Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Liam Brennan, MediaCom: Preparing for the new normal

Liam Brennan, Global Director of Innovation, MediaCom is one of our industry’s preeminent thinkers in innovation and NDA’s monthly columnist.

Ten years ago, London was a city undergoing rapid transformation. New infrastructure was fast being finalised for the Olympic Games, and exciting regeneration projects were underway across Eastern parts of the city.

London’s high streets however were looking a lot less healthy than before. Like many other global cities, London had only recently emerged from a deep recession that had caused many retailers, large and small, to scale down or fold.

A quick walk around Shoreditch though provided a stark contract to the rest of inner London. Now vacant retail spaces were quickly making way for ‘pop-ups’, with budding bartenders and restaurateurs taking advantage of cheap rents (and cheap capital) to launch their big ideas in these newly found spaces.

Pop-ups were a big hit with the socially-savvy foodies and boozers of East London, who were constantly on the lookout for new something new and different. The opportunity for these ‘new brands’ came from low cost, short-term rentals, and allowed business owners to experiment with reduced risk, and, in the process, re-invent the concept of retail ‘space’.

Rising rents and a local post-Olympics boom quickly put an end to the pop-up revolution, but you can see the legacy of pop-up culture in the bricks and mortar presences of digitally-built brands such as Made, All Birds, Away, Caspar and Warby Parker, who use the high street as an opportunity for showcase, experience and service, with their digital properties remaining the starting point for transaction and fulfilment.

Some of the best innovation happens when existing consumer behaviour intersects with a new or breakout opportunity. Pop-ups are a fantastic example of that.

But pop-ups are also a good example in how not to prepare for the ‘new normal’. They may have left a legacy, but they were a business model built for a unique moment in time.

To build for the new normal, brands must go beyond the tactical, and observe how consumers behave differently over time, what value they gain (or don’t) from new experiences and evolve as opportunity grows.

For example, we often cite Blockbuster as being the poster child for failed innovation. Its focus on ‘physical’ rental and failure to adapt to both a new opportunity and new normal (high speed broadband/streaming video) left them at the mercy of a better prepared, and nimbler, Netflix.

However, we quickly forget that Blockbuster did launch a streaming service in 2008, not long after Netflix. The real differentiator between the two services was not necessarily who streamed first, nor who had the most content, but rather who had the better algorithm.

Netflix’s recommendations engine helped subscribers discover more of what they liked, and encouraged ‘binge watching’, keeping subscribers on the platform for longer, and driving a higher perceived value. YouTube has also increased viewership and view-time in a similar fashion.

Instead, Blockbuster offered customers more of what they used to want; more content options and better distribution. Blockbuster did take advantage of an emerging tech opportunity and tie to an existing behaviour, but it failed to adapt to the emerging wants and needs of the streaming generation.

What we are seeing right now is a forced acceleration of digital transformation. Consumers are increasingly pivoting to ‘digitalised’ versions of existing behaviours, many out of necessity.

For example, 47% of Americans are shopping more for their groceries online than only a month ago, many for the first time, and that’s a number that rises as concern for being outdoors increases (CivicScience, 24/3/20).

But online grocery shopping is yet another example where an opportunity has presented itself, businesses have adapted to behaviour, but never really evolved. What should be a victory for convenience instead becomes one for complexity.

To complete a typical weekly shop, each product must be searched one by one, size or variant selected (and amount) before being added to basket. Then the process must be restarted again for each additional item. Browsing and selecting product in-store is a much faster and simpler experience.

As Rory Sutherland eloquently put it, “online shopping is a very good way for ten people to buy one thing, but it is not a good way for one person to buy ten things”.

Modern online grocery shopping is a hodge-podge of twenty year old ecommerce UX best practice. Built out of an era where consumers primarily shopped for books, toys, CDs, DVDs and other one-off items – not the high volume, high frequency needs of the modern grocery shopper.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of the new normal comes from East London pop-up graduate Crosstown Donuts, which has partnered with other independent London retailers, such as Gail’s Bakery, to launch the Crosstown Collective — a boutique grocery box delivery service that features their (amazing) donuts alongside other household food items such as milk, bread, vegetables and alcohol.

It’s a brilliant evolution of both the online grocery and DTC model, that looks beyond the opportunity to digitalise a physical product purchase journey to instead build for how the modern grocery consumer shops. It not only reduces friction in the purchase journey, but in a rather revolutionary move, encourages cross-brand collaboration and partnership to aid both brand discovery and improvements in supply chain and overhead reduction for all.

Digital transformation is often spoken about in terms of changes in media consumption, creative output and altered purchase journeys. To win in a ‘post digital’ world, we need to think beyond tactics and new opportunities for brands, and more about consumer behaviour, existing and new, and evolve with them.

The new normal is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.