to be re-envisioned and often re-engineered both in the shop window and on the shop floor.

But fighting the corner for face time vs facebook and the www for a moment, what does the physical store brand experience deliver for customers that the internet can’t? Well, try these for starters: instant gratification, impulse, spur of the moment, peer comparison and interaction – all need states that have driven purchase behaviour since the year dot. In addition, the physical interaction is clearly a face-to-face opportunity for brand champions to shine at the front end rather than design end of a process.

Even online same day delivery can’t deliver in the same way (delays aside) as the retailer effectively delegates a large proportion of the purchasing experience to a third-party supplier, the delivery company. And let’s face it, delivery times and taking time off work to wait in are just not that convenient.

As we all know if you’re somehow enticed into a shop, you can usually get your hands on the things there and then and have at least the opportunity for a more enriching shopping experience. It’s very hard to achieve the ‘retail therapy’ experience online in terms of total immersion of the brand and its products. There’s nothing like being in a physical environment to satisfy the basic human need to be in places with other people who ideally inform; advise and (when they’re doing their job well), provide valuable information and feedback. All the “reviews” in the world can’t replicate that.

Lest we forget, it was said at one time that talkies and then video and DVD in turn would sound the death knell of the cinema. What actually happened was that movie houses were forced to do a better job in fulfilling the large screen experience: reclining seats, proper food and drinks served at your seat, leading technology in comfortable and contemporary surroundings. Cinema theatres are arguably no longer the film business but the popcorn selling business. And just as cinemas attract customers through screening movies that tell stories, shops sell their own brand of dreams and in the process showcase and retail products and services like scenes from the story of that brand. But in an age of constantly changing communication media and lifestyles the context and way that the retail experience is delivered has to be constantly rethought. Neurosis for some, excitement for others as even the most well-known brands are constantly challenged to adapt and embrace change.

In early 2012, for example, even the online retail giant Amazon, which was supposed to permanently upstage store-based shopping, announced plans to open its first physical retail store in Seattle, selling tablets and e-readers. Its aim? To provide customers with a hands-on experience of its products in the context of a fully branded experience facilitated by employees who are advocates and champions of the brand. Sound familiar?

Buying certain products and services requires big decisions and will always involve road-testing or a more personal and expert, even reassuring touch prior to purchase. It’s a brave cyclist, for example, who buys a new road bike without actually sitting on it and taking it for a test ride. It’s a foolhardy patient who purchases meds online without some form of professional consultation. And what about the anxious first time parents in need of expert advice when buying buggy, cot or car seat?

Most people still look to a small group of people for advice and reassurance – friends and peers, family, doctors and sometimes trusted sales advisors. We’re seeing a new generation of umbrella brands that act as impartial advisors enabling other brands to coexist in one space – a kind of fragmented department store model projecting a clear set of values and which offers edited choice and more reasons to visit and engage.

Lloyds Pharmacy is currently testing a concept in two UK locations that may very well revolutionise health and wellbeing – the Health Village. Teaming up with aligned brand partners such as Betterlife, Connect Physical Health, Hidden Hearing, Shuropody, Skin and Vision Express, these are the UK’s first retail health centres that offer a wide range of healthcare services under one roof. They also offer the Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor service, an innovative and discreet in-store online service. With healthcare needs of local communities increasingly changing and people no longer passive about it, Lloyds Pharmacy’s community based philosophy, combined with the expertise and reassurance of its partners, is the perfect way to offer personalised, convenient healthcare services. It’s a really smart move, and by bringing in brand partners, newness and content are much easier to generate.

But there’s little point corralling a set of brands under one brand umbrella, however aligned they may be on paper, unless the employees can role model the approach in their everyday interactions with customers. Whether online or face to face, at the core of the brand proposition are people and they have a choice about how they interact with each other and with customers. Add up those exercised choices and you have the culture of the brand whether manifest online or in person.

Part 2: It’s all about culture follows next week…….

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).


3 thoughts on “Let’s get physical – the critical importance of space and place to brand engagement

  1. Pingback: Let’s get physical II: It’s all about culture | The Brand Trilogy (TBT)

  2. Pingback: Engaging customers in retail– The Brand Trilogy « M Worldwide

  3. Pingback: Engaging customers in retail – The Brand Trilogy | Mworldwide

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