Consumer Experience and The Tangible Brand

I’ve recently been noticing that brand activation – a crucial part of how you and your business engage with the world – seems to be trending backwards. Not that this is a bad “backwards” – just an ever-growing return to how we exclusively did things, not so long ago. If you take a step back and look across today’s marketing landscape, you’ll start to see more and more companies – especially those that had their beginnings online – moving back towards in-person experiences.

Throughout the latter-part of the 20th century and into the 21st, marketers became adept at creating and activating the brand experience. I doubt anyone would disagree that the value of a brand is the overall experiential impact it has on its customers. And, more and more, the brand experience in the 21st century has become a digital one, from your initial visual experience through to an actual purchase and beyond. This includes many facets of the omnichannel experience, from Instagram photos, blogs, and tweets; tools that can track potential customers online and deliver targeted ads; and all the way into and out of the shopping cart. To name but a few!

The Difference in Experience Between Online and In-Person Shopping

Recently, I ordered a sweater online from a well-known brand where I have shopped for years. Quite happily, I might add. The sweater arrived within a week, which was great, but I was dismayed to instantly find that it had totally missed the mark for the quality of knit that I was looking for and had come to expect. Within seconds I was trying to decide whether or not to send it back. Was it worth the effort? Could I make the sub-par fabric work, and would it last long enough to be worth the cost? I found myself a little stuck, in between a kind-of-soft sweater and a frustrating decision.

That following weekend, I was in a small local store with a good friend and came across a similar, but much better sweater that met my every original expectation of what a good quality sweater should be. And the experience was enhanced because I was browsing and chatting with a girlfriend, someone who could help me decide on the item of clothing, when I saw the sweater. The store was also charming on its own, and the sweater happened to be a label that I had never heard of. Its obscurity made it that much more interesting to me, and because I could hold it, feel the quality of the fabric, and try it on – all within minutes – I had no hesitations. I ended up buying the sweater there and then in the local store and returning the online purchase. No regrets, no more time spent questioning my options.

Later that weekend, the same friend and I were in an art gallery and store. She was enchanted with a beautifully glazed glass bowl she came across and ended up buying it. She told me she had been looking for months, online mostly, for a bowl for her coffee table and this one had been the only one that she liked. All that time spent looking for something online, where presumably she might have gotten a better deal. But she loved the look of the one in front of her, with the feel of its smooth glaze, the uneven patterned surface and its weight. I’m not writing this post to discuss the value of our time and how we can often whittle away hours trying to find the perfect item online, only to have the potential for being disappointed when it arrives. Maybe I’ll tackle that in a future post. But it’s still worth thinking about when considering the benefits to shopping from your sofa, versus in-store, locally, and possibly as a reason to get together with a friend.

Experiences Are Enhanced By The Environment

What I want to focus on is that neither of our purchases were fueled by social media, remarketing, daily coupon-dropping emails, or Instagram posts. In fact, after our purchases, which felt a little special and unique to us, we both hoped that no one else would even have the same purchases that we had made that weekend.

The owner of the art gallery/store shared with us that many of her customers remark on how much they enjoy touching the pottery, textiles and sculptures. And that they end up finding things that they couldn’t buy online. Their brand experience was enhanced by the environment in which the products were displayed and sold.

So, my questions are as follows. Through our increasingly “Amazoned” life, are we coming to crave a more tangible brand experience? Have digitally-driven brand experiences, which are nevertheless designed to enhance our experience, actually made them two-dimensional and less personal?

A Move Towards Tangible Brand Experiences?

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been noticing more and more products and retailers who got their start online making a move towards more tangible brand experiences, adding brick-and-mortar stores to their offerings. Their original brand experience was forged in the digital environment, but perhaps they learned their audiences wanted more.

Notably, such brands include Warby Parker, originally heralded for making eyewear purchasing more efficient and less expensive, partly because they were able to remove the need for physical locations. Are price increases to come or have they achieved efficiencies of scale that will allow them to keep their current pricing model?

Everlane’s NYC Store

Then there’s Everlane, a clothing company that started online with a specific style that is clearly emoted through its social media, who has also opened a handful of in-person stores. Everlane was hugely successful online and didn’t really need to make a move toward storefronts. But it saw potential, or rather demand, and spent many months designing its flagship brick-and-mortar store to match the online experience of its customers, and what they had come to expect of the brand.

And I can’t possibly talk about all this without mentioning Amazon, the ultimate online retailer, where the “get it fast and at a better price” model blossomed, who is now pivoting towards a “get it even faster in your neighborhood” approach. They’re even hoping to bring their representatives inside your home. Not to mention the rise of its cashierless locations and purchase of Whole Foods last year.

But is this shift toward brick-and-mortar happening in a vacuum, with specific products that fundamentally need to be experienced in-person, that are intrinsically tangible and should be felt first by the human hand? Such as mattresses, glasses, clothing, pottery, or art?

Or, is this a larger trend back towards tactility, and a little bit of a rejection of online shopping and the impersonal nature of buying things through a screen? I’m undecided as of now, and I’d have to say only time will tell. But we want to hear from you about your brand experiences.

Tell us how you prefer to shop – is it online, or in-person? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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