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Five content and storytelling strategies for digital retail environments

09 September 2020

This article first appeared on WARC.

With a pandemic reshaping traditional retail, brands should embrace new content strategies to tell brand stories in blended ‘phygital’ or e-commerce environments. Antony Parham, Executive Creative Director, discusses.

Globally, retail brands have faced the biggest-ever test of their omni-channel platforms due to lockdown restrictions on populations. COVID-19 has supercharged the move to online purchases, giving retail brands the increased challenge of attracting customers into physical retail experiences that are inspiring and safe.

What has become clear is that brands with only physical stores, lacking in relevance and reasons to visit, alongside minimal online ecosystems, face the prospect of extinction. The pandemic has created a seismic shift in the urban landscape where city centre flagships are being impacted due to reduced footfall, created by working from home and lack of tourism. In response, we are now witnessing an unprecedented move in terms of brands reassessing their physical retail estates and switching from IRL (In Real Life) to URL retail experiences.

Rethinking retail

But how can brands stand out as a compelling retail destination online? We must start by understanding shopping missions. If consumers want quick and easy stuff then there is Amazon.com. But where is the fun in that? Humans are social creatures: we long for engagement, social interaction, belonging, inspiration and excitement.

Due to this, the future of retail lies in experiential, ultra-personalised, hybrid experiences where IRL experiences offered to targeted audiences become a performance stage for brand storytelling broadcasts on a global scale. Using technology such as VR, AR and live streams to connect local and global audiences is the future. Fewer – but better localised – flagships which are curated and tailored to audience lifestyle choices will help brands shift “stores” toward “studio” concepts where retail space becomes media.

In achieving this, there are several strategies that will lead to engaging digital retail storytelling and content:

  1. Hybrid ‘phygital’ experiences

Showfields New York, described as “the most interesting store in the world” is a compelling example of hybrid storytelling in action. The store acts as a content factory blurring the physical and digital. The physical space is an ever-evolving showcase where customers can discover, engage and shop emerging brands and artists. Showfields has taken the pandemic challenges head on, offering curated shoppable live streams by tastemakers, live chats direct with in-store experts, and a “Magic Wand” app unlocking exclusive content.

What if: Physical retail estates transformed into nimble, lower rent, quarterly roadshow pop-ups within vacant units in major cities? From these brands could broadcast IRL live launches and events to local and global audiences. This would provide a magic mix of IRL together with virtual experiences, with never-ending FOMO and limitless audiences, representing a unique opportunity to fill the void between permanent static experiences and ephemeral pop-ups that leave people wanting more.

  1. Creating memorable brand moments on the ‘digital stage’

The pandemic has shifted B2B and B2C brand launches online, with activity ranging in sophistication from Zoom events through to the virtual and to augmented reality such as the AR platform Blippar delivering the world’s first product launch event entirely in AR for OnePlus Nord’s latest smartphone.

Imagination reinvented the car launch for the Jaguar I-Pace, creating a multi-user virtual reality experience fully integrated with a physical live performance, highlighting that the key to successful virtual product launches and events is in creating a deep connection with the remote audience.

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What if: Digital retail platforms became a virtual stage for brand heads and their designers to directly engage audiences? Brands should tell their stories on why their products should play a part in people's lifestyles and be of value.

  1. Creating communities that blend retail and social media

User generated content is 50% more trusted by global consumers than other media, and 35% more memorable, according to IAB research. TikTok, Instagram and social gaming platforms have created a plethora of wealthy influencers built on brands paying to take advantage of their huge following. But the COVID-19 era has forced many influencers to refocus and appear more authentic. Social media communities are now seeking “real” influencers who broadcast content sensitive to the times. Consumers today also aspire to be the businesses of tomorrow and seek platforms that empower entrepeneurialship and side hustles, such as Depop, the fashion marketplace community app.

And there’s one to watch, expected to open in early 2021 in Shenzhen, China: Burberry is collaborating with Chinese technology platform Tencent to open a “social retail” experience concept store. The aim is to combine the physical and social media worlds by creating a way for customers to interact with the brand and its products on and offline.

What if: Retail brands offered a community ‘digital shop window’ for side hustles where like-minded groups can virtually connect with shared interests, hosted by brands? In return, the brand builds true advocates and emotional bonds, rather than pushing paid media and paid influencers.

  1. Replicating offline experiences online

No matter the sector, retail websites and apps – however imaginative and sophisticated – cannot deliver atmospheric immersion of experiential bricks-and-mortar retail. Therefore, online retail needs to act more like a theatrical performance to engage. For 20 years, QVC has broadcast as a shoppable performance, and today, it’s not just a TV channel but omni-channel retail platform reaching 262 million people worldwide. US live stream platform Ntwrk is a good example of QVC rebooted for a niche youth audience, which craves exclusive drops.

What if: Online retail experiences were a sustained engagement in the form of live-streamed episodic stories and immersive content? Brands could use shoppable movies and virtual IRL stores.

  1. ‘Nomadic’ brand activations and experiences

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the fabric of cities and work/life balance. As brand advocates become more remote in location, retail brands should reach out to them with nomadic micro showcases to local destinations to inspire visitors to the brand flagships, or sell directly there and then. Amazon Treasure Truck and Muji To Go Bus are good examples of this type of idea in action.

What if: Brands create a fleet of mobile “brand circus acts” that rove regions via last minute announced locations? Pre-invited guests would receive complimentary products and new releases, with the event acting as a conduit to attract buzz and new audiences. The local activations can be supported by a shoppable live streams to connect with global audiences – an experience that embraces the huge shift from city centric living to hyper-local, while connecting global communities through humour and entertaining content.

Behind all this lies the notion that crisis restores meaning and creative innovation. Today’s “generation picky” customer is insatiable for newness and inventive ways to interact with brands. As a result, brand owners have to sustain a continual beta mode in order to bring fresh thinking and experiences to keep customers coming back for more. In this world, temporary is the new permanent and strategies for content and storytelling success, when switching from physical to digital retail environments, must embrace bold new canvases for creative expression.

Key Takeaways

  • Retail websites or apps cannot deliver the immersion of experiential bricks-and-mortar retail. Therefore, online retail needs to act more like a theatrical performance to engage.

  • Brand owners have to sustain a continual ‘beta mode’ to bring fresh thinking and experiences to keep customers coming back.

  • Fewer – but better-localised – flagships which are curated and tailored to audience lifestyle choices will help brands shift “stores” toward “studio” concepts where retail space becomes media.