Mastercard is on a mission to curate and create priceless experiences that money cannot buy, says Raja Rajamannar, CMO of the company, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast.
While credit cards have historically been about giving consumers speed and convenience, over the past couple of decades they have made strides into becoming an integral part of how consumers live their lives.
“We are a lifestyle brand. Lifestyle doesn’t mean it’s lifestyle for the rich and famous -lifestyle for everyone,” explains Rajamannar. “Everyone deserves to lead a beautiful life and to grow.”
On the one hand there’s the fact the technology is more seamless – gone is the swiping and signing, and in is the tapping and dipping. And if you’re shopping online, digital wallets mean you don’t even need to remember your password.
But on top of that today are perks focusing on giving consumers exclusive access to events, services and treats that help create an even deeper emotional connection between brand and participant.
A few years ago, Mastercard noticed a change in consumer behavior and strategically shifted its advertising spend into experiences. It now hosts over 750 experiences on any given day globally, from recreating the iconic The Rock restaurant from Zanzibar in NYC’s Tribeca, to enabling card holders to shadow Cirque du Soleil cast members in Canada. This strategy is based on addressing key consumer passion points, ranging from music and sports to the environment and philanthropy.
During this episode, Rajamannar explores creating emotional connections, gives advice to brands on how to drive loyalty through having a clear purpose, and reveals an industry first: why the brand is launching a sonic identity.
When you start a business, you should always be thinking about what your end goal is, says Adam Brown, founder of luxury swimwear brand Orlebar Brown, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast. In Brown’s case, it was the eventual acquisition by none other than Chanel.
Many founders pride themselves on being scrappy, and figuring it out as they go along. There is an element of truth to that approach – Brown spent the brand’s first two years in a storage unit in West London learning every aspect of the business, from pressing shorts to talking to customers on the phone.
But he knew from the get-go that one of the strongest tools he could have under his belt was finding the people he trusted to do the things that were beyond his expertise. That is a surprisingly rare trait for a founder, who often have so much emotional stake in the game that it is hard to let go of the control.
Brown, however, always knew he didn’t want to be a CEO with 300 stores across the globe. He also doesn’t consider himself a designer, but rather a curator. So his focus became the product, and creating a process to perfectly tailor swim shorts that fit every body shape, and could take you from the beach to a fancy dinner party. The brand filled a gap in the market and quickly created its own niche.
And in 2018, just at the right time, Chanel came knocking. The acquisition, says Brown, represents the perfect marriage of aspirations that both sides have for the swimwear brand, as well as the chance to leverage many of Chanel’s mature capabilities in brand positioning, sourcing, e-commerce, and so on.
During this conversation, Brown tells us just why the Chanel partnership is a match made in heaven, how they are looking to connect sustainability with the brand in a creative way, and just what is needed to make the luxury consumer forget the price tag.
“We’re operating under the thesis that billion dollar brands will not exist in the future,” says Zak Normandin, founder and CEO of Iris Nova, the company behind wellness drink brand, Dirty Lemon, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global.
“I know Dirty Lemon isn’t going to be popular in a few years. And I want to already have three type of products in the pipeline that we’re launching right now, because consumers are very transient in their decisions to buy products,” he explains.
Dirty Lemon launched in 2015 and quickly gained the type of cult following that only brands born online manage to achieve. It did so through a mixture of being at the right place, at the right time – in this case, right in the middle of the wellness boom – and carefully crafted branding that positioned it as a lifestyle offering, rather than just a product.
But Normandin, a CPG entrepreneur at heart, has much bigger plans than creating fleeting frenzy around a single product line. From inception, his Instagrammable bottles could only be bought online, with purchase being completed via text message. In 2018, it launched the Drug Store, an unmanned retail concept where customers could pick up a Dirty Lemon drink and simply walk out, texting to complete their purchase as they did so. This innovative retail model, alongside a stream of new product launches happening over the next few months, demonstrates Normandin’s ambitions to keep reacting to customer needs and behaviors before they move onto the next hot thing.
During this conversation, recorded at this year’s SXSW at the Current Global’s Innovation Mansion, Normandin also share with Liz Bacelar the new products launching under the Iris Nova family, what the retail experience is doing to inform future product development, and how Coca Cola is not only one of the brand’s biggest investors, but also its competitor.
There was undeniably a continued focus on culture at SXSW this year, as what was once the behemoth tech festival aligned itself with broader societal shifts as well as the consumer itself.
Author Brene Brown set the tone by opening the first day of the event with a discussion on empathy and the simple notion of belonging and connection in a digital age. Now, this as a concept isn’t new for SXSW – it was our top takeaway from 2018 off the back of rising concerns around the ethics of artificial intelligence. But this year, it wasn’t said in the context of how we should build technology to behave, but instead really on how we as individuals can live better lives.
On the simplest end of the scale, that of course meant experiences – evidenced by the brand activations that continued to pop up around the city of Austin. Offering opportunities for people to have a great time, isn’t going anywhere. But on top of that was everything from politicians fighting for what society deserves through to an increased focus on wellness.
Underpinning all of it? How we create greater than ever relevancy for individuals in a way that is both fair and meaningful.
It’s easy to say wellness was a trend at this year’s festival – its presence was felt more than ever, from the huge volume of cannabis-related programming (60 sessions to be precise) to the second year of the wellness expo, which featured everything from breathwork 101 to a conversation on Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. There were also activations including the Real Self House, which offered free consultations with medical doctors and complementary treatments such as lasers and injectables.
Our Innovation Mansion also heavily focused on wellness, with speakers including Calm founder Michael Acton Smith, Dirty Lemon, Recess and Under Armour all playing a role. Where these conversations proved particularly interesting, was in the way connectivity played a role. This wasn’t so much about wearables, nor about that “quantified self” trend from years gone past – rather it was around how technology is more passively enabling me to find out more about myself to then achieve better results.
One key example was in L’Oréal’s announcement of its partnership with microbial genomics company, uBiome, which the Current Global’s Liz Bacelar explored with Guive Balooch, VP of L’Oréal’s technology incubator, on the SXSW main stage. This is about deepening its research into the skin’s bacterial ecosystem in order to develop more personalized skincare solutions for individuals. The end goal is quite literally prescribing products based on exactly what the science of our own bodies tell us we need. “When it comes to skincare, people often audition product after product to determine what works for their unique skin. At L’Oréal, our goal is to advance scientific research and leverage new technologies to change this relationship, by allowing deeper levels of personalization.”
Meanwhile, futurist Amy Webb dedicated a good portion of her trends talk to biometrics, not just for identification scanning, but predicting behaviors. “These are systems that take all biodata and are constantly learning from it in some way, she explained, referencing Pivot Yoga’s connected yoga pants, which monitor poses and correct users’ form while syncing the data to an app. It’s the first time behavioral biometrics made it into her trend report, she noted. She related such a trend to “Persistent Recognition Systems”, which arealgorithms that use our unique features, like bone structure, posture, or facial expressions to recognize not only who we are, but our frame of mind in real-time and make personalized suggestions as a result.
In doing so, consumers often end up giving out more information than they realize, Webb added. At Walmart, a smart shopping cart could measure your temperature, heart rate, and grip strength. If the cart senses you’re angry, it can send a representative to help you out. Walmart is reportedly using this data to create a baseline of biometric information about individual users to drive better customer service.
Optimizing data about individuals is the million dollar question for brands. We hear this at every trade show, conference, festival and exhibition we go to around the world. We hear it from every client. How do I better get to know my customer? And how do I then ensure relevancy for them in order to drive my conversions upwards?
SXSW was no different. Amazon Fashion’s CTO, Tony Bacos, said relevancy is his number one goal. “We’re focused on helping connect people to the products that we know are going to delight them. Not just in their individual taste and style but in their bodies,” he explained. By that he meant thinking about how to drive personalized discovery when the challenge is the huge scale of Amazon’s catalog, and then how to solve fit and sizing issues. With the latter he referenced machine learning in order to map sizing from one brand to the next as well as understand the role consumer preference and buying history play. Virtual try-on, where users can visualize themselves in items, will play a role for Amazon in the future, he hinted.
“No one has nailed these things in fashion yet – both the opportunity to create better and personalized experiences online and to solve the fit challenge,” he said. “That’s why it’s an exciting category.”
Kerry Liu, CEO of artificial intelligence software company, Rubikloud, agreed the future of retail really is about relevancy, and about using AI behind the scenes to facilitate it. In the words of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, it’s about using tech to “quietly but meaningfully improve core operations”, he said. But more than that, it’s about optimizing decision making, which increasingly humans alone cannot do.
Walmart CTO Jeremy King, said it’s about efficiency, which ultimately means giving humans the tools to make better use of their time. As Marie Gulin Merle, CMO of Calvin Klein, reminded everyone: “Fashion is an emotional business; you still need people to shake the hearts of the consumers.”
With a focus on data, of course comes conversation around privacy and increasingly, regulation. When the programming suggestions were submitted to SXSW last summer for inclusion in this year’s content line-up, top of mind were two major subjects within this: the GDPR regulations in Europe, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook. Cue such continued debate come March.
Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor and one-time advisor to Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, spoke about the importance around regulation. “Users and society have not had a chance to debate whether companies should gather information and profit from people’s financial transactions, health data, or location,” he noted. An avid critic of Facebook today, he nonetheless understands the problem is endemic to a world where the most profitable business model is tracking people, using data to predict their behavior, and steering them toward the companies’ desired outcomes.
One company keeping a close eye on regulation is Foursquare, whose co-founder Dennis Crowley explained the company’s evolution from hyperlocal advertising to a business-to-business data play. “Now, Foursquare offers a base map of the world,” he said. But it refuses to sell data on individual customers in the process.
For Facebook, by comparison, the pressure around data privacy continues to heat up. Just before SXSW, Zuckerberg announced the platform will shift its focus away from public posts to encrypted, ephemeral communications on its trio of messaging apps. To McNamee, this supposed commitment to encryption and privacy reads like a stunt. “They’re not getting out of the tracking business. My problem with Facebook is not whether it’s end-to end-encrypted. It’s what are they doing with the tracking, what are they doing to invade my private spaces. I don’t want them buying my credit card history. I do not want them doing business with health and wellness apps to get all that data. I do not want them buying my location data from my cellular carrier.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren also took to the SXSW stage to address her tech regulatory proposal, announced the day before. This seeks to undo massive tech mergers that exist and introduce legislation that would prohibit marketplace owners from developing products for sale on their own platforms. “Amazon has a platform to sell you a coffee maker, but that company also sucks out an incredible amount of information about every buyer and seller. Then they can make a decision to go start a competing coffee making-selling outfit, and drive out of business everyone else in that space,” she said. McNamee revealed he’s now advising Warren as a presidential candidate for 2020, on her data regulation agenda.
For global brands, the role of data privacy is only going to continue apace. Regulation looks inevitable in the US, as it has been in Europe. The question is, how to balance that pressing consumer demand for personalization with the protection they equally expect.
Additional reporting by Larissa Gomes.
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“Collaborations to me, are a love affair,” says Eno Polo, US president of Alpagartas, the parent company of the world’s most popular flip flop brand, Havaianas, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global.
Collaborations are at the core of both the brand’s success and its wide reach, but in order to become successful, they need to remain authentic, he explains. “It has to be two-way. I think a lot of brands out there force collaborations, they pay for collaborations. But if you pay for going out with a girl, I don’t call that a love affair. I’d rather it be a natural feeling – she likes me, I like her – and we go out together. That’s what I call a true collaboration, and those are the ones I think are most successful.”
Havaianas shot onto the international stage when French designer Jean Paul Gaultier accessorized his models on the New York and Paris catwalks with the flip flops in 1999, instantly turning them into an object of desire. What followed was a series of fashion brands wanting to collaborate with the now-iconic brand, hoping to borrow some of the color and freshness that only a Brazilian label could bring to the table.
Today, Havaianas produces over 250 million pairs a year, or 10 pairs a second, and is Europe’s number one sandal brand.
Beyond its ambitious expansion plans across the globe comes a mounting pressure for the brand to tackle the issue of sustainability, which may well still be in toddler stages in its native country, but is steadily becoming a business imperative elsewhere.
For Polo, the fact that the company is scaling its retail footprint and office count across Europe and the US means there is a growing internal pressure to become more sustainable. The brand is doing so by focusing on employee welfare, but also wants to tackle and own the fight for sustainability at the beaches where its products are so ever-present.
During this conversation, Polo also talks through the company’s history from catering to Brazil’s working class to hitting the beaches of Ibiza; the importance of creating a retail experience that puts a smile on the customer’s feet; and why creating such a simple product allows the brand to remain fun.
Technology can enable us to do great things, says Warby Parker co-founder and CEO, Neil Blumenthal, with regards to the brand’s meteoric rise in the direct-to-consumer space, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global.
Speaking to Liz Bacelar at this year’s NRF Big Show in New York, Blumenthal explains how technology is critical to making customers’ lives easier.
Warby Parker sees itself sitting at the intersection of three communities – tech, fashion, and social enterprise, he notes. It’s both a tech company and a retailer focused on creating products and services that tangibly impact consumers every day.
Warby Parker is one of Silicon Valley’s first so-called unicorns, a special group of startups that exceed expectations to pioneer within their own category by hitting over $1bn in valuation – including Airbnb, Uber and WeWork.
The nine-year-old company has paved the way to creating a great retail experience that transverses seamlessly between online and offline, and as a result, inspired the business model of many single-product focused startups known to consumers today – from suitcases at Away, to footwear at Allbirds.
But from its scrappy beginnings hosting a showroom at Blumenthal’s New York apartment, to being one of the first DTC brands to launch a brick-and-mortar retail space, the eyewear company has had a razor sharp focus on treating the whole experience of buying glasses as a single product – from trial to wear.
From its successful at-home trial program to digital eye tests, Warby Parker works with a team of in-house technologists to constantly iterate its approach to better serving the customer. For example, after receiving feedback that it was inconvenient for customers to take time off work to get an eye exam, it developed a prescription app that pairs an iPhone to a second screen to test the user’s vision. Recently, it then deployed Apple’s new AR technology to launch a virtual try-on feature.
During this conversation, Blumenthal also shares how the brand has been built to resonate with multiple consumer segments, the importance of the social aspect of the company, and why he sees Amazon more as inspiration, rather than threat.
“If you’re dealing with finite supply, then you need to understand demand to figure out what it is people are willing to pay,” says Josh Luber, founder of streetwear online marketplace, StockX, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by TheCurrent Global.
“What brands have historically relied on is the concept of mass chaos and taking advantage of that hype (…) But having a pair of Off-White Jordans that retail for $490 but resell for $2400 and just relying on bots and chaos in order to distribute it is an illogical and broken system,” he explains.
Luber’s platform, which in 2018 took on $44m in investment from Google, among others, launched in 2016 to level the playing field between buyers and sellers in a retail landscape that seems to enjoy feeding off an endless cycle of streetwear FOMO and having the latest, hottest sneaker on the market.
The re-sale market used to be a Wild West, Luber explains, but data and technology are now being deployed in order to better value these products and provide an unforeseen level of transparency and fairness to both sellers and buyers. Inspired by how the traditional stock market works, the platform tracks product demand and pricing across the web in order to sell it in real time. This, as well as a tool that displays an itemized history of transactions of a product, balances the power dynamic between sellers and buyer, which historically sided with the seller and how much they wanted to sell their product for.
StockX’s success is also hugely indicative of how a one-time underground industry that was powered by its community and word-of-mouth access, is becoming increasingly structured in order to cater to more mature and educated consumers. In other words, the larger it becomes, the more it needs the infrastructure to support it.
During this conversation with TheCurrent Global’s Liz Bacelar, Luber explains how his background as an entrepreneur and IBM consultant, led him to StockX, how the platform’s customer is evolving, and why discovery is playing such a huge role in its future plans.
This cannabis retailer is currently valued at over $1.5bn. Its challenge however is to design an experience that removes the anxiety of consuming cannabis that the majority of casual users still carry, as well as appease local authorities hungry to ensure strict legislations.
The consumer piece can be easily facilitated by knowledgeable store associates, who Dancer refers to as sommeliers and who play a huge role in demystifying the experience, from branding to education. “We want to make sure that people feel comfortable and can ask the questions they need answers to,” he explains. It also helps that curiosity around consumption is at an all-time high, largely thanks to the wellness movement.
But the bigger challenge for the retailer is dealing with legislations even stricter than those reserved to selling alcohol and tobacco. Although there may be an intentional Apple-like design sensibility and minimalism to MedMen’s 17 stores nationwide, much of it has to do with regulations: many products have to be displayed under locked casing – hence the beautiful display tables – while it is not allowed to have any signage or marketing on its windows. It is also restricted on locations due to zoning, such as near schools, and instead chooses areas that are friendly and feel safe, including LA’s Santa Monica Boulevard and New York’s Fifth Avenue.
The MedMen experience then becomes a clever ballet of branding and communications, combined with a retail experience that aims to allow customers to discover and try at their own pace, or to meet their own individual needs.
As the US audience begins to become more at ease with cannabis becoming a common part of their everyday lives – from smoking to CBD-infused cocktails and spa treatments – the retailer continues to navigate challenges by listening intently to what its customers and staff have to say. During this conversation, recorded with Liz Bacelar at this year’s NRF Big Show in New York, Dancer also shares the retailer’s heavy investment on the education piece, which includes a published magazine, and how the ever-evolving, and hyper-local, legislations pushes it towards constant innovation.
“In fashion, I sold things to people that they didn’t need. You don’t need a beautiful bustier dress from Dolce & Gabbana, you want it, so it is about a want-based marketing,” says Clement Kwan, co-founder of luxury cannabis brand Beboe, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by TheCurrent.
“In marijuana what we realized was everything was about the product. How high can you get? At what price? So we flipped the script,” Kwan, who is a former executive at YOOX and Dolce & Gabbana, notes.
Beboe launched in 2017 at a time when cannabis consumption was riding high. Off the back of the growing wellness trend, consumers have become increasingly educated on the physical and mental benefits of the plant, and a series of new products and retail models have entered the market to respond to the demand. The plant has now been legalized for medicinal use in 33 US states, and for recreational use in 10. The country now accounts for 90% of the global legal marijuana trade, valued at $8.5bn.
For Kwan and his business partner, tattoo artist Scott Campbell, the ambition was to create the first luxury global cannabis brand, so its product design and marketing approach played a key role in helping destigmatize the plant and attract a more influential clientele.
By creating a desirable product that acted as a conversation starter, consumers would naturally become brand advocates, he explains. The approach has so far made Beboe stand out from the crowd, and earn the nickname of the “Hermès of cannabis”, as coined by the New York Times.
During the conversation, Kwan tells TheCurrent’s Liz Bacelar how he is applying his learnings from fashion into creating a desirable wellness and lifestyle brand, why education is the industry’s biggest challenge, and what’s next for Beboe’s growing portfolio.
Successful retail experience today is about trial, service and entertainment, says Eleanor Morgan, chief experience officer of direct-to-consumer mattress brand Casper, on the latest episode of The Innovators podcast by TheCurrent.
Speaking to Liz Bacelar at The Lead Summit in New York, she says the company really focuses on designing experiences that are optimized for those three things rather than inventory availability and convenience. What’s key is giving customers the ability to try out products, get consultation from experts in house and enjoy moments with the brand.
Casper has grown from an online retailer to a brick-and-mortar business with 20 stores across the US, along with an innovative sleep bar. The Dreamery, as it’s called, is a new napping space in New York built around experiential aims. It offers nap pods in a peaceful lounge along with a Casper mattress where consumers can pay $25 for a 45-minute snooze.
It also serves as an extension of the brand’s aim to drive a cultural change around sleep. “The Dreamery is a provocation and a way to essentially say, it’s not only acceptable to take a nap during the day and take a break, but it’s celebrated, and we can actually build a community of people that really value this and feel like it’s a socially fun behavior,” Morgan explains.
Casper was founded in 2014 with the mission of bringing great sleep to more people. With the diet and exercise industries booming, the founders saw a gap where sleep was completely ignored. Today, Casper is worth over $750m and has plans to open 200 store locations within the next three years.
Morgan attributes much of the brand’s growth to staying customer centered and focused on data. The company opened 18 pop-up stores in four months to test consumer engagement before opening its first permanent location, for instance. Through feedback and reviews from its consumers, it has been able to understand what their needs are, how they purchase their products, and how to improve their shopping experience.
During the conversation, Morgan also talks about the secret sauce to creating successful pop-up stores, what a modern sleep community looks like, and where Casper will be headed in the future.
Catch up with all of our episodes of the Current Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by the Current Global, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.