In recent decades, brands have been sincerely crafting a transition to experiences, from simply being transactional products and services. For some, this came effortlessly due to the nature of category while for others this had to be carefully imposed by indulgent visionaries. Over time, the integrated experience became a key source of value, often compensating for inadequate differentiation at a performance level. In the post-corona world, this scenario is likely to change as customer engagement will be severely constrained.
Just recently, I saw a video circulated by the Taj Group promoting its safety protocols, a demand of the lawmaker. Most notable was the unavoidable depletion of the dining rituals, whether in-room or restaurant, with disposable plates and distant near-contactless service. Thus, every possible frill that elevates the occasions, including cutlery, crockery, conversations and personal interventions will have to be curtailed. It does put enormous pressure on the food to perform in terms of comparative taste and the ability to command a premium. If the circumstances of consumption are stunted, why must the kakori kabab at Dumpukht cost 10X more than its distinguished cousin at Al Kauser, Malcha Marg? Similar queries will soon be floated about room and banquet charges given the larger restrictions at play.
Quite akin is the case with medical video consultations and I must confess that even the renowned Fortis was unable to create an online engagement even remotely comparable to its offline stature. The communication was shoddy, physical and virtual appointments were booked simultaneously, the doctor was operating with sub-optimal connectivity and diagnostic preparations were not notified. On school online classes, much has already been written and in spite of the best efforts, the living room is not quite the leafy campus. While yoga and other self-help classes are doing brisk business, the maestro cannot demonstrate superior value without touch and feel.
Most interestingly, the experience deficit continues seamlessly to most categories, however unlikely the candidates. Consumer electronics are being sold online with virtual and not showroom demos, the lovingly designed pizza boxes have to be discarded at the sanitised gates, chic salons must be manned by PPE-clad clones, mall heroes like M&S and Hamley’s are hastily designing scruffy e-interfaces, test drives are suspended and even sporting events are promising to be spectator-less. Do spare a thought for the airline industry as well with scathingly standardised services being enforced, eliminating most inputs for exception creation and focussing purely on personal safety and hard evaluation parameters.
Quite naturally e-commerce or online-only brands have not suffered much on this count and in fact have consolidated their advantages. Although they too have been pushed to the brim in terms of performance and in many instances, the upsurge in demand has not been adequately met. This remains the stark commonality between the offline and worlds in this scenario, a reboot to transactional parameters superseding experiential brouhaha. For e-businesses the solution usually lies in the equally transactional demand fulfilment but for offline brands, the challenges are way more significant. As fundamental value propositions have to be reinforced to justify both custom and premium.
So, how exactly must brands react to the systematic and unavoidable depletion of the experiential surround sound, especially in a difficult era like this? The answer lies truthfully in cementing the core value of the primary product or service by imbibing it with sufficiently scalable merit. Which means whether you are biryani, spa treatment, beauty product, overnight lodging, medical consultation, educational institution or yoga class, the customer must prefer you for core delivery, no longer placing a premium on the engagement frills. Equally truthfully, a whole host of sub optimal products will no longer be able to command that unusual premium the customer took for granted or conceal the absence of genuine pedigree.
Whether this is good news or bad is really for the jury to decide but brands must now invest in a core value audit, from an absolute and comparative perspective. Then ensure that proprietary inputs are suitably tweaked to ensure the equilibrium or possibly build a new portfolio strategy. Fine dining can flaunt both price and quality leaders, hotels need to reimagine tariff concepts, hospital management must co-create clinics with doctors, leg space can become premium content for airlines and schools must invest in proprietary and not off-the-shelf technology. Business plans must change as per-unit realisations will vary, in many cases the models will have to be reimagined. Most interestingly, advertising and marcom, including digital marketing, will have to become sharply benefit-oriented and project the performance advantages more robustly as opposed to the emotional excesses.
The current crisis is demanding the best from each of us and brands are certainly no exception. Opportunities for differentiation have narrowed considerably and core worth is under the scanner must ruthlessly. In order to embrace the future, we need to go back to the basics.
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