Last week's WGSN Futures conference, an event founded by the aforementioned trend research agency, focused on the future of retail, branding and marketing in a time now dubbed the "Retail Apocalypse." With thousands of brick and mortar stores shutting down last year, it's clear traditional retail needs a bit of rebranding itself. WGSN's stance on the matter was immediately made clear through the conference's theme: The Future Consumer.
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Along with the topic of the Future Consumer is the pressing issue of getting into the minds of Millennials. Ah, yes, Millennials—pale pink frenzied, fidget-spinning, social media obsessed Millennials. As easy as it is to poke fun at them, brands old and new are still struggling to define their consumer behaviors. All that's extremely clear at the moment is that Millennials treat retail and purchasing decisions very differently than generations before them. So how are brands small and large, old and new navigating the waters in order to fit the needs of the upcoming consumer group?
The one-day Futures conference held at MoMA aimed to explore this and more. Speakers ranging from make-up company Glossier's COO & President to Levi Strauss & Co.'s Head of Design gave forward-thinking, motivational presentations on how to understand your consumers and where your products fit into a defined product category. Trend research may feel like a realm dedicated solely to fashion designers and marketers, but for industrial designers, the insights gleaned from extensive trend research is just as applicable. It's important to understand that thoroughly understanding your market contextualizes the products you work so hard to design, making them even more desirable to consumers.
To that point, we noticed some crossover advice during the conference that could benefit designers working to redefine or reinvent product categories to stay relevant in today's ever-evolving, ever-expanding product markets.
"Product is Content"
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One highly anticipated discussion during the conference was a sit-down with COO & President Henry Davis of the wildly successful cult makeup brand Glossier, a company that purportedly projected an unbelievable 600% growth over the course of 2016. One of the main points Davis emphasized is a daily question around the Glossier office is, "how can I give customers an experience I cannot get offline?" For Glossier, this proves to be a very important question because almost all of their sales come from the web, they have no outside retailers, and only one very small physical showroom located in New York City (which Davis pointed out successfully makes rent the first two hours of each month from store visits). What's the secret to their success? Ultimately, design.
"Everything we do is content," noted Davis, which includes not only their packaging design, but their newsletters, social media posts, graphic branding, and more. Thanks to highly desirable, pinpointed visual branding, approximately 79% of their sales came from "organic and peer-to-peer and earned sources," meaning their fans were pushing the message for them.
It comes naturally to designers to create beautiful objects and packaging, but perhaps what comes second nature is the realization that these beautiful objects are a crucial part of your social media strategy.
So the ultimate lessons from this discussion? Think about your brand voice in the form of imagery and presentation. If you're not comfortable with designing the branding yourself, then find someone who is and has a strong grasp on your customer and what they'll be drawn to. As designers know perhaps better than anyone, good design means more sales, but how do you take it one step further? Don't take for granted the online sphere and all of its channels, and make sure to keep up to date on all of their features (after all, Instagram now has the capacity for direct sales—a helpful thing to know!). If you design packaging, think about how it can really stand out and how well it can be photographed, regardless of whether it's in a controlled studio setting or not.
Designers Already Have Tons of Skills To Help Build a Successful Brand
"Stop making your customer feel listened to. Actually listen to them."— Henry Davis, Glossier
Throughout the duration of the conference, one point rang true for all of the presenters that may be of no surprise to the practicing designer: listen to who you're marketing to. Like designers, marketers must observe the behavior of their customers for high success. The primary difference between the two is that the designer observes behavior in order to design the best solution while the marketer directly responds to the audience's emotional hopes and desires.
For designers, the practice of gathering insights is easy, but in order to build a brand, you have to get more into the aspirational mindset of the customer. How can you make someone buying something from you feel understood and cared for? Does the marketing that supports your product make someone feel connected to it intimately? This is the job of branding.
So use your well-honed skills in research and use that information to build a connection to your customer that's hitting the emotional checkpoints. Invest in solid copywriting that sets the right tone and makes people feel emotionally connected to the product. If done well, it'll make a huge difference.
Businesses That Think Differently Will Have the Most Long-Term Success
"[The culture of innovation] is as much about unlearning as it is learning," touted Fung Group Chief Catalyst and former IDEO Managing Director Richard Kelly during his talk on the future of learning. What this essentially means is, businesses cannot survive without an evolution that incorporates new technologies, takes risks, and establishes itself as a company in constant adaptation. This trait of adaptation, again, is natural for the working designer and therefore gives them an upper hand in the business world. What's perhaps most important is using your design skills to create systems within your organization that make for more efficiency, more innovative ways of gathering customer data, and therefore help you stand apart from your competitors. A company like Glossier, for example, with their innovative approach of taking retailers out of the equation and having few physical shopping locations helps create intrigue and solidifies a more intimate connection between them and their online community—thanks to a bold restructuring of a typical business model, they're cashing in big time.
Let Classic Products Be Reinterpreted
"The best objects can remain themselves while still evolving to the time." —Paola Antonelli at the Futures Conference
With so many new brands, like Glossier, entering the market with full-force, we often forget about classic brands and how they're coping with the changing times. For Jonathan Cheung, Head of Global Design at Levi's, it's all about understanding where and when to collaborate with outside design teams.
Levi's x Jacquard by Google Denim Jacket
Letting others reinterpret your product is a scary concept, but over time, it has become the 164 year old denim company's brand identity. Under Cheung's supervision, Levi's partnered with Jacquard by Google to modernize the denim jacket through conductive, connected yarn. Levi's Made & Crafted has also recently collaborated with Virgil Abloh on his OFF-WHITE FW17 collection, where Abloh reinterpreted classic Levi's garments in his own way.
Levi's Made & Crafted x Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh
Allowing other companies that are not direct competitors challenge your product is one way to expand your customer base and raise awareness in new markets. If you allow your product to extend beyond your company in this way, you are taking a major risk—what if a company messes up?—but if you keep a close eye on the action and pick and choose your collaborators strategically like Cheung, you could be in for a surprise. Cheung along with other speakers at the conference emphasized how important control over discovering product is for Millennials. There are only so many times Millennials can discover a classic brand like Levi's. Cheung and his team were forward-thinking enough to recognize this and adapt their business model so every season is a new discovery for their consumers.
Don't "push" your product
The biggest point emphasized in each and every talk throughout the conference? That we no longer live in the age of the infomercial. Customers are no longer interested in being hit over the head with a product; instead, they want to feel as if they discovered it. As Cheung noted in his talk, "use data in a human way, not a manipulative way," in order to create a desire for and belief in your product. In other words, customers nowadays are more likely to be interested in something if they see a company as being authentic and trustworthy. It's no longer good enough to hit people with clickbait, they want to feel understood. So enough of the product pushing, people—your customers are ready for you to get real.
This article was written in collaboration between Allison Fonder and Emily Engle.