The future will not be about what brands want, but what their customers want. The key question will change from ‘what can they do for us?’ to ‘what can we do for them?’, with successful brands creating experiences that add value to customers’ lives.
The technology now exists to make this vision achievable and affordable. The challenge for brands is to use it in the right way, by investing in the data and content needed to succeed.
This same future is one that’s full of promise and opportunity for mail. Throughout its 500-year history, the role of mail has been redefined by the technology of the day – first by mass transport, then the telephone and now digital and mobile technology.
We have spent a few weeks discussing what the future looks like for mail with a broad range of thinkers and opinion leaders. Interestingly, even those most heavily invested in the use of digital agree that the tactility, permanence and ability of mail to engage emotionally give it a valuable and increasingly differentiated role.
Pulling together the different strands, it has become clear that mail has two key roles to play. I will call them ‘personal mail’ and ‘brand mail’.
Personal mail uses data (with permission) to give customers content that is directly relevant to what they are thinking about or wanting at that moment. We know from research that when you get it right, people feel valued.
Homebase is one of my favourite examples. It realised that customers do not think of DIY products, but DIY projects. So it provided rich, value-added content that helped inspire people. For example, customers buying a new kitchen were sent a pack a few days after ordering their kitchen that featured images of their chosen range in a finished setting. It was sent with offers on flooring, appliances and accessories that would complement their order.
A simpler, but equally powerful, approach can be seen from Ikea. The furniture retailer uses mail to promote its garden furniture, using live weather data to make sure it coincides with sunny days at the customer’s address.
But mail isn’t just there to sell. We talked to Tim Lindsay, former president of agency Lowe Worldwide and now CEO of design association D&AD, and he described a mail campaign for an eye care provider. Parents received a children’s bedtime story book that also contained a series of fun tests that screened their child for eye conditions. The parents could enter the results online and, if necessary, book an appointment.
I see a future where all mail will be as well utilised as it is in these examples. A recent IBM study showed that only 22% of customers feel that companies do a good job of personalising their experience, but technology is beginning to make it easier to achieve.
The increase in availability of data and advances in marketing automation are making it easier for brands to create programmes like those of Homebase and Ikea. But a great experience means giving customers the right content, at the right time, in the right way. As Les Binet, one of the world’s leading thinkers on marketing effectiveness, says: “Marketers need to get back out there and ask how people would like to receive information. At the end of the day, it’s about making the lives of consumers easier, not the lives of marketers.”
While personal mail makes consumers feel they are being talked to as individuals in the moment, brand mail is about creating an emotional engagement and a sense of experience.
Online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter has used this approach to revolutionise not just how high-end fashion shopping works, but fashion publishing as well.
Tess Macleod Smith, vice-president of publishing and media, explains: “Everything we give our readers, whether it’s a magazine, an email or direct mail, needs to provide the same luxury experience that customers get when they receive their Net-a-Porter order. Porter is about indulgence, which is why we thought a physical copy was so important. We are an extremely high-end online retailer, so for us it’s important to give people something that is tangible and tactile.”
Peter Field, author and marketing consultant, knows more than most about the effect of creativity on marketing effectiveness. He says: “The future of advertising will be more creative, with more engaging advertising. We know this works. This is not some kind of vanity call, it’s about commercial good sense. You engage consumers, you entertain consumers, you sell to consumers and you keep them locked in to your brand.”
EE is a brand that understands the power of the physical in an increasingly digital world. A prime example is when it sent a letter printed on microfibre screen cloth, not paper, to promote a data boost offer. This eloquently dramatised how much extra use their devices would have in a playful, tactile way.
Field and Binet specialise in analysing campaign data to explore the links between creativity and effectiveness.
They believe that mail has three key strengths: it brings a brand into the home where it’s kept, displayed and shared; its tactility has a powerful rational and emotional impact; and it makes messages more memorable.
Field explains: “We know from research that good mail pieces live in the home for a long period of time. The nature of the message delivered, I would argue, has to be at least in part brand-driven. It should engage.”
His comment about mail staying in the home is worth noting. Mail has an inherent permanence – meaning people not only keep it, they often keep it somewhere visible. This gives brands a long-term presence in the home that emails simply can’t match. Binet agrees with Field. Adding his own insight he says: “You can’t replicate the delight of holding something like a brochure in your hands. The same applies to mail.”
This ability of mail to give a brand real emotional impact was also highlighted by Ben Hammersley, technology author, TV presenter and former deputy editor of WIRED magazine.
“Digital is brilliant for many things, but there are limits to what it can do. Paper gives you amazing high-resolution images, beautiful colours and a tactile quality that has a different semiotic value from anything else. There’s so much cultural meaning that is embodied in paper.”
There is a clear opportunity for marketers to start using mail as both a short-term activation medium and a long-term creative engagement channel. Put simply, mail can build brands by delivering beautifully crafted, personalised brand experiences directly into customers’ hands and homes.
The future of mail
So what does the future look like for successful brands?
The future is more personal. Consumers will be talked to as individuals, at the right time. They will believe that brands understand how they feel and what they value.
The future is more creative. Brands will build themselves and drive long-term engagement by creating memorable experiences.
But above all, the future is the customer – it’s all about what the customer wants.
The job of brands now is to learn how to use data, deploy technology and create content to fuel their creativity and realise these goals. In this new world, the ability of mail to bring these experiences into the home and, with its inherent permanence, stay there will make it a force to be reckoned with.
However you choose to look at it, the future of mail is bright.