When creativity meets e-commerce

By Mark Tungate 

When you go online to buy something, the least you expect is that the purchase is easy and the required item shows up. But a brand is a complex and fragile entity. Perhaps an online shopping experience should include a dose of creativity to reinforce its image and positioning? To find out, we approached an expert.

What in your experience do consumers require from an online shopping experience, apart from a smooth and easy purchase?

Etienne de Laharpe: That’s not at all a banal question – in fact it goes to the heart of the subject. In reality, customers want nothing more than a fluid and easy purchase. But should a brand go further? In “old school” marketing, you asked the customer what they wanted, you gave it to them, and everyone was happy. But there are plenty of brands and entrepreneurs who don’t stop there.

I have two examples. The first is Amazon. Even Jeff Bezos has said that he doesn’t want to provide anything complex, just an irreproachable response to the customer’s needs. And it’s true: from the purchase to the after sales service, there’s never a problem. That’s already great, but it stops there.

Other brands make the effort to go a step further. The online version of the Apple Store is faithful to the brand’s habit of anticipating expectations. It’s subtle, but while Amazon is very square, Apple always rounds the corners. The experience is more valorising, more agreeable.

Through a mix of aesthetics and ergonomics, Apple brings us a little more than what we expected when we arrived.

An e-commerce site could be purely functional, with pictures of the product and a price. How important is creativity and an aesthetic appeal?

Let’s take the sporting goods market. On the one hand you have a brand like (French retailer) Decathlon, whose site is hyper-functional, but reflects the image of the stores: practical and accessible to all.

On the other side of the competitive field, you have Nike. The ergonomics, the aesthetics, the design, the models: it’s (almost) a luxury brand site. Which is normal insofar as we come there to look for a form of magic, the “fleece” which will transform us into a champion… As with Decathlon, the coherence between the site, the positioning and the brand strategy is perfect.

But at Nike, aesthetics and creativity are there to enhance the value of the product and the customer…in the service of pricing between five and ten times higher.

How closely linked does the e-commerce experience have to be with the current advertising strategy of the brand?

It always comes down to two questions. How can I be different? Because no two things resemble each other more than two e-commerce sites!

And how can I go beyond the demands of my customer to give them more? Our job as communicators is to create a story which via small details will accompany people throughout their customer journey and result in an experience that feels different.

Should it also mimic the real life retail store, or can it be radically different?

When it’s too different to the physical shop, it can shock. With the most successful brands, the brand’s intention is legible at every stage, whether it’s the advertising, the store, or the e-commerce site. It’s the usual challenge of aligning all the touch points.

There are exceptions. If you take Walmart, when you go to the site, while it doesn’t look like the store, they have a way of editorialising content around themes like the NFL, Back to School, Halloween and so on, which are linked to sales promotions in the stores at that time.

So it’s not so much an aesthetic as a rapport with customers and topicality.

What are the specific challenges of using a brand’s Instagram feed as an e-commerce platform?

It’s another layer of difficulty. First you have the store, where you might succeed in creating an experience. When you add a screen, it becomes more difficult, so web designers have a metier that’s extremely complex.

If, in addition, you find yourself on another platform, in a space that’s very delineated, with little room for manoeuvre, it’s harder still. Fortunately you still have images, video, a means of expressing yourself. But retail brands increasingly find themselves in situations where they have little control.

It reminds me of certain department stores, like Harvey Nichols in London, where the identity of the store is so strong that it suffocates your image. When you add the constraints of a 2D environment, it’s even harder to stand out. It’s particularly hard for small and medium-sized brands, whose identity is less strong.

So once again, it’s an environment that favours the biggest brands.

Talking of Instagram, influencers are now often recruited to affiliate with brands, promote products and drive sales. What are the dangers and opportunities of this strategy?

Honestly, I’m not an expert on the subject. I believe it’s a profession whose business model is still under construction, among other things due to changing regulations. I may be wrong, but while I’ve seen short-term operations that have an impact on audiences, I have a hard time seeing them as part of a long-term strategy.

For fashion brands, perhaps, it makes sense as they have historically given clothes to celebrities and opinion leaders as part of product placement.

We all agree that over-consumption is bad for the planet and that we should encourage sustainable behaviour. How can an e-commerce strategy make a positive contribution?

It’s not specific to e-commerce. Today, society is trapped in a sort of temporal paradox where the urgency of the present prevents us from planning for the future.

So you have consumers with their shrinking spending power, who see that sustainable products are more expensive; you have politicians who are only interested in the next election; and large companies with shareholders who are expecting their annual pay-out.

All that doesn’t help us to have a long-term vision. It’s perhaps even more evident in the digital environment, which is the medium of immediacy par excellence. Having said that, price-cutting and promotions have always existed.

Perhaps the only companies that can afford to encourage a more moderate approach are those without shareholders.

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