Interactions speak louder than words: the blurring of boundaries between comms and commerce

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It’s often said that actions speak louder than words. In challenging times, we’ve certainly seen that actions can speak much louder than advertising.

Companies’ actions towards their employees, the environment and society as a whole have an ever more powerful impact. Once internal issues can now become instantly public, shaping brand preference and brand rejection. It is no longer possible to promise one thing and do another.

Increasingly, however, it seems that interactions can and must speak louder than words. In a world where the boundaries between comms and commerce are increasingly blurred brands are built in the stream and in the store as much as through conventional storytelling.

Yet surprisingly few online experiences are truly brand building. While brand experiences in the offline space speak volumes - think about the experience of walking into a luxury boutique versus a fast fashion store - too many online experiences are indistinguishable at best, invisible at worst. “Best practice” has triumphed at the expense of brand practice.

Clearly, no one wants to return to the days of flashy, dysfunctional sites and painful check out processes. Highly relevant and targeted experiences, smooth journeys and effortless transactions are here to stay.

But we forget at our peril that online stores too can tell stories, particularly at a time when services such as a curbside pick up or click and collect are re-framing the role of the physical store. Who can remember the last time they browsed, window shopped, popped in anywhere, or made an impulse purchase?

While the physical store remains important, shopping in the real world has become fraught with caution and urgency, masks, and hand gel.

In our second annual Isobar CX Survey, we asked over 1,350 CMOs about their approach to customer experience in the age of Covid-19. Unsurprisingly, we found that 64% of CMOs had changed their CX strategy in response to the crisis, with one in five CMOs saying they have completely changed their approach.

What was more surprising was how today’s CMOs are evolving their approach. In our 2019 study, we made the case for the rise of creative experience - an approach to customer experience that focussed not only on eliminating friction but on engineering delight and differentiation.

In 2020, facing a global pandemic and dramatic economic downturn, we might reasonably have expected to see CMOs double down on efficiency and optimisation. Conversely, we saw a dramatic acceleration in the importance of ideas and innovation in shaping customer experience.

50% of CMOs stated that “a galvanising organising idea” was a key ingredient in building differentiated customer experiences (an increase of 19 percentage points from 2019) while 58% described the innovative use of technology as key (up five percentage points year-on-year).

We see a number of factors accelerating this trend:

Brands are what they do

Today’s CMOs believe that customers prioritise practical help, support and most importantly, good corporate citizenship during this time of crisis. 40% state that customers expect them to take care of their employees as their key priority in response to Covid-19.

Journeys are messy

“The messy middle” customer journeys - as per Google's analogies - are unpredictable and non linear. So it is critical that the brand speaks - and acts - with one voice across every touchpoint.

Stores must tell stories

Unsurprisingly, we see significant investment in commerce and in building direct to consumer relationships in the age of Covid-19.

39% of CMOs have made commerce a greater focus of their CX efforts, while 36% have implemented direct to consumer initiatives. While brands have rushed to secure their route to market in volatile times, the next step as the role of the physical store evolves must be to embrace creative commerce, enabling seamless and innovative new shopping experiences for a world where shopping is always on.

Humanity is the new technology

The good news is that a host of new experience technologies are enabling us to craft experiences that are distinctive, delightful and disarmingly human. Adoption of emerging technologies is on the rise among CMOs, with an increased focus on those technologies offering a more human and conversational approach. Some 29% of CMOs have adopted voice-based technologies, while 28% are using Chatbots to deliver customer service.

We also see virtual experiences moving beyond a relentless succession of Zoom calls, as brands experiment with virtual and mixed reality, borrowing from the world of gaming using avatars and virtual goods.

The changing role of the CMO unites brand and experience

Perhaps most importantly, today’s CMOs bring together brand and experience as never before. In a world of increased scrutiny and transparency, the CMO must bring together brand, product, and commerce to shape a holistic customer experience. In 2020, 56% of CMOs state that product and service innovation is a core KPI (up five percentage points YOY) while 48% are accountable for driving digital transformation. (up nine percentage points YOY).

In turn, this affects what CMOs will expect from their agency partners going forward. Creativity was the number one requirement from CMOs when seeking an agency partner to deliver superior customer experience, followed closely by innovation capabilities and the ability to develop new products or services.

As the CMO becomes increasingly accountable for the end to end customer experience, agencies must embrace creative experience, building brands through authentic actions and distinctive interactions.

Pats McDonald, global chief solutions officer at Dentsu Aegis Network Creative.