Old brands, new world

I’m not in the slightest doubt that the Internet has created a huge, world-changing, still-continuing explosion in new business models and new brands.  I think that’s wonderful.  As I’ve said many times, it’s an absolute privilege to be doing what I do at a time in history when it’s all going on.

The question I’m thinking about today, though, isn’t to do with all those gazillions of new brands and new models. It’s about long-established, existing brands with long-established, existing old world models and long-established, existing customer relationships. How much have they been changed – and how much should or will they be changed – by the Internet?

Important though they can be, I’m not very interested in straight substitutions – people engaging with brands online in ways that they used to engage offline. Online grocery shopping is quite a big behavioural change for people who do it, and it’s a big operational and organisational challenge for firms who offer it. But at the end of the day, it’s still just shopping.

On that basis, when I think about my relationships with old brands in the new world, I still find that extraordinarily little has changed. Staying with grocery shopping, for example, I like Waitrose’s online recipe service – but then again, Waitrose has offered the same recipes on in-store cards for many years. And when I think about the groceries I buy there, I can hardly think of any that have significantly extended their relationship with me into the online world. There are one or two who offer me loyalty points, or who send me details of promotions and vouchers, but heaven knows plenty of that has always gone on in the offline world. And there are a few which show me amusing online games, or jokes, or viral commercials – but I’ve been fishing games and jokes out of cereal packets since I was a kid.

But otherwise, I think I relate to the family’s chosen beverage, ready meal and cleaning product brands in pretty much the same way that I ever did.

It’s more difficult to say whether the same is true in the world of services. Arguably, what I dismissively described as “straightforward substitutions” are often more significant than they first seem in this part of the world. For example, when we say our short-haul, short-stay travel options have been transformed by the development of the low-cost airline business model, we should recognise that this model is actually at least as much to do with easy, quick, online ticketing as it is to do with low prices and no frills on board.

Still, on that basis the low cost model is a new world, post-Internet phenomenon. Has our relationship with old world airlines changed to a similar extent?

I’d say not. We buy tickets and check in online, and we go online to check our loyalty points rather than wait for paper statements. This is generally easier and quicker than doing these things the old-world way, although I must say that on the rare occasions when I travel with hold bags I usually find myself wondering exactly what the difference is between “check in” and “fast bag drop.” (I quite often also find myself wondering what kind of hellish experience a “slow bag drop” could possibly be.) But, again, these are substitutions. The experience of long-haul travel – and the nature of our brand relationships with long-haul airlines – haven’t really changed.

Of course, as well as creating new ways to buy and use products and services, the Internet also offers new ways to communicate and interact with the companies that provide them. These create new threats and opportunities. Looking at it from the companies’ point of view, it’s good that you can talk to customers at virtually no cost, and, theoretically at least, in more targeted and relevant ways. But it’s bad that it much easier for customers to give you a hard time, and even worse that they can give you a hard time publicly. (We’ve all enjoyed the case histories of people with complaints going viral on You Tube or whatever and doing massive damage to companies’ reputations.) It’s difficult and expensive for brand-owners to come to terms with all this, but even so I’d still argue that ultimately we’re talking about substitutions. Pissed-off customers could always stand outside offices with placards and dump JCB-loads of manure on the head office steps.

I’m trying hard to think of any old-world brand with which I now engage significantly differently, via the Internet. I suppose it all comes down to what I mean by “significantly differently,” but I can’t think of one.

This raises questions. First, obviously, am I right, or am I just being thick? And second, if I’m right, what does it mean? Is it that pre-Internet brands established perfectly satisfactory relationships with customers, and apart from some mutually-beneficial process substitutions there’s no real need to change? Or is it that we’re still at a stage where these rut-stuck old-timers haven’t found the wit or vision to imagine how things might be dramatically different?

As you can see, I don’t know. It would be good to hear your thoughts.

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