Before COVID-19 changed the world in 2020, brands were already on the path toward digital transformation. But when the planet went on lockdown, they needed to accelerate their plans.
Early on, brands faced supply chain backups, infrastructure challenges and a rapid consumer shift to digital channels.
Almost two years later, marketers say this swift pivot to all-digital has led to more business, deeper customer loyalty and better operating efficiency.
In a Thursday session titled “Content to Commerce: How Technology Flipped the Customer Experience” at CES, moderated by MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan, marketers from Instacart, McDonald’s, General Motors and Target spoke about how the digital revolution has led to better customer connections.
For instance, Target’s EVP, chief digital and marketing officer Cara Sylvester said while the retail giant was heavily focused on customer engagement prior to the pandemic, investing and developing the Target app allowed it to build deeper relationships with customers. The Target Circle customer loyalty program, available through the app, now boasts 100 million members.
“When you use our app, it's not just based on what you've bought with us before. Now we know who you are as a human, so you're going to see personalized experiences,” she said.
Sylvester added that thanks to online transformation, Target can take an “always-on approach” to marketing.
For instance, while the retailer might have previously targeted Black customers with a campaign during Black History Month, it can now have an always-on, personalized approach to helping its customers support Black-owned brands.
At McDonald’s, CMO Tariq Hassan said digital acceleration has allowed the QSR to refocus on what’s really important to customers and double down there.
For instance, while McDonald’s drive-thrus kept business open during the pandemic, heavier usage of its app required McDonald’s to recognize and address issues with mobile ordering, curbside pickup and other features.
“[Digital transformation] forced us to get back to the things that really mattered to our customers: speed, convenience and accuracy,” he said. “It also allowed us to access our customers [with content] and the food that they love.”
He noted that social campaigns, such as Famous Orders, helped McDonald’s better understand its customers and their interests.
The shift to digital has also allowed brands to interact with customers on their own terms, as opposed to offering a rigid experience.
Edward Kummer, chief digital officer at General Motors, said that since adding more flexibility to the car shopping process, such as the ability to make purchases and complete paperwork online, the automaker has seen that customers enter its showrooms having already done their homework.
“Our customers are much more educated, and now people [buy cars] in different ways,” he said. “Some people walk into a showroom and they want to drive off that day, while others are going to research and get educated for months before they decide on what to buy.”
But what did it take to get there?
Even all-digital businesses have had to pivot. Instacart, for its part, began to analyze consumers’ purchasing patterns to create even more relevant experiences on its platform as usage skyrocketed during the pandemic, said COO Asha Sharma.
“In a matter of weeks, our volume grew four to five times,” she said. “So we had to drop everything as a company and focus on three things: keeping our shoppers safe, serving as many customers as possible, and fulfilling orders at the highest quality.”
In that process, Instacart learned that some of its customers’ biggest frustrations occurred when they couldn’t access key items they purchased every week. We had to get very good at predicting and understanding fulfillment rates, availability and tuning our engines to [create] a seamless checkout,” she continued. “For many people, a shopping trip isn't just a bag of groceries; it's a set of experiences and it's our job to be able to bring that to the forefront for them.”
Despite the growing pains, the changes wrought by digital transformation have been beneficial and represent the future of commerce, the panelists agreed.