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Sustainable Thinking Applied: 10 Brands We Celebrate

Written by our own Vicky Bullen, CEO.

As businesses strive for brand success – they now know that it cannot be at the expense of the greater good. Sustainability is the subject keeping many CEOs up at night. Although there is no exact roadmap that will lead to the business nirvana of sustainable commerce, embracing sustainable thinking goes beyond environmentalism and CSR basics.

While the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not legally binding, governments are expected to own and establish national frameworks to achieve the 17 Goals by 2030. Coupled with this, private-sector enthusiasm for the SDGs is strong and growing and we see more and more companies translating interest into actions. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria are an increasingly popular way for investors to evaluate companies in which they might want to invest and ESG stocks fared best in the COVID-19 slump.

While mainstream conversation about sustainability has historically focused mainly on the environmental perspective, the conversation now needs to embrace economic development and social equity to drive attention in today’s cultural climate.

So, to identify the 10 brands we want to celebrate for their sustainable thinking we have applied a framework consisting of five pillars that underpin our holistic approach to creating sustainable brands. These are: Walk the (purpose) talk; Strive for un-stereotypical ideas; Portray diversity; Design for inclusiveness and Eco-minded solutions. This is not an exercise based on detailed analytics, instead, we have used these guardrails to identify 10 brands that lead by example and set inspirational benchmarks across the five categories.

Category 1: Walk the (purpose) talk

Across the world, brands are at different stages on their paths to purpose – some are defining it, others are looking to embed it into what they do, and some are living it through actions, communications and initiatives. We want to celebrate those that are ticking all three boxes and using purpose as a true centre of gravity and growth driver:


Driven by their vision to inspire the world to reimagine its perception of waste, they transform imperfect fruit into tasty juices and are conquering the category one bottle at a time. We are particularly proud of our partnership with this truly sustainable brand. Not only do they have an amazing vision, but they also act upon their commitment by partnering with numerous charities. Enjoying 550% YoY growth, they were recently officially certified B Corp.


A bank that defines itself first and foremost as a community, second as a company. In their own words: A new kind of financial partner that puts our customers and their conscience first. Committed to turn every transaction into positive action they reforest whilst people shop, offer cashback on socially conscious spending and only lend their customers’ money to clean, planet-friendly projects.

Category 2: Tackling stereotypes 

Being vocal and acknowledging unconscious biases and stereotypes – these brands use their voice and presence to spread awareness and help overcome them.

Ben’s Original 

Mars rebranded its Uncle Ben’s rice range following criticism that the name and image promoted racial stereotyping. At the same time, they changed their purpose to be more inclusive: to create opportunities that offer everyone a seat at the table. As brand experts, we know how delicate any intervention on distinctive brand assets might be, so we praise Ben’s for taking the leap and changing its 70-year-old name and image. 


Bodyform’s taboo-breaking journey began in 2017 when they replaced blue liquid with red ‘blood’ in its Blood Normal adverts and they’ve never stopped. Followed by Viva la Vulva and more recently Womb Stories, the brand is on a mission to confront and break taboos that hold women back and pushes against the misperceptions of shame and silence surrounding women’s bodies.

Category 3: Portray diversity 

These brands are on a mission to ensure their visual and verbal representation is always diverse, never single-minded, and always culturally relevant.


Google used machine learning and appointed a task force to analyse diversity across all its communications, and used the findings to address any imbalances and misrepresentation as well as developing a training programme centred around representing diversity in communications for the brand – 90% of the team and 200 agency partners have taken this course. 


Yelp created functionality that allowed businesses to identify as being black-owned and allow users to specifically search for black-owned businesses.

Category 4: Design for inclusiveness 

Designed with the needs of the minority in mind to generate a greater benefit for all, these brands have inclusive design close to their hearts.

Nike FlyEase

Shoes that are ‘hands-free’ and quick and easy to put on. The easy-entry designs expand access and unlock benefits for all athletes. “As we continue to push the limits of making athletes better, we also need to push the limits in terms of allowing all athletes to wear our product”, said Richard Ramsay, FlyEase Innovator.


Microsoft created a controller for the Xbox which can be used by anyone with limited mobility as research showed that one in three young disabled people had to stop playing video games due to their disability. 

Category 5: Eco-minded solutions 

Just as consumers do their part by reducing their energy use and recycling their waste, companies are working hard to make a difference too. These brands are building their reputation upon their commitment to the environment and inspiring more sustainable practices in their industries.


Reducing packaging is something Lush has been working on for many years but now the brand is pushing the bar even higher with its packaging-free Naked Shops. If shoppers want to check the ingredients in a product, Lush Lens, an AI product recognition tool, scans the product and then sends the information to the shopper’s smartphone. “From the very first day over 20 years ago, our products were naked, but now we see a bigger movement against plastic and against waste. Alongside that, we can now fill up a whole shop with skincare, body care, hair care and bath bombs, while still providing that five-star experience.”, explained Lush product inventor Alessandro Commisso.


The world’s most comfortable shoe is also totally planet-friendly. From shoelaces made from recycled water bottles to the sugarcane used to make the SweetFoam™ cushioned sole, Allbird’s sleek sneakers are sustainable from top to bottom. Its upper is either made from certified superfine Merino wool or TENCEL™ Lyocel, a sustainable tree fibre that cuts its carbon footprint by half.

We need ever more brands to move towards creating positive, visible, and meaningful relationships between a company’s performance and its impact on our planet, and to be brave enough to just shake things up.

Brands can be a force for good and brand design and communications are key drivers of change to connect them with the growing numbers of consumers looking for honest and transparent companies that have a positive impact.

These brands I’ve highlighted are just a starter for 10 and I’m grateful to know there are more each and every day applying their sustainability thinking to create a shift towards more conscious consumption patterns. For the sake of our planet and society, it’s time we all paused to celebrate this wonderful new breed of movers and shakers.

Article originally in CEO Today.

What AOL got right and wrong

The iconic internet 1.0 marque will be phased out as Verizon sells its media assets to Apollo Global Management.

If you were born anytime before the millenium, chances are you can still hear the screeching sound of an AOL dial-up connection booting on your desktop.

But the iconic America Online brand, the gateway to the web in its early days, is officially no more. The brand will be phased out in Verizon’s $5 billion fire sale of its media assets, consisting of AOL and Yahoo, to Apollo Global Management, announced Monday.

From now on AOL, which consists of digital media companies including HuffPost and TechCrunch, as well as a roll-up of early ad tech assets including Convertro and Millennial Media, will be bundled under the Yahoo brand. 

The AOL-Yahoo mash-up has undergone various brand iterations since both companies’ acquisitions by Verizon for a collective $9 billion in 2015 and 2017, respectively, (remember Oath?). Most recently the roll-up has simply been known as “Verizon Media.” 

Once a part of that mash-up was Tumblr, which Yahoo bought for $1.1 billion in 2013 and sold for a mere fraction — $3 million — to Automattic, which owns WordPress, in 2019.

While both Yahoo and AOL suffer from lost relevance on the modern internet, Apollo clearly sees more equity in the Yahoo brand. Yahoo even released a brand campaign featuring its new positioning just as the news of the sale broke.

A new era of the internet

Experts agree AOL is the obvious brand to put on the chopping block, as it has repeatedly tried and failed to distance itself from dial-up internet.

“The death of the AOL brand should come as no surprise to anyone,” said Daniel Binns, CEO of Interbrand NY. “Shedding the vestiges of dial-up internet has been a huge drag on the AOL brand, and the category it has played in has been disrupted several times by world-leading brands like Google and Apple.”

While AOL still has high brand recognition, it’s mostly from a nostalgia perspective, said Melanie McShane, senior director of strategy at Siegel + Gale. 

“AOL was one of the first internet super brands,” she said. “But they’ve been trading on that history for a long time and it’s had some diminishing returns. The things they are known for are not the things people are looking for.”

On the other hand, while many people have traded in their Yahoo email address for a Gmail account, the company’s finance, news and sports portals still maintain relevance. And building off of Yahoo’s brand is more economical than constructing a new brand altogether.

“We know how hard it is to build a net-new brand,” McShane said. “Yahoo hasn’t done a great job of keeping up with tech giants, but it has done a better job than AOL was able to.”

From a B2B perspective, Verizon Media built one of the largest ad tech companies in the market. But Yahoo hasn’t had the best history with acquisitions in the space. It must also consider how much appetite there is for its offering among consumers, and whether the brand is strong enough to attract great talent.

“When you’re known for one thing, it can be very resource intensive to try and stand for something else,” McShane said. “There will be a challenge around credibility that they can reinvent themselves again. They’ll have to have a purpose beyond printing profits from ads.”

What AOL got right and wrong

In addition to lack of innovation, AOL’s demise was preceded by a few poor branding decisions.

Most notable was the choice to stop using the AOL name for the company’s broadband offering after AOL bought Time Warner in 2000, as well as Verizon’s decision to invest in its own email offering over AOL’s, said Jenn Szekely, managing partner Coley Porter Bell U.S.

“The most critical mistake was not leveraging the AOL brand strengths to drive a comeback,” she added, pointing to companies like Apple, Netflix and Nintendo that were able to reinvent their original offerings to keep up with consumer demand.

But AOL didn’t get it all wrong. It was one of the first tech brands to nail sonic branding with its famous dial-up tone and “you’ve got mail!” greeting, an area where more companies are investing heavily. “AOL was one of the first technology brands to have its brand sound become famous,” Szekely said.

While most agree AOL’s relevance has waned, some branding experts are mourning the loss of a one-time giant.

“It’s a shame a brand that was so well known is basically being put to death,” Szekely said. “Many businesses would kill for the awareness that still exists with the AOL brand, as they would have to spend a fortune and a fair while to get there.”

McShane added: “If anything, it teaches us that time in tech goes very, very fast.”

Article originally by Campaign Live.

The Gucci Balenciaga debate

Branding experts, including our own Jenn Szekley, and analysts review and discuss the Gucci Balenciaga debate, looking at the project unveiled with the Aria collection.

MILAN — Arguably, never has a hacking job been as lauded as Gucci’s “incursion” into the Balenciaga brand.

Creative director Alessandro Michele presented his Aria collection for Gucci on Thursday, unveiling designs that pay tribute to Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, Guccifying the designer’s silhouettes and placing the two brands’ labels on a shiny, sequined pantsuit, for example. Michele told WWD that he and Gvasalia “really wanted to surprise viewers with these designs,” aiming to continue to experiment in “a dialogue with the outside world,” and feeling like “playing with possibly the biggest sacrilege,” blending distinctive elements and logos from two very recognizable brands, “getting out of the closed-in atelier. Creativity means dialogue, continuous experiment and freedom.”

How this will translate in production and distribution remains unanswered for the time being as Gucci on Friday said it was “really premature to speculate further on this ‘hacking project,’” underscoring that it was neither a collaboration nor a capsule. No matter — branding experts and analysts piled on the praise, basically defining the whole idea as “genius,” and giving their stamp of approval over the strategy behind it.

“Both being owned by Kering, it’s a win-win, and arguably an easier deal to structure being both in-house,” said Los Angelesbased lawyer Jeff Gluck, who specializes in intellectual property litigation. “I’m not aware of the deal structure but typically the IP is owned by the house, not the designer. I do think this is another example of rules being broken in a good way and industry norms becoming more unrestrained. I’m still waiting for that Nike x Adidas collaboration.”

The tie-up “brings additional desire to the Gucci brand,” said Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm. “This is an especially intelligent project, it’s subtler than co-branding. One brand is reworking the aesthetic code of another label, taking iconic shapes and molding them into something new. And both designers are disruptive. Alessandro sprinkled a good dose of pepper on Gucci.”

For all intents and purposes, he continued, these are Gucci products and the company, he believes, is “testing the waters, feeling the temperature” of the reaction to the products, and will then adjust and fine-tune the distribution, depending on the feedback, maybe channeling a few pieces to celebrities and influencers and then merchandising them for the larger public, perhaps through pop-ups or shops-in-shop. This tie-up is easier to manage for a company such as Gucci that can rely on a formidable retail network, he noted.

Ferreri said the amount of paperwork, red tape, contracts and negotiations between Gucci and Balenciaga had to be less than any other collaboration with an outside company, as they are both owned by Kering. “It would be great to see a Bamboo bag in the Bottega Veneta intrecciato,” he mused, speaking of another Kering brand.

Indeed, Ferreri underscored how this “hacking project” is in sync with remarks made in February by Kering CEO FrançoisHenri Pinault on increasing the number of in-store and digital merchandising events, pop-ups and pop-ins, capsule collections “and powerful creative collaborations” for Gucci, commenting on the label’s 10.3 percent drop in organic sales in the fourth quarter last year.

“Creativity in fashion and luxury is nourished by the constant changes in society’s attitudes, and by understanding the new needs and desires resulting from those changes, enabling creators to provide personal responses that are both surprising and relevant,” Pinault said on Thursday. “I have seen how their innovative, inclusive and iconoclastic visions are aligned with the expectations and desires of people today,” he said of Michele and Gvasalia. “Those visions are reflected not only in their creative offerings, but also in their ability to raise questions about our times and its conventions. The unique, creative experience witnessed [in the Aria collection] is a perfect example of their approach, and illustrates the extent to which creativity and freedom are linked at Kering.”

In an interview on Friday, Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, said Michele’s “hacking” brought the “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice of design appropriation into the open.

“It’s such an amazing, brave conceptual idea to do that — saying and assuming, OK, we’re all influenced by each other in a way, and fashion is an evolution of these kinds of influences. And I think they did it in a great way,” Gvasalia said.

“That idea immediately spoke to me because I felt it brings something new out there in terms of how brands see each other,” he added. “It was a more conceptual exchange.”

Marketing and communication adviser Paolo Landi also said this was a “beautiful idea,” but he believes the true added value of this operation is “immaterial or rather, the immaterial value by far surpasses the potential tangible value. The high conceptual content of the project brings to Gucci, but also to Balenciaga, an enormous intangible value, in terms of modernity of the company culture.”

He sees “the walls of competition being broken down. The rules of strategic positioning are overthrown, as two storied brands are joined together in the modernity of an offer that is disorienting.” The end-results are shared, he said, and the two companies become “even stronger, precisely because of the innovative character of the operation,” stimulating “a dialogue between two of the best talents today, bringing vitality in the universe of fashion, which is sometimes static.”

Landi compared the Gucci-Balenciaga project to “certain artistic partnerships in the past,” such as the 1620 “Martirio delle Sante Rufina e Seconda” in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, dubbed a “painting of the three hands,” because it was realized by three painters — Giovan Battista Cerano, Pier Francesco Morazzone and Giulio Cesare Procaccini. “But there are other examples where one painter, for example, creates the figures and the other the landscape,” said Landi.

The market “always rewards bravery and innovation, especially the financial markets, but I am convinced that also in terms of sales, these products will be successful because of the uniqueness of the event, which will probably be unrepeatable,” according to Landi. The value of this win-win strategy, paradoxically, would be even stronger if the two brands were not both owned by Kering, he concluded.

Analysts were also upbeat about the potential of the project. Equity analyst Fabio Cereda at Jefferies International Limited said the Aria collection was “one of Gucci’s best events — smart and a proper statement of intent in its centenary year. Kind of ‘don’t you forget about me’ on steroids.”

He defined the project with a brand under the same Kering umbrella “a genius idea” for Gucci, believing this “could be a test with scalability.” He also praised the selection of Bamboo bags presented on Thursday, which in a report earlier this month he said are “expected to resonate well with the European cluster in particular given the key heritage component,” seeing them as “a core driver of what we expect to see gradually improving metrics later this year.”

Luca Solca, senior research analyst, global luxury goods at Bernstein, believes the tie-up “is a good idea. Gucci especially needs to create a novelty effect in China with the young Chinese who have bought a lot of Alessandro Michele’s products. We are seeing an excellent reaction on Chinese social media and the collection seems really different, which is a good reason to buy it. Bravo Gucci.”

Vincenzo Di Sarli, president and founder of DMR Group, which focuses on monitoring, tracking and analyzing data, communication activities and public relations strategies for leading brands worldwide, concurred with Solca. In China, he said, consumers are always “rushing for the latest news,” and Di Sarli expects this project to be successful in the region.

He also sees it as “a step forward in fashion.” While leveraging synergies with Kering, Michele succeeded in bringing novelty, foregoing any kind of rivalry with another designer, on the contrary pairing with a young and buzzy designer. “It’s a genius idea because both brands are within the same group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened with more Kering labels.”

“It’s a sign of the times, an evolution, young people want new things to differentiate themselves, there’s more and more research and communication. A few years ago, who would have imagined Chiara Ferragni joining Tod’s as board member?” he said, referring to the recent appointment of the digital entrepreneur. “Content constantly evolves, young people are thirsty for news, the mobile phone is a window on the world and everyone is always at the window.”

The COVID-19 pandemic “has closed an era and opened another one, with new revolutionary phenomena taking place, and fashion reflects what will happen in the future.” Di Sarli also underscored that “there is a great communication project behind this launch, it takes very little to make a mistake, but they are genius at communicating and have caught our attention.”

Rebecca Robins, chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand, also pointed to the element of novelty. “Collaborations are taking new shapes and forms in the industry, from the open collaboration model of Moncler Genius, to the co-creative leadership at Prada. Both brands are well known for ‘iconic’ brand tangos, most recently with Gucci x The North Face, and Balenciaga x Crocs. It’s not a surprising move for Gucci, as a brand that’s been breaking boundaries and defining its own rules and playbook for some time, with Alessandro Michele even creating his own lexicon for collections.”

Collaboration might not be the right word for this current Balenciaga/Gucci combination, said Jenn Szekely, managing partner at Coley Porter Bell (U.S.), but “where we are in today’s market a collaboration can be a desirable thing for customers of these brands. The key is to make sure it is a 1+1=3 equation, where they offer something unique that captures the essence of both brands, instead of a copy and paste, and then they will create real desire and command a price premium above their current price points.”

Szekely said that, from a branding perspective, “we are getting more and more inquiries to help companies determine the optimal relationship between two brands as these partnerships proliferate. There a variety of ways these brands can go to market (co-branded, one leads versus the other, one is an ingredient within another) and determining the right go-to market approach is a critical part of launching these collaborations.”

Original publication featured on WDD.

Pharma companies are coming out of the shadows

Corporate pharma brands are speaking directly to consumers as they gain prominence during the pandemic.

Most people know what Viagra or Lipitor are, even if they’ve never taken them. But if you ask them who makes those drugs, much fewer will be able to answer Pfizer. Historically, pharma companies have distanced themselves from their portfolio brands. But in a digital world with changing consumer expectations, not to mention a global pandemic, some are starting to revisit this strategy.

The rise of social media

Pharma companies have kept their corporate brands quiet to protect themselves in the event of a product issue, which can impact peoples’ health.

Weight loss drug Fen-phen was recalled in 1997 after a study revealed it caused heart disease and pulmonary problems. That led to thousands of consumer lawsuits, resulting in pharma company Wyeth paying billions in damages. Claims are still being filed and paid 20 years later.

While separating the corporate brand made sense before the internet, companies can no longer hide behind their portfolio brands. People now have access to instantaneous information that can spread in real-time and on a global stage.

B2B brands go B2C

More than half (52%) of consumers want brands to stand for more than what they sell, according to a 2018 study by Accenture. As people show they care about the companies behind the products they buy, more B2B companies are starting to speak directly to them.

CPG brands such as Procter & Gamble kicked off the trend of corporate brand purpose, but pharma companies are following suit. Last year, Pfizer’s ‘Science Will Win’ campaign showed how the corporation was racing to create the COVID-19 vaccine. The company has also been telling the story of its rebrand in the press, including conversations with the CEO.

The war on talent intensifies

Technology is increasingly playing a bigger role in pharma. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 68% of biopharma leaders cite advances in technology as a top five issues that will shape their company over the next year.

As pharma becomes more technology-driven, the talent mix at these companies is expanding. These companies are now not only competing with traditional peers, but with the Apple’s and Amazon’s of the world. As global talent shortages grow, pharma companies have to work harder to attract new talent. That starts by making their corporate brand desirable to new candidates.

The COVID-19 spotlight

The pandemic has put pharma brands front and center like never before. In January 2020 the pharma industry received approximately 10,000 mentions globally in major publications, compared with over 30,000 mentions in December. Moderna, how a household name, was virtually unknown to the public a year ago.

Very few people probably know who made the flu shot they took last year, but those who’ve taken the COVID-19 vaccine know exactly which company made it. This has opened the door for pharma brands to establish a relationship with consumers in a way that was a real challenge before.

As pharma companies come out of the shadows, the challenge will be to clearly differentiate themselves beyond the sea sameness in the category.

Jenn Szekely is a partner at Coley Porter Bell

First published in Campaign US

National Apprentice Week

It is National Apprenticeship Week and to celebrate all of the wonderful apprentices we interviewed our very own Finance Apprentice Alex to find out what is it like working here at Coley Porter Bell.

Name: Alexander Bull

Role: Finance Apprentice


What does the role entail?

I’m really fortunate to work in a small finance team for a growing, dynamic and talented branding and design agency. This role really is an all-encompassing finance role; tasks include aiding the AP and AR branches of the business, contributing to month-end reporting, analysing profitability and more – I’m also afforded exposure to the creative side of the business, and whilst I’m not quite fluent in “Creative Lingo”, my knowledge of the creative/branding/advertising business in general has increased ten-fold since I joined in August of last year.


Favourite thing about working at CPB?

Working with my finance colleagues has been the best thing about working at CPB. They have done an outstanding job in getting me up to speed with the nature of the role – nearly entirely remotely I might add – my experience to date would not have been the one it has been without their support. This matches the wider agency culture – everyone is incredibly hard-working, supportive and collaborative.


Advice for anyone wanting to be an apprentice

Apprenticeships, in my opinion, are the most efficient way to progress your career (assuming you don’t want to be a Doctor or any role where a degree is required!). You earn (and avoid student debt) whilst studying towards a professional qualification – so if there’s a role out there that aligns with a career path that also interest you, go for it and put everything into it – you get out what you put in (not to sound too cliché).

The million-dollar question

People’s approach to wellbeing has gone through subtle but significant shifts for some time, with the coronavirus pandemic creating a moment of salience that has accelerated much of that change.

Behaviour has adapted as individuals’ attitudes to health have become broader – encompassing physical and mental health. In conjunction with this mindset of complete good health, the increasing sophistication of technology and products makes recording and mapping of personal health data and performance commonplace. From body fat % measurement to watches tracking heart rates, the power of taking care of one’s health now sits comfortably with the individual. It’s not surprising that the global medical wearables market is expected to reach $19.5 billion by 2025 – up from $7.4 billion this year.

And if all this wasn’t enough to spell a shakeup for the traditional pharmaceutical market, personalised DTC (direct to consumer) healthcare brands are also disrupting the sector. Several companies stand out here – for example UK mail order blood test health brand Thriva, supplement business Vitl, at-home test kits EverlyWell and LetsGetChecked, and male focused personal wellness company Hims, just to name a few.

Whilst we can agree that, when it comes to healthcare, both category and consumer behaviours are rapidly changing, the question is now how more traditional pharma establishments can capitalise on this moment of change to generate new business opportunities and positive social impact.

We believe pharma brands can do just that by learning from DTC and mastering four critical dimensions: distinctiveness, substance, intelligence and experience.

Distinctiveness and substance 

What we’re seeing is the healthcare DTC market moving in the same direction as beauty brands, with a sleek and contemporary look and feel. But as the market gets more crowded, differentiation is going to be crucial, meaning brand building will require designing and using distinctive assets. The most successful brands in the category are going to be those that can demonstrate their distinctiveness and ability to satisfy multiple consumers’ needs.

When Bayer acquired DTC vitamin and supplement start-up Care/of, the German pharma giant said: “Together we plan to grow the Care/of business across new channels, categories and markets to deliver even more personalised nutrition.”

Being distinctive means standing for something and giving people a brand and product that they can buy into emotionally. It means ensuring brands have substance. This is a particular challenge for pharma, where the product is so often shrouded in mystery and where trust levels have been historically low compared to other sectors (although it must be noted, the pandemic has improved perceptions, at least in the short term).

This means that, the more effort pharma brands make to reach the public and explain the tangible benefits of the work they do – the more meaningful partnerships can be built with customers and the higher levels of trust can be maintained.

Intelligence and experience

A significant advantage of the DTC healthcare relationship is the proximity and the stronger feeling of connection consumers experience with personalised products. Of course, this does rely on people being willing to share their private and sensitive data. In 2020, Deloitte found that 70% of consumers will share their data with healthcare providers and another GfK research study showed that consumers are comfortable with sharing data especially when they gain benefits or rewards like lower costs or personalised services in return. This means pharma brands need to work even harder to show consumers the tangible value exchange they’ll gain from sharing their personal information.

The new symbiotic relationship enabled by DTC is something pharma brands can take advantage of. By establishing conversations with people, they can rely on a steady stream of consumer data and feedback to feed into product development and shorten lead-times.

We’ve already noted that distinction in the market will gain importance, and as products and user experiences become similar, Brand (with capital B) will provide stand out.

From how the website operates to the unboxing experience as products are delivered, the brand purpose and personality should underpin the entire experience and imbue all stages of design to build stronger bonds and consumers’ loyalty.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

According to industry experts, an implementation gap – rather than an information gap – prevents healthcare systems from prioritising preventive care services although they know the impact of prevention in reducing the incidence and burden of chronic diseases.

By empowering people to self-manage routine health checks, maintain their wellbeing through personalised products and services and take prevention in their own hands, the advantage for pharma brands might be two-fold. They will sustain their growth through a renewed connection with consumers  whilst generating a wider, positive impact on the health of entire nations.

The future of retail: Looking back to go forward

Why it matters

Bricks and mortar retail has been devastated and e-commerce brings added competition, but brands employing analog techniques standout with fresh and more personal interactions.

  • The shift to e-commerce makes it harder for brands to connect emotionally with customers – a key driver for success.
  • In a digital world, tactile, physical moments are all the more memorable.
  • Catalogs have been rethought to be more editorial, encouraging dwell time with corresponding increased response rates.
  • Customer service is the ultimate way to gain emotional brand connection and an opportunity to demonstrate customer commitment.

Not a week goes by where there’s not an article touting a new technology that is predicted to disrupt retail – from AR and VR to beacons, AI and more. While some of these technologies have been – or will prove to be – successful, in today’s retail reality brands may need to think beyond the latest bells and whistles and consider taking strategies from the past, to succeed in the future. Shopping has changed drastically over the past year and some of these changes could be permanent. Brick and mortar businesses have suffered a devastating blow since COVID-19. It is expected that over 14,000 stores will close this year alone in the US, while we’ve seen monthly increases of up to 209% for online sales. This has serious implications.

As businesses make e-commerce their pivotal sales channel they will face new competition. Think about it, a retailer that counted on a large portion of its revenue from in-store sales in a Simon or Westfield mall faced competition mostly from stores within the mall. Online, these brands will compete with DTC brands as well as main street retailers, which are now on a more equal playing field. The shift to e-commerce makes it harder for brands to connect emotionally with customers – a key driver for success.

To standout and win during this mass online migration, brands should be considering how analog experiences can help make the digital ones work harder to attract, engage and connect with customers. Unboxing is a good example of this, as discussed in ‘Delight at the Doorstep’. Many of the best unboxing experiences come from digital brands. These brands recognize how important tactile, immersive experiences are, understanding that digital-only brands need to compensate for their lack of physical and in-person touch points.

Extending beyond letterbox packaging and the delivery experience, many of these brands have found other ways to surprise and delight consumers. For example, Tile Bar has beautiful black and white letterbox packaging that stands out on the doorstep but its approach to gifting – a retailer’s version of an amuse bouche – is memorable with gifts including hand sanitizer at the height of the pandemic and an etched shot glass. But unboxing is just one way brands can create more immersive experiences – analogue experiences can support digital ones to access new audiences and deepen the connection with existing ones. Three others that brands might want to consider are:

1. The return of the catalog

With the rise of e-commerce, many brands walked away from, or limited, catalog use and moved to quicker, digital marketing tactics – but given today’s retail dynamics, brands might want to revisit their marketing mix and catalogs. Research has shown that catalogs are again becoming an effective marketing tool, with response rates increasing 170% in recent years. With the amount of competition with digital advertising, it makes sense that we are seeing results like this.

Consumers don’t need to open an email or visit a store, but they do have to interact with the catalog that arrives on their doorstep, even if they were just going to throw it out. And when you receive something like a 700+ page Restoration Hardware catalog, it’s hard to immediately throw it out without first perusing. Younger audiences, like millennials, are now favouring catalogs – they receive less mail and as a result, they are engaging with, and embracing, catalogs rather than writing them off like some older generations. According to a study conducted for the US

Post Office, 64% of millennials would rather scan for useful info in the mail, than in email. The Canada Post had similar findings with millennials in a neuromarketing test. Participants’ recall of a print ad compared with a digital one was 70% higher and the part of the brain that corresponds to motivation was 20% higher. We are now seeing many companies that started as pure online brands embracing catalogs – Bonobos, Wayfair, 1stdibs and Amazon, along with some of the start-up DTC’s like Primary. Catalogs are going through a reinvention. Historically, they were functional, synonymous with the definition of the word, “a complete list of items, typically one in alphabetical or other systematic order”. Today, catalogs are more editorial, like magazines or coffee table books. Catalogs for brands like Serena and Lily and Patagonia include inspiration and storytelling – with consumers keeping them longer and flipping through them multiple times.

Many of us grew up with the ritual of pouring over a catalogue, circling our favorites ahead of a store visit. The digital equivalent can be found with brands like Boden providing a sample of products within different format catalogs, then directing you online to learn and see more. Amazon’s latest holiday catalog gives a curatorial experience, sans prices, driving consumers online to engage further and purchase.

2. Rethinking service

Customer service is no longer a hygiene factor – it’s pivotal to the experience a brand delivers and even more important in the current retail landscape. Studies show how important service can be for customer acquisition, retention and for commanding premium pricing – according to American Expresses’ Service Barometer, millennials are willing to pay 21% more for great customer service.

Technology has played a role in improving customer service, including bots and using social media to provide a timely service. Brands such as Nike have a separate Twitter handle for support and it has been applauded for solving customers’ problems. But there are aspects of service that cannot rely on technology alone and that is where brands need to spend more time and resources. Retail customer service cannot be discussed without mentioning Nordstrom – it set the bar on service with its tire story.

In 1975, a customer went into a Nordstrom store in Alaska to return tires he purchased from the store that had previously occupied the Nordstrom space. The store manager decided to refund the man the $145, even though the tires were not a Nordstrom purchase – a true example of giving the customer what they want. I’m not advocating that brands should make a practice of taking returns from other businesses, but it is a great example of a customer service-first mentality. At Zappos, everyone, no matter what their job or hierarchy, gains experience working on the customer service phones.

This manifests a core part of the brand’s strategy, as it helps employees understand their customers’ needs. Employees are encouraged to have long interactions with customers – a few years ago a Zappos employee had the longest customer service call in history, almost 11 hours long. Both companies have made delivering great service a critical part of their brand and have empowered their sales and customer service people to use their judgement to deliver excellent customer service, as opposed to relying on a script and a strict set of rules. But moving forward, the customer service role will include connecting emotionally with customers.

Most brands have not done this well. Few train their employees thoroughly to be on-brand or consultative in their sales approach. Really good branding is when you can look at communications, cover up the logo and the product, and still identify the brand. It is similar for service, remove product conversation or written communications and could you tell what brand you are interacting with? Brands such as Starbucks have successfully developed and adopted their Green Apron book but more brands need to make defining their service experience a priority and foundational brand asset.

Owning retail stores for over a decade, I learned that most people want to hear the stories behind the products they buy and they are most effective when told by a person. Employees can become the living embodiment of the brand.

3. Personalization – low-fi and hi-fi

The increase in data and technology has meant large brands can offer personalized experiences – according to Shopify, 75% of online shoppers like brands to personalize their offerings and messages. In a study by Salesforce, 51% of consumers expect brands to anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions.

Natural food and e-grocer, Thrive Market, developed a new member quiz that helps it deliver hyper-personal recommendations leading to increased sales conversions, and increased repeat custom. Chairish, the online marketplace for furniture and home décor, uses customer browsing behavior to send personalised emails with recommendations. But where brands can really win, is by using technology to personalize in a more intimate way.

Receiving digital content by an algorithm will only go so far and there is a risk that the plethora of emails received on a daily basis become white noise. One example, is the comeback of the hand-written note. While heritage brands such as Chanel, Liberty of London and Tiffany & Co. have long sent hand written notes to customers, new DTC brands are realizing the power of this analog experience. Chewy sends hand-written notes to customers and has even sent flowers to bereaved customers. When Laurie Samuel’s Westie died, she received a hand-written note from the brand sending its condolences and refunded her previous month’s cost of pet food.

Agents at Capital One are encouraged to offer personalized interactions – a Capital One customer having trouble accessing his account online due to a malfunctioning keyboard was sent a hand-written note and a new keyboard. The increase in e-commerce and new technologies has changed how brands interact with customers but as more brands double down on delivering mostly digital content, it will become harder to stand out. The win will be combining technology with analog; brands need to look to the past, to win in the future.

This article was first published in WARC December 2020.

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