Friction versus seamlessness: brand choices, automation and memory

Source: Marketing 19 Oct 2017 

Brands focusing on frictionless CX risk undermining the reason for their success. Sérgio Brodsky on brands transcending product and path-to-purchase.

This article originally appeared in The Serve Issue, our October/November print edition of Marketing magazine.

At its most basic level, a brand’s job is to create a shortcut. By encoding meaning that resonates with target audiences, brands make consumption choices easier. Like magnets, strong brands attract our attention, casting a shadow over competitors.

Yet, automation advancements are pointing towards Doomsday for brands. From a series of staged choices, consumers are moving by inertia through their paths-to-purchase, their more mundane choices made obsolete.

Using an AI deep-learning algorithm developed at CERN to manage its stock, German retailer Otto has been able to predict what customers will order with 90% accuracy. Otto buys products from suppliers without human intervention by looking at 30 billion transactions and 200 variables (i.e. weather). This reduced two million stock returns and surplus stock by 20%.

Wheelys Moby Store is a 24-hour, unmanned, mobile shop that captures biometric data to avoid theft and ensure greater personalisation. The start-up’s founders have plans for a cloud-based system that will store and analyse information about customers’ behaviours and preferences, helping shop owners predict what products to sell and where. They even see a time when the wheeled shop will be able to autonomously restock by driving itself back to warehouses when supplies run low, and also increase sales by moving to different locations according to predictions of demand.

Automation removes complexity of choice with algorithmically verified suggestions that get us and consumer reviews that reassure us. This way, the non-experience is emerging as the new benchmark to shopping. Predetermine everything, choose nothing. Forget going on retail safaris and simply become an addressable destination for subscribed transactions.

On the other hand, not all choices are that simple or can be outsourced. Plus, not all consumers are the same. Otto’s mass-personalisation triumph risks becoming a ‘personal-massification’ problem. Similar to the phenomenon of echo-chambers, giving us more of what we already know we like (before even asking for it) will gradually entrench our tastes.

We don’t shop to escape reality but to animate it. However, in a non-experience context, where the act of shopping is reduced into our personal frames of reference, purchases will stop animating routines to become routines. Therefore, our commercial participation in life, through the brands we buy, is also reduced.

What now?!

Looking at Clayton Christensen’s latest innovation theory of ‘Jobs to be Done’, the antidote to his very own theory of ‘Disruptive Innovation’, customers aren’t really interested in products, services or even brands themselves but on what they serve for. When people have a need, that’s a job to be done; brands are simply ‘hired’ to solve them.

Automation is clearly solving the problem of ‘time wasted’ during a sale.

Retailers and FMCG companies suffering from disruption should certainly attempt removing negative frictions. Becoming frictionless, however, will not deliver a true advantage. This will only help undermine the very reason that made them successful: the meaning they encoded in people’s minds.

“We don’t think about what we remember – we remember what we think about,” says Harvard Educational Neuroscientist and expert in human learning and memory Dr Jared Cooney Horvath. “Remove friction and you remove explicit thought. Remove explicit thought and you kill brand recognition.”

Even the newly created FMCG startup Brandless, is a brand that compels people to choose for it. Despite its commodifying no-logo attempt and seamless e-commerce platform, the attributes respectively listed on its website and packaging design follow strict guidelines creating a distinctive look and feel, or: brand!

Choice is not removed, but cleverly articulated. How? By inviting people to join the hipster consumerist ideology when buying Brandless items. Brandlesss understood that breaking into the cultural code of the places where they operate will often succeed, reason why they’ve partnered with Feeding America®, the nation’s leading domestic hunger relief organization. This way, Brandless enables buyers to display a sense of self and show where they stand in relation to others.

Second to the role of being shortcuts, brands inform ours and others’ identities. While imperfect and incomplete, brands disarm our fear of the unknown by allowing us to see (and, at times, ponder about) someone else’s choices, social status, political orientations and more. And, when considering all controversies of modern life, there are plenty of jobs in need of a brand. Something a commoditised pipeline cannot address.

One of the most heavily commoditised categories is toilet paper. As important as its mission is in the world, who really cares about it outside that moment of absolute need?

As such, toilet paper brands would be ideal candidates to entering transactional subscription models. The risk is, of course, losing the integrity of your consumer data to the platform responsible for distribution. To avoid that, create new meaning. There are still plenty of TP brands investing and winning by taking an initiative in culture.

For example:

Who Gives a Crap

By donating 50% of its profits to help build toilets in the developing world, brand Who Gives a Crap turned our most private moments into shared ones. The physical experience of wiping your bum is the same as with any other toilet paper roll with the same specs. However, by creating a community of interest through a relevant cause, Who Gives a Crap has become one of the best indicators of someone’s ethical values and a social glue for like-minded people. Oh, and it also has a subscription-delivery service.

Charmin’s SitOrSquat app

From the strategy of connecting Charmin with innovative conversations and solutions as a brand that understands the importance of bringing the best bathroom experience to consumers – even when they’re away from home – SitOrSquat was developed. In response to those awful moments of not finding a decent toilet or not finding one at all, Charmin listed thousands of toilets across more than ten countries and extended and reinforced the brand presence at different locations.

Missed opportunities

The culture equality debate is one of the fiercest nowadays. Spanning from gender, age, political orientation and more, our cultural differences were never so salient. All differences considered, butt-wiping certainly unites us. So why haven’t toilet paper brands attached themselves to such a rich cultural stimulus?! Opportunities for TP brands to enable common ground abound.

In Canada, students from Ryerson University created the ‘Toilet paper equality row’ protesting against the fact that bathrooms throughout the university are stocked with one-ply, with the exception of those in the administration building. Leveraged by the headline ‘Two-ply toilet paper creates a two-tiered Ryerson’, brands could’ve jumped on sponsorship, activations, or more opportunities. ‘The everyday sexism of women waiting in public toilet lines’ was an article published on Time Magazine and I have not noticed any native or interruptive ad units there. Why not?!

It is only in the company of an audience that we can find purpose to our stories. Whereas automation brings many benefits to our busy, modern lives, it also risks removing opportunities for memorable brand experiences. It’s all a matter of defining what is the job to be done… for the customer!