By Joe Abi Mansour, Digital and Innovation Strategy Lead at Geometry MENA

Joe Abi Mansour, Digital and Innovation Strategy Lead at Geometry MENA

Dr. Thomas Gilovich’s famous premise “Spend money on things and not experiences” is arguably more interesting and more polarizing than ever before. How do we define experiences in confinement? Where do we draw the line between experiences and things? Is a Lego set considered a thing or an experience? What about a game console, a smart TV, a new phone or a baking set?

The first half of 2020 forced both brands and consumers to align their ducks in light of this new reality. For brands, it meant reinventing the supply chain and commerce channels, but also their social purpose and brand experience. For consumers it meant seeking self-sufficiency through introspection.

“Introvert” Is In

Over the last decade, social media increasingly turned the badge of worthiness of experiences to become an extrinsic measure: Traveling to Insta-worthy destinations, attending story-worthy parties/gatherings and chasing #instafood, in the hope of a #foodgasm.

Throughout the 2020 pandemic, consumers had to introspect more and get a deeper understanding of the experiences within: How do we maximize entertainment, growth and productivity while minimizing exposure to the outside world? Keyword trends on search engines give us a clearer idea of what that means. Terms like puzzle, baking and online course reached an all-time high in April 2020, in many cases around 3 times higher than the previous 20-year peaks. This gives us a glimpse at a consumer base who’s now searching for more individualistic experiences and growth avenues.

The question remains: Is this a circumstantial shift in behavior, or is it a generational change in attitude?

After the Great Depression of the 1930s, a whole generation developed an attitude of scarcity: Money Jars, cash-stuffed mattresses and backyard gold were an answer to the question “How do I put food on the table if I’m suddenly out of work, or if banks go belly-up”. Turns-out this attitude remains present to this day with the generation who lived through the depression.

This newfound inward focus might very well become a defining attribute of today’s generation. For marketers, it means Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing is now more relevant than ever: “Peloton” being up 66% in sales during the pandemic just a couple months after facing a viral backlash over sexist claims, shows nothing but a product that was a good hire for the job to be done; irrespective of the brand rhetoric and cultural imprint.

Rushing Toward e-Commerce

Every other article about e-commerce mentions how COVID-19 accelerated an e-commerce adoption trend that was bound to happen anyway. And that’s true.

Of course the barrier to entry for shoppers is quite low. When it comes to brands on the other hand, achieving successful and profitable e-commerce deployment is often a long a bumpy road.

Hundreds of new brands are successfully launching e-commerce channels every single day. It turns out in most cases, it’s the larger and more established brands that are suffering the most: Ubiquitous brands that own the most efficient supply chains in the world are struggling to sell their flagships online. Their business is just not built with e-commerce in mind:

  • They don’t have the right commerce strategy.
  • Their margins are tied to centuries-old supply chains.
  • Their packaging and formats are far from being e-commerce friendly.
  • Their communication strategy is meant to drive consideration instead of traffic.

And yet, the response of many of these brands was to send inventory to Amazon and other marketplaces, list their products, and hope for the best. They fail. So they revert to the tried and true solution: Throw ad-spend at it. Now they’re operating at a loss and still not generating results.

To succeed on e-commerce we need to reinvent how the product is manufactured, stored, delivered, communicated, re-ordered, reviewed, recommended & even returned.

For FMCGs, packaging comes to mind: On physical shelves, packaging is often the only real estate that brands own. So over the last few centuries they perfected the art of telling stories through packaging: From brand story, to origin, to emotional & functional benefits to ingredients & package content, it was all on the package. 

Most brands rushing to e-commerce are committing the deadly sin of copying this thinking from the physical shelf to the digital product page: Using package photos as the main asset on e-commerce. The mistake here is double-sided: First, all the info you think your package is communicating is invisible, especially on mobile. Second you’re suffering the opportunity cost of not using the entire available real estate.

The question becomes: How do we take advantage in going from tens of millimeters of communication space, to thousands of pixels? How do we go from a silent, immutable object to a dynamic canvas for interactive content? And most importantly if the product page is the digital equivalent of the product package, then what does it mean for brands when consumers actually have a voice on that digital package, at a time where reviews, more often than not, play a bigger role than brand communication?

To tackle these emerging challenges, and drive growth in this new landscape, brands need to go back to the drawing board. And they need the right agency partners by their side.

For agencies, the last decade was all about deep specialization. However, today’s clients are looking for broad integration: Brands are in desperate need for a swift and radical paradigm shift to stay relevant in this climate. Incumbent comms agencies, when operating alone, have little interest in the operational side of the business. E-commerce agencies (whatever that means) are more focused on data entry and don’t have the capacity to bring to life the brand’s narrative across touchpoints, let alone drive business results.

What clients need today and for the foreseeable future is commerce agencies surrounded by solid partners, working as one integrated team of subject matter experts: A team that will follow them to the trenches of supply-chain, fight alongside them on commerce growth, and build infrastructures with them on e-commerce and shopper marketing. Teams with complimentary skills horizontally and deep specialization vertically.