Do retailers need to work on making more emotional connections?

Discussion
Source: Kurt Salmon BDI article
Jan 26, 2017
Tom Ryan

Two sessions at the 2017 National Retail Federation Big Show explored how developing emotional connections with consumers can help retailers avoid competing as much on price as well as factors such as selection or service.

At one session, Bruce Cohen, senior partner, North American practice director, Kurt Salmon U.S., introduced his firm’s Brand Devotion Index (BDI). Based on multiple studies of more than 7,000 consumers, the index identifies three attributes that reflect consumers’ devotion to a brand:

  • Authentic: The brand has to be distinctive with a strong position on what it stands for.
  • Personal: Well beyond monogramming or personalizing products, the brand makes the consumer feel like the brand was made just for her or him.
  • Tribal: Consumers want to be with other people who feel the same devotion to the brand and what it represents.

According to a related white paper, creating that “extra, palpable bond” can drive a consumer to spend more with a retailer, advocate louder and be less motivated to wait for promotions. Ranking high on the index were Lululemon, Amazon.com, Cabela’s, Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Michael Kors.

At another session, Kevin Kelley, principal at Shook Kelley, similarly lamented that too much of retail is driven by price, variety, convenience, and even service and quality rather than around emotional connections. But his talk particularly focused on the tribal aspect.

While previously looking for status brands, consumers are now looking for group experiences, he asserted. But beyond experiences, it’s equally important to deliver a purpose and meaning. As an example, he pointed to the “shared values” that builds a “group identity” for fans of Harley Davidson, which stands for freedom and revolution.

Other businesses benefiting from forming communal bonds include Whole Foods; SoulCycle, the indoor cycling studio; WeWork, the shared-office startup; as well as shopping centers such as The Grove in Los Angeles and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

“Humans are not only experience-seeking, they are meaning-seeking,” said Mr. Kelley. “And so retail has to move to become more participatory, rather than simply transactional.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think that delivering intangibles such as “meaning” and “authenticity” are practical goals for retailers? What traits do you see emotionally-connected brands sharing?

Braintrust
"When you create that emotional bond, competitors have to work very hard to break it."
"Emotionally-connected brands have a philanthropic mission, which is furthered by the sales, production or unique corporate structure of the company."
"Authenticity and integrity must be earned and continually nurtured and exercised on a daily basis at every single customer touchpoint."

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38 Comments on "Do retailers need to work on making more emotional connections?"

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Tom Dougherty
BrainTrust

Emotion IS the very definition of a brand. Everything else a retailer does is in support of the emotional reason WHY.

Rational and tangible benefits quickly become table stakes. Brand is emotional and answers the question of WHY a brand is here. The problem with retail is that everyone is process driven. They think they are retailers.

Black & Decker doesn’t sell drills. They sell holes.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Every retailer is a brand. And for a brand to survive, it must have a core story: What it does, for whom and why it matters. Everything a brand does should reinforce its core story, whether it’s creating an experience that supports the brand or promising and delivering low prices. The retailers mentioned in the article all do this well.

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust

The retail landscape has shifted dramatically. Price, convenience and selection are all attributes that can be satisfied by many different retailers. Engaging with your core customer in a way that benefits them is what leads to long-term retention.

A perfect example of this is the Apple stores. Apple did not build physical stores to grow sales as the primary driver. They built cool stores to allow people to look, touch and engage with their products in an environment that makes the user a part of the experience. It is a place to get your questions answered and problems solved. The bulk of Apple sales are still done online, but the stores enhance the pre- and post-sale experience and create that connection.

Contrast that with a Microsoft store that is functional and focused on selling the surface more than on educating and engaging.

When you create that emotional bond, competitors have to work very hard to break it.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Phil, A perfect example!

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

To have the loyal following that brands like Apple, Lululemon or Starbucks have is something I suspect all retailers desire, but I don’t think this is something that can be conjured up in the boardroom. “Authenticity” and “meaning” are reactions that loyal followers/believers have to their beloved brands, and while there are ways that retailers/brands can act that will foster and encourage these feelings, I believe the alchemy of achieving this is largely beyond the control of the retailer/brand. That said, every retailer has the opportunity to create connections with customers — every interaction, in-store or online, presents an opportunity to build that relationship.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

“I believe the alchemy of achieving this is largely beyond the control of the retailer/brand.” Could not agree more, Mark.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Being fully in the omnichannel retail space (order management systems), the BIG advantage of brands in omnichannel is that they can provide a service experience. It’s something that online-only retailers cannot provide. Recent reports are pegging omnichannel retailers as the big winners in Holiday 2016 season. Why? Part of it is because of the instant gratification effect (I want it now). A big part of it is the intangibles of the great atmosphere, polite and helpful service, opportunity to offer opinions/expertise, easy returns environment and so on. These intangibles are REALLY the drivers of omnichannel.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Emotional connection is absolutely a means to strengthen brand, sales and revenue while alleviating most woes of physical retailing, but it’s extremely hard to achieve.

Most retailers have a hard time finding a balance between digital and physical retail or even getting digital retailing right and those challenges are more “tangible.” Emotional connectivity falls into the domains of branding and place which are more qualitative and formidable by nature. Emotional connection is really the pinnacle of the alignment of the brand’s offering/experience with consumer wants/needs. Contriving such an alignment doesn’t work (maybe very short-term) so the authenticity factor is inherent if the connection is made. The consumer’s path to emotional connection is delight — fulfillment — sharing, which speaks to Kurt Salmon’s Personal and Tribal factors.

Ultimately, a brand has to offer tangible value, be true to their vision and mission and execute on it very well at a gut, not corporate, level. When they do, they will attract supporters that share their goals and advocate for them.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

“Contriving such an alignment doesn’t work” – exactly!

Jasmine Glasheen
Guest
Jasmine Glasheen
5 months 1 day ago

Emotionally-connected brands have a philanthropic mission, which is furthered by the sales, production or unique corporate structure of the company. Connected brands are often led by a spearhead that customers can relate to or look up to. The fourth wall of fame and bureaucracy is en route to being has been eliminated: customers want to interface with company leaders through social media. Q and As are a great way to provide this interaction. Accessibility is key.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

Retailers need to figure out what “meaning” and “authenticity” mean for their brand specifically. Many retailers deliver an emotional connection through charity work. For example, Toms and Warby Parker donate a pair of shoes or glasses for every pair that is purchased. These donations create a greater emotional connection between consumer and brand because shoppers can feel good about their purchase.

Independent retailers have an advantage when it comes to being “authentic” because they are able to easily build personal connections to their community. They may not make large-scale donations in the same way a national brand would, but they can have a personal relationship with their customers and build “meaning” by playing an active role in community events.

Overall, emotionally connected brands are philanthropic, have a backstory and are keenly aware of who their shoppers are and their interests.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Oh my.

According to someone’s “BDI” assessment having an emotional, authentic and personal connection is really key. Another person “lamented” that retail has been too much about price and the bottom line rather than emotional connection. Heck, I’m feeling misty just writing this.

The real purpose of this sentiment, this “extra, palpable bond?” Consumers will spend more and won’t wait for specials. Isn’t that what, a second ago, we were “lamenting?” Am I the only one feeling the phoniness in all this?

And that whole “tribal” intent is not something you can strategize. It happens or it doesn’t as a result of something far more ethereal than a customer love campaign. You can’t make a tribe happen any more than you can make a video go viral. In fact, the more you try the more you seal its doom.

Indian Motorcycles is a better story than Harley. It had been dead for what — 40 years or so? And yet, spiritually, the “tribe” survived. That did not happen because of a corporate marketing strategy session.

I’m sorry but I’m not feeling the love here. Opportunism maybe.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Indeed, Ian!

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

I would vote this one “up” multiple times if I could.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Think about the brands mentioned in the article as well as several other prominent ones. People select those brands first for their shopping missions because of the personal sentiment they share with the brands. This sentiment drives real loyalty … not the traditional “frequent shopper”-style loyalty programs. Retailers can most assuredly leverage this by defining what they feel their brands should mean, as opposed to what their brands may already mean to consumers. Retailers can evolve the brand meaning and therefore value to shoppers. This along with the human touch are the last true differentiators to employ.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

There are several ways that a retailer can compete today. Service, price and convenience. (I assume the retailer has the selection of merchandise the customer wants.) However, there is one other way that can either align with or trump any of those three, and that is “relationship.” That’s the emotional connection a customer has with the retailer. While the customer may start out doing business with a retailer because of the service, price or convenience, as soon as there is an emotional connection that potentially trumps the other three. A good relationship can overcome deficiencies in service, price and convenience — at least for a while. The retailer is still going to have to remain somewhat competitive for the reasons the customer chose to do business with the retailer in the first place.

Ori Marom
Guest

Consumers are willing to pay price premiums to retailers for multiple reasons. For example, convenience or trust. It may be true that a price premium can be collected based on emotional connection. In that respect, of course, it is a good idea for retailers to invest some effort in this (rather limited) aspect of brand equity.

However, if stores do not dare to charge a premium for the concrete advantages of convenience and immediate delivery why would we expect them to charge a premium for the rather vague advantage of emotional connection with the brand? Today, not too many retailers are likely to do that.

An attractive brand identity is nice to have. However, I think that the crisis of retail today is deep and merits bolder and more radical solutions. What is needed is a comprehensive redefinition of the role of a store in a supply chain and how it should compete.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

Today’s consumers want brands to mean something to them in order to get a portion of their wallet. Whether it is supporting a cause that the consumer is passionate about or creating an experience that the consumer will come back for. In any case, it is emotional.

Emotionally connected brands seem to have several things in common. They have and know their brand story from the board room to the stores and they create a culture around it. Also, and most important, their focus is on serving the customer before they sell.

For my 2 cents.

Michael Day
BrainTrust

In the January/February issue of Retail Leader is an interview Mike Troy did with my old boss Craig Jelinek, CEO of Costco. As Jelinek and his LT grapple with just how to evolve Costco’s highly successful club membership model to meet the growing demands of Millennials, and technology empowered consumers in general, Jelinek has some interesting comments that maybe speak to “brand authenticity” and foundationally dealing with the complications of modern retail.

“The business evolves, we understand that, but you don’t lose sight of your core values, which are taking care of your people, taking care of the member and bringing in hot merchandise at great prices. As long as you continue to create quality and value you are going to be around for a long time … Most companies that were great at one time lose sight of that, and all of a sudden you become irrelevant.”

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Mary Tyler Moore passed away yesterday. Her brand was defined by two roles and ultimately when people think of her they smile. The human connection she had with her other actors was genuine and fun. The human connections retailers’ employees over the years have made are what drive a brand. Sorry, an “authentic voice” by charity work or an algorithm that spits out “authentic” messages is not the same. Cutting-edge authenticity is hiring people from a variety of experiences, training them well and rewarding them. Do that and you don’t have to ask such questions.

Jeff Sward
Guest

Emotion = margin opportunity. Emotion is relevancy, the edge, the moat, the differentiator, the reason to buy versus continuing to shop. Emotion is the reason to come back or stay away. Lack of emotion = race to the bottom, competing on price. Lack of emotion = irrelevancy.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

My advice to retailers is to think like a brand and act like a retailer. I agree with many of the comments on the value of making an emotional connection with your customers. Traditionally, retailers consider brands as those items on the shelf or on the rack that consumers come into their store to purchase. While this is true, it misses the concept of a brand and the importance of branding. Retailers have a tremendous opportunity to develop a differentiated brand but only if they realize that they are a brand. In fact, everyone is branding, whether we realize it or not. Branding is the sum of the good, the ugly, the on- and the off-strategy actions that we take. It is defined by a finely-worded CEO pronouncement as well as by every aloof employee and derisory consumer comment.

Brands are sponges for content, images and fleeting feelings. Everything a company does creates impressions, good or bad. If the branding process is not strategically focused the results may be catastrophic, even if the intentions are well-founded.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
BrainTrust

What gets communicated is as important as how messaging and customer engagement happen since the medium is in part the message. “Visual” is our language and images that include motion catch our attention. Since every message should clarify and elevate the brand, messaging and interaction should invite consumers to align with the brand’s attributes and character, advancing a life journey together. Brands that reach toward the heart, mind and soul grow and dominate their category landscape.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Research has shown that when shoppers feel nothing, they tend to do nothing. They go into a “don’t care” mode and default to price, convenience and a distaste for the entire experience. I recently read a Salesforce study that indicates shoppers (who used to crave more human service) now feel they know more than most associates and don’t care to engage with them on many types of trips. Sad.

I believe many retailers need to rethink their brand architecture from the ground up in order to discover the emotional essence of what the brand can mean to shoppers. Costco means treasure hunt, but can shoppers easily name what a list of 10 retail brands stand for anymore?

There are more than enough qualified consultants and vendors on this forum alone who would jump at the chance to help retailers work on finding emotional resonance and bringing it to life in stores. The real question is why the CEOs are just watching the demise of their businesses.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Delivering meaning and authenticity have ALWAYS been paramount to a brand’s success. The the best way (maybe the only way) to deliver those intangibles IMO is through great associates. Look at the two brands we’ve talked about the most over the past few years, Apple and Starbucks, and you’ll notice that they both are off the charts in terms of associate hiring, training, communication skills and just all-around great people-to-people acumen. They’re the reason customers get emotionally involved with their products and stick with them no matter what. The human connection IS the emotional connection, we cannot forget that.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

What I love about the need for meaning and authenticity is the inherent contradiction implied by a retailer “taking a stand for something” and yet also listening and responding to its customers, who then feel direct ownership over the brand. I think it is this friction that makes achieving an emotional connection with customers so hard — you can’t sit up on high in a vacuum and declare what your brand is, but if you don’t own it then consumers won’t see you as genuine and they won’t buy in themselves.

Meaning and authenticity are hard because they are hard to measure, they require a strong culture and they require far more than clocking in and showing up. They require your own emotional commitment from the CEO down to the newest stock clerk in a store or DC. It’s the one thing retailers can’t fake — at least, not for very long. Consumers will sniff out fakers in a heartbeat. And it takes constant vigilance to maintain over time.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Nikki, please forgive me while I pick a bone — but not with you in particular — more with a notion our professions tend to foster.

“Meaning and authenticity are hard because they are hard to measure.”

Meaning and authenticity are hard indeed — but not because they are hard to measure. It is because they are so EASY to measure. Consumers do it instantaneously — you either are or you aren’t — and there’s no way to fake it very effectively.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

I’m fond of repeating Groucho Marx’s quip on the topic: “Authenticity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Sorry if you’ve seen this one here before.)

This makes me laugh every time but it is actually a rather wise take on the issue. For retailers and brands a contrived story will repel shoppers, so keeping it real is essential. Recent studies suggest this is especially true for the Millennial cohort, but speaking as a graying Boomer, it’s pretty important to me too.

Emotion and authenticity often coexist, but they are not automatically the same. A brand that stands for something has an edge, in my opinion. If not everybody likes what you’re about, that’s OK too. A grocery store known for having the best meats department doesn’t worry that vegans won’t be impressed. If your focus is on yoga clothes it’s OK to leave golf apparel to the store across the mall. If your online specialty store is committed to ethical sourcing, you can’t be concerned about price points that are a bit steep for budget shoppers.

I guess what I’m saying is that the “big middle” is the dwelling place of mediocrity. Emotional loyalty lives on the edges.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Your comment on authenticity (brilliant) reminds me of recent comment by professor Mark Ritson out of Australia. For all the talk of brand purpose, the best thing corporations like Apple could do to show brand purpose would be to pay their legitimate taxes in a country rather than shuffle money around to avoid them.

This, of course, varies brand by brand. But artificial authenticity and tax avoiding do-gooders are problems for us all because they decrease consumer trust in general.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

When a brand can connect with a shopper on an emotional level that bond is extremely difficult (yet not impossible) to break. Retailers and brands alike talk the talk but rarely do any actually walk the walk as outlined by all the comments made on this topic so far. That emotional component cannot be fabricated through empty press releases and marketing collateral. It must be woven into the very nature and fabric of the brand — from the Chairman/CEO to store employees. Shoppers know when they’re being patronized. Authenticity and integrity must be earned and continually nurtured and exercised on a daily basis at every single customer touchpoint. It’s difficult — it’s about emotions after all!

Brian Kelly
Guest
5 months 1 day ago

Great retail is timeless. The shopper is constantly changing. When Field commissioned Tiffany to put a fancy ceiling up eight stories above the selling floor, he was emotionally connecting. When Cabela’s put a massive fish tank in the middle of the floor, it was emotionally connecting. And the spartan-neutral Apple store is also emotionally connected.

Right now, Bonobos/Warby Parker/Amazon/Nixon all emotionally connect. The traits/attributes vary due to the different expectations by category and shopper. In successful retail those selling model attributes provide meaning beyond merely solving the shopping goal. They provide mall bragging rights to associates and a place of prominence under the Christmas tree. We are as proud to own as to give.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Retailers absolutely need to focus on making emotional connections. But marketers are too easily distracted into thinking these are the “hot blooded” emotions. So many times I see ideas like those in this article directed into creating “passion” for the brand, brand love, and other ideas that take a good thing then exaggerate it to an extreme where it becomes meaningless.

We need to refocus on the emotions that should surround a retail experience. And for most retail, I don’t consider Apple stores (as much as I enjoy them) a good example. Manufacturer stores are in an entirely different world.

Consider this: If consumers like your stores and like shopping at them, they will go more often and spend more each time. I think most retailers can spend the next 10 years making that happen and supporting it year after year and would turn their businesses around entirely.

The lowliest of emotions (e.g. “like”) are usually the most powerful at driving action. Even Jacques Ellul noted this in his brilliant work on propaganda written in the 1960s. Retailers need to focus on building up from the base of these most important human emotions rather than trying to jump to passionate brand embraces.

Cynthia Holcomb
Guest

Exciting to see such emotion over emotion. Back in 1999, as a founder of a fit tech company, I was told by my board NOT to say the word “emotion” as it scared people. For years the focus has been on branding the brand … with a number of altruistic aspirations customers could aspire too. That worked well prior to the depth and breadth of product available on one’s home or office computer.

Today, a personal emotional connection with a customer is required for a retailer or brand to succeed.

“Emotional” connections are created by systematic analysis of the brand’s product attributes. Tangible attributes that become intangibles when combined in a product. Intangibles inspire emotion, context, and desire on behalf of the intended consumer. Consumers buy a brand secure in the knowledge they like how they fit, look and feel in the brand products — like a dress, a car, a couch or a digital experience.

Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

Developing emotional connections with customers should be a major goal for all retailers to aim for this year. Brands who already connect with their consumers are typically ones who really care about the customer and show that through their outstanding service and attitude. Building these relations is what drives customer loyalty and repeat business. Amazon is a great example of a company who provides great customer service and gives back through their AmazonSmile program. When everyone has the same convenience, price and product offerings, the differentiating factor will be these emotional connections.

Sky Rota
Guest
5 months 1 day ago

Sadly you all think that it is something the brands did or didn’t do that is the problem. Life has changed and it is never going to be the same again. The new generations want to shop online because they can. Not because of some list of things that retailers did to mess up the shopping experience. The shopping experience model the way you knew it is gone forever. Everything you knew and did before is not going to work on us.

It is time for everyone to have the strongest online presence they can, from hiring the right influencers to engage us to having fantastic mobile sites. Keeping relevant and always open to changing.

Sorry to have to break this news to you guys. 🙁

gordon arnold
Guest

Price, quality and service are the focus for creating differentiation among the retailers of today. Unfortunately it usually ends there and once again we leave our fate to the consumer.

Decisions are made for any variation of three intangible motivators. The source motivators for the creation of a decision and the buy reaction are fear, greed and prestige. Incorporating these three motivators is critical to the success of the differentiation you have selected for success. Failure to connect is in fact selling features with no consideration for the benefit to the consumer as an individual which owns only one motivator.

William Passodelis
Guest
4 months 30 days ago
This is hard. Consumers have been trained to focus on price, at the loss of the benefit of superb service. And for a long time, the supposed arbiters of service, the high end and specialty stores, became intimidating to the point of driving potential customers away because of attitude. (I don’t need to name names — you all know who and what I mean.) Also today is SO different — you can peruse online and buy in your pajamas while sitting on your couch having coffee/tea you made yourself and didn’t pay $7.95 for! But if you can give an experience — make the customer feel good and satisfied…. No it is not easy. It’s the difference between a retailer and a merchant. But if a retailer can forge a bond, it would translate to loyalty and success. (Apple for example.) Retail can do that — Marshall Field’s did it until 2006 — I can attest to it! I could buy what I wanted wherever I wanted when I lived in Chicago (early 2000s and unfortunately was there to witness the loss of that GREAT place.) But I ONLY went to Field’s because of the service, assortment, and the experience.… Read more »
Scott Magids
BrainTrust
4 months 19 days ago
Our research has shown that there is a big difference between a customer who is merely “highly satisfied” and one who is emotionally connected. Emotional motivators — the traits emotionally connected brands are looking for — differ from traditional customer satisfaction metrics of product quality, price, and in-store experience. Motivators such as a customer’s desire to stand out from the crowd, to be socially accepted and seen as successful, to have confidence in the future, or to enjoy a sense of well-being, are stronger drivers of sales growth than are the more practical-sounding and tangible traits. Sometimes those emotional connections that drive outsized growth are not obvious. Here’s an example from the credit card industry — a credit card issuer, rather than focusing on offering traditional motivators such as low interest, looked at their growing Millennial customer base, and discovered that they have a high desire to fit in, and have a particular interest in environmental issues. While those issues have little to do with credit cards, they nonetheless homed in on the issue, offering a card that tied the issuer’s rewards program to charitable contributions for environmental causes. After a year, card use was up 30 percent among Millennials,… Read more »
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Braintrust
"When you create that emotional bond, competitors have to work very hard to break it."
"Emotionally-connected brands have a philanthropic mission, which is furthered by the sales, production or unique corporate structure of the company."
"Authenticity and integrity must be earned and continually nurtured and exercised on a daily basis at every single customer touchpoint."

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