As we find ourselves in the next phase of the pandemic, and a time where we are facing travel restrictions, non-essential retail has taken yet another hit. Last year saw record numbers of store closures, but there are glimmers of positivity for progressive brands that have embraced technology in the current climate to engage, support and interact with their community in creative ways. 

We thoroughly support this notion; we believe the bigger the challenge the greater the opportunity. Some brand responses are not just for the ‘here and now’ but also for how we will shop and interact with brands in the future. The pandemic has accelerated change and provided another dynamic to the way we shop and engage with brands.

Since March, we have found ourselves working with brands to hold workshops, exploring ways in which they can remain socially distant, but creatively connected. Each brand has different needs, customers, and responses to the crisis, and this was an opportunity for the O12 team to work with clients to explore new ideas and concepts to help them remain connected.

One project which is an example of our response to the challenge, was supporting Nike x Foot Locker in their influencer marketing strategy, which is traditionally heavily reliant upon a network of influencers to provide content. Lockdowns and social distancing restrictions meant that photoshoots, influencer activations and the creation of digital content became difficult. We were challenged with the task of creating a concept to counter this and ensure that dynamic content could be created and be used across all platforms – sparking inspiration among its target audience and being a key driver in product launches online. Our response moved beyond physical influencers to create a series of stylised hand-illustrated influencers, where there are no parameters or restrictions. We collaborated with Waste Studio, utilising exaggeration and Tokyo street-style to create a series of illustrated influencers. These were distributed on social channels to connect with their target customer and assist in promoting key product launches. The characters were dressed in clothes associated with the product launches, and were clickable to the real-life products for purchase. We tapped into local communities and key cities, adapting localised styling which resonated with the target consumer. Once launched, the concept created disruption to the Foot Locker social feed, receiving over 29,000 likes and contributing towards an increase in sales. This has supported several successful product launches and a concept that can continue into 2021 and beyond.

In response to the evolving guidelines and restrictions, we had to react by adapting some of our live projects to ensure that they delivered against a brief, by evolving concepts from the purely physical to a blended digital experience. In February last year Nike approached us to support their Intersport Account in creating a Bra Experience designed to empower women in sport. This was to feature in store and take customers on a journey – educating them on how to measure themselves, find the right fit for their sport, test the product, and ultimately support them in becoming the best they can be at their sport. Part way through the project, restrictions started to fall into place putting the project at risk. But with a passionate client team eager to support their customers, we developed a webapp in conjunction with the physical space which could be accessed instore and online. This webapp was designed to be simple and seamless, allowing customers to interact how and when they wanted to – either in store, or from the privacy of their own home.

Beautycounter’s Content Studio is a great example of adapting to the current climate, whilst maintaining a human connection with their community.

Beautycounter have recently launched a content studio in LA where its primary function is to provide a space that allows the brand to create content, but also acts as a regular ‘bricks and mortar’ store. In response to customers not being able to visit their stores nor try out product, they created a content studio that allows the brand to live stream and interact with customers. Whilst they cannot try on the products, they can ask questions and create a live dialogue with the brand. The studio is readily available to over 50,000 independent consultants who sell the product, allowing them a professional environment in which to record or stream any content. A definite win for social distant and creatively connected.

Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger and many other brands have also adopted this approach by providing human personal styling and consultations, understanding the importance of the store assistant and filling the void that cannot be replaced on a traditional website.

Other areas in which we have seen brands thinking creatively about how they utilise their physical space is the increase in Dark Stores, which has accelerated during the pandemic. These spaces are physical hubs which are purely dedicated to online shopping, where experts can connect with customers digitally. The term ‘Dark Store’ has been around since 2009 but we are seeing an increase as retailers have temporarily converted their stores to support online shopping and allowing customers access to products quicker than ever before. Lush on Oxford Street executed this well, delivering product from their online orders on foot or by bike to the local area.

Even during these unprecedented times, brands such as Nike continue to forge ahead with flagship stores, understanding the importance of rich physical environments and brand hubs to creatively connect with their communities. We fully believe that physical retail will continue to thrive in the future, providing brands remain agile and sensitive to their customers’ needs.

We have learnt that customers want to remain connected to brands, but at a time where brands must show empathy and understanding with their community, it is time to commit to delivering sustainability strategies, and move brand communication from global to hyper-local.

To support brands on this journey, we should continue to develop new and creative ways to connect with audiences – blending physical and digital worlds to fit in with customers’ lives in relevant and engaging ways, far beyond the current pandemic. This should be just the beginning.

As we begin on a path of recovery, it’s quite clear that throughout 2020 there were significant shifts in consumer buying behaviours, some of which will be temporary and some which will be longer lasting – providing exciting opportunities for the future.

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