As the retail to e-tail purchase shift gathers momentum, what are the real implications for brands and their packaging? Ten years ago, if you were asked to name four companies that had most changed people’s lives, you would have probably have suggested manufacturing giants like Ford, GE or IBM.
Nowadays in our "i for information" age, we’d probably agree to give this accolade to Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. The four digital "Emperors" of computing, search, social and shopping -- or perhaps the four horsemen of the e-pocalypse? Either way they are well on their way to reinventing commerce, with far-reaching implications for marketers.
It was not until smartphones (and tablets) became common that we started seeing a fundamental change in our online shopping "experience." The now ubiquitous tap-and-swipe interface changed the way we thought about mobile devices.
Hence the word on every marketer’s lips, "m-commerce" -- e-commerce on steroids -- with consumers increasingly searching, sharing, comparing and buying from mobile devices rather than clunky old-fashioned desktop or laptop computers.
Using smart devices to browse not just the Internet but real-world objects is predicted to make the technology of Augmented Reality (AR) the next "mass medium." Like many mass media before it, its principal role will be to make buying more convenient and perhaps more entertaining.
Think of the products that we’re prepared to buy online, where we once missed the sensorial stimulus of physically interacting with them in stores: Books first, then music and film, and now clothes, groceries, even high-value items like jewelry and cars. Faced with this situation, could the marketing machine that was invented for 1950s suburban America (TV advertising plus out-of-town superstores with car parking) become redundant?
Online grocery shopping certainly has come a long way to replacing it, although it still leaves a lot to be desired. The experience of finding and selecting the 50 or so items that constitute the average weekly online grocery shop is less engaging than actually going shopping. No car journey and trolley-pushing maybe, but also no real opportunities to browse for those unexpected delights that supermarkets are expert at confronting us with. At least until now.
I believe this will change suddenly and dramatically in the near future, as we consumers wake up and wonder why we have been acting like desperate housewives all these years. Technologies like Augmented Reality will enable us to access rich virtual experiences of brands and products, at times and locations that suit us.
Real, tangible packaging will still need to perform and deliver in transit and in home -- after all a virtual ready meal is not much use to anyone -- but it will no longer need to double up as the beacon of temptation on the supermarket shelf too. That job can be taken on by a delightful brand and product experience, delivered digitally at a virtual point of purchase.
The first motor cars were designed (and named) as "horseless carriages." Early virtual supermarkets, from Tesco's famous South Korean subway wall to China's Yihaodian augmented reality supermarkets in "blank city spaces," have followed a similar pattern. But while this is a natural way to ease reluctant humans to adopt new technology en masse, it will soon be replaced by a more efficient model.
As search evolves and becomes more visual rather than textual, we are starting to see a new clarity and ease of presentation, as online shopping borrows cues from apps and social media sites such as Pinterest. The ability to "add to basket" from brand and product avatars accessed from multiple digital sources will become the norm.
As we witness this perfect storm of more intuitive search, rich augmented brand experience and ubiquitous purchase points such as this smart innovation, never before will the term "brand image" have been more relevant. And relieved of some of its "silent salesman" duties, expect real packaging to reinvent itself in surprising ways too. With the sale already made digitally, the "hard copy" will be able to offer far more useful and actionable information.
Neither will we need to worry about all that scanning and reading a smart screen -- pretty soon we will be requesting the information with voice commands and see it appear on our personal heads-up display. Apple, Google, Microsoft and others are already racing to bring us that extra layer of convenience -- because we can never have too much of that.