When Worlds Collide
Integration must be seamless with online and offline experiences.

The current pace of innovation is hard to keep up with for the marketer, the retailer, as well as the consumer. Largely fueled and propelled by technology, innovation is now commonplace, expected, cost-of-entry, taken-for-granted, table-stakes and, oftentimes, not differentiating for brands.

We ask ourselves as marketers, what purpose (if any) does innovation most serve today? Where can it provide the most value and growth potential for a business? Beyond manufactured news by brands, how do we harness and leverage the true power and potential of innovation?

The answer may be revealed in the point-of-view expressed by Michael Schrage of M.I.T., who has researched, observed, and written on innovation for decades: “Innovation is not what innovators do; it is what consumers adopt.” This insight is truer today than ever. Consumer-centric innovation is fundamental to evolving brands and how they successfully and productively engage with consumers. Said another way, how consumers experience and interact with brands is what matters most in identifying relevant innovation.

Marketing of features, benefits, and promises disconnected from how consumers use, identify with, and relate to them is no longer a winning game for brands (products, services, and retailers alike). The innovation journey must begin with the consumer journey in mind. Relying on “new and improved” models of innovation is exhausted. Serving consumers means offering them an integrated shopping and user experience that recognizes multiple moments-of-truth for a brand — and those moments must make up a seamless experience.

Even beloved brands fall short in terms of seamlessly integrating their online and offline experiences. Iconic retailers, who have more control synchronizing their online worlds with their brick- and-mortar, still largely miss the mark.

The greatest barrier to seamless innovation usually is found within the organizational structure, not within research and development or marketing. When the people responsible for digital and ecommerce strategy are in separate silos from marketing and sales teams, the result is a disjointed experience for the consumer. Internal disconnects within the enterprise undermine connecting to consumers. That hurts customer curiosity, engagement and loyalty.

Addressing this innovation imperative is central to brand and retailing growth. Mapping shopper journeys so that online and offline brand touchpoints are not experienced in isolation of each other is becoming key to the future of both the brand and the shopping experience. Innovation should begin with a deep understanding of how the consumer engages with brands at every touchpoint. If consumers find these touchpoints distinct and disjointed, an immediate disconnect occurs. A value opportunity is lost.

Conversely, innovation that builds seamless experiences deepens connections and brand value. Imagine searching for a new mobile phone and the online experience entertains and educates you, and then sends you to the closest retailer where you are invited to play with and explore the phone. You are further rewarded with a discount from the website that can be used in-store.

After the purchase, you become part of two communities for further support, entertainment, and cross-selling: the retailer’s as well as the brand’s. At its most basic level, the conventional sales funnel: awareness, research, purchase, and usage provides a simple map for defining the consumer engagement model/map. However, each area is now multidimensional because of the many possible points-of-influence: Facebook, Twitter, search, friends, reviews, and so forth. Today’s consumers leave their footprints for innovative companies to learn from in all of these locations.

Ralph Lauren is one brand that currently navigates seamlessness well. First, the consumer is clearly at the center of the experience. All communications are designed to inform and engage the consumer with a spirit of identifying with exactly who they are. Second, the digital and traditional brick-and-mortar brand experiences are fully immersive and working in tandem.

From visuals to layout of product, there is a familiarity and symmetry. The word merchantainment has been used to describe the concept of commerce with entertainment. Other brands and retailers could benefit mightily from emulating features of this approach. Third, Ralph Lauren is not shying away from testing and experimenting through innovation. Ralph Lauren is adopting and using technology to explore and push the boundaries to create a sensory experience with its brand.

Consumers are responding in kind because an emotional connection is forged and a deeper need or want is met. There is a sense of new energy and experimentation around the brand and retailer that inspires that attitude in the consumer. A certain playfulness that embraces augmented reality and 4D technology pushes the consumer into new territory at the same time.

Germany’s Deutsche Post offers an even more radical vision and version of seamlessness. Europe’s largest postal service announced that it is moving its core business online. It is now offering a system that sends secure messages for the price of a stamp. Early tests with consumers yielded better-than-expected results and interest. The willingness to pay to ensure the security of private communications is enough to win over consumers. The seamless integration of a trusted brand known for reliably handling mail is now successfully moving into email.

Without innovation like this, the traditional business model would continue to erode. Instead, Deutsche Post chose a vision for the future designed around an unmet need. By bringing their traditional physical business into the electronic world they have stemmed a shrinking business; the success from business customers alone will pay-off on this innovation. The values and equities from the physical experience must translate into the online experience for this innovation to succeed long-term.

Creating a complementary experience between physical and virtual is particularly critical for brands and retailers that exist equally in both worlds now. Take for example The Gap or Nike. These retailers must innovate around the biggest barrier to shopping online and conversely shopping in-store to deliver on a complementary seamless experience.

Service is one such factor online. How does Nike replicate a level of service the customer has grown to expect in its stores, online? The ability to innovate more rapidly in the digital world is further creating a gulf-like void in the consumer experience in the physical world.

If a consumer is wowed online at Nike.com, but enters the store to find nothing has changed, an opportunity to build value and loyalty is lost. Similarly, if consumers are quickly able to find what they are looking for and are greeted by knowledgeable sales people at Best Buy — but everything falls apart when searching for products on BestBuy.com — chances are good another competitor can step in and steal customers.

Twenty-eleven is the year when innovating along the consumers’ journey must take priority. Consumers still expect a steady stream of innovations around individual products and experiences. But the importance of a seamless and value-added consumer engagement journey is job one. This is even more critical when you consider this next generation of “digital natives” who have even higher expectations. However, craving a more interactive shopping experience is almost ubiquitous among all consumers today.

Brands and retailers must synchronize touchpoints to drive seamless and evolved brand experience for consumers. Brand managers, research-and-development folks and merchants alike must collaborate in new ways to create and build an integrated experience for consumers instead of allowing a “marketing schizophrenia” to exist.

BETH ANN KAMINKOW is president and chief operating officer of TracyLocke. A strong advocate of insights-inspired marketing programs, she is a pioneer in strategic-planning research methodologies.

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