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It's time to get personal

Time for brands to be more personal and less transactional, says Watch Me Think's Alistair Vince

Watch Me Think's CEO, Alistair Vince, says the long term effects of lockdown are yet to be fully understood, and we should look to a work-life blend, not balance. And it's time for brands to be more personal and less transactional


Fags and Bags. I can classify change in terms of fags and bags. You see, up until recently, one of my biggest behavioural shifts involved me taking my own bags to the supermarket. Then, on carrying it home, I can avoid multiple dog-mines on the path, safe(ish) in the knowledge they’re all in little plastic poo bags. My guilty pleasure would be to stop by the pub on the way. Secure in the knowledge that on finally arriving back home (“where've you been all this time?!”) that the only tell existed on my breath, and no longer on my clothes courtesy of the 40-a-day chap who was always propping up the end of the bar.

Of course, these shifts had the benefit of a law to make them happen. And everyone had plenty of warning they were on their way. Compare that to some of the biggest changes we’ve ever seen, a mere 7 months ago, which happened in the blink of an eye.

Mary Shelley said ‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change’.

She was right. The rate of change was unsettling for many. Dangling the risk of death (of others, not just ourselves) in front of people seemed to help the transition. Not that it ever worked for smoking. Do we fear change? I’m not so sure, it’s just damned annoying when it isn’t on our terms. There are multiple theories that this change has merely accelerated things that were going to happen anyway.

Take business for example. We’ve seen a rise in the use of video conferencing. A reduction in pointless travel. More flexible ways of working. You know all this. Whilst this ‘change’ is true at a gen-pop level, many “changes” were previously present. Arguably more progressive, more trusting companies already had plenty of people working from home, working flexibly, in “clouds”.

So maybe it’s all just one big reset to allow others to catch up?

Let’s face it, the factory mentality this country has had for years was crying out for a bit of change. I’m sure many people are craving for their old behaviours. And while the commute is unlikely to be missed, I’d wager at least some office interaction is. I myself (now and again) enjoy the buzz of an office. The casual chat. The knowledge picked up in a conversation. The collective excitement in winning a contract. Being able to see if someone is okay (especially important). An occasional pub lunch. A team BBQ. A joke, a handshake, celebrating someone’s birthday.

But with the imposed changes, work has become less personal and more transactional. Of course, the permanency of everything can be questioned. Are we really not going to avoid cities? Our places of work? Of course not. But it’s also not as black and white as that.

As much as it’s ridiculous that we were all holed up in offices 5 days a week, it’s ridiculous that we’d want to be holed up at home 5 days a week. It’s only working at the moment because everyone is in the same boat. When things open up more widely, that’s when the chattering will start. It’s as I’ve been saying for a while now, let’s look at a work/life blend, not balance. It’s worth remembering we are only 7 months into this. Do businesses really know the impact yet of remote teams? How it’s affected the quality of their recruitment? The effect it has on mental and physical health, etc.?

Do employees think that by working remotely their jobs are more at risk? Equally, do employers now think that if a job can be done remotely, why would they restrict themselves to people within commuting distance of the office? There’s a global workforce at their disposal, with some willing to work at a fraction of the cost.

Less personal, more transactional

What about sales? The client relationships? Especially where the dog and pony show would normally be front and centre. Or new business? No one I know has done an in-person sales pitch for 7 months. Cold calling via reception has gone (yay, I hear you all shout). But all visiting of people in-person has gone. Meeting at an event has pretty much gone - it’s not quite the same in a virtual breakout lounge (ugh). The lunches, the coffees, all gone. With email skyrocketing in volume, how do we make ourselves stand out? How do we sell? How do we communicate effectively?

Most of us have 30 min zoom/meet/teams sessions. Will this work long term? We don’t know yet. All we know is that the entire sales process has become more transactional, less personal. In-person shopping now resembles scenes from Shaun of the Dead. Everyone masked up has impersonalized the experience even more.

We interact with no-one. Everything we touch is sprayed after we touch it. In pubs and restaurants we order from our perspex separated tables, via an app - but at least the QR code now has a raison d’etre. We’re being forced to be less personal, more transactional.

What does this mean for brands?

Well, we already had plenty of transactional relationships before: the chat bots, the tick box self-help-sequences, the automated everything. Brands can win where they fill a demand that exists now, as before, but today more than ever: to become more personal, more human. There is/will be a demand for this through the delivery driver. The person on the end of a phone.

The staff in whatever bricks and mortar stores are left open. These brands will be remembered more: the person that helped, the person that smiled, the person who fixed something that wasn’t in the rule book. Value instilled. Loyalty ingrained. Go get ‘em tiger. Some changes need to change. It’s time to be more personal, and less transactional.

This article came from issue 9 of Marketing Society publication Empower. Read the archive here.