Slippery fish: the revolution in talking to your customers

The way businesses talk to customers has changed. Have you?

My new (to me) boots from Vinted are epic. They look a bit like Elton John was doing a wardrobe detox and decided to sling them out because they’re a bit much. 

They’ve got tread like a white tractor tyre, with an upper in orange canvas and silver glitter. Let’s be honest: partly, I bought them because they were three quid. And partly because they just felt right, for me, right now. I’ll probably hate them next week.

What’s this got to do with how to speak to your customers? It’s all about capturing the zeitgeist.

Zeitgeist – our cultural worldview – is a slippery fish. It fuels fashion and drives policy. It affects how we speak and what we do. But how do we know what feels right for right now? Why does the zeitgeist change? And if you’re selling a product or service, how do you know what feels right for your customer from one week to the next?

Turning the tone of voice

I’m a writer. And I’ve recently noticed a significant change in the way businesses talk to their clients. You can see it in Sky Mobile’s Hello Possible slogan. It’s evident in Screwfix’s The Choice of Champions TV ad. Of course, it’s there in Drumbeat, the latest incarnation of the Lloyds Bank black horse TV campaigns – because Lloyds has been doing it well for years.

It’s a sense of inspirational optimism; a forward-facing feeling that the sky really is the limit.

And if you want to connect with your customers (why wouldn’t you?) it’s a change you need to understand and act on.

From patronising to powerful

I was chatting about this change to a client a couple of weeks ago. As co-founder of a specialist tech business, he’s well used to copywriters ripping his words apart, to make them more accessible. And he’s made peace with that. 

Pre-Covid, it felt right to present techie businesses as the acceptable face of geeky geniuses. ‘Pop in – we’ll put the kettle on’, ‘let’s have a chat’ or ‘we love complicated challenges and chocolate biscuits’. Anything to get across the message that developers are people too, and many of them can even interact with the rest of us quite effectively.

While accessibility is vital – particularly for a complex sector selling to ‘civilians’ who’ll be baffled by the jargon – our client was right when he described these messages as a bit patronising.

The intention comes from a good place. Nobody’s knocking friendly. But it suddenly feels a bit wrong. Today’s customer (whether B2B or B2C) wants to feel exhilarated, energised and galvanised.

Measuring humanity

While it’s impossible to measure human nature, our work as marketeers, designers and communicators has benefited massively from being able to draw on digital tools to understand people’s various behaviours. 

And with the might of its whopping great influence and equally weighty budget behind it, professional services giant Deloitte has created a tool dubbed the human values compass. It’s a complex algorithm that only those geeky geniuses can really understand, but what all the rest of us need to get our heads round are the interesting insights.

The Deloitte team studied 200,000 US consumers but we can assume that, when it comes to reactions to the pandemic, some attitudes are universal. 

Sadly, Covid-19 divided people in many ways. Certain groups suffered much more than others (more about this below). But researchers found a common theme in our reactions to that disruption. It seems we’re all moving towards placing a lot more value on trust, transparency and meaningful human interaction. 

While consumers normally have a diverse range of motivations, the pandemic has prompted us to come together in one main respect: demanding organisations deliver on their promises and show a caring attitude. 

Inequality sparks change

It’s a finding backed up closer to home by a King’s College London report, Unequal Britain: Attitudes to Inequality after Covid-19

The report starts from the understanding that the pandemic has exposed the vast difference between our resilience to crisis. A web of existing inequalities, including gender, age, race, income, social class, job role and geography all dramatically impacted people’s ability to cope during the pandemic. 

It acknowledges that: “Public perceptions of the extent and causes of these inequalities are vitally important to the functioning of societies, economies and politics. If the public think that inequalities are large and growing, and crucially, that they are unfair, this can undermine faith in political and economic systems as a whole.”

The report ties these perceptions into the government’s ‘levelling up’ and ‘fight for fairness’ campaigns, and the fact that the Labour party has put tackling inequality at the heart of its own agenda. The authors speculate that the huge level of state intervention we’ve needed to get through Covid-19 might be shifting the public mood in favour of a more interventionist society. 

Nimble is here to stay

Change is certainly in the air. After years of organisations claiming it’s impossible to cut travel, switch to flexible working or invest in new technology – to name just a few – the pandemic proved that if they want to do something badly enough, they can.

The swift shift into new ways of working, and even the launch of new products and services, has thrown back the curtain on boardroom reluctance to innovate. It’s going to be very hard for businesses to use ‘it’s impossible’ as an excuse in future. 

As the Digital Marketing Institute wrote in November 2021, as well as changes to our working lives, the pandemic changed the way people look for information, communicate and buy. Brands have had to think on their feet  to stay afloat – and the knock on effect is that we now need to reflect afresh on how we talk to customers and build loyalty.

In retail, the massive rise in e-commerce has continued, despite the end of lockdown, signalling that it’s a buying behaviour that’s not going to go away.

Businesses that refuse to adapt risk are becoming the latest casualty of changing times – names to join the likes of Blockbuster Video and Blackberry on the scrapheap. Retail chain Primark has always resolutely dug its heels in and refused to venture into e-commerce, despite customer appetite. The result? When the shop doors were locked, it had nothing to offer and lost $1 billion during the pandemic

The past couple of years also saw the disappearance of the once-mighty Topshop from our high streets, as owner the Arcadia Group went under. Where is it now? Snapped up by online success story ASOS. 

Facing forward

But e-commerce alone isn’t enough. Customers are demanding a range of options, including new ways to talk to businesses and receive your products. If you’re not offering that flexibility, they’ll just go to someone who is.

The car industry took a body blow during lockdown – but smart operators turned to tech innovations such as virtual test drives and socially-distanced delivery, as well as trying out new ways of reaching customers online. 

Virtual meetings may have their downsides but they’ve given us a glimpse of how technology can enhance human connection and communication. Family quizzes with the grandparents, streamed weddings and funerals, online theatre, virtual classrooms … the list goes on. While we’re glad to get back to in-person get-togethers, digital connection must and will continue to deepen our relationships when we’re separated by geography, disability or even poverty. 

Alongside this, consumers increasingly want to buy from businesses that care, have a social conscience and expressly set out to do the right thing for people and planet. (Discover more about purposeful businesses here).

And that’s reflected in the way we talk to each other. As we leapfrog our fear of technology, we start to see the amazing possibilities it can bring. As we actively care more about the people and places around us, we realise that optimism is an attractive and uplifting quality that will carry others on the journey with us.

We can’t all be Martin Luther King but by understanding, unleashing and harnessing the energy and hope of our colleagues, we can give our customers a glimpse of our dream.

So what about my Elton John £3 glittery orange boots? I’m sure I’ll shudder at them in a few months. But for now, they feel just right – and when I’m wearing them, they might make people smile.

At Wrapped, we base everything we do on a foundation of research – with a dash of ingenuity and many years of hard graft. Find out how our social listening, digital research, focus groups, audits and surveys can help you forge stronger relationships with your customers.
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