Why Brand Experience and Creative Matter in eCommerce
The art of good business, it’s often said, is the art of being a good middleman. That maxim applies to ecommerce, which gives online vendors a platform to sell virtually anything—and sell it virtually. Amazon, the tallest, most imposing ecommerce presence in the world, largely makes its money as the retailer who can get you everything from a Nicholas Cage pillowcase to the newest Nicholas Cage movie (which seems to come out every two months). They didn’t stitch the pillowcase. They didn’t direct the movie. (They certainly didn’t act in it.) They’re the people who get you the product. The middleman.
The problem for middlemen appears when other middlemen get a reputation as more reliable, or more appealing, middlemen. Amazon is a known quantity. So is Alibaba. So is Walmart. But these are multibillion-dollar conglomerates. As we’ve pointed out before, the competition among smaller ecommerce merchants is intense, in part because even if your products are wildly superior to your competitors’ products, what often sways consumers is not the quality of the thing they buy, but the experience they have buying it. Inhabit the viewpoint of a customer strolling through a digital mall. (Which, in many ways, is what the internet has become.) Why should said customer stop at your online brick and mortar, as opposed to your neighbor’s, especially if your neighbor’s shop is more fun and easier to wander through than yours?
To stand out in the ecommerce world, you should be doing more than fulfilling a strictly intermediary function, valuable as that product-to-market hinge is. No, you should be building a creative branding experience that your customers can enjoy. Here’s why it matters:
You Make a Great First Impression
People know within fifteen seconds if they want to stay on a website or bounce out. A lot of managers decide whether they’re going to hire a candidate between five to fifteen minutes after the interview starts. Images are impressions, you see, and those impressions sway choices. Your ecommerce identity is no different.
Look at our site. The hero module features a video of athletes sprinting and lifting weights and doing pushups, while the brand palette incorporates a vigorous dosage of red—a color often associated with energy, movement, boldness. We made those design decisions because we want to attract clients who like to work with a fast-paced agency that’s not afraid to reinvent their brand. Since that’s the experience that we want to give them, that’s the first-glance, fifteen-second takeaway that we want to impart upon them.
So think about what first impression you want to convey, and make sure that impression matches up with what it’s like to work with you. Let’s say you’re an autumn aficionado who’s selling PSL-themed everything—cinnamon-scented brooms, porcelain pumpkin bowls, leaf wreaths galore, a “Happy Fall, Y’all!” tchotchke or three. Your site should feel like it’s nestled inside the Hudson Valley in late October. Appeal to your customers’ senses. Tap into their emotions. If you’re selling fall, your ecommerce creative should swaddle your audience in a flannel blanket and plunk them down in front of a bonfire. If you’re doing skincare, think soft tones, floating petals, luminous hydrating masks. You get the idea. Build your ecommerce platform so that people are intrigued enough to keep perusing your (metaphorical) aisles.
You Improve Your ECX and UX
Looking at the header for this section, you might be forgiven for wondering, ‘What is this noxious alphabet soup that I’m smelling?’ Allow us to define terms: “ECX” refers to “ecommerce customer experience,” and a lot of the tips that we gave about branding in the previous section touched on ECX. But the principles of ECX are founded on UX (or “user experience”), a discipline that urges web designers to build sites so that navigating them feels seamless and intuitive, like gliding along on cruise-control.
The distinction that we’re drawing here is between aesthetics—your site’s cozy hearthside glow—and functionality, or the ease with which your customers can find the information that they’re looking for. You know how you land on Amazon, and a few clicks in, your cart is full and you’re proceeding to checkout? Do as Amazon does.
- Make the copy and design simple, but effective enough to move people to action.
- Delineate prices, delivery timelines, product specs and categories, and so on.
- Offer customers a bevy of payment options—debit or credit, subscription services, layaway and pre-purchasing options—and this above all else: Make the checkout process easy.
The goal of your branding is to optimize your platform for your users’ convenience. Sure, people love fall, and they’ll love the panorama of red and gold trees that light up across your hero images like discs of stained glass. But none of that matters if they get lost in the pumpkin patch and can’t find their way back to the cash register. The trick, then, is to twine aesthetics with functionality. Give your customers all the information they need to learn why a product or service benefits them—but also let them bounce along on a hay-ride of style and panache that treats them to a view of the whole autumnal horizon.
You Foster Brand Evangelism
Now that you’re taking a bird’s-eye perspective of your market landscape, ask yourself this: What’s the point of someone coming to your site in the first place?
See, we’d argue that the consumer funnel isn’t really a funnel. Ideally, it should look like an hourglass, balanced upon a base of retained customers who purchased from you once and continue to come back for more. Marketing-speak has a tendency to find religion when it talks about this stage of the sales process. We advertisers bat around terms like “conversions,” “audience loyalty,” “brand evangelism,” “the end of the customer’s lifecycle,” and the rest of it. (In a phrase: “Brand evangelists infuse their marketing message with passion.”) Kinda weird? Kinda weird. But, in a way, it makes sense: You’re asking people to believe in you.
“This moment,” you’re saying to them—“this is not where the journey ends, but where it begins.” Your task now is to build communities of followers (without making it feel cultish). So keep in touch with the customers who have just bought from you:
- Post announcements and updates on your social channels.
- Build live messaging functionality to answer questions from on-site customers.
- Send out surveys after you closed a sale to gauge feedback on what people liked about your site and service (and what they did not like).
- Email newsletters to your subscribers about seasonal promotions. (Even though, yes, we all wish it was fall year-round.)
We’ve already talked about designing your site to be user-friendly. Now pair that strategy with making your branding customer-centric. After all, brands that prioritize customer service rake in 5.7 times as much revenue as their competitors who “lag in customer experience.” So listen to what your customers are saying about you. Create communities where members can swap tips and share content across your channels. Let them advocate for your brand, and invest in boosting the rave reviews that they post about you—the earned media and organic buzz that make evangelism powerful rather than proselytizing.
You Can Connect With Your Customers
So far, we’ve led you down the primrose path of immersing your site visitors into a curated experience and making your platform customer-centric. But we’d also recommend developing tactics around this strategy, too: Personalizing your ecommerce position.
Being customer-centric is not the same as being personable. The former answers questions and absorbs criticism and presents a “How can we help?” shining morning face to the world. The latter establishes rapport with people. Granted, this type of talk can veer into squishy platitudes about making the customer your friend. But all we’re trying to say is that companies have a propensity to sound more company-like as they get bigger. They trot out milquetoast nostrums rather than saying anything of substance, all in the service of appealing to everyone and fortifying their bottom line. Too often, though, the effect of playing it safe is that they blend in, which is an excellent way for the non-Amazons of the world to shrink into obscurity.
You shouldn’t (necessarily) make controversial statements to get attention, but you do need to be memorable.
- Write witty copy that makes your customers laugh.
- Take every opportunity to thank them and address them by name.
- Come across as an approachable, knowledgeable human, rather than a PR statement.
- Surprise your subscribers with shipping or return policies that feel like they’ve been designed for their convenience (which, as it happens, they have).
And now prepare yourself for a hard left turn: Do some research on them.
This last point may seem paradoxical—pairing a people-first approach to branding with a data-driven segmentation of consumer profiles. But those right brain-left brain modi operandi really form one mindset: An ecommerce entrepreneurism that feels real and relatable, and a digital shop equipped with AI that anticipates the customer’s needs.
In case you haven’t been keeping up, ecommerce personalized marketing has become quite sophisticated. Modal pop-ups, dynamic content blocks, aggregating top referral traffic sources by cohort—it all sounds so technical, like the distant drone of a 12th grade calculus class. But those terms add up to Stitchfix sending you outfits tailored to your style choices, or Netflix recommending movies based on your viewing preferences.
People sometimes complain that algorithms get things wrong, and here’s a tip for you: Algorithms get things wrong. Your marketing strategy will, too. But ponder that issue from the other direction: Would you prefer that Stitchfix not handpick the scarves and sweaters that your purchase history indicates you want to wear this fall? Would you rather that Netflix adopt a more sink-or-swim attitude to your moviegoing selection? Let’s be honest: You would not. And let’s give them credit: At least they’re trying. So as a rule, treat the people who frequent your shop as individuals with idiosyncratic tastes and you’ll have a better chance of making them feel like they’re getting an experience from you that they can’t find anywhere else.
You Can Scale Up
In many ways, the point of forging an ecommerce brand is to stake out your market position and then grow that position. The expert consensus—and the commonsense conclusion—is that better customer service improves sales, because branding defines your values and sharpens your identity. Once people know your brand, they’re more likely to buy from you. Once you know your brand, you’re better equipped to expand its parameters in ways that make sense for your business—offering a new service line, taking stances on social issues, or deciding which other companies to partner with or become an affiliate of.
Here’s the thing: Any middleman can open an eBay account and start selling leaf blowers and fire pits. But a customized brand experience makes you unique. Without it, you blend right in, like a nutmeg-scented candle on an autumnal mantelpiece.