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Anyone who has been to a trade fair, as those taking place usually on weekends in villages, small towns and some big cities, would know the kind of treasure goods one can find there: woodcraft decorative figurines (e.g., animals), dolls and puppets, handmade kitchenware, glassware (sculptures, vases etc.), knitting and embroidery articles, fashion accessories, and much more (including some local food products). A great part of the products sold in the fair are handicraft made by local and regional residents who present their creations to visitors. Often it is possible to find in such fairs also vintage items from years past (e.g., cameras, radio sets, coins). Now, consider shopping, or hunting, these kinds of treasures in an online marketplace.

Etsy offers an online marketplace similar in concept as described above: it is a special type of e-commerce website for handcrafted and vintage goods, where the sellers are small and independent entrepreneurs who interact directly and sell their merchandise to buyers in the virtual marketplace of Etsy, and then ship the sold goods to their destinations. So a buyer will not find there food products (e.g., homemade jams or local cheese) but he or she can find on Etsy.com a great variety of handmade and vintage goods beyond what is usually presented in any single physical fair (e.g., larger items of furniture that are more difficult to bring to a physical fair). It is not the same experience as strolling between counters in a physical fair, looking for ‘treasures’, but browsing handcrafted and vintage goods in an online marketplace like Etsy offers its own advantages and opportunities in  (almost) immediate access.

Etsy hosts 2.3 million active sellers (all must be registered members) and 47.2 million active buyers (membership is voluntary) as of the end of June 2019 (an increase of 17.7% and 19.3%, respectively, from same period last year). On Gross Merchandise Sales (GMS) of $2.1bn made in its marketplace in the first half of 2019, Etsy has generated a revenue of $350.4m (74% revenue from marketplace fees and 26% from seller services). While GMS increased by 20% from H1/2018, revenue increased by almost 40% (Etsy, Press Release, 1 August 2019). The company provides a platform for a community of sellers to trade their handcrafted creations or vintage goods worldwide. The ‘community’ is a cornerstone of its whole activity. Etsy also cherishes interactions between people (“connecting humans”) as the basis for commerce — its headline calling is to “Keep Commerce Human”. While the company is aiming to maintain the intimacy, reliability and convenience customers expect from a community, it wants to provide these benefits with the efficiency of a large corporation [Fortune: A; Etsy: About]. Making those ends meet seems like a non-negligible challenge.

Shopping for handmade products or vintage products has a special motif: it often gives consumers the feeling of treasure hunting. The pleasure in finding sought-for products as such only increases as they become less common in the world of modern (automated) production and marketing. The product item has to be useful, yet an emotional appeal can be further more important as a driver for buying the product.

Handicrafts are desired for being perceived authentic and genuine. People value the talent, skills and effort invested in their making. They like the human touch in both making the product and personally selling it to them by the person who made the product. Moreover, many of the handmade products are artisanal (e.g., woodwork, glasswork) and may exhibit an exceptional quality. Buying such a product is often considered a gesture of appreciation and a way of making a contribution to the creator.  Vintage products (especially from 1920s to 1960s) may hold a somewhat different attraction: They are associated with the past period of time they originate from (e.g., nostalgia, personal memories from childhood); different, possibly higher standards of quality; different ways of doing things (e.g., listening to music, cooking, taking photos); and vintage ‘treasures’ are also likely to be much less available in the market and even being rare. Vintage products may be handcrafted but that is neither a requirement nor their main source of value to the prospect buyers. (Note: Handcrafted artefacts may be made using just low-tech machinery and tools).

The pages on the website of Etsy appear spacious and bright. Items (text bodies, pictures) are placed over a white background, and the pages do not seem to be condensed and crowded with them. Some areas may be painted in pastel colours (e.g., as background for text on the homepage). This design endows the website with a soft and light feeling, and makes it easier for the eye to move around and observe product listings, pictures and other information on pages. There are very few product listings with images on the homepage, used for illustration rather than out-right promotion; a ribbon with images of products most recently viewed by the visitor appears on top of the homepage and on other pages, exercising relevance and convenience.

Six main categories are displayed in the top menu: Jewelry & Accessories; Clothing & Shoes; Home & Living; Wedding & Party; Toys & Entertainment; and Art & Collectibles. A drop-down menu with sub-categories can be ‘pulled’ from each of these main category items. However, on category pages the visitor also can see tiles for subcategories with sample images, and a sample of product listings in the category. Visitors can narrow down their search by using a key list on the left-hand side of the screen. For any category and sub-category, a visitor-shopper can choose to see all available products in that class or select to focus on either handmade or vintage products in that class (an additional item on the top menu labeled Vintage allows quick access for those interested only in vintage products).

Three basic information elements appear on each product page: a title describing the product, price, and a photo image. In addition, three more components are noteworthy: (1) Handmade products (e.g., a TV stand with cabinet, mid-century modern, made of oak wood) are accompanied by a description on materials and ways of their application, modes of use, design trend, dimensions, etc. For vintage products (e.g., antique Teddy Bear from the 1930s, Dutch Arthur van Gelden), the viewer may find a background story on the artefact, materials, history, any versions if available, etc. (2) Sellers offering their own handmade goods may provide options for personalisation (e.g., first name, a phrase, and photograph in picture frames and displays) and customization (e.g., type of wood, surface finish- colour and texture , size, and extra features for furniture). Furthermore, additional images may show the product from different angles and in different versions that can be customized to the preference of the prospect buyer. (3) The page is set to include reviews contributed by buyers regarding the product purchased and any aspects of their relationships of exchange with the seller.

The complementary information in words and pictures may fulfill an important role in persuading visitors who view a product page to complete a purchase order. Giving a visitor the flexibility to make adjustments (modest as they may be) to the product to better fit his or her needs and preferences can only strengthen the shopper’s conviction to buy. Victor Yocco (‘A List Apart’, 1 July 2014) well-explains in his article key implications of the central and peripheral routes to persuasion (in the Elaboration Likelihood Model [B]) for e-commerce websites. He stresses the importance of including cues that may be applied at different levels by visitors who browse pages, process and evaluate product offerings through a central route or peripheral route. In the case of Etsy, we may distinguish between visitors who get their impressions and make judgement based on the images and reviews, and perhaps use price also as a cue for quality (peripheral route), and those visitors who extensively and carefully consider the technical details and background of the product offered, and may also inspect the images provided in greater attention (central route).

Etsy enables prospect buyers to engage in conversation with sellers and make queries before a purchase, and it encourages such interactions (e.g., buyers tell in their reviews about satisfying enquiries they have had with sellers who were particularly helpful in their responses). Sellers can use a community forum to consult and discuss any matters that concern their activities from craftmanship to e-commerce. Furthermore, Etsy publishes workshops it offers to sellers in different disciplines of craftmanship, and a special section of the website is dedicated to craft supplies and tools, thus extending its hand to help entrepreneurs-sellers in their creative work. Shipping, however, is in the responsibility of the sellers, and trust between them and their buyers-customers can be particularly crucial at that stage of the exchange.

Some recent initiatives taken by Etsy could be a more delicate matter and a source of friction. For instance, the company started encouraging sellers in the US to offer free shipping in the country. It provides some guidance and assistance in shipping, but a question hangs as to how Etsy actually facilitates and makes it easier for American sellers to offer free shipping (e.g., does it give any ‘subsidy’ to the seller, or should the seller raise the product price, or absorb the extra cost alone?). Without practical support in shipping, the legitimacy of asking sellers to eliminate shipping costs is weak. Etsy has also taken action to improve the payment functionality. At first it was a matter of ensuring to buyers the confidentiality of their payment information. Next, however, sellers were required to use only the payment platform of Etsy. That has allowed Etsy to collect commissions that had previously gone to other payment providers. While this initiative helped in standardizing the checkout procedure and improved customer service, it also led to raising the commission rate sellers are charged from 3.5% of revenue per transaction to 5% [A]. A third initiative involves a new programme of advertising for sellers in co-operation with Google — sellers who join in an advertising plan can get their product offers promoted or prioritised inside the platform (e.g., in displays of product listings) and outside (i.e., in Google search results). This would create two classes of sellers that did not exist before.

Etsy under the leadership of its CEO Josh Silverman (since 2017) is set to put more emphasis on quality over price, reports Wahba in Fortune. At a time when online retail is primarily concerned with low prices and price promotions, it is suggested as remarkable that Etsy succeeded in cultivating loyalty. First, by its focus on handcrafted goods and small businesses, Etsy succeeded in making its marketplace feel like a community, but it still aims to deliver with greater business efficiency. Second, Etsy intends to give greater weight to higher-priced and better-quality products in search rankings (a change from how its search engine worked so far) with an aim to elevate the image of Etsy’s brand to an upscale status. Etsy also expects to encourage shoppers to level-up their purchases with complementary products (e.g., if one wishes to buy a lamp for a desk, consider also buying a desk). [A]

Etsy offers a special type of online commerce: bringing the richness, spirit and originality of a trade fair for handcrafted and vintage goods to consumers’ homes. It is not only the attraction of the goods, but also the experience of browsing collections and finding precious treasures, and the interaction with small businesses of independent entrepreneurs and creators (‘people more like us’ the shoppers might say). Etsy has seen success in improving its business performance since early 2018 and is ambitious to move ahead in strengthening its online marketplace. However, Etsy will have to take extra care not to lose the friendliness and comfort of its marketplace and community, for the pleasure of treasure hunting.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Note:

[A] “Crafting a Comeback at Etsy”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), August 2018 [Global 500], 180 (2), pp. 31-33

[B] “Central and Peripheral Routes to Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement”; Richard E. Petty, John T. Cacioppo, & David Schumann, 1983; Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (Sept.), pp. 135-146

 

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Interfaces of knowledge management (KM) systems can be applied to support and empower customer service via two key channels: (1) directly — used by customers (e.g., adjunct to self-service utilities, web-based or mobile app), or (2) indirectly — used by employees (customer service representatives [CSR]) to help them provide a better service to customers (e.g., more effective, timely, and accurate). These channels have some very different implications in form, scope and intensity of use of KM capacities.

The ‘library’ of a KM system should provide the customer with relevant background information that can help him or her make decisions (e.g., choosing between product attribute options, selecting among investment assets). The knowledge resource may also assist in completing technical tasks at one’s home or office (e.g., setting-up a software or device).  The content may include explanations on specific concepts or procedures, product reviews, and articles on related topics (e.g., an overview of a technology, medical condition, class of financial assets).

A crucial question is how the customer gets exposed to information relevant for the task at hand. General search queries often lead to many and spurious results requiring the customer to work hard to find and collate relevant information. The system has to do better than that in recommending truly useful information, to bring the user more precisely and quickly to a set of relevant knowledge sources. The customer may start by filling a short questionnaire that lets him specify his interests and goals. But as the customer accumulates more experience in using a KM portal and accessing some documents, the system can learn from his or her behaviour and update its recommendations. Alternatively, references to a KM resource may be embedded within a self-service facility (e.g., application for travel insurance) so that the system can refer the customer to supplementary information based on his or her progress in the service process (e.g., explanation of healthcare procedures in the country of destination, recommended features of coverage for the planned trip). As the system learns it may add a visual display of relevant statistics for guidance (e.g., distribution of options chosen by similar customers or in similar situations). Furthermore, a company can use its discretion to provide premium customers secured access to resources available only to its employees within the organisation.

Knowledge management portals for customers are not so common. References are more likely to be implicit, such as being embedded within the self-service platform of the company. More companies now provide an interface for interaction (chat) with an intelligent virtual agent (IVA) to get assistance. Such a robotic agent may give a brief answer and perhaps add a single resource for further reading; if the customer insists on asking a follow-up question, the agent may refer the customer to 1-3 more documents. Sometimes this kind of help is not sufficient and the customer has to make extra effort to drill more useful information from the IVA (a face wearing a smile to the customer is not always comforting). In more complex, sensitive and risk-prone domains, it is advisable to accompany the IVA with a portal that will display more resources in a coherent and viewer-friendly format, explicating what each resource would be most helpful for.

Having said that, there are circumstances in which the customer cannot manage on his own and needs to talk to a skilled person to resolve an issue. It may be because the customer encounters difficulties in fulfilling the task using the computer-based self-service tools or because the domain at issue is relatively complex and involves more significant personal implications (e.g., financial investment, insurance, medical conditions, sophisticated technological products). Researchers Shell and Buell of Harvard Business School suggest in a recent working paper [1] that having customers know that access to human contact is available to them for assistance, even without their taking advantage of it, can improve their feelings, particularly mitigating anxiety, and in turn recuperate their satisfaction and confidence in decisions they make during a self-service session; this will show especially in situations of heightened anxiety. Hence, making notice of access to human contact salient is essential.

Of course in some cases customers will choose to actually turn to a human agent for assistance and guidance; on many other occasions, however, merely knowing that human assistance is reachable may instill some more confidence and encourage the customer to continue independently to the extent that he or she can avoid calling for assistance (i.e., knowledge that human contact is available acts as a safety net). A company can offer human assistance from an agent by phone or chat (not an IVA/chatbot), yet as Shell and Buell propose, the company may also enable customers to get advice from customer-peers (though with more limited effect). Mitigating anxiety through offering human assistance as needed can help to reduce negative effects of customer anxiety on choice satisfaction and subsequently on trust in the company.

The utilisation of knowledge management portals by company’s CSRs aims to work at a different, professional level, to enable the CSRs address concerns and issues raised by customers in a more proficient and timely manner. For instance, it should save CSRs the time and effort of referring to a number of platforms (e.g., marketing, CRM, product) by bringing together different types of relevant and practical information onto one place from which the human agent can access it more easily and quickly. A KM portal display may integrate most recent history of interactions with the customer, relevant offers of products or service packages, or links to additional background articles (e.g., product profiles, technical materials). The KM portal may include essential customer information (e.g., identification and key flags) but it may not free the CSR completely from turning to a CRM system for more information (e.g., previous purchases); likewise, it may not free the CSR from turning to the billing system or a product database resource. The challenge of a KM system is to pull together those portions of information deemed most relevant and useful to the issue at stake from the broad knowledgebase of the company and lay them closer to the service agent (e.g., in a portal or dashboard display). An agent who listens to the ‘story’ told by the customer can give the KM system more clues to allow it to make the best recommendations. Information may be presented explicitly or as links to recommended documents and other external resources. This is expected to be part of the future mode of operation of contact centres, and it is already in motion.

It is important, nevertheless, to take into consideration the time a human service agent needs to review some of the information proposed in the KM portal, in relation to a customer’s enquiry during a live interaction with the customer. The CSR may have to trace, learn, judge and extract relevant information before delivering his or her insight, recommendation or solution to the customer, and all that within a few minutes. Some of the knowledge may be included, as suggested above, in resources like articles that the agent should access and read — think for instance of an article on a new travel insurance offer: the agent has to understand the terms before communicating it to the customer, and being able to answer questions. Three observations are in order on this matter:

  1. Human service agents (CSRs) should receive adequate training on choice, comprehension and evaluation of materials from the company’s knowledgebase, and also should be allocated paid “off-duty” time for reviewing new and updated content (e.g., products and service offers, technical support procedures) to reduce learning ‘time-breaks’ during customer interactions;
  2. The CSR agents should be ready and willing to learn and assimilate information they utilise as their own knowledge, together with experiences they accumulate, to be able to use that knowledge again with subsequent customers without having to process information from the KM portal every time and again — a KM system will be much less effective if CSRs rely heavily on what they see on the screen in every event, rather than using it as an aid and supporting tool;
  3. A key capacity of KM systems is to allow employees share among them experiences, lessons and information they have learned which proved pertinent to the service events they have been treating — by adding notes or updating a special forum, service agents can turn implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge that can help their colleagues in handling similar events in their own future customer encounters.

According to a research report by Aberdeen Group [2], companies that have a formal agent experience management programme gain a higher rate of annual increase in customer retention, above two times more than in other companies (12% versus 5%). These companies can also expect to benefit from about two times higher rates of year-over-year increases in revenues and customer satisfaction. At the same time, agent productivity is also likely to be better with a formal programme for supporting and enhancing the agent working experience (11% annual increase versus 7% in other companies without such a programme). Greater service agent satisfaction is linked to greater customer satisfaction; it requires that the agents feel they can do their work serving customers more easily and successfully with proper guidance and direction.

The Aberdeen report identifies three top factors influencing the agent experience. First, the prospect agent should bring to the job good technology knowledge and skills as well as strong communication skills to be fit for the job assigned. Second, the company should provide on its part the means in technology tools that will facilitate the ability of agents to perform their day-to-day tasks. A smart and effective knowledge management system that can quickly and pointedly lead agents to relevant information (e.g., instructive articles) should have a great role to play in improving the agent experience. Making agents spend extended valuable time seeking background knowledge and insights and delaying their handling of customer enquiries are key deterrents to agent productivity; it may be added that these impediments also are likely to lead to increased agent frustration. Nevertheless, side by side with the skills agents bring with them and the information and technology tools the company provides, agents should be given more autonomy while interacting with a customer (e.g., offer discounts, account credit, free shipping etc.). Aberdeen describes this third factor as providing agents the “sense of empowerment in addressing customer needs”. Employees-agents could be made to feel empowered when respecting their judgement in utilising knowledge resources and allowing them leeway in deciding how best to help the customers.

A knowledge management system incorporates knowledge resources with different types of information and technology tools to access that knowledge. The tools are expected to become powered more extensively by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, to enable users to access relevant and practical information or knowledge more quickly and precisely. However, it should be appreciated that knowledge is most often what people make of information made available to them, and also the knowledge they can return and add to the system for the benefit of others. Whether the interface is used by any company’s service agents or the customers themselves (e.g., applying self-service facilities), the support and guidance of a KM system can enhance the service quality in important ways.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes: 

[1] “Mitigating the Negative Effects of Customer Anxiety Through Access to Human Contact”; Michelle A. Shell & Ryan W. Buell [2019]; Harvard Business School Working Paper 19-089 (unpublished paper).

[2] “Agent Experience Management: Customer Experience Begins with Your Agents”, Aberdeen Group [Omer Minkara], September 2017

 

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Consumers may develop attachment to product objects based on things such as attributes, experiences, or values they share. The emotional attachment comes about due to a personal meaning the product has for the consumer that is unique and special in some way. The concept of product attachment is well known in marketing and consumer behaviour, but it has been a difficult challenge to plan for attachment and to implement during the product design process. The researchers Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven (2018) explored the prospects of creating products that are designed to connect with consumers based on their self-identities and life stories [1].

In thinking about self-identity, we can apply different means by which we perceive and define ourselves as persons (“who I am”). The process of construing one’s identity may start with his or her personality traits (i.e., self-image), but it can be expanded by adding beliefs, goals and values in life, an overall view of life and a look for the future (identity may also be expressed through salient group affiliations: social, professional etc.). When a good match of a product with any of those aspects is found, it may become the foundation for a consumer’s attachment with the product. However, there is another avenue for forming product attachment by means of connecting through episodes and elements in one’s life story or narrative — experiences and special moments (memories), people, places, and other objects (e.g., ties to existing possessions).  Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven follow this avenue to look for opportunities to create product objects that designated individuals would meaningfully connect with. They state their objective as “purposefully create meaning by evoking meaningful associations” from one’s life narrative or sense of self.

In a marketing context, brands rather than products per se would be the appropriate targets for attachment. Brands identify products. Yet furthermore, a brand, as an intangible entity, may hold associations beyond attributes linked directly to the physical product that the brand name is assigned to; the associations can extend to brand personality traits, values, heritage, and more. The quality of an attachment may be assessed by (a) the brand-self connection that is built (i.e., how well the brand’s associations agree with and corroborate an individual’s self-identity to the extent that the brand becomes part of one’s definition of his or her identity); and (b) the prominence of brand associations in memory (e.g., how significant they are, that is, they come instantly and automatically to mind) [2]. Orth and his colleagues, who focus on product design, do not step-up from the product- to the brand-level, although they do refer to aspects underlying attachment that extend beyond the materiality of the product.

The researchers applied a three-stage methodology: 

Inspiration is derived from the life stories of consumers through in-depth semi-structured interviews (with three participants) —  participants told the researchers about their life stories, including people and places that were involved, memorable experiences they have had, possessions they cherish, as well as their views on physical product properties such as colour, texture and materials.

Creation of artefacts (products), designed to capture associations linked to valued and meaningful experiences, people, places, etc. in the memories (life narrative) and sense of self of the consumers-participants. Two artefacts were especially designed and made for each participant. The objects stayed with participants for two weeks.

Evaluation of the meaning, value and emotional tie each consumer-respondent ascribes to those two artefacts, designed-to-fit associations from each one’s life experiences and self-identity (note that the participants were not told that the objects were ‘designed-to-fit’ personally for them). As a reference, each respondent was also asked about his or her perceptions of and emotional ties to an artefact designed for another participant and to possessions they own which they regard as significant to them.

The results obtained by Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven were mixed. With at least one product-artefact they successfully captured the expected match in associations for forming an attachment; for other artefacts they partially captured the associations that would predicate an attachment (e.g., an attachment was formed but based on associations different from those expected); and in the case of at least one artefact, the design was evidently inadequate in forming an attachment (i.e., practically being a miss). The results testify to the difficulty of identifying and anticipating associations that will serve as the meaningful bridge for forming an attachment, even when quite detailed  information about the consumers to draw from is available.

Louise was offered a transparent candle cover (‘Diramu’) with silhouette of native Australian trees; the candle had a scent of smoky campfire.  It was intended to be reminiscent of her childhood in an area surrounded by bushland in Australia, where she had played frequently, but there was concern it would bring up less pleasant, disturbing memories of the struggle to keep bushfires away from her family’s home. Nevertheless, the designed Diramu managed to capture a ‘soft spot’ in the memories of Louise for bushfires (i.e., the bushfire was pleasant, not scary, and the candle’s scent had a feeling of home).

A partial success was obtained in cases as these: (a) Alex liked a porcelain decanter (‘Kiruna’) designed for him due to its fine aesthetics (attractive, elegant) and delicacy that he appreciates and favours.  But the decanter reminded him of the colours of Greece (white and blue) rather than his winter activities and skiing vacations with his children as intended. (b) Karen received a pendant necklace (‘Crater’) with a shiny anthracite coal that would resemble a gemstone. She found it ‘quite nice’ and she ‘quite liked it’. However, she grew no attachment to the object in spite of her affectionate memories of her father as a coal miner in England. The cue of coal failed to transfer the emotional significance regarding her father to the Crater artefact. The researchers admitted that they missed the completely functional attitude and emotional indifference of Karen towards objects, as they discovered it only in the evaluation stage.

The special world clock device (‘Globe’) prepared for Alex in conjunction with his many travels did not meet the expectations. Alex started developing a passion for travels during childhood in Australia and extended it to travels overseas in adulthood through his work; he likes connecting with people in different countries and collecting souvenirs (e.g.,  refined art objects, books and paintings). The Globe was made to show the names of places around the world (e.g., cities) at the time each location, according to its time zone, enjoys a Happy Hour for evening drinks. However, the name title of places turned out to be too weak as a cue to link to specific experiences. Alex commented that while many of the cities mentioned reminded him of some wonderful memories from his being there, “that thing doesn’t reflect those”. The clock design apparently also did not appeal to Alex (e.g., too simplistic, not to his aesthetic standards, and even stopped functioning after a while), leaving a negative impression on him.

The names as cues were probably too general and vague to trigger meaningful associations from the respective places; perhaps photographic images would have helped, but they too should prove personally relevant to Alex. Neither the informational cues (names) nor the design of the Globe artefact corresponded meaningfully with memories and associations of Alex from his travels, and thus according to Orth et al., it can be argued that the artefact was lacking authenticity for Alex.

  • Fournier (1998) studied the life narratives of consumers through in-depth interviews, though in her research the aim was to trace anchors for developing relationships between consumers and brands. That is, she learned from the products-in-use in the lives of three research participants about the roles that the brands of those products played in their lives and how bonds could be created with the brands based on the rich meanings they received [3]. The contribution of Orth and his colleagues is special in their attempt to leverage the information obtained about the life narratives of consumers into actual product objects designed specifically for those same consumers.

Realistically, companies cannot gather so detailed and personal information from too many consumers to enable them to design a product that will fit particular aspects from the life narrative or self-identity of each consumer. Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven spoke to just three consumers and they had varied levels of success in anticipating the associations upon which attachment would be formed.

One direction they suggest, borrowing from previous research, is to create a set of optional product designs (versions) that would confer meaningfully to different target groups of consumers. In other words, each design could contain cues that any particular consumer may connect through to his or her idiosyncratic associations so as to develop an emotional attachment to the product object. This may suggest the importance that prevails in studying the lifestyles, values and psychographics of consumers (using surveys) in order to create the knowledge base necessary for designing personally meaningful product models. Nevertheless, this kind of information may never be as intricate and deep as the life stories studied by Orth and his colleagues. Finding personal meaning in products (and brands) could remain in the domain of the consumers based on what they know about themselves and their past experiences in life.

Another direction is to give consumers an active role in self-designing a product customised for each individual consumer who takes part in such a scheme. The consumer first has to choose what type of product is wanted; then he or she can choose features or properties (e.g., aesthetic-visual, functional) that may be perceived by each one as effective cues to trigger meaningful associations. The aim of self-designing a product in this context is self-expression and connecting to one’s experiences and self-identity, not strictly satisfying one’s utilitarian preferences. In typical schemes of mass customization consumers are constrained by the capabilities and willingness of companies to make the products of their designs. But in the age of 3D printing, consumers may gain greater authority, freedom and flexibility to design and create products to fit more closely the way they perceive and feel about themselves. Orth et al. put it this way: “Advancements in custom manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing provide growing opportunities for bespoke design practices such as those presented in this paper as an alternative to traditional mass production processes” (p. 101).

Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven set two conditions for designing objects (products) with meaningful associations: (1) Cueing Meaning —  the product object has to cue an aspect of identity of the consumer that is personally significant or meaningful (e.g., the Kiruna made of porcelain related to an aspect of identity, ‘ceramics man’, not significant enough to Alex whereas the Diramu representing bushfires connected to an aspect of experience of ‘a pleasant bushfire’ uniquely meaningful to Louise); (2) Authentic Embodiment —  the consumer has to perceive the way a product object cues an association as authentic for it to elicit its personal meaningfulness (i.e., the consumers “must perceive the object to successfully embody the associated source”, hence establishing an authentic linkage between the object and source) (e.g., the Globe failed in relating authentically to the travels of Alex).

Product designers, with the help of design researchers, can go quite a long distance towards consumers in designing products that will be more meaningful to them, but they have to know and respect their limits in approaching consumers close enough. The difficulty is mainly in anticipating the associations that will be perceived by an individual consumer as relevant and significant to be the basis for forming an attachment, and then capture it in an authentic way. As Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven phrase it, designers should acknowledge that they are “limited to creating possibilities instead of certainties in any attempt to design for product attachment” (p. 100). The task of finding a meaning in a product neither has to be relegated fully to the consumer. It should be a shared endeavour in which the designers recommend products and provide sufficient informed cues to meaningful associations, whereon consumers can detect and choose which ones in a product design truly matter to their self-identity and life experiences; and if technology allows, the consumers may be given even a more active role in creating such design cues meaningful to them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] “Designing Objects with Meaningful Associations“; Daniel Orth, Clementine Thurgood, & Elise van den Hoven (2018); International Journal of Design, 12 (2), pp. 91-104. (Images of the artefacts can be seen in the article here).

[2] “Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers”; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, & Dawn Iacobucci (2010); Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), pp. 1-17

[3] “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research”; Susan Fournier (1998); Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (4), pp. 343-373

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Everything happens faster in the fashion world. Fashion houses and retailers have to deal with an increasingly turbulent market wherein trends and tastes fluctuate all the time and design styles replace each other in ever shorter cycles. This instability means greater uncertainty for firms, which makes it harder for them to plan and operate through the year. Attempting to curb the motion and introduce more stability can be a serious challenge for the fashion designers, marketers and retailers; the stream is strong, and more often it seems that everyone has to continue flowing to the next fashion style. Retailers with physical stores face an additional challenge from strengthening e-commerce — consumers prefer to buy more clothing items online, especially from whatever source and channel they can find them at lower prices.

Castro is a leading fashion house and retailer in Israel with over 130 stores carrying its name (i.e., Castro, Castro Men, and Castro Kids) across the country. The Castro company  was established by Aharon Castro in 1950. Its retail start was modest, and the business continued to be primarily a fashion house, designing and making garments (for women only), until the late 1980s. In 1985 the founder opened a flagship store on the modern Dizengof shopping street of Tel-Aviv; that may be considered a first brave move to lift-up the image of the Castro fashion brand and earn it more publicity.

In the early 1990s Aharon Castro passed the realm of the company to his son-in-law Gabriel (Gaby) Rotter, joined later by his daughter Esther (Etty) Rotter, and they have been serving as co-CEOs since then. The second period of Castro is marked by the great expansion of the retail arm of the business. More and more stores were opened in the 1990s and 2000s (Castro also made a venture abroad, mainly in Germany, but it was unsuccessful and largely cut-off). In this period the prevailing brand image of Castro was also invented, which gave it fame and appreciation. The last decade has seen more acquisitions of fashion enterprises (clothing and accessories) made by the company, but these do not carry the Castro name and therefore have less bearing on the Castro brand. In summer 2018 Castro merged with the fashion group Hoodies, and the repercussion of this move is yet to be seen, whether the brands mix or remain separated.

Listed below are selected actions that contributed more significantly to establish the prime attributes associated with Castro, exciting and daring, since the 1990s:

Castro aired a famed TV commercial in 1993 that was daring, playful and igniting the imagination — it is best simply to watch it.  Two more facts make this commercial special: (a) It was aired in the beginning of commercial TV in Israel, when the audience was highly curious and interested in advertising in this medium, which helped the commercial to become a “hit”; (b) The song featuring in the commercial was Creep by Radiohead, during the early stage of its musical career, so the commercial gave a unique exposure to Radiohead in Israel. Definitely in those days this Castro commercial was unusual and exciting (until today it is the most loved commercial in the country); it drove great attention and interest in the coats and other clothing products of Castro, and put it on a trail of growth.

In the early 1990s Castro moved into the pivotal shopping centre of Tel-Aviv (Dizengof Centre). Moreover, Castro situated its store near the entrance to the major department store of that time (HaMashbir), a sound call of challenge. A decade later, in 2003, Castro relocated within the shopping centre and opened its flagship store Castro Tel-Aviv, occupying three floors, with an external façade that turns to a strategic corner of streets with high exposure — a strong declaration of their presence. At least for several years it was an important anchor in the shopping centre.

Castro gradually started to enter clothes for men into its stores. Over time the fashion house expanded the scope of its target segments to become a marketer and retailer of clothing for men and women, youth and kids. On the retail side, Castro made two key moves: in 2000 it launched its sub-chain of Castro Men stores, and in 2013 the Castro Kids sub-chain of stores came to life. Perhaps already less exciting to consumers, but they are still daring moves (a demonstration of force).

However, the expansion of Castro’s activities, particularly adding stores to its retail chain, seems to have taken a toll from the company. It is hard to put a finger on a single factor as the cause of recent troubles at Castro. It appears, yet, that the toll has hit primarily Castro as a fashion house. From some point in the passing decade, consumers have been losing interest in the garments of Castro. In earlier decades, Castro led by its founder gained a reputation for creativity, for bringing new designs and quality fabrics (important especially in the 1960s and 1970s, credit going also to Aharon’s mother Nina). Consumers may have stopped believing that Castro’s clothing expresses creativity, novelty and ingenuity. Nonetheless, the needs and tastes of Israeli consumers apparently have changed, and they are looking for something different in fashion and clothing, which also happens to be less original and less expensive clothing.

Firstly, consumers buy more frequently from a variety of online retailers (‘e-tailers’), on top of them is Amazon.com, while getting easy access to broad selections of clothing from abroad at affordable prices. Consumers also are willing to pay less for garments, shoes and accessories of lower quality even if they would have to replace them more frequently. They further tend to inspect garments in physical stores and then buy the same or similar items from online stores. Yet another threatening competition to Castro comes from quick-movers, discount retailers like Zara and H&M that produce and sell garments of similar designs as those of known fashion houses (though they may have some original clothes). A more discomforting revelation of recent years is that a low cost retailer (Fox) is gaining in popularity while Castro is sliding down. The stores of Castro see less traffic of visitors (footfall), thus stores are too quiet for extended periods, and the sellers have too much ‘free time’ to arrange merchandise; a special report on public TV (Kan News, 4 May 2019, Hebrew) indicates that a growing pressure is put on sellers and other staff (e.g., visual merchandisers) to contribute to better results . Could it be that Israeli consumers find the design of stores less attractive; is the visual merchandising in-store less appealing to them; or is it the merchandise itself losing its appeal? We should not overlook the influence of background factors such as changes in the code of dressing (more casual, ‘dressing-down’, sportive) and economic constraints on consumers’ shopping behaviour in clothing and fashion.

  • In 2018 Castro saw overall a loss of 59 million shekels (~$16m), after a net gain of 48m shekels in 2017 and in 2016, and operating profit on clothing has dropped 66%. Additionally, sales of clothing in same stores of Castro+Hoodies fell 7.7% in 2018, above average rate in this sector (Globes, 5 May 2019, Hebrew — this article follows the report on Kan News).

A few ideas may be learned from the American department store chain Kohl’s that is taking dramatic measures in its effort for resurgence, led by CEO Michelle Gass [A]. Some of these measures may be relevant also to Castro, and could suggest directions for the transformation it may also be required of:

Kohl’s is reducing the amount of merchandise displayed in its stores, and is also decreasing the selling space of stores. On the other hand, the retailer installed an advanced inventory technology that allows it to track its merchandise on display at any time (by using RFID tags on product items), and follow purchase data (including online) and analyse it. Hence staff at Kohl’s can predict what products are in greater demand and what merchandise is in need of replenishing in real time, enabling to display less merchandise with no disadvantage.

Furthermore, Kohl’s  developed a capability to trace changes in market trends faster and cut the time needed to deliver new designs to stores (i.e., shorter time-to-market).

Kohl’s introduces new technologies in its stores to improve the service to shoppers and their in-store experience overall, including handheld checkout devices to cut waiting lines at cashiers, and digital price screens that can be updated with less hassle for staff; in addition, the RFID tags aforementioned enable staff to help customers quickly find products they seek (mirrors with holograms or augmented reality may come later).

  • Kohl’s has taken another intriguing step: orders from Amazon can be returned at desks in a hundred of its stores (out of 1,100+ stores). Critics and skeptics regarded this co-operation akin to “sleeping with the enemy” or “bringing a fox into the henhouse”. However, Gass sees in providing this service at Kohl’s stores an opportunity whereby Amazon’s customers already in a store may choose to buy some products they see around, similar to the case when Kohl’s customers who use its “click & collect” scheme at Kohls.com online store later come to pick-up the order at a physical store.

Castro announced recently that it plans to enlarge and redesign some of its stores. Castro Store TelAviv in GanHaIrPerhaps its management should re-consider enlarging stores. Does Castro really need to have stores as large as those of Zara and H&M (1000sqm+)? This may not be effective in terms of (lower) revenue per squared metre [B]. The stores can also be arranged to be more spacious between display exhibits and hold less merchandise, provided that information technology can be used to monitor it cleverly. Redesigning stores may indeed be welcome — current stores could feel too dark-toned with selective spot lights, which may be perceived more elegant but less convenient. Existing large stores may be reduced somewhat, or perhaps may better allocate space to other purposes like special projects (e.g., gallery of new art designs in fashion), a coffee bar or hosting events that may be more interesting than a space loaded with more products [cf. A].  Greater attention should be drawn to the experience that can be generated for visitors in-store.

Another issue concerns the image and experience delivered by the website and online store of Castro. Is the online store not advanced and rich enough? Will more exclusive online offers make the difference? [cf. B] What kind of experience should the website and online store present to visitors? Entering the e-commerce website overly feels like entering a catalogue. The e-store has some nice features like a model’s image changing position when hovering above with the mouse to show the garment from another angle, or being able to see the same garment in different colours. Yet the website appears nothing more than an e-commerce website; it misses something more important — it obscures Castro as a fashion house. The story of Castro and its creations is practically hidden, hard to find. When entering the website, it should communicate the image of the brand Castro — show original designs of the fashion house before start selling. The website should clearly show the “door” to the online store but right next to it should appear the “door” to Castro the fashion house and its story.

Eventually, the garments designed and created by Castro are the main issue to address. This should be an important point of differentiation for Castro from other retailers on which it should make its voice loud and clear. For example, prior to her role as CEO of Kohl’s, Gass identified the rise of the trend of activewear (sportive-energy) style in clothing; she gave it more emphasis in stores with the help of national brands like Nike and Adidas. Castro has a category (online) of Activewear. On the one hand, it can make its voice by introducing its own designs in this category. On the other hand, it should not go only after what seems popular at a time but suggest other modes or styles to the market.

Castro seems to lack sub-brands or endorsed brands up front that consumers can easily identify and associate certain styles or attributes with them (e.g., more daring or novel vs. more conservative, more artful vs. more functional). Castro is said to hire top-of-class young designers. Yet it does not elevate anyone as house designers by name, perhaps to encourage more collegiality and teamwork. An alternative approach would be to build a brand around a team of designers (like a “centre of excellence”) who share a certain vision and approach in fashion styles. Actually Castro already has three sub-brands: “Red” for casual dressing; “Blue” for more elegant, quasi-formal dressing; and “Black” for jeans wear. Castro can develop and enrich any of these sub-brands; create another brand with a specific style or tone of design as a secondary “specialisation” under any of those above; or build a new brand endorsed directly by the Castro name that will express new forms of art, novelty or elegance, etc. Whatever course taken, the leading idea is to give consumers a ‘name & face’ they can cling to, to follow how it evolves, and to identify with.

There are multiple avenues for Castro to reinvent and revive its brand and business as a whole. The expansion of its retailing activities may have led to the weakening of its fashion house and dilution of its brand. Some of the enterprises Castro acquired or merged with could hurt the brand to the extent that they are stopping Castro from developing answers in-house to gaps in the market. Therefore, it is perhaps the time now to return to increase the focus on Castro the fashion house as in earlier times, and let the retail arm serve it, not the other way round. Castro should be ready to enter its third period; the challenge will likely be assigned to the new Deputy CEO lately nominated, Ron Rotter (son of Etty and Gaby Rotter and former CFO), to reinvent Castro and put the brand on a new course.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Additional Sources:

[A] “Michelle Gass Is Cracking the Code at Kohl’s”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), December 2018, pp. 104-112.

[B] “Castro Once Was the Most Sexy Brand in Israel, But These Days Are Gone” (origin in Hebrew), TheMarker, 12 April 2019 (MarkerWeek edition), pp. 14-16

 

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Online shopping in digital stores and shopping in brick-and-mortar stores offer different forms of experiences. It starts from the environment or setting in which the shopper is situated — being present in a 3D physical retail space or viewing a 2D screen of a computer or mobile device. It is the difference between how much and what specifically a shopper can see and absorb when looking around in a physical store compared with looking at a screen. The difference in setting may have a further impact on behaviour, like how shoppers find products and how they inspect them.

Imagine a shopper, Dan, entering a large fashion store. Dan’s head immediately turns around as much as 180 degrees scanning the scene. Just a few steps in front of Dan there is a low desk with shirts, and another desk with sweaters to the left; to the right Dan observes shirts hanging on a rectangle-shaped stand, and he notices how their designs differ from those on the desk; along the walls are more shirts and trousers, etc. Dan decides to approach first the shirts to the left because they have multiple colours, lifting one or two to look more closely at them; later he also turns to the wall to see trousers and tries to match them with shirts. As Dan’s shopping trip advances he may enter deeper into the store to check on some accessories or another variety of shirts. Very early in the visit the shopper can figure out what may be found in main sections of the scene. Then starts a sort of discovery tour that may be guided by a master goal but progresses as the shopper identifies relevant and visually attractive items (stimuli). The scene is ‘updated’ as the shopper goes deeper into the store, or into adjacent halls, and details that were more distant and vague before become sharper and clearer.

A different kind of shopping process usually occurs in online website stores: first of all because much fewer products (stimuli) can be observed in a relatively short glimpse of the screen-scene. The way merchandise in the online store is located and explored is much more gradual.  An online store actually encourages a more goal-driven search process (e.g., choosing names of categories from a menu, selecting attribute options to narrow down the search to a relevant selection of products). Then starts a back-and-forth process of exploration of different items (e.g., by clicking on item titles or images and entering product pages), and visiting additional major categories of products. However, the experience of search and exploration is so different: whereas in the physical store the shopper can ‘wash the eyes’ with shapes, designs and colours of products, and follow the eyes through the shopping trip, it is much harder to do so in an online store where one has to go step-by-step or in a piecemeal manner. Nevertheless, online shoppers have more flexibility and a wider span of possibilities for viewing product options simultaneously on the screen of a desktop or laptop computer than on the screen of a smartphone.

Certainly there are more clever and creative e-commerce or store websites that are able to generate an improved experience of exploration and inspection of products. For example, there are online stores that show grids composed of tiles of images representing major categories and sub-categories of products. The images are more lively, and some of them exhibit motion as well. With some images, hovering with a mouse on the product photo (before clicking) changes the angle in which a garment or handbag, for instance, is shown. On product pages, some options may be selected that immediately affect the product image (e.g., colours, dimensions, designs); products may be rotated dynamically or by selecting from a line of static thumbnail images under the main frame.

A large majority of shoppers enquire about products online before visiting a physical store. According to a Google/Ipsos survey (‘Omnichannel Holiday Study’, Nov. 2017-Jan. 2018), 78% of US holiday shoppers searched products before going into a store; the online search helps shoppers in planning their shopping trip to the store, narrow down the options they should be seeking at the store, but it also ‘inspires the purchase’ (thinkwithgoogle.com, October 2018). In another research by Publicis (‘Shopper First Retailing’, 2018), an even higher proportion of shoppers, 87%, report that they begin searches in digital channels (online, mobile), up from 71% in 2017 (RetailDive.com, 15 August 2018). Searching the Internet is regarded as a productive method to look for directions and learning about product options, as preparation for making purchase decisions. Shoppers do not feel obliged also to make the purchase online, even if they browse the e-commerce website of an online-only retailer (‘e-tailers’) or of a mixed retailer that operates both a website store and physical stores. Consumers like especially to consult reviews of peer users who have already had experience with products they consider.

This learning process seems functional and goal-driven where shoppers need some guidance to put order into their shopping journey. Online sources, including e-commerce websites, seem to provide an efficient solution for this purpose. The process may indeed inspire shoppers with ideas, perhaps to the extent of helping the shopper to focus on viable and worthwhile purchase options and avoid wandering too long clueless in a store. In such a case in particular, visiting the online store of a mixed retailer can prove most useful before arriving to one of its physical store locations — and this makes the website an even more effective tool for the retailer.

However, retailers that operate physical stores would not want shoppers to come too prepared with their minds pre-determined what to buy. While shoppers usually have a general plan of what they are looking for, final purchase decisions are still made mostly in-store. Hence it is so important for physical stores to be designed and arranged in an appealing and stimulating manner — to allow consumers to complete successfully their shopping trip in-store, and furthermore encourage and induce them to purchase a few more ‘treasures’ they discover in the store.

It may be relevant to consider here two scenarios:

For retailers that operate physical stores in multiple, even numerous locations, there should be a stronger incentive to leave their customers with enough reasons to conclude their shopping in-store rather than on the website store. Thus, the online store has to be visually attractive, user-friendly and informative, but it does not have to be fully equipped with features that convince customers to complete their shopping and purchasing online. The website should not go all the way in effort to draw shoppers from physical stores. Whereas the online store may provide more functional, productive experiences (e.g., efficient, time-saving), the physical store would be more capable in creating pleasant emotional experiences (e.g., excitement, thrill, joy). The positive emotions invoked should not be taken lightly because they drive purchases.

For e-tailers with no physical stores there should be greater need to invest in the quality and feel of experiences they can provide in their e-commerce websites. The introduction of shoppers to the online store should be more delightful as well as informative and user-friendly. Visual elements and interactive features have to be inviting and helpful in guiding the visitor into different sections of the store — on the ‘main stage’ of the screen estate and not just through the menu and search engine.

The latter applies, nonetheless, also to mixed retailers that have stores in just a few locations (e.g., major cities) and wish to reach much greater numbers of customers that do not have a store near them. It may also be relevant when targeting customer segments who for any reason have little time free to travel to a store, and in regions where shoppers are reluctant to go out during harsh weather conditions (e.g., steaming hot and dusty or freezing cold and snowy). [Note: Location data might be used to channel a reduced or enhanced version of a store website according to whether the user is in vicinity of a physical store by the retailer, a form of ‘geo-fencing’].

Delicatessen in Gstaad

The brick-and-mortar stores remain very much in demand. According to a Google/Ipsos online survey (‘Shopping Tracker’, US, April-June 2018), 61% of American shoppers prefer shopping with brands that also have physical stores than ones that are online only. Key benefits suggested for shopping in physical stores are the immediacy in which shoppers are likely to obtain the products they require; getting hands-on — seeing and interacting with products before buying; and being more fun than shopping online (35% feel so) (thinkwithgoogle.com, John McAteer, November 2018). The Publicis study indicates more generally that 46% of shoppers prefer to buy in physical stores (vis-à-vis 35% who prefer shopping using their laptops and 18% on mobile phones) (RetailDive). Apparently, shoppers are not blind to benefits and advantages of shopping in physical stores over online stores, and many are not ready to leave them to fade out.

It is not suggested that online stores necessarily have to be made to appear like physical stores on the screen — mimicking the scene of a brick-and-mortar store may be perceived as just artificial, awkward and inconvenient (though retailers who also have physical locations can integrate actual store images into relevant sections of the online store). On the one hand, the retailer (or e-tailer) should take advantage of the strengths of the digital medium in organising, displaying and tracing information in the online store. On the other hand, online stores may have to breakaway in some degree from rigid structures of tables, lists and matrices. Grids of image tiles make a good start. Yet, more versatile visualisation possibilities have to be considered to provide visitors of store websites (or mobile apps) a more stimulating presentation of the variety of products the store has to offer. The interactive presentation should expose visitors to an array of products available (e.g., by type, use purpose, or brand), and lead their way from there into sub-categories and specific product models or brands.

  • Virtual Reality (VR) technology may be used to emulate a view of a store in 3D space, but the equipment needed to create a truly compelling experience is not in reach of most consumers, at least not yet. The more crucial question is: why should consumers prefer an imitation or illusion when almost everyone can visit real physical stores and shops. At least one aspect VR is unlikely to provide adequately is the social experience.

Instead of treating online shopping and shopping in physical stores as substitutes competing with each other, the more sensible approach for mixed retailers is to create ways in which they can combine and complement each other. The connection can be a two-way street, especially given that shoppers use mobile devices more frequently during store visits (71% of shoppers according to Publicis study cited by RetailDive). From online to store, for example, a mobile app of the retailer used in-store can help the shopper navigate and find the way to the places of products that he or she detected and learned about in a preliminary search and study online (e.g., Home Depot). From in-store to online, the shopper may use the app of the retailer in-store to find more information about products found in the store by scanning a barcode for the product of interest (e.g., Sephora [cosmetics] allows access to product reviews, order history of the shopper, and more) [examples adopted from McAteer in thinkwithgoogle]. More technologies that help in bridging between the virtual and physical domains of shopping include beacons and augmented reality (AR).

  • There are other areas not covered above in which online shopping is distinguished from in-store shopping and require more attention, such as customer service, specifically providing advice and assistance to shoppers, and the fulfillment of orders (a ‘click-and-collect’ programme is another way of linking the physical and online stores).

The physical and digital (virtual) domains have each their strengths in creating different forms of shopping experiences. Physical stores and shops have built-in advantages in evoking emotional experiences while shopping — they are tangible and more direct, can provide good personal care, and may attract and excite shoppers by means of interior design and visual merchandising in their physical spaces. Furthermore, beyond vision, physical stores allow shoppers to enact other senses (e.g., touch, smell) that cannot be experienced in the digital domain. It is unsure how much a store website (or app) can give rise to a similar emotional experience and attachment in shoppers, yet there are aspects that can be borrowed into the digital domain that would make it seem not just functional but also more appealing and immersive. Nonetheless, mixed retailers may have the best opportunity to combine the strengths from the physical and digital domains and link them to produce shopping experiences that are more productive and enjoyable altogether.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Many companies are well-known to consumers by their corporate names, including manufacturers, chain retailers and service providers. The corporate name may serve as the leading brand identifier (like an ‘umbrella’ name) for the company’s products or services. But furthermore the corporate-level brand name is the gate to access the organisation’s image as held in the public opinion of consumers. In the last decade companies are increasingly judged by their values, culture, and market and public conduct. Consumers are more strongly influenced in their choice of products or services of a company by what they think of and how they feel towards its corporate brand.

A Tel-Aviv-based strategic management consulting firm, TACK, constructed a two-dimension metric for assessing the image strength (or sturdiness) of companies in Israel. The metric comprises a rational-oriented ‘pillar’ named Logic and an affective-driven ‘pillar’ called Magic. Each dimension of the image strength metric is measured by two (rating-scale) items.

Logic represents how much a company is appreciated by consumers, and to what extent the company makes it worthwhile for consumers to be its customers.

Magic expresses how much a company is loved by consumers, and to what extent consumers believe that the company cares about its customers.

Magic pertains to the emotional ties between the company and its customers and is therefore particularly important to the relationships built by a company with the customers. We cannot underestimate the importance of the logical or cognitive-based evaluation of the company, by weighing its advantages and disadvantages, as the basis for the interest and preference consumers show in using the company’s products and services. However, reasoned appreciation of the company and its offerings will likely not hold-up a relationship without developing an attachment to the corporate-name brand.

TACK applied its Logic & Magic metric for the third continuous year in 2019 to 71 Israeli companies (e.g., food producers, retail chains, telecom service providers, banks). Measures were collected in a survey of 503 adult Israeli consumers (Hebrew-speaking). The companies are not necessarily managed purely as a ‘branded house’; however, this study is not concerned with additional brands owned by the company (e.g., brands that may be endorsed by the corporate brand name or products positioned as sub-brands). The demonstrated mappings of corporate brands (in Hebrew), along the dimensions of Logic and Magic, bring forward some sobering realizations shared below:

Firstly, it is noticeable that, from a consumer perspective, companies that are doing better on the logical-functional front are also more successful on the emotional front, and thus are doing better overall in connecting with consumers. We cannot conclude from this a cause-and-effect relation. But the findings do suggest that a wise strategy that is sensitive to consumers (i.e., it sees things through the eyes of consumers) can win on both fronts. In other words, a company as such that succeeds, through its strategy, in gaining the appreciation of consumers for its performance and advantages of its products and services, is also likely to win the affection, trust and approach of the consumers.

There are hardly any corporate brands that seem to get a high score on Logic but relatively lack in their score on Magic, and vice versa. This implies that a company cannot sustain a ‘cold-minded’ appraisal of its performance and offerings while failing to win the hearts of its customers; and just as well, a company cannot sustain an affectionate connection with its customers without establishing the foundation of approval of its functional benefits to customers (e.g., being relevant and attractive). Nevertheless. it should be noted that the spread among corporate brands with relatively higher Logic and Magic scores is greater than among brands with relatively lower scores on both dimensions (there are more of them and they are more condensed). There is still much variability among the best performing companies — they are not consistently doing better in the same way.

Secondly, the quality of products and services is just one of the factors consumers likely consider in their logical-functional evaluations, and is possibly not the more prominent one. There seem to be large differences in perceived quality of the products of at least some of the companies or in the weight assigned to quality. Moreover, companies whose products appeal in their high quality or expertise to only a relatively small segment of consumers (a niche) seem to fall behind and do not come out favourably in this type of all-market brand rankings. It is not so surprising to realise that the stronger and leading corporate brands are those of companies that aim to fulfill the needs and preferences of the wider common base of the mass market.

Let us look at a few examples:

  1. In the category of retail food chains, a heavy discount retailer, Rami Levy, is positioned close to the top-right corner of the map (both in its category and overall) with high Logic and Magic scores, while a delicacy retailer Tiv Ta’am is at the bottom-left corner of the map. The two major food retail chains are in-between, one in the top-right quadrant (Shufersal) and the other in the bottom-left quadrant (Bittan [Mega]). Tiv Ta’am may bring better-quality products (e.g., fresh produce, imports of delicacies) than other food retailers, but its stores are considered too expensive, lucrative, and they are not liked. Rami Levy and Shufersal are listed among the Superbrands of Israel for 2018 in the retail category.
  2. In the category of coffee houses, we find in relatively high positions the low-cost, basic-service chain of Cofix, and the espresso-bar, self-service chain Aroma. In the worst position we find Arcaffe, an Italian-style chain of coffee bars serving fine coffee, sandwiches and other products, but it fails to receive the appreciation of the greater public for their offerings and service. Aroma is much more popular although their products and its serving standard are moderate. Yet Arcaffe is considered more ‘top-notch’, made for European-connoisseurs, and is relatively more expensive. Eventually, Aroma and Coffix are also much more emotionally appealing to Israeli consumers than Arcaffe. Roladin, a bakery and coffee-house chain, can be argued to be much closer in quality and service standard to Arcaffe than to Aroma; yet, Roladin is appreciated and considered worthwhile (Logic) similar to Aroma and is even a little more loved and cherished (Magic) than Aroma —  the advantage of Roladin over Arcaffe seems to be that they understand better what the greater part of Israelis like to eat and expect to find in a coffee-house for a light meal. Aroma and Roladin are listed among Israel’s Superbrands of 2018 (dining out) whereas Arcaffe is absent.
  3. In the media category, among the news press publishers, HaAretz holds a much lower position on both Logic and Magic than Israel HaYom; Yediot Aharonot is located closer to HaAretz. Two marked differences between them: (a) HaAretz is left-leaning (affiliated with the Guardian and New-York Times) and Yediot is oriented to the centre-left, whereas Israel HaYom is right-wing; (b) HaAretz is superior, especially in some areas, in quality of commentary and analysis to the two other newspapers (tabloid-fashioned). But the political left, and the HaAretz newspaper associated with it, are out of favour in recent years, and perhaps as a result the tolerance to its reporting by large circles of society is low, no matter its apparent news quality. [It is noted that all three also have a news website, though in the case of Yediot the online channel is branded separately as ‘ynet’ — it is positioned close and just a bit better than the press edition]. Yediot (+ynet) and Israel HaYom are listed in the media category of Israel’s Superbrands for 2018 but HaAretz is absent (its economics and business branch TheMarker is included).
  4. Interestingly, the researchers of TACK report that preference for Arcaffe and for Tiv Ta’am, each in its category, is stronger among consumers who describe themselves as leaning to the political left. The relevance of political attitudes to dining-out and food shopping is a little obscure, but it gives an indication of the portrayal of their more likely customers. More importantly, this research evidence amplifies the argument that corporate brands more entrenched in niches — like HaAretz, Arcaffe and Tiv Ta’am — are much less likely to be considered strong leading brands.

Thirdly, response to price and value perceptions are not free of an emotional loading. An economic approach views the calculation of value as a rational procedure of weighing the benefits and cost of a product or service offer. However, when an offer is judged as unfair to the disadvantage of the buyer, this may stir anger and resentment of the consumer in response to the price offer. The resentment is more often directed to the retailer, but it may be pointed towards the manufacturer of a national brand as well, depending on whom the consumer believes to be more responsible for a price differential or increase.

The judgement of unfair price differentials is contingent on the reference price used (e.g., a price paid by a friend for the same product at another store this week). In the case of a price increase, the reaction is subject to whether consumers can see justification to a price increase by attributing the increase in retail price to a rise in cost that retailers or manufacturers could not control (e.g., price of raw materials). In the past decade much resentment developed because consumers failed to find such justifications. Instead, the perception more accepted was that retailers and manufacturers were rolling their cost rises mostly to consumers, and they raised prices merely to improve their profits. In Israel this problem was evident especially in the food category where consumers were witnesses to continued feuds between the food chain retailers and manufacturers. More broadly, many Israeli consumers appear to these days to have little tolerance to retailers, service providers or manufacturers that seem to raise prices unfairly or try to position themselves to be more up-scale and luxurious — disappointment and anger at them motivates consumers to punish them in some way. This kind of resentment and urge to act in revenge is apparent also in the results of the study by TACK.

Price is given priority by more Israeli consumers, and it seems to overweight possible advantages in quality of products, services or the environment of shopping. In some cases consumers may fail to appreciate any such advantages while in others they simply consider the price premium as unjustified or unaffordable (which may add frustration to their evoked emotions). This can be another aspect that explains the differences between companies described above: (a) for instance, the gaps on Logic and Magic between coffee-house chains like Cofix and Aroma compared with Arcaffe,  and vis-à-vis Roladin, or (b) Rami Levi which is probably perceived as making greater effort to charge affordable prices (although it declined a little from last year), far better than a delicacy chain such as Tiv Ta’am. In other categories, it is more difficult to make clear inferences. In telecom services (mobile, TV, Internet), for example, all major companies receive relatively low appreciation and are less loved. A specialised dairy producer (Tara) is positioned less favourably than the two major and larger dairies (Tnuva and Strauss) which happened to be more shaken by consumer protests of several years ago (Tara is more preferred though among ages 55+ according to TACK). Among fashion retailers, a low-cost retailer of casual wear (Fox) is positioned just slightly higher on Logic but lower on Magic than some major main-stream retailers (H&M, Castro, Zara); yet another retailer (Renuar) that is probably somewhat more exclusive appears to be considered less worthwhile and having moderately less of magic (as reference, Polgat [for men], which has visibly better quality clothing, is not included).

The study of image strength by TACK sheds light on the relative positions in which consumers hold corporate brands both in their minds (Logic) and in their hearts (Magic).  It is somewhat surprising to find such a strong association between the logical-functional dimension and the affective dimension — it suggests that a company cannot sustain a positive stance on one dimension without the other for a long time. There is some discomfort also in realising that price could be more dominant than quality, but it is important to acknowledge how perceptions of value, and especially unfairness, can influence the emotional reaction of consumers to the corporate-level brands. Effectively, being attentive and sensitive to what the wider circles of consumers in the country need and expect to have is a key to be regarded overall as a favourable, strong leading brand.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


Comment on Methodology:

The brand scores are given in percentages. More detailed values reported for 2017 help to understand the metric’s structure. The score on each dimension (Logic or Magic) seems to be calculated as the sum of the ‘top-box’ proportions for the two items it is composed of (e.g., % who give a rating of 6 or 7 on a 7-point Likert-type scale in agreement with each statement of Logic, where 25% on ‘appreciate’ + 20% on ‘worthwhile’ = 45% on Logic). However, summing up those percentages is not a proper procedure — this sum does not have a meaningful interpretation because the proportions cannot be accumulated. It would be correct to take their mean rather than the sum. Another valid option is to add-up the rating values of the pair of items for each respondent and then calculate the percentage who have given a total score on that dimension of above a threshold (e.g., a score on the index of Logic of above 12) in order to produce a score that may be more easily related to.

Reference on price fairness:

The Price is Unfair! A Conceptual Framework of Price Fairness Perceptions; Lan Xia, Kent B. Monroe, & Jennifer L. Cox (2004); Journal of Marketing, 68 (October), pp. 1-15.

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When going through a surgery, the surgery itself would almost unquestionably be the major and focal treatment of the patient during hospitalisation. However, there is an envelope of procedures, treatments and other activities that make up the experience of the patient at the hospital. Furthermore, pre-surgery and follow-up procedures can also be accounted for in the whole experience. Patient experience is receiving increasing attention and greater weight in managing healthcare systems in recent years, side by side with the clinical demands of medical care. Although we cannot fully equate the status of ‘patient’ with ‘customer’ because of the highly specialised aspects and requirements of the medical domain, there are many activities and moments of interaction in which it is fair and right to view the patient as a customer.

Healthcare services are not immune to the growing power of consumers and their higher expectations, as customers, that have become omnipresent in many fields of services and products. Consumers expect greater awareness of their needs and respecting their rights. Yet there are unique challenges in adopting a ‘customer-centric’ approach with medical patients because clinical considerations come first in the responsibilities of medical professionals.  It is a challenge, for instance, to convince doctors and nurses that improved patient experience is more than ‘nice but not necessary’ or that this is not ‘a luxury given their tight schedules’. Another challenge is balancing between the undoubted authority of medical doctors in their domains of clinical specialisations and the need of patients to be informed, assured and comforted about treatments they should receive. How a clinical treatment is communicated and delivered to a patient can influence considerably his or her experience in a positive way; moreover, there are many less critical procedures and interactions through which doctors, nurses and assisting care providers can further improve the patient experience.

A commonly accepted definition of patient experience developed by the Beryl Institute defines it as “The sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care“. First, having a supporting culture is paramount to the successful assimilation of a patient experience approach. Second, there is a recognition among researchers and experts that patients’ experiences should be addressed through their perceptions reflecting what has happened to them (e.g., during clinical procedures, interactions with doctors); measures of satisfaction are inadequate because satisfaction is construed relative to individuals’ prior expectations, without informing what might have to be corrected. Third, steps along a whole journey or continuum of medical care of the patient should be accounted for (e.g., from hospital admission to discharge, covering care given within and outside the hospital walls). A customer-centred approach in the context of healthcare is recognised as Patient-Centred Care which focuses on improving patient experiences.

In a special report of the NHS Confederation (UK) on patient experience, the authors note the complexity of improving patient experience on top of striving to provide high-quality clinical care. In addition to the latter, it should be acknowledged that “Experience is also determined by the physical environment the patients are in and how they feel about the care they receive, including the way staff interact with them“. The report authors state punctually: “Improving the experience of all patients starts by treating each one of them individually to ensure they receive the right care, at the right time, in the right way for them” (boldface highlight added)[1].

Improvements in patient experience in a hospital ward (e.g., cardiology, orthopaedic) seem to happen in small steps, in small details; the staff may not fully appreciate their value to patients and their family relatives . Better experience may arise from greater awareness of the worries, concerns or inconveniences of patients by doctors, nurses and assisting caregivers. It may be achieved by listening to the patients and being more patient and soft with them. It is not an easy demand: the staff may have two or three dozens of patients to attend to in the ward, and yet the staff has a duty to help and make the hospital stay as easy as possible for each patient. One should not overlook the importance of an emotional touch, feelings shown by and with patients. Keeping a peaceful and calm atmosphere in the hospital ward also contributes to patients’ experience and prospects of healing. Doctors in particular can help to improve the patient experience by willing to explain and inform a patient (and family) in plain words and empathy about his or her condition and treatments required, especially upon request (i.e., respecting the right of a patient to be informed). Additionally, doctors should not leave patients out of decisions made about them, where the patient demonstrates interest and capacity in being involved.

Much of the conduct described above can be seen happening more frequently than say five or ten years ago. One may encounter specific members of staff who make an extra effort to help, talk with a patient a little longer, answer questions at the nurse counter or in the patient’s room, and they do it kindly and voluntarily. Yet there is also observable variability where some members of staff appear less committed to providing a better treatment to patients with dignity, compassion and respect; patient experience does not seem to concern those staff members. Efforts in hospitals to increase awareness and training of staff about forms of conduct that improve patient experience, and their value to patients, have to address remaining pockets of inconsistency.

We should also look at processes in administering care to patients as they may have further impact on patient experience in addition to the quality and safety of medical care. For example, it is greatly important to pass and share information about patients between nurses and doctors within a shift and between shifts. Understandably, medical staff may not be able to give a full detailed update about every patient in the brief during change of shifts. But even during a shift there may not be enough time to pass information between staff members (e.g., a change in treatment for a particular patient). It is therefore crucial that staff members update patient records in the computer information system regularly and consult the records frequently to make sure information is not lost, forgotten or missed by the next staff member attending to the same patient. It can matter, for instance, when the patient or family inform staff about medication the patient is taking regularly (or should avoid), or regarding any change ordered in medication administered during hospitalisation. More generally, it would help to avoid situations where staff members ask patients or family the same question several times. Failure to record and pass customer information is a problem well-known and documented in customer service, yet in this case shortcomings in passing patient information can have more critical consequences. Therefore, ensuring that information is available to administer the right treatment at the right time would improve the quality and safety of patient care and thereby his or her personal experience.

Improving patient care and experience by physicians relies on better understanding of patients’ needs which could be achieved by working on three key priorities: competency, teamwork, and compassion; being successful would help in driving loyalty of patients to physicians (James Merlino, MD, an expert advisor with Press Ganey Associates in an interview with Micah Solomon of Forbes, 11 May 2017). It sounds, nonetheless, that this trio of priorities is fundamental and could contribute in multiple settings to patient care by physicians with the mentioned benefit to individual physicians, their clinics or hospital wards (private or public). [Note: Merlino suggests also incorporating patient segmentation and nurturing caregiver engagement as requisites to improving patient experience.]

A study of patient interviews at Royal Bolton Hospital in the UK, cited by the NHS Confederation report, identified two themes that appear to relate to pivotal concerns of many patients: “no needless pain” and “no feelings of helplessness”; the researchers were able to sort interviews along these two leading themes and later held discussions with hospital staff on the issues raised in the interviews. In another example given, the report refers to relationships built with patients and their families, and among staff and executives: a data-driven methodology, Patient and Family Centred Care, developed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center assesses different care pathways where each care pathway is studied and an ideal patient experience is outlined respectively. A project is developed in collaboration between professional staff and management to carry out these experience-oriented care plans.

As suggested above, a calm and pleasant atmosphere in the hospital ward can have a positive effect on patients’ feelings (e.g., soothing, relaxing). Contributors to the desirable atmosphere are the behaviour of medical and assisting (nursing) staff but not least also the design, furnishing and atmospherics of the physical environment in a hospital ward. Colours, windows and the sunlight they allow into rooms, warm materials (e.g., wood) and ergonomics, artwork hung on walls, and even pleasant odour should help in generating an atmosphere conducive to better healing (e.g., stronger improvement in the clinical condition of the patient, shorter hospital stay). In fact, research supports positive effects of the environment and ergonomics on healing of patients but also on staff sentiment and conduct (e.g., by reducing fatigue and stress).

According to a review of literature prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens Healthineers (healthcare division), improved patient experience has been shown to have positive impact on clinical outcomes and care delivery for patients, financial outcomes for hospitals (efficiency, cost reduction), and morale and productivity of staff. The review further supports the importance of improving patient experience throughout the continuum of care: before, during, and after hospital admission; it should also engage patients, staff, system and interfaces inside the hospital and outside (e.g., pre-surgery and follow-up treatments and clinical examinations may be provided by the hospital and complemented in other clinics)[2].

Patients themselves also believe in the positive effect that better experience can have on their healing prospects. A consumer survey (2018) conducted by Beryl Institute found that 69% of consumers believe a good experience contributes to their healing / good health outcomes. It was also learned from consumers that being listened to, communicated to them in a way they can understand, and being treated with dignity and respect are the three most important factors to them influencing their (patient) experience.

Patient experience cannot be separated from the overall programme of care they receive in the hospital; it embodies all that happens to them, the treatments they receive and interactions they have with members of staff, and how they feel about it all. As healthcare professionals increasingly appreciate, it would be wrong to brush away this subjective and emotional viewpoint of patients on their experience in the hospital or see it as inferior to the clinical aspects of medical care. They go hand-in-hand, and as research has shown improved experience of patients is likely to have a positive impact on their clinical condition and healing prospects. A broad perspective on patient experience is nonetheless necessary, encompassing any components of care that are part of hospitalisation or tied to it; involving different types of staff (doctors and nurses, assisting caregivers, and administrative staff as well); and it could take a step forward and consider care given inside the hospital and outside it. Improvements in patient experience can already be discerned in the past decade; yet this is an area of continued work and effort where more can be done to create even better and more consistent patient experiences.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] “Feeling Better? Improving Patient Experience in Hospital”, The NHS Cofederation, 2010

[2] “Improving Patient Experience”, Siements Healthineers Global, 13 June 2018 (Whitepaper)

 

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