Everything Changes But You.

For me, the digital world is a truly magical place.

For me, it is like Disneyland…..

Digital has that ability to transport to you another world.

To capture your imagination and take you on a journey.

It can teach, inspire and delight.

It is also a very practical place.

We have the world at our fingertips.

It is a multitasker’s dream.

We can get things done – order our groceries, book a flight, buy that birthday present, treat ourselves to something nice – all whilst commuting to work, watching the TV or even lying in bed.

We can share thoughts, experiences, ideas, and opinions whilst picking the kids up from school, cooking dinner or waiting for a meeting to start.

The opportunities to use and exploit the power of the digital world are seemingly endless. And we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

The ability for brands to embrace this medium and use it to talk to, engage and delight their customers is immense.

And yet it feels like so many are falling woefully short.

So many brands that I have loved, patroned and championed, have digital experiences that are so disappointing, frustrating or just plain inadequate.

Not only are these companies not embracing technology to engage their audiences and unleash their brand in the most captivating way possible, their basic online experience doesn’t represent them – there is a mismatch between the brand and the digital experience.

This doesn’t sit right with the customer. It erodes the brand equity that you have carefully and diligently built with them over years.

Your brand is everything.

It defines who you are and what you stand for.

It is your calling card to customers.

It is the reason they pick you from all the options on offer.

But if your brand online is not in line with the rest of the business, then you are not doing right by your brand, and you are not doing right by your customers.

Everyone suffers. Your customers and in turn, you.

In some case your customers might just be annoyed or disappointed. In other cases, they may abandon you entirely – and not come back.

So it matters.

Because, all of us in this room are accountable for numbers of one sort or another – revenue, profit, visitors, conversions, customer satisfaction levels, basket size.

Brand matters.

Before we go any further, if you will indulge me, I want to talk about what makes a brand and why it is so important, about why you should care.

Because, quite frankly, if we don’t agree on that, then the rest is meaningless.

So, let’s go back to the second half of the 19th century when brands start to emerge.

The word ‘brand’ itself had existed before that – it originally comes from the Dutch for ‘burn’, as livestock were ‘branded’. First to show what belonged to who, and then soon thereafter to denote quality and pedigree.

But brands in the sense that we know them really started to come to prominence in the 19th century – as a response to squeezed margins. Something I am sure we can all appreciate.

You see, wholesalers were the kings. Not manufacturers or retailers, but wholesalers. Retailers selected their stock from whatever the wholesaler had, and the manufacturers essentially made what the wholesalers told them to.

Needless to say, this did not particularly suit manufacturers.

There was nothing to differentiate products, and the wholesalers used this to their advantage, telling manufacturers that price was the only competitive point. Not something any of us want to hear.

However, manufacturers could see that goods which held a patent (thereby rendering their product uncopiable) could command a premium allowing them to take back some of the control.

Patented goods had a ‘brand’ – as a form of protection – and so manufacturers decided to start applying ‘brands’ to non-patented goods, to see if they couldn’t build up equity in the way that they’d seen happen with patented goods.

Well, guess what, they could.

And with that the brand, in the modern sense that we understand it, was born.

As we moved into the 20th century, manufacturers valued ‘ brand’ more and more highly.

Especially in America.

Americans get brand.

Listen to this quote from the CEO of Quaker Oats – in 1900:

‘If this business were split up, I would give you the land, bricks and mortar and I would take the brands and the trademarks – and I would fare better than you.’

Consumers quickly cottoned on to this idea of brand and they started to see that certain brands denoted different qualities.

So customers started demanding them, and by name.

For example, Heinz Ketchup…

…Pear’s Soap.

As the 20th Century wore on, something distinctly and weirdly human started to happen.

Brand became more ‘psychological’, because the pleasure that we as humans get from the non-functional is significantly more intense than the pleasure we get from the functional.

Stephen King, the marketer, not the author, put it this way: ‘we choose brands like we choose our friends’.

And it’s true isn’t it?

Humans, consciously or otherwise, ascribe ‘personalities’ to brands.

For example, if I asked you to describe Ms MINI, the brand as a person, to me, she would be different from….

…Miss Mercedes?

She’d do different things, wear different clothes, live in a different house.

Same with Miss Cadbury when compared to…

…Ms Hershey, right?

As humans we do it all the time, we anthropomorphise – we attribute human qualities to non-human things.

We do it because, we ‘get’ humans, and so we try to make other things human so that we can understand them.

Now I’m not saying this makes sense. It doesn’t.

It’s irrational. But we all just need to get comfortable with that.

And once we know that we, as humans, start to overlay other qualities onto brands, so to us they start to take on more human personalities, we begin to understand more about customers’ expectations of brands.

Because as a brand starts to take on more human qualities, we expect them to act, speak and do certain things in line with how we perceive them.

Which means that brand is more than just your logo, your mission statement, your company values.

Brand is not a strapline, brand is not an advert, or a look and feel.

All those things are constituent parts, but as I hope I have been making clear, it is much more than that.

It is, ultimately, your brand is an all-encompassing expression of the essence of a person.

It should run through everything like a word through a stick of rock.

It needs to be expressed consistently across every single touch point – from your website to the way the phones are answered.

Brand, at its simplest, is a promise. And it must be a promise kept.

After that it’s about how you express it.

Because your brand is what makes you valuable.

The Economist did some research in the last couple of years and found that businesses with a strong brand enjoy margins double those of their counterparts who do not, and have greater levels of loyalty.

And the FT said ‘Brands are the ultimate source of sustainable competitive advantage’.

So, brand matters.

The perception of your brand is everything.

And in this world of hyper connectivity and transparency, companies are utterly exposed online.

And yet, so often, that online expression of the brand – today that most exposed version of you, that is the one that is the least representative.

The digital experience doesn’t reflect the brand and what it stands for.

And companies cannot allow for there to be any disconnect between their brand and the digital experience.

Because, as we have already said, your brand is the most valuable thing you own.

Let’s make it more real and put it into context.

I thought Tesco would be a good example to use.

I am sure many of you know the Tesco brand. For those of you who don’t, Tesco is one of the largest retailers in the world. It’s a business I know, as I used to work there.

Last year they operated just under 7,000 stores around the world and employed just short of half a million staff.

Headquartered in the UK, they have stores in 11 different countries across Europe and Asia.

Although it is a grocery business at heart, it also operates a number of other entities under the Tesco brand including Tesco Mobile and Tesco Bank.

As well as groceries, Tesco customers can buy clothing under their F&F label, and purchase a range of non-food products from TVs and toasters to tents and tables.

Tesco launched one of the world’s first online grocery services and later launched an online non-food proposition.

They are a great example of the challenges faced by a brand when they enter the digital world, and the lessons learnt along the way.

The first, most obvious thing that happens when people move online is that the customer journey changes – significantly.

How people find you differs.

The customer touch points change.

And, above all else, the relative importance of different stages in the customer journey alters.

Staff are no longer on hand to intervene, guide or help.

People need to look for product in a different way.

It can be harder to find the information that they want. Or to compare products.

They can’t just pick them off the shelf.

And it is harder to ask someone for some advice.

How do you ensure that your customers leave with everything that they want and need….the all important cables for the TV, that accessory that will take the outfit from ‘alright’ to ‘WOW!!!’, or those all important batteries needed for that child’s toy?

Not only do you need to come up with solutions to these changes, these potential problems, you need to do it in a way that reflects your brand. And in the case of omnichannnel businesses, the customers’ digital experience reflects that of their offline one.

Let me give you an example.

Here is an overview of Tesco’s expression of their values from a couple of years ago that that I found online.

Tesco’s strapline is Every Little Helps.

And this was reflected in all elements of the business.

In the way we worked.

The way we behaved.

And in the customers’ experience with us.

Tesco expressed their values – that no-one tries harder for customers – by providing a shopping trip where the:

  • aisles are clear
  • customer can get what they want
  • prices are good
  • customer doesn’t queue
  • staff are great

Fantastic stuff.

As staff we understood this. We got it. We lived and breathed it and were proud of it.

And we were judged on it.

Annual reviews took performance against these values, both at an individual and departmental level, into consideration.


But what does this mean for the online business?

What does ‘keep the aisles clear’ mean for an online customer? Or ‘the customer doesn’t queue’?

As someone working in that part of the business, what am I expected to do?

The essence was right – give the customers a great shopping trip – but the detail needed to change so that the promise remained the same, but the execution reflected the different medium.

Keeping the aisles clear was all about being able to navigate around the store easily without things getting in your way. It meant a good website design, with easy navigation.

And the customer doesn’t queue reflected checkout is simple, easy and quick.

But it goes beyond that.

The staff are great. What does this mean?

Well in a store, it might mean they are on hand and easy to find. They are approachable. They know their stuff. They provide assistance. They help me select the products I need. Or show me how to use them.

But what does that mean when it is an e-commerce business?

And who are these staff?

Well, for one, it could be the customer service team.

If you have one…

Some online businesses don’t. In these cases visitors and customers are left to algorithm-led recommendations, customer forums and standard Q&A section on the website. What does that say about your brand? If this is in line with your brand values then great. But this isn’t always the case.

If you do have a customer service team, clearly they need to be helpful and know their stuff, just like in store.

But how do I contact them?

Is it email only? If so, can your staff spell, understand grammar and talk in a way that suits the brand (seriously, I don’t joke, I have seen some amazing examples that as a brand ambassador would make you want to cry)?

What is your turnaround time for answering those emails?

I am going to Italy in a couple of months. I adore Italy. I am taking my parents. It is going to be a special occasion and I wanted to treat them to this tour that they have always wanted to do.

So I did lots of research, found the perfect group and was getting really excited. I had a couple of questions about the trip so I tried to get in contact with the very well known tour operator. Annoyingly, they only offered help via email. Not great, but OK.

After five days, when I hadn’t received a response to the original email, nor the two slightly more terse chasers, I gave it up as a bad job. Not only did they lose a sale, but it was frustrating for me and took all the fun out of what should have been an exciting purchase. I also completely changed my view of the company. Needless to say, I won’t be shopping with that leading brand again and I haven’t been very complimentary about them when talking to friends.

Maybe you offer live chat?

Or a telephone line?

If it is a telephone line, is it a premium number? Will you call me back?

Do I have to pay, a la Apple, for different levels of support?

It is also about the availability of those staff – people shop 24 hours a day and may want staff available to answer their questions. Maybe they don’t expect it, but just think how delighted they will be if you do….

Each of these decisions you make affects how someone views you, how they feel about you, what they think about your brand.

In some companies great thought goes into each of these decisions with the customer firmly in mind. But sometime these decisions are made with little thought to how they will be perceived. They are made not with the customer or potential customer in mind, but with an eye on the P&L. But that is being very short sighted.

And it isn’t just about the customer service team. It is also about everyone else that the customer comes into contact with.

Maybe it is the people you choose to represent you on social media or via your online video guides.

Or the delivery staff.

Now in the case of Tesco grocery, these were Tesco employees.

They were on time. They were polite. They were smartly dressed. They brought all the bags into my kitchen. Thank you very much. And they didn’t bring in loads of mud or leave wet footprints all over my nice clean floor. Even better.

They explained any problems with my order to me like substitutions or missing products so I didn’t get any nasty surprises.

They acted sensibly and considerately whilst on the roads. No speeding. No cutting up other drivers. No Nico Rosberg impersonations. No blocking of roads or driveways when parking up to deliver.

It all sounds so simple. But it is important and amazing how often these small things are over looked.

For other companies, and other parts of the Tesco business, the delivery person is employed by a third party.

But we still judge them as if they are the company we are buying from, because you chose them to represent you. So they might as well be you.

It is all about being true to your brand and your values; understanding how you want to engage with customers.

One final thought on this.

There is a very well known high-end department store in the UK. Shopping in the store is a wonderful experience. It feels luxurious, it feels like a treat. And I guess at those prices it should.

When you buy something in this well known high-end department store, the assistants wrap your purchase beautifully. It is encased in tissue paper, lovingly secured with a golden sticker. It is then put in a box and then in a really thick, gorgeous bag which is tied with a ribbon the colour of the company’s logo.

And you walk down the street with a smile on your face and a skip in your step with the bag proudly swinging from your shoulder. It is a fabulous feeling.

Recently I needed to buy a birthday present for my best friend. I thought I would be a great friend and buy her something from said well known, high-end departmental store.

Annoyingly, I couldn’t get into town, but it was OK because they have a website. The website was great. Beautifully designed and easy to shop. The parcel arrived two days later. I was expecting tissue paper, and ribbons and beautiful boxes.

I got a brown padded envelope and some horrid brown paper. It was such a let down. The experience was totally incongruous with the brand I thought I knew and it didn’t sit well with me.

The second thing to remember is that people worry about different things to when they shop in store.

How you handle this during and after the online shopping trip, makes a huge impact on how people view your brand.

Let’s go back to Tesco again.

What do people worry about?

Well, in the case of grocery, they worry that the people selecting their food won’t take as much care as they do.

They worry that they will be given the food that is about to go out of date or is past its best.

Or that you will be out of stock of a key ingredient for the important dinner party they are hosting tomorrow night.

Or that the delivery driver won’t take good care of the food when it is being delivered and the food will arrive damaged or bruised.

They worry they won’t be able to return food that doesn’t meet their standards.

When Tesco launched in Ireland, the business wasn’t quite as successful as hoped.

They looked at all sorts of things trying to established what the problem was. They asked customers why they were happy to shop in store, but not online. And they asked people on the street.

And do you know what they found? People were worried about whether they had to tip the driver and if so, how much. They didn’t want to be caught out and they didn’t want to look cheap. That wasn’t what we expected.

So you need to work out what people are worried about an put in place things that address these concerns, in a way that represents you.

Thirdly, by simply being online, you have expanded your potential customer base. You are international, baby….

You have the opportunity to talk to, to connect with, a global audience. Even if you are not shipping product to people around the world, they can see you, get a feel for you, engage with you. And judge you.

As you enter new international markets, especially ones where you do not have an offline presence, everything that visitor, that potential customer, knows about you comes from your digital footprint.

In order for your digital presence to reflect your brand, you need to understand it within the context of the new local.

How do you communicate your brand when your customers speak a different language, have different expectations of service, interact differently online and use different social media and search platforms to existing customers?

Germany has one of the best, if not the best, delivery services in the world. What I think of as great delivery in the UK is nothing compared to what I would get if I lived in Germany. So, if you stand for amazing delivery service, you better think carefully about your options.

The Japanese shop online much later than Europeans. Unlike lots of Brits who sneekily surf the web and buy products online whilst at work, thinking their bosses don’t know what they are up to, the Japanese are far more dedicated to their employers. Which means if you want to offer live customer service options, there is no point offering it during the standard working day.

And the Chinese not only use different social media platforms, but they use them in a very different way, including as the main channel for customer service.

And so it goes on…..

When Tesco looked at launching an online grocery service in China, they had to navigate all sorts of new challenges.

Some were relatively simple. When we spoke to customers, it was clear they were hyper-aware of the origin and quality of their food.

They wanted a level of information far beyond what we had ever provided before. Photos of fields, photos of farmers, pictures from the inside of food factories….

They wanted to be able to chat to other customers online to discuss the food they had received to authenticate the quality or at least be able to leave ratings and comments on each product page.

And remember that Tesco promise, I can get what I want? Well, understandably, our Chinese customers also wanted to be able to buy all the products available to them in store online. Including live fish and frogs. Yep, live fish and frogs….

That was certainly a challenge.

But it went right to the heart of Tesco’s promise with its customers.

There are many different brands in this room today. And whilst you are united in that basic desire to trade your wares over the internet, to drive sales online, the way in which you want to do that will probably be very different.

Some of you will want to inspire, others educate. Some of you, like with grocery retailers, will want to make something like the chore of the weekly food shop easier and less time consuming.

At the very least, you will want to satisfy.

But what I beg of you, is that whatever you do – connect with your customer.

Give them something that takes them from being just a customer to a brand champion, an advocate or even an ambassador.

Give them a reason to not only come back, but tell their friends, even complete strangers, about you. To encourage others to use you, to share their stories.


But most of all, be true to yourselves.

Show them who you really are.


 Shonagh Primrose is a partner with Monticello LLP and a former senior executive at Tesco. 

This presentation was delivered at the Global e-Commerce Summit 2016 in Barcelona.