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Brands Should Stay Human in Spite of Being Digital

Guest post by Josh Artus


Two recent retail based experiences got me thinking. Are we rushing in our applications of technologies and assuming the work is done, that the application of technology means the job is done?

The first experience involves a non-communicative returns system regarding an expensive and semi-personal item and the second the lackadaisical approach to a rare live music event. In both instances there was a sentiment that the businesses were focused on speed of transaction and not understand how this speed could make their time better spent elsewhere, and the total customer journey improved.

Communication Breakdown

Both instances involved poor direct and indirect communication abilities. Communication based social media channels such as SnapChat, WhatsApp, Slack, and Facebook have changed the approach in how we as people communicate on a daily basis. Our style of communication has evolved and as such brands must follow suit in order to maintain appeal and empathy with their ideal customers. I can receive location markers through WhatsApp pulling me to an exact and specific location for me, just me to find and have a result at the end. I can log on to the Royal Mail site and see what stage my delivery is at – each time giving me the confidence that the process is working and moving.

With so many ways to communicate, update, inform it’s imperative that brands understand this in order to build bespoke communication tools. Our world is becoming more complex, anxieties are rising and professional and social demands for our cognitive flexibility is increasing. The last thing we need is something to make our lives more complex, certainly one that should bring us joy. A smart brand understands how they sit in the wider picture of their customers lives and adapts to become synchronised.

Us & Them

Both instances were evident of hierarchy, that they were the ‘seller’ and I happy to be the submissive ‘buyer’ working to their terms. Smart customer facing businesses know that technology is used to build a digital experience around a customer, not around their production line. Perhaps Amazon has bred a culture that rack’em-and-stack’em on the internet is acceptable for all businesses?….only if you’re Amazon, everyone else needs to be a little more Mr. Porter.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

As we rush to an age that encourages digitisation and automation for rise of profits and customer speed of transaction, those that fail to realise that ‘retail’ is an experience economy will be left behind. A customer’s journey does not end once a purchase has been made, it ends days, weeks, months and sometimes years after the event or purchase has taken place…purchasing anything other than shower gel is an emotive decision. We live in an economy where spending power has decreased and essential assets such as rent have see their costs increased. Each purchase means a lot to someone, it’s a constant game of opportunity-cost. Brands must placate to the fact that disposable income has made buying deeply personal, and that they must find a way to empathise with that personal journey.

If You Don’t Know Me by Now…

When selling experiences, it’s not about trying to sell more, it’s about engaging further in order to build a sense of loyalty. Lord, this isn’t even rocket science yet it still needs repeating.

Following the first purchase, rather than receiving emails about buying new things (hello, I just spent a lot of money with you, do you think I’m made of money?) my follow up should be asking how I feel, whether I’d like to read an interesting related article they recommend, show me a curated playlist of video content, or whether I should join a relevant club near me. If I join a the club I become deeper involved in the culture of the brand and likely to purchase more.

My follow up contact from the gig should not have been about buying new tickets but asking whether I’d seen some of the pics of social media from the gig (easy to find with geo-tagging and hashtags) or whether I’d learnt an interesting fact about them (wikipedia).

E-Commerce 1.0 will be consumed by the bigger broader players who look at their transaction offering as part of a wider culture. It’s easy to see AirBnB, who absolutely nail their way to aim to get you involved in a local community and provide recommendations of what to check out, buying TimeOut. WeWork repositioned renting office space to providing a holistic platform in how you use the physical assets around you to do and create, they already broker huge deals for insurance and other 3rd party offerings associated your life easier. They identified that being an entrepreneur was complex enough, that you shouldn’t have to think or worry about lease negotiations, calculating arbitrary rent per sq ft deals, sharkey agents, lawyers and complex terms relating to unthinkable events in the future, time consuming insurance deals and dealing with being isolated from industry. As a result they offered a service that changed the real estate industry to be not about renting but a space and a service that enabled you to progress and thrive.

In the sharing/value/experience economy transactions occur through loyalty and identity. Any brands failure to understand this will lead to their replacement. Economies of scale become easier to achieve through a digitally enabled world coupled with a private equity market keen to invest. Incumbents can easily be brought down to size. The 13 people of Instagram had effectively led to the downfall of Kodak by the time they were sold to Facebook.

The Human League

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and mass digitisation is about to explode but we can’t ignore that we are still humans. As such a business should’t focus on being digital when they sell a human-emotive product. In a Lonely Planet and AirBnb world physical travel agents are perversely starting to increase in numbers “A slick UI simply cannot provide the sense of guardianship a human travel agent historically brings to the table.” In a world where online estate agents give each person the ability to cut their costs dramatically in selling their prizes asset, physical residential agents continue to open new branches. “Whhhhhhhhhyyyyyyy!!!!” I hear you scream is because the human presence in a human experience reduces your margin of error when dealing with other humans in a complex market.

Amazon can sell you protein powder, books and dvd’s quickly and there’s no problem as they’re quite linear purchases. Just because Amazon act the way they do doesn’t mean you should. Each brand must understand why they’re using tech in a sales process.

Transport for London are another interesting company to reference here. For them, advanced technology means that people are using little personalised magnets in their wallets to travel the city, with each journey recorded and understood. Advanced technology now means that they have been able to develop smart transaction systems for a purchase. They [contentiously] removed ticket booths and the staff from production based work and redeploying people where it helps other people the most, out in the field. They believe that “passengers will see further improvements at stations, including more staff in ticket hall, on gate lines and platforms where they can offer the best possible assistance”. TfL’s aim was to get them making recommendations to travellers when lines are busy, assisting the physically challenged and elderly more, assisting on platforms to ensure safety – core heavily nuanced human values that will never go unloved. AI and tech is some way off from being able to give a better judgement of what route to take over an experienced human who can look someone in the eye, sense their openness or see their tiredness all by the subtleties of pupil dilation and posture.

Technology is an enabler for better human experience. Rather than automation and prediction our focuses on deploying it should be for enhancement of the human experience. We are nuanced and complex individuals, play to our madnesses, play to the absurd, play to our dreams and imaginations and you’ll find we’ll come back to you. It’s often why we fall in love with another human, that ability to lose yourself in a world of experiencing possibilities together. As John Lennon said “All you need is Love”.


THECUBE London is a research agency in Shoreditch, East London. After establishing a shared workspace in 2009 the research consultancy was soon developed that applies neuroscience research and cultural analysis helping organisations gain greater understanding in the human experience in our increasingly complex world.