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Frame of reference

How can you establish a connection between your products and the customer’s decisions, while informing the experiences you create? Ian Jindal ponders how retailers can create the frame of reference that is both informative and differentiating.

Establishing a frame of reference in your customer’s mind allows them to understand your brand, navigate the buying and owning experience, and amplify their views on your brand. More than a statement of “what do we stand for”, or same-same promises of “being different” or “moving the dial”, a frame of reference provides a coherent world-view that is more persistent than sloganeering.

In physics, a frame of reference is an abstract co-ordinate system that uniquely fixes a point within a universe. That point is described in terms of location and orientation, but the universe itself is also described. For example, in describing a point on a two-dimensional graph the x,y co-ordinates give a unique location. We’re also familiar with three-dimensional (x,y,z) co-ordinate systems that are used to colloquially describe the world we live in.

However, our ‘real’ world is more than a set of static cuboids in a Cartesian space. We need many more reference points to describe moving, flowing, things existing in time-space.

Take an aeroplane as an example. It has an (x,y,z) co-ordinate to describe its location at a given moment. But it also has speed and acceleration. Oh, and mass. As it moves it requires thrust, resisted by the drag of the air, held aloft by lift force, counteracted by gravity. Furthermore, the attitude of the plane can be described in terms of its pitch, yaw and roll, and it will have a bearing too. That’s 14 ‘dimensions’ of data so far to describe the plane’s location, attitude and movement.

As retailers we need to expand our customers’ understanding of the reference points by which they should judge our offering. We mostly do this by drawing out important benefits or attributes of our products – for example emphasising the materials’ provenance, their ethics, the details that make a difference. Collectively these are known as discrimination criteria (the facts that a customer adopts as the basis for comparison with alternatives).

Faced with undifferentiated products a customer may resort to the most basic of criteria – price. For some customers, attributes like organic certification, or ‘made in the UK’ are more important, and these can act as a filter to exclude non-conformant options. Product marketing is therefore an arms race, pushing features and details at consumers in the hope that they can become discrimination criteria.

In the last decade the amount of data we hold on each product has increased. One PIM supplier suggested to me an 8-fold increase in attributes per product. These are now available to search, sort, filter, prioritise, display and promote. However, the real and sustainable gains are to be made not from adding data co-ordinates (valuable and necessary though that increased descriptive fidelity may be) but rather from redefining the frame of reference itself.

We have recently completed our Analyst Report (with on Fast Fashion, and there we saw a conflict between the customer’s demand for newness at a cheap price and their unease at the environmental and ethical impact of fashion. The result has been a number of companies which have incorporated more sustainable practices with ever-better supply chain mastery to separate themselves from their erstwhile competitors. A new framework perhaps.

Other examples of companies which are resetting the industry rather than simply excelling at the old frameworks include Amazon. Previously, delivery was either fast or free. Now it’s both. As a result the previous space’s co-ordinates no longer adequately describe a service that the customer deems acceptable.

Back to sustainability, and we are used to companies pledging ‘1% for the planet’, or looking to decrease environmental impact with the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra. Recently, however, (the maker of high-end specialist outdoor apparel) added a further ‘dimension’: a ‘fourth R’ namely ‘Renew’. This additional co-ordinate pledges the company not only to have a zero impact upon the planet, but actively to renew the damage inflicted to date.

Cleaning water supply, bringing toxified land back into production, regenerating the environment. By adding this fourth co-ordinate they have created a new framework in which they and their competitors will take their places.

AI and extensive data sets will soon outpace our efforts to extend the product-level data points, to diminishing return. Retailers and brands with integrity and vision will have an eye not just on tweaking co-ordinates, but on remaking the frame of reference for their market.

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