Technology Innovation Driven by Customer Needs: What We Heard At…

There’s no lack in hype around technology innovation these days. If you were to attend any of the latest industry events, much of the content continues to center on the promise of technology through platforms like AR, VR, and Artificial Intelligence, and how these must-have solutions will change our businesses for the better. Is it all smoke and mirrors? Maybe some, but certainly not all – and as marketers, we have to recognize the level to which technology, broadly speaking, is impacting our lives every day in our professions, and the lives of the consumers we seek to reach. But there is some wading through the buzzwords, and some deciphering of reality versus what’s just talk that needs to be done.

The Age of Assistance

To kick off the inaugural Advertising Week in New York City this week, Google’s VP of Agency & Media Solutions, Tara Walpert Levy, explained that today, we are in the age of assistance. At first listen, you might have thought Tara was referring to the onset of chatbots and personal assistants, coming to life through social media or voice-activated platforms. But really, her point comes down to a much simpler concept, and that is: the experiences we create for consumers, whether it be ads or otherwise, is meant to advance their agenda, not interrupt it. In other words, we should be focused on assisting our customers through their journeys, anticipating what they need, and determining how to create not just fulfilling brand experiences for them, but broader and much more fulfilling life experiences.

It was also clear that while technology is an intrinsic piece of the puzzle to improve consumer experiences, the power of human interaction and understanding is equally as critical, particularly as it relates to AI. Rather than throwing new technology innovations blindly at a dart board, we must first understand what human challenges – or friction points – consumers undergo in their relationships with brands. From here is where we can begin to identify the technology solutions that answer those innate human needs, and solve for those more complex business challenges and friction points. Some say brand loyalty is fleeting, and that might be somewhat true. But the brands that truly assist and enhance their customers’ experiences are the ones that will continue to make the real connections.

Technology for Customer Friction Points

WWD’s New York City Digital Forum has always led with a digital and technological edge, but this year, brand executives discussed just how real, and how radical the shift in the retail sector has been due to advances in technology and changing consumer realities. Many speakers addressed specifically the ways in which technology enhancements have been the direct result of a particular customer challenge they were able to identify. And while not all the solutions were immediate successes, they came from the right place: customer and business challenge first, technology solution thereafter.

Hair color experts at Madison Reed agreed that a friction point in their business was the increasingly saturated hair color market, and so they expanded into a lower priced, but still salon-quality product line in order to stay competitive. For customers, the friction point has been finding the perfect hair color, to which Madison Reed created Madi – a color-finding chat bot that assists hair color seekers through a unique, individualized process for finding the right shade. The brand has leveraged customer quiz answers and customer photos to algorithmically create more than three million unique hair color profiles. The wealth of data not only gives their customers access to a personalized experience, but it also gives the brand further insight into how customer think, behave and engage.

For Walmart, evaluating technology is deeply rooted in a specific business case. Before investing or exploring any new technology solutions, Walmart teams first understand how that solution will directly impact their bottom line. Similar principles have been followed by Macy’s EVP of Customer Experience, Mike Robinson, in the development of the Macy’s Idea Lab. The innovation lab functions through a shark-tank like process, where any employee can come forward to address a particular challenge or friction point they see within the customer journey, and then ideate around a potential technology solution. Mike explained, “Now more than ever, we need to deliver experiences that allow the customer to shop the way she lives.” The teams have explored various technologies like machine learning via an in-store personal assistant, and further innovations within their mobile app, like an in-store self-checkout option.

Unique to the ideas that flow through the lab is that they must all be born from a business or customer challenge, which allows them to separate the worthy investments from some of that “smoke and mirrors” stuff. And perhaps even the more critical point is that all ideas require an innate human curiosity and creativity. Technology can empower brands and customers, but it will always exist alongside what’s most human about our business: relationships, connection and emotion.

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