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How do brands define 'place' in an omnichannel, metaverse reality?

One of the biggest challenges brands are tackling right now is adapting to the much more transient, on-demand version of retail that has flourished since the pandemic. A retail reality where the notion of ‘place’ is being radically redefined.
8 December, 2022
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By Asell Yusupova, Strategy Director at UXUS

The importance of traditional brand-owned places, such as stores and concessions, is increasingly being diluted in favour of a multitude of much more ephemeral places, such as pop-ups, brand experiences, multi-brand spaces, and digital places.

Like so many recent shifts in customer behaviour, this has been fuelled by the pandemic. We are now far more intentional about how we use our time. Even the most habitual of shopping behaviours, like a weekly grocery shop, is increasingly being replaced with more convenient online delivery services. When we do choose to visit a physical store, we want an experience that we will enjoy, or that adds value or meaning to our lives. In response, brands and retailers rapidly need to modify their strategies around how they draw on ‘place’ to engage consumers.

The first thing to consider is how a brand presents itself in the places it is already present. In a traditional grocery store the conventional approach is adopting a transactional mindset based on having a presence within a certain category expressed across different touchpoints.

Instead, brands should be thinking how to create small wonder and meaning for consumers by going outside of the aisle, outside of their designated place, and collaborating with other brands and categories.

Showing this in action, we worked with a major toy brand to bring more meaning to the retail experience by exploring partnerships with healthy food brands, having a presence in the parking lot of toy stores, and developing messaging that engaged families about childhood development through creative play. This transformed the brand’s one-dimensional transactional expression in predictable aisles of chain stores into a surprising, educational, benefit-led presence that ultimately increased sales.

We also helped a major personal care brand to expand their presence in the aisle by promoting ‘total hair wellness’, instead of the ageist-led category of hair colouring, by combining product categories in new touchpoints that made it easier for customers to understand and navigate the complete health of their hair. A lot can be done to redefine ‘place’ even in a very small space.

Looking at 'place' beyond the supermarket aisle, brands now need to go wherever the consumer is by tapping into existing places of interest and meaning for them, and making those places even better.

Community engagement is key here. This can sound daunting to many brands but can actually be achieved with simple, small gestures that improve a consumer’s day. For instance, a temporary activation or pop-up somewhere surprising yet relevant to your target consumers, such as along their commute, that adds meaning to their day.

Nike and Muji have been successful in doing this by studying and understanding the needs and lifestyles of consumers within specific local neighbourhoods and then tailoring their retail offer to them. In doing so, they can bring something that the neighbourhood is missing and therefore enhance the lives of people who live there.

One of the elements that Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos looks at in her insightful podcast “The Happiness Lab” is the role that ‘place’ plays on who we are as people and our overall happiness. New retail offerings that champion community and gathering can have transformational impacts on people’s lives that go way beyond the convenience of having a new store in town. This directly speaks to the real value, and emotional engagement, that is possible when brands meaningfully enter the places that their customers already inhabit.

This all supports the idea that 'place' is being transformed from a needs and access-based part of the retail experience into one that has to offer meaning, relevance, and engagement to ensure long-term relationships with customers.

The same is true for digital places. Many brands talk to us about how scary and confusing the metaverse is and how to use it in the best way. However, brands should be using exactly the same principles of place-making in digital worlds as they do in the physical world. It’s about learning what constitutes a great physical place that has meaning for the people and communities that you’re trying to engage, and then using the same principles to create a digital world. The medium is different, but the approaches are the same.

This will be a slightly different way for many brands to consider the metaverse: not getting carried away with it being a new technology and instead focusing on the human relationship between places, locations and what people do there.

Afterall, despite advances in technology transforming how we shop, we are still human and instinctively respond to places that resonate with who we are, what are values are, and where we feel most comfortable.

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