“The customer is always, always, right” is how we recently summed up the power struggle that is playing out in retail right now. In Insiders #078: Brands and the Snyder Cut, we mused on the power that audiences have over brands, and how the world may not be better off for it.

What enables this environment to exist? How can we rethink the power structures between brand and customer, and enable a more equitable relationship? How do canned best practices and over-optimization relinquish power?

In this piece, we will challenge you to consider, measure and document what is powerful to your brand, and your customers, and ask you to rethink how you build and optimize experiences.

We’ll cover the following:

  • How a flawed mindset of transactional eCommerce marketing gave customers unprecedented power
  • The anti-design, brutalist, trends that stem the tide
  • A philosophical framework that could lead to a healthier state

Power and Best Practices

Best practice thinking today for customer purchasing paths follows an Aristotelian Philosophy - in terms of what is natural to the human being i.e. what is intuitive. It is intuitive - natural - for us to use the search bar to find what we want. It is natural for us to have visual and color cues for actions such as add to cart. It is natural for us to use broadly recognized symbols and words to represent navigational features and elements.

Potency --> Action

These indwelling naturalities create the potential for shoppers to spend money provided they are “disciplined” by properly executed experiences. According to this view - it’s natural that customers’ full purchasing potential will be unlocked if they are placed in an experience that aligns natural potential - that caters to their instincts, necessities, desires and goals.  Fulfill their natural wants and needs, in their natural environment, in the way that makes the most sense to them, in a timeframe that fits their lifestyle, and you’ll increase sales, goes the Aristotelian omnichannel strategy. In Aristotelians terms, this is how potentiality becomes actuality.

Our best practices are centered around building these environments.

Best Practices = imbalance of power

Best practice-led experiences inevitably lead to customers having all the power in the brand-customer relationship. Businesses that follow best practices must change their structures to conform to patterns that their customers are most inclined towards. We’ve talked a lot about boundaries at Future Commerce. The boundaries that brands and retailers most dogmatically cling to are the ones the customers “set” for them. 

Boundaries represent the will of power. Put another way: an entity with power and a desired action will set boundaries to achieve that action. Examples: you (the entity) have the desire to be healthy therefore you use your own will-power to set a boundary for your eating habits aka a diet. The government (the entity) wants for citizens to be safe on the road and has the power (rule of our land) to set the boundary of speed limits on roads.

Retail’s boundary — its Aristotelian Boundary — is the “natural” (or, default) state of the customer (and their ability to make a purchase or not) and therefore its discipline is to put into place methodologies that make intuitive and frictionless environments for purchasing.

Discipline is the enforcement of boundaries. The discipline of best practices is an enforcement of this boundary set by the customer. Current best practices give customers all the power because their entire purpose is to cater to customers' perceived natural behaviors - that’s the boundary. Regardless if you’re using ethical or dark patterns, considered or impulse purchases, the entire intent is to cater to the customer’s “potencies.”

Power is left unknown

Here’s the problem with this - if all the power is on one side of the transaction (your customers’), you have no recourse, no ability to shift, no ability to lead your customers to where you want to go. What’s potentially even more dangerous is not knowing how much power you wield.

One measure of power is the distance past the boundary before the desired outcome is no longer performed. Marketers test and measure what increases conversion (in the short term, no less), but often fail to measure, document and plan for how far they can divert from standard practices before people stop purchasing - let alone why.  A blatant example: most marketers will decrease prices via discounts to see what happens, very few ever charge ever increasing premiums to see what happens.

As a result, the balance of power is a mystery.

Power-flexing brutalism

There are the rare cases of brands pushing against “known” winning strategies. Current brutalist designs and anti-designs are one form of this power-testing. By creating jarring experiences that buck conventional best practices, brands like early anti-design entrant Entire World are proving out how much power they hold in their customers’ wallets. No matter how they change their experience, layout, content, taxonomy, etc they’re confident their customers will purchase because they know who they influence and how much they influence them. Changing the add to cart button to transparent won’t stop their customers from making a purchase.

These brands have pushed our view of user experience to the limit. We caught up with Ben Schott in Future Commerce Episode 195 to chat about brands like Faculty, Behave, Starface and more.

“And there's something about these jarring visual aesthetics of Adorkables that people like me just go, oh, it's just ugly. It's got this Normcore, ugly photography, badly set type, horrible, jarring colors. I hate it, but it's not for me. I'm not meant to enjoy it. I'm not even meant to see it. Just like the Mosquito blasted out a sound only kids can hear. Adorkables do not care whether I like them or not.” 
- Ben Schott, Future Commerce Episode 195

I think Ben is right in a clear cut sense - these brands aren’t really targeting him. But the Mosquito-blast concept could be wrong here - what if we’re intended to see these signals loud and clear - as if to say “we can do whatever we want and our customers will still purchase from us!” It’s a flex as much as it is a style.

By removing best practices as a variable in their go to market, anti-design brands adjust their equations to focus on all the other things that matter.

Discourse resets power structures

Perhaps instead of Aristotle we should be taking a cue from Michel Foucault. Foucault devoted himself to understanding how power and relationships work. This is highly relevant to commerce because transactions are a perfect window into what Foucault called “force relations” - that is to say, the things in interactions that push, urge or compel us to do things.

In contrast to Aristotle - or perhaps as the inversion of Aristotle - Foucault saw our behaviors, beliefs, and decisions not as coming from a natural state, but as a product of outside powers. We begin devoid, without the Aristotelian “naturalities”. People are what they are influenced by.

Foucault instead believed that power composed every level of interaction, from macro to micro, and it was almost impossible to predict the effects of using traditional forms of power. So many things play a role in what has power in people therefore the impact of any given action is nebulous. This is also his greatest criticism — his view of power was so elusive that it seemed impossible to do anything tangible with his ideas.

This should inspire us to learn more about the power we have in people’s lives, and do our best to understand how things impact us. While much is unknown, the little we can discover will help us understand the relationship between brand and customer.

Many marketers think that permitting, demanding, and motivating are your options for controlling a person’s behavior. Foucault might argue that the outcomes of these types of initiatives are nearly impossible to predict because power structures are too complex, too nuanced to understand. Instead, discourse and passing of knowledge are the only way to wield power.

“Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart” 
- Foucault

Foucault points us to discourse as the way to build - the sharing of experience, knowledge, and ideas. There’s a vulnerability to this - honest and transparent requires vulnerability. Future Commerce has promoted the open sharing of ideas for years as a better way for brands to engage with customers. This seems like a logical approach to untangling as much as we can.

A decent example of this happening right now is Cathie Wood and the ARK Investment Management, whose ETF has recently skyrocketed. One of the most interesting and lasting impacts that Cathie is leaving us is the volume, frequency, and transparency of content and the in-depth conversation she’s having with the others in the market. WSJ’s The Journal documents her strategy well:

“One of Wood’s strategies for success was to talk very publicly about her investment decisions… all the analysts that work at ARK, focus on various industries, they all are on Twitter and are active, constantly communicating with investors if they have questions... all the research they put available on their website... they do podcasts, they have an Instagram account… she uses videos to communicate on a monthly or more frequent basis with her investors as well. It’s not even just appearing on CNBC or Bloomberg to talk to investors, she’s taken that message directly to them.”

Cathie is creating power through discourse, leading to one of the most successful fund launches ever.

What does this mean for retailers? If you want to be more than a brand that just sells things, you need to provide ways for honest discussions with your customers. Concepts like: content, community, education, curation, gatherings, spaces, dining/meals, activities, one-to-one, listening, organizing, clarifying, small groups, large groups, free flow, guided.

In conclusion, if there are no innate naturalities, retailers and brands actually have more opportunity than they think. Rather than obsess about frictionless, slick, intuitive experiences, they can craft experiences of meaning and power. It reminds me of another Foucault quote:

“In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production”

A reliance and focus on what is actually powerful will provide more freedom and safety when it comes to the future of your brand, and give customers a better, more meaningful experience that they’re more likely to return to. The transaction isn’t the point, it’s an indication of power. Brands should build on values, relationships, art, function, and exploration.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t optimize, measure, and plan around what is “working”. There’s money to make now and there are known levers to pull to get there. Also when you lack the skill set or resources to accomplish key aspects of building your business, it’s better to rely on best practices than to do nothing at all or do things poorly. What we hope is that you’ll be inspired to remember, refocus, rethink, consider your relationship with your customers, recognize your role in that relationship, and, if necessary, as best you can, find ways to readjust that balance of relationship power.