Storytelling: when retailers become media providers

(e)Retail / Publishing

Steven Cook, partner at Edenspiekermann („digital products, brands and service experiences with attitude“), talks about the importance for brands and retailers to integrate the digital space to tell their story

The history of retail is a story of change. We might forget this today, as „digital“ seems so disruptive. However, back in the day, wasn’t the arrival of the department store just as disruptive to all the specialty stores with their snobbish staff that would turn up their noses if you didn’t buy what they showed you? Didn’t the supermarket shake up the landscape of grocery shopping? What about the effects of home order television or outlets on city centres? At pretty much every point in time, retailers had to adapt – or they would disappear from their customers’ shopping lists.

Yes, the digital transformation can be daunting. Advancements in technology happen fast and what was hot yesterday might not be tomorrow. Plus, revenue streams might not be what physical retailers are used to, at least when you make your first steps in the digital world.

Nevertheless, some of those advancements – broader bandwidths and ever smarter stationary and mobile devices – open possibilities never known to tell a story and, eventually, make a sale.

Steven Cook is a partner at Edenspiekermann, self-proclaimed agency for „digital products, brands and service experiences with attitude“. He tells us how important it is for brands to integrate the digital space to tell their story, what the challenges are and how to face them.

(The header image shows Steven Cook with his wife Maxi. It has nothing to do with this story, other than luring you in with attractiveness.)


Digital is a good place to start a story

The main difference between classic and digital visual merchandising is that digital merchandising can give you more and deeper content. Before, you would try to create a world in a window display. You’d put some beach sandals there, a towel and a parasol. But it was kind of static.

With digital, you have movement. You create a world and you break it down into stories. You can entice people with some interesting facts or knowledge that they would not necessarily get from a simple window display. I can create imagery that they want to watch and share.

I think there will be more and more crossover between the two. You see it with Zara, they now have these huge screens and they’re bringing in movement and film.


Masters in digital storytelling: Chanel


In the future all this will be integrated. The story starts online and the sales guy can continue it. Or the other way around. Then you have completed the story and the path is seamless. If you can do that, you nailed it and that’s what every brand should aim to do.

Apple has done it. It is an overused example, but it’s probably the best one. They do advertising that sometimes doesn’t even show the product. Then you go on the website and you see the product, highly detailed, and then you go to the store, this cathedral, where you can actually touch the product, which is a very haptic one. And then there is someone to tell you all about it in the friendliest way that is in line with the tone of the advertising. It’s the same experience, at every touchpoint. And it’s very believable because there is no break. Of course, that is hard to achieve but that’s the goal.

Touch them, tell them, sell them

I think a digital place is the best place to start a story – and a conversation. But in order to start this conversation you have to be the most interesting. Touch them, tell them, sell them. At the end there is the buy button or the sale in the store. It’s not rocket science to understand. However, the challenge is to keep your audience engaged.

Keep your audience engaged

There used to be the catalogue. Today, there is digital. Great brands have always told stories. That has never changed. What has changed, from my perspective, is that there are more entry points into the story that makes it a challenge to keep people entertained. Before you saw a catalogue or a product in a publication or on TV.

Today you have so many more channels and the competition is enormous. Take a news channel, for example. There used to be TV, now there’s Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and they all need to be fed. And each and every one of those channels with a slightly different approach or angle. You have to tease it and then you have to dive deeper. On the one hand it becomes repetitive and people become numb to the media, on the other hand it is what people expect.


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Behind the scenes at Hermès on Instagram


And the same thing happens for retailers. You have to find a smart way of introducing stories and keeping your audience entertained over time, that they want to come back for more. Chanel does this really well, with their collections as a starting point. What does Karl have to say? And his friends in the front row? Later, you’ll find that story broken down in more and more bits on their blog, Instagram etc.

Find your story

Brands like Chanel or Hermes have history, a heritage. Finding a story to tell is easy. But sometimes there might be brands that are product driven and don’t seem to have a story to tell – at first sight. I think that there is always a story to tell, you just need to find it.

If you consult, you need to get to know your client as good as you can and then try to pick up that one thing that can become their story. Even if they are a user centric brand and focus on clothes that fit everybody, for example, then that is your story. But you have to commit to it, live it and tell it.

If you don’t live it, it doesn’t mean anything

Take Burton, the snowboard manufacturers, for example. This is not written down anywhere but it’s their philosophy. In the office, in the middle of Vermont, if it’s a snow day, and if you don’t go snowboarding, you’re fired. What does that mean? You can’t work there if you don’t snowboard. Because you make products for people who snowboard.

There’s so many products out there. As a consumer you used to have access to a couple of stores. If they had three brands, that’s the brands you would buy. Now you have access to everything. If you don’t have a story to tell you might disappear or won’t live long after the trend is gone. And if you don’t live it, it doesn’t mean anything.


An obvious must at Burton: snowboarding


Tell your story, like they do in Vogue

The idea isn’t new, it is what magazines or other editorial publications have been doing for ages. How do I tease content? How do I link people through different contents and articles? How do I funnel them through so that they become more and more interested and want to go deeper into the topic? At the end is a full on reportage about a certain topic, with lots of detailed information and rich content to find out that’s a reputable source of media and I want to come back. We can take those learnings and apply them to brands and retail.

A good example for this is online fashion retailers Net-a-porter and Mr Porter who were first to adapt the editorial concept for their online shops. They create stories, they’re showing their product in storylines and they’re making their world around what they want to say clear, they’re creating a dream out of it, a context.

What they’re basically doing is taking over the magazine function. What Vogue and Elle used to do, they do themselves now. You have the bigger story which is then broken down into smaller bits that eventually lead to a point where I can buy.


Editorial storytelling at online retailer Mr Porter


Opinion and attitude is your distinction

Traditionally, most brands would shy away from expressing a point of view. However, since they take on more and more functions of traditional publications, they also acquire the responsibility of taking a stand.

Take Patagonia, the outdoor brand, for example. They are a purpose driven brand. They have taken sides for years and have always stuck to their side and what they believe in. They were always sustainable and were committed to where their products live. When they live outdoors they cannot destroy the environment that they live in. That is a purpose, that is an attitude. And I think the attitude is becoming more and more important. Because it’s your distinction. People have values and they start to stand up for them in these times. So as a brand you need to reflect that.


A clear point of view at Patagonia


Don’t be afraid of digital

Basically, entrepreneurs always had to be visionary and look beyond their own nose in order to be able to be successful. You would think they embraced the opportunities digital offers them. However, there are so many that are afraid of the digital transformation. Why is that?

Because it’s not necessarily always profitable, especially in the retail world. Not even some of the big players are successful. As of now, your average sale online might be lower than in your physical store.

But I think they need to think beyond that. It is about making your story relevant to people because when your story becomes relevant to people, they will buy your product, no matter where.

Integrating online with offline has never been easier. You can interlink your whole SKU (stock keeping unit) systems, your whole product inventory. Even for smaller businesses, with systems like Shopify.

A good example of this integration is Fendi. They have a great functionality on their mobile site. I look at a product, I look at a handbag and I can buy it online, but if I want to touch it first, they have a simple functionality at the bottom where I can call the nearest Fendi location. It seems so banal, but I can hit this button, it automatically goes to my phone. „Can you hold this bag for me please?“ It doesn’t matter where Fendi sells the bag but they keep you in the customer loop. That is the goal.


Know how to keep their audience engaged: Fendi


“But … what to do if I’m not Fendi?”

Of course, not caring about what channel you’re selling through is easy when you’re vertically integrated, like Apple or Fendi. But there are other options if you’re a smaller business that doesn’t have control over its entire value creation chain.

Look at: What is my brand, what is my story, what do I want to say? How can I then bind that into my own personal customer loop? What channels and capabilities do I have? Which channel could be great to raise interest? Which channel might be best for me to actually make the sale?

It might turn out this is your physical store. Then, you should invest in great service, a great sales pitch, maybe great material to give to people to make people go, „Oh wow, this is an interesting brand.“ Think about, how to tell the story throughout the whole journey. With whatever capabilities you have.

The hardest thing is not about the journey and discovering what the customer loop is. The actual problem is: What are the great ideas to make the people want to be there? That’s where a lot of brands could use help – but, in the end, will separate them from the rest.

The Author

Bjoern Luedtke is a freelance journalist, editor and writer specialising in fashion and marketing