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Generation novel: How to engage the new post-pandemic customer

Following his keynote at ClickZ Experience, Brian Solis sat down with Elizabeth Roscoe to talk about Generation-Novel, the cross-generation psychographics segment of post-pandemic customers. The original interview is posted at ClickZ.


Customer needs have changed as a result of the pandemic and so must the ways of marketing to them

Digital empathy is key to informing marketing decisions

Read on for valuable insight from digital pioneer and best-selling author Brian Solis

very brand has a style guide and every CMO has an entire set of teams that operate against those brand guidelines. While every company is accelerating digital transformation investments to upgrade customer experiences, two questions executives need to ask are “how did people and their core values and aspirations change in 2020-2021” and “how can our brand stand for something aspirational in a new world?”

In a special session at the 2021 ClickZ Experience, world-renowned digital pioneer and 8x best-selling author Brian Solis shared his research on how customers have changed at a human level and how brands must adapt down to their core.

Q: How do you see brands changing in the post-pandemic world?

Brian: The customer experience is the number one area where brands are transforming for a post-pandemic economy. But customer experience itself is a vision and strategy and the processes of executing against that strategy. And added to that the digitization that’s unfolding at unprecedented levels at accelerated rates is, I can’t think of a nice way to put this, is making us overlook the humanity of this opportunity. It’s almost as if we’re trying to race into a new normal or next normal based on this, this previous normal, this concept of what marketing was when in fact, what marketing could be is entirely different. Essentially, brands are falling into a trap of digitizing dated processes and touchpoints, rather than reimagining engagement to deliver experiences not possible before the pandemic.

Q: Who do you believe is in charge of the customer experience?

Brian: You (the marketer) own the customer experience! You know who doesn’t own the customer experience? Anyone who doesn’t touch the customer. Yes, I know that there are stakeholders that also want to own the experience, but somebody has to be the orchestrator, somebody has to be the lead, somebody has to say that this is the experience that we aim to deliver and this is how we’re going to coordinate together to do that.

Q: So then does the CMO control the experience?

Brian: In a conversation that I had with Seth Godin recently, I asked him, ‘’Who owns the customer experience, in your view?” He said, ‘if it’s not the CMO, then I don’t know what the CMO is doing.’ He ended it with a message of empowerment saying that this is a time for you to lead change. This is a time to say, ‘yes, I am the one who’s going to blaze a new trail, even though this path doesn’t exist right now’.  In his words, ‘if you’re not in charge of the customer experience, then you’re not the CMO.’

Q: What is digital empathy?

Brian: In a world where we risk losing warmth during the massive, accelerated shift to digital, we must not over-invest in transactions over meaningful engagement and experience. One powerful opportunity is to embrace the sixth “love language” in marketing and experience design, which I call digital empathy. It’s this idea of understanding that digital itself has with it a different way of communicating and understanding how others want to communicate and how they want to be engaged.

Q: Is digital empathy a way of personalizing experiences?

Brian: We all know the golden rule, “treat others how you want to be treated”. But I think in this world where we’re accelerating digital experiences, even hybrid experiences, there is a possibility now or I should say, a need, for marketers to embrace the golden rule of digital empathy. Treat others how they want to be treated- this is the foundation for data-driven empathy and true hyper-personalization.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted the customer?

Brian: What happened in the last 18+ months, is that a new type of customer has taken shape- ‘generation novel’- that’s inspired by the novel Coronavirus. This is a unique cross-generation group that’s both digital-first and conscious of their newfound empowerment. More so, they’re conscious of this ctrl-alt-del moment to rediscover what really matters to them in terms of time, experiences, and relationships. ‘Novel’ itself simply means new and unusual. And as such, it is one without a playbook. The customer has changed and evolved. Think about it. You, me, our customers, we all had to learn how to work from home, you had to learn, to stay connected, to shop differently, everything from home, and it accelerated this digital transformation of…you.

Q: Does this new customer, this generation-novel, exhibit loyalty to brands differently than before?

Brian: Honestly, loyalty is up for grabs. It started playing out immediately after March 2020. A vast majority of customers in every market around the world have started experimenting with new brands and are also exhibiting new shopping behaviors. As this continues to play out, without getting to the heart of “why”, these new activities represent the next wave of disruption. It also means that ‘acquisition’ is the new ‘opportunity’ and retention is a critical priority.

Essentially, Generation-Novel is a much more conscious consumer. They are, as I lovingly say, accidental or digital narcissists. Everything they do online, their favorite apps, social networks, games, services, remind them that they’re the most important person in the universe. And so the ways of engagement, the ways of designing experiences, the way of marketing, or selling, or communicating, or driving the next best action, or creating content, as a six love language now, digital empathy has to inform and guide our work to engage the very core of who the consumer is becoming.

Q: How has data changed and how important is it in this new world?

Brian: Now is an opportunity to reimagine how we collect data and how we use data. Most importantly, we have to re-establish a social contract with our digital-first customers, with generation novel, with our more conscious, digital narcissist, and communicate proactively how we will use data to deliver more meaningful, personalized experiences in exchange for data. Look, we know that loyalty is up for grabs, as we discussed, but most consumers are going to spend more time online after the pandemic than they did before. They’re open to sharing more if they know that they’re going to receive better experiences. That’s important because that means that these behaviors are only going to continue to unfold and evolve. There are new and evolving standards for engagement. These are paths to learning, unlearning, and fostering stronger relationships.

Q: What do we as marketers need to do to engage with this new generation? What do they value most?

Brian: The quick answer is that they want you to know them. They value empathy, they value personalization, and they value experiences. They value it as much or, even in some cases, more than your products and services. One important question to ask is what are the moments that define your signature experience? How are customers experiencing our touchpoints and the journey overall? What are the elements which convey to someone what it is that they’re going to remember- whether it’s good, or whether it’s bad? Where is that weak link in the journey? That’s marketing and that’s customer experience. In fact, customer experience is defined as the sum of all engagements a customer has with your brand. It’s not just one thing, it’s everything. So someone has to take accountability for that overall journey. As Seth Godin says, ‘marketing is experience’.

Q: As marketers, where should we be focusing our efforts?

Brian: The next generation of marketing has to reimagine what it means to be a brand in 2030. All of this acceleration that’s happened is essentially playing out 10 years ahead of its time. This means that you can’t bring a 2019, 2020, 2021 mindset to this moment. You have to bring a 2030 mindset because you are designing for the future right now- you are the architects of the future (as marketers). A brand has to mean something now, and years from now, in a new world.

Q: Any final bits of advice?

Brian: It comes down to being the light in every touchpoint, building trust, aligning with values, adding some magic to enchant, and not just transact, with customers. The goal is to really know what it is that matters to your customer, to coordinate cross-functional engagement as a part of marketing, and to create a consistent customer experience. But more so, this is an opportunity for marketing to design those experiences, holistically, and individually. To do so requires something new, an experience ‘Style Guide’ that complements your brand style guide, that conveys the experiences you want people to have. Enchanting experiences are what people remember, and it’s reflected in their expressions of those experiences, as well as your products, that become, collectively, your brand.

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