Aided by choice, convenience and value retail commerce is rapidly shifting to the online world. As a proven outcome, the relationship between such brands and their customers is becoming dangerously transactional. Threatening the sustainability of businesses forced to compete on coldly rational parameters in dynamic scenarios, without traditional entry barriers. That is why e-commerce brands must rapidly adopt the strategy of ‘Emotion Transfusion’ both as a point-in-time as well as an on-going input.
The fundamental virtues of the world of e-commerce are skewed towards the betterment of transaction. We are encouraged to compare prices and range which defines the way we start to behave. An abundance of choice is a primary driver not shackled by the constraints of retailing space and costs. Then comes the undeniable advantage of convenience in terms of buying without having to commute. Most importantly, this world has taught us the advantages of being completely obsessive about value -- at a primary level in terms of searching for the best portal and the finest price, and at a secondary level by learning to search for discounts and thus the best timing of purchase. Also in the choice of intermediary be it Paytm, credit or debit card by rewarding the most relevant benefits. This is applicable for every category of purchase, including and most remarkably in luxury as well.
A simple illustration is the way we buy travel products, especially airline tickets and hotel rooms. The first step is to visit a farecompare.com, tripadvisor or their equivalent in order to gauge the range of prices. And then a quick detour to yatra.com, makemytrip.com or the home sites of the brand owners. Whoever is clinically deemed to be the bearer of the best price-value equation gets the opportunity to become a transaction partner, a process that is repeated every time without fail in varying degrees of intensity depending in the motivation of the buyer. Portals try hard to build value-added services in order to secure a semblance of that elusive loyalty. These are usually forums for sharing reviews, top-ups like travel insurance or zero cancellation charges and even the simplicity of the mobile app. Now for a moment compare this to our behaviour in pre-digital world where the travel agent was the source of such services. After some initial explorations, we invariably selected an unchanging partner, quickly forging a relationship with a set of preferred employees who would help us navigate the process.
The absence of people to talk to thus becomes a hugely important reason why emotion is absent in online commerce. People like us forge relationships with other people like us and not with colourful screens or payment mechanisms. It is actually true for every category whether the intermediary may be dedicated or a shared member of trade. We keep on visiting Shopper’s Stop for the range but equally for the comfort we get from the spiffily trained assistants. In Chroma, the expertise in assistance means that we get a human and not digital validation for our choice. In Mainland China there are people who can guide us but Zomato is a clinical ally. Most bars enjoy repeat custom due to specific servers and that is the case with beauty salons as well. The Kirana owner has for years played the double role of also being the representative of FMCG brands, his assurance of quality and effectiveness becoming an unofficial bridge between the brand and customer.
The new world deliberately excludes the human intermediary as a strategic point of difference and is slowly paying a price for it. We judge every transaction by the perception of basic value and are brisk to move on if we feel let down. Even if we are satisfied that is just a criterion for continued empanelment in the consideration set and not a guarantee of future business. However, when there is a significant dosage of emotion we tend to give brand relationships a longer rope by forgiving an act of transgression as a minor blip in a far more formidable and time-tested bond, and also by demonstrating a commitment to longevity and not just a solitary action. Some of it does come from historical trust that is a benefit accrued to a handful of old-economy brands, not applicable to the brave new age of e-commerce where every player is of limited calendar pedigree.
It is time for e-commerce to adopt the strategy of ‘Emotion Transfusion’ as a route towards building sustainable and not fleeting relationships so that the value proposition is not skewed precariously to simply the benefit from the last transaction. To rein the trigger-happy customer only too glad to switch to the next best thing at the slightest provocation and indeed by cultivated habit. The absence of the human interface in the conventional sense can be ably compensated by certain significant interventions, which can be broadly divided in four categories.
The first is for the e-commerce brand to define a purpose way more significant than simply the performance. Then to implement that through a series of meaningful initiatives as part of serious marketing strategy -- just as Body Shop stood out for its ‘Trade not Aid’ initiative many decades back in terms of sourcing philosophy. Myntra can stand for the scalable conversion of traditional crafts to sellable clothes thus giving under-rated artisans a global stage. Flipkart can commit to a training academy for delivery staff sourced from rural areas, uplifting the economic status of villages. Yatra can apportion a portion of revenues to a mission called ‘First Flight’ committing to help underprivileged board an aircraft or grant scholarships for higher education. To be successful such initiatives must be genuine, scalable and amplified aggressively in every form of media.
The second way is to actually re-craft the classical role of story-telling advertising in order to help build an emotional association through quality of creative craft which must add character to the chosen purpose. Communication for Nike and Apple over the years has done that very successfully. Amazon did attempt to do just that with a series of insightful pieces but perhaps too tactically. Google tried something similar through the India-Pakistan reunion piece which was a compelling but one-off tale unconnected to demonstrated purpose. Even the much-berated celebrity association can play a valuable role when effectively utilised. While tactical offers and price-offs remain a necessary task for paid advertising, building emotional equity can be thrown as a challenge to agencies -- a traditional area of strength which can add considerable legs to the value proposition in categories where transactions are so transparent and competitive.
The third aspect to consider is the establishment of experience zones purely from the purpose of brick and mortar empathy as well as from the purview of a genuine marketing investment as opposed to an add-on channel for sales, where consumers can build a vital physical bridge with the entity otherwise consigned to a digital transaction. In airports, a Yatra travel zone where the enormous possibilities of travel are expounded through a techno-human engagement. Amazon setting up mini advisories on fashion can find place in malls, hotels and almost everywhere. Imagine a 24/7 book reading zone in an airport where the romance of literature cements the online association. Giving the brand a face and a personality that is an effective surrogate for human interface during routine transactions.
The fourth way, although potentially counter-intuitive, is to bring back a face and voice in certain categories of online transactions. Definitely feasible in conditions where broadband connectivity is superior and there is an availability of affordable talent. An online relationship manager speaking directly to the customer offering a human assurance that marks the offline engagement. Importantly through a video-based engagement and not the call centre conduit that marks pure voice conversations. This is a service that already exists in certain advanced experiences but has not been made scalable due to obvious constraints. Facebook Live is a simple demonstration of this technique in a social context that is rapidly gaining currency, easily replicable in various transactional scenarios, especially when the ticket size is considerable. For example, a technology assistant while buying a laptop, a travel expert when purchasing a holiday package and even a restaurant chef describing his signature creations.
To sum it, the world of e-commerce is in desperate need of ‘emotion transfusion’. There is currently too much pressure on the comparative success of the paid transaction as the route to brand allegiance. An inspiring way to build pillars of emotional engagement will be invaluable in building sustainable brand value. Especially in the hyper-competitive environment that is influencing the relentless shift of retail to the dramatic online theatre.
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