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Topics include: Direct to consumer / E-commerce / Data & privacy / Martech

Re-building better: How to become an experience business

Purpose-driven business will connect fundamentally with consumers, their employees and the communities they serve in a shift to what is the new “experience economy” in 2021. This will be one of the major manifestations of a long-term disruption to existing commercial norms in the recovery from the seismic shocks of 2020 - no matter at what speed recovery takes place.

The need for extreme agility not only to anticipate the post-pandemic consumer’s unmet needs, but “unknown needs” too, was the other major prediction to emerge from a panel debate on the theme of “Re-building Better: How To Become An Experience Business” hosted by The Drum’s co-founder Gordon Young, featuring the chief customer officer of the Co-op, Ali Jones, and the UK and Ireland lead for Accenture Interactive, Pritesh Gadhia.

Watch the full Predictions 2021 session here.

The current shift away from enterprises’ customer experience (CX) focus to a more holistic re-orienting around the “business of experience” requires buy-in from the CEO and the frontline workforce alike. But, what does the business of experience really mean? What are the other lasting changes that will emerge from the changes that pandemic-related disruption necessitated? And, are these changes for the better?

The reality is that an accelerated switch to a profoundly more digital economy means that consumers are more fickle than ever. On response, organisations need to ditch internal silos and vertical hierarchies in favour of embracing horizontal task-based teams, because the overriding need is to anticipate and respond to those unmet and unknown needs at lightning speed. And all this can only be achieved by bringing the workforce with you.

Gadhia cites the examples of Next, which initially closed its distribution warehouses to allay workers’ fears over Covid before working with those same employees to entirely re-orient behind its revamped digital experience. There is also the US retailer, Best Buy, which made its switch to a digital focus and a far safer physical environment with unprecedented speed. Both are excellent examples of corporations which have made a successful pivot in extraordinary times.

Jones claims that what happened in 2020 simply accelerated the expression of a lot that was at the heart of the Co-op’s existing DNA as a “purpose-driven” organisation. She cites the Co-op’s direct switch in budget away from last year’s long-planned Easter advertising campaign into a partnership with the Fair Share charity and the footballer Marcus Rashford to directly distribute food to needy families. This was a high-profile attempt to battle the food poverty divide that the pandemic-induced economic crisis had thrown up - work will continue into 2021.

“Once we had made sure that our colleagues and customers were safe, and that we were getting food onto our shelves” recalls Jones, “we then shifted to looking in wider terms at what communities really needed.” Before the Government got embroiled in a spat with Rashford and its resulting U-turn, the Co-op had already decided to hand out food vouchers to children because of the need to act fast. And it is imperative for speed that is the secret to anticipating and solving those “unmet needs”.

The Co-op set up an internal “three-horizons” project: “What do we need to change now? How do we need to change things in the next three months, and then making sure we're really keeping an eye on what does that mean in terms of future strategies that needs to change,” says Jones. “Because, there's a lot of things that are happening now that are going to stay around in some shape or form into 2021, and 2022.”

Gadhia points to Disney’s introduction of its Disney+ streaming service as an excellent example of the “business of experience” forcing unprecedented speed of change on even the largest, most venerable of brands: “Disney had stated the ambition to be ‘fully online’ with content. What's extraordinary is that was a five-year ambition. And they executed that transition within five months.”

This is, of course, not the first major disruption of modern times: there was 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008. Why should this convulsion be any different: won’t things gradually just drift back to normal? Gadhia is unequivocal: “The pandemic has changed the way we work, play, learn and how we shop or interact with one another. Some things will go back to normal, but I think a lot will hold because our experience of many of the things we do have improved through necessity and human ingenuity.”

Jones, like Gadhia, points to an unexpected element of the business of experience: the need for joy, or at least enjoyment in our future blended online/offline consumerism. She sees a future where some people will remain more nervous of the physical consumer experience while others relish it as a means of escaping confinement in the long-term switch to home-working. How too does the digital interactive experience become more enjoyable? She also believes that a renewed focus on purpose will encompass a revisiting of “sustainability”, an issue that receded in 2020, but looks set to return with renewed focus in 2021.

With Gadhia reporting research that in the UK there were 50% more business start-ups in June 2020 over June 2019, there are clearly many SMEs readying themselves to scale on the back of a total focus on “experience”. Large enterprises must do the same, the panel concluded, because there is no real alternative to the “business of experience” as we contend with both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns of the next two years.

Gordon Young, co-founder of The Drum was talking to Ali Jones, chief customer officer of the Co-op and Pritesh Gadhia, UK and Ireland lead at Accenture Interactive. Watch the full session on demand here.

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