The Need for Inconvenient Brand Truths in Our Friction-free Post-pandemic World
The ‘just walk out’ shop is now here. Amazon Fresh opened its first UK store earlier this month. You put food in your bag, cameras work out what you’ve bought, you walk out and payment occurs magically ‘in the cloud’. One small step for a shopper, one giant leap for frictionless business.
While Amazon Fresh was a long time in the planning, the pandemic is driving a more frictionless future. Vinay Prabhakar, vice president of product and corporate marketing for cloud payments brand Volante, “The pandemic has led to a massive increase in digitalisation, making business processes smoother. At the same time social distancing has boosted demand for non-physical payments – that is transactions which are triggered automatically without anyone having to be present like at Amazon Fresh.”
Vinay also points out how working from home is increasing the ‘consumerisation’ of B2B brands. “The fact people are working more in a home environment only highlights the contrast between the slick Uber-style experiences they get as consumers and the clunky offerings they get at work. Business brands are having to up their game and make their experience as customer-centric as the best consumer brands.”
Adam Ryan, marketing director at money transfer brand Azimo, tells of how the pandemic increased focus on customer service. “We doubled down on customer communication, providing regular updates on how the pandemic affects different countries along with a bespoke FAQ hub, just for COVID-19 queries. For our customers it’s critical that they know if or how our service is affected and feel reassured that their money will safely reach the recipient...” Aside from being the right thing to do, the scale of the covid chaos meant uncertainty would overwhelm customer service - Azimo therefore ironed out friction.
There’s a lot of good news in how covid is driving friction out of brand experiences, and yet... Cars had personality till the ‘80s when they all appeared to get honed by the same wind tunnel resulting in friction-less identikit vehicles devoid of character. Where would Guinness be if ‘119 seconds to pour a pint’ been identified as a friction point to be eradicated? Convenience is not an advantage that lasts long; your brand experience is defined by friction, the slow-down moments when you consciously experience difference. So, how to make friction count?
The maxim that fast is best is open to new question in a covid world. Sonya Gonzalez Mier, marketing manager at Burton's Biscuit Company, “Lockdown has led to a slower pace of life... When it comes to food, taste and quality are more important than ever. It’s one area of life we can control and we’re taking the time to appreciate it.” People not only have an appetite for food, but also “consume the stories and the credentials around the food for a richer experience.” Now we have learned to take time to savour quality, will speed and convenience ever taste as good?
The rise of the sourdough home-baker is testament to the satisfaction we get from ‘doing it ourselves’. Andrew Dengate, head of UK marketing at digital brokerage Stake, sees a similar sentiment in the investor community. “Last year was a huge year for retail investing and we saw significant growth across all our markets. Covid restrictions have definitely contributed by giving new and existing investors the time to create and manage their own portfolios. We fully expect this to continue after lockdown because control over your financial future is not something people will want to or should want to give up.” Once people feel pride in achievement, will they want to consume off-the-shelf like before? Will brands need to add meaningful friction to provide a sense of ownership the same way as ‘just add an egg’ absolved ‘50s consumers of the guilt that convenience food was a dereliction of home-made duty?
Above all, lockdown has brought home the importance of social interaction. However convenient zoom calls, home deliveries and online transactions, life feels emptier without human contact. Psychologist Eric Berne looked at the importance of human attention for our sense of well-being. He defined the basic unit of attention as ‘stroke’ and saw importance in the small strokes like a wave from a neighbour, banter with an assistant, holding a door open and receiving a smile.
Vinay reflects: “Our increasing levels of connection to and through digital devices means once- productive sources of frictional human interaction are now no longer needed. Once you called someone’s home and you might get anyone in their family; now you only get the person you call.” It brings to mind the old BT ad where the daughter calls to speak to mum, dad picks up and for once doesn't just pass her over but instead asks how she is and chats. “The pandemic has further reduced the quantity and quality of unplanned interaction. Chatting with someone while in a queue is hard six feet apart for example.” Similarly, Covid means we now order and pay at bars and restaurants at our table by app. The convenience means we may well continue to do so after lockdown but talking to bar staff while they pulled your pint was part of the pub experience. “The unplanned, unexpected interaction is replaced with the planned and scripted one... There are fewer surprises, but something is lost.”
What are the implications for community and loneliness if we prioritise online efficiency and design out the messy friction of social interactions? And how resilient is business done that way? Laura van de Ven, ex-head of brand and marketing at Fairtrade: “Efficiency works well in good times, but once the pandemic hit many businesses discovered they needed to know more about their supply chains. That’s when you need strong relationships with your business partners.”
The covid experience has been a national experiment in slower, more self-reliant and more isolated living. It’s not been fun, but we have all learned a little more about what’s important to us. Digitalisation, social distancing, consumerisation, and increased emphasis on customer service are reducing friction across the board at a time when we’re more discerning about where we speed up and where we slow down; where we invest ourselves and where we outsource; and where we value interaction and relationships and where we want a transaction. The brands which succeed will be those able to align with individuals’ new priorities to define themselves by the good brand friction they add to the process of life.