Photocopies of photocopies: escaping the culture of sameness in digital’s golden age

Appnovation’s Richard Palmer on swimming out of the sea of sameness / Ben Weber via Unsplash

Digital technologies promise almost unbounded potentials for innovation and differentiation – so why do so many brands look, feel and sound the same? Richard Palmer, strategy lead for EMEA at digital consultancy Appnovation, argues that differentiation through purpose will help brands escape the sea of sameness.

“A dress with a purpose is probably as punk as you can get.” So said model Lily Cole about the Vivienne Westwood-designed wild rubber dress she wore for the Met Gala in 2013. An early champion of sustainability, Westwood has long recognized the crossover between design, innovation and ethical consumerism: a fearless sense of purpose is the calling card of her successful career.

It’s an attitude that today’s retailers can learn from. With over 35,000 online retail and mail-order businesses launched in 2020 alone, the pandemic has created a new league of digital operators: brands that should, by rights, be brimming with game-changing ideas.

Instead, however, with the path to fast, instinctive customer experiences more clearly marked than ever, many players in the current online retail space suffer from an endemic culture of ‘sameness.’

Standing out from the crowd

The copycat economy was, of course, present before the pandemic, particularly in sectors such as mid-market fashion. Pre-Covid-19, a staggering 78% of brands failed to scale their digital transformation plans successfully, pointing to a growing schism between old-school operating models and new digital strategies.

The digital acceleration of the past two years may have helped to close this gap, forcing companies to thrive or fall behind, but the risk of sameness persists. Recent Accenture analysis of public financial data and interviews with C-suite leaders revealed that “a sea of sameness” in customer experience is one of the three major challenges in today’s brand landscape, with many brands stagnating due to their failure to stand out.

In the current climate, a seamless digital journey is a given. Audiences fed on a diet of Netflix and Amazon Prime expect fast, personalized service as a matter of course. But to create market momentum, progressive retailers must punch above this base point.

The purpose of emotion

Creating an emotional connection by aligning with causes that resonate deeply with consumers is a powerful way to begin this differentiation. The case for this is clear: nearly 80% of consumers are more likely to remember a company with a strong purpose, while 90% are more concerned about sustainability than ever before.

With more than a third of global consumers willing to pay more for sustainability, it makes sense that retail players such as Cervejaria Colorado are thinking outside the box when championing biodiversity and conservation awareness. The price of the Brazilian brewery’s wheat beer changes according to deforestation rates in the Amazon. The lower the deforestation rate, the cheaper the beer. Proceeds are donated to a network of indigenous communities, residents and family farmers in the Amazon region.

Meanwhile Uniqlo, having collected and donated used clothes in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency since 2006, has furthered strides toward a circular economy by turning unwanted clothes into fuel or soundproofing material, and recycling down jackets under its Re.Uniqlo initiative.

Experiential tools

These examples illustrate the consistent, creative and authentic efforts required to shrug off a bland culture. And this approach becomes even more robust if it’s rooted in innovative tech.

Take Chipotle’s Real Foodprint tracker, which helps customers analyze the sustainability of their food based on carbon emissions and gallons of water saved per ingredient. A straightforward yet compelling use of the content, the tracker was launched in partnership with Bill Nye The Science Guy on TikTok, offering credibility to a mass audience.

Meanwhile, H&M’s ‘made to order’ digital body scanner trialed at its Stockholm store looks set to address the issue of mass production and unsold inventory. The scanner takes accurate measurements of consumers, allowing them to choose their preferred wash, stitch color and fit before being sent to the factory. Customers may have to wait longer and pay more for their jeans, but many are willing to forgo instant gratification in return for a personalized product serving a sustainable purpose.

The landscape ahead

In a highly crowded, fast-paced sphere, it’s all too easy for every customer interaction to feel like a photocopy of a photocopy, lacking any sense of freshness. Against this backdrop, purpose-driven values that create an emotional response can help a brand gain definition.

Experimenting with scalable experiences, such as Charlotte Tilbury’s viral TikTok tutorials or department store Browns’s interactive dressing room mirrors, is an essential part of stand-out digital growth. Still, they need to be grounded in consumer meaning to resonate long-term.

For example, Aldi’s first checkout-free supermarket that opened last month will need to negotiate the perception by some of automation as “cold and uninspiring” by showing that it will free up humans to do more rewarding tasks, rather than replace them.

The digital ecosystem is buzzing with opportunities, but it’s not enough to create a feature merely because everyone else is doing it. Instead, retailers should channel their inner Westwoods to stay three steps ahead of market growth, with experiences steeped in innovation and a visceral sense of purpose.