Forget CX, the future is HX

"Brands need to stop targeting customers and start serving humans."

COVID-19 lockdowns have exacerbated a dangerous trend for brands of all kinds – people disconnecting as they live and work through screens. We’ll come out of this with a populace hungrier than ever for human connection. When we do, marketing’s preoccupation with customer experience, or CX, will fall flat.

The prevailing CX theory is that if we converge marketing disciplines and data with CRM technology, we can lead people to purchase, prove outcomes and perpetuate brand relationships. That may fill the purchase funnel but it can leave customers cold.

When my wife tried to return a product to a prominent athleisure brand last month, the CX fell short. No record of her purchases in her online account, no email address to contact for returns, several hour-long conversations with unempowered customer service reps, emails with broken links to print return labels, and a 90-minute wait to return the product in-store. The brand’s CX strategy deterred a simple return and made my wife’s first purchase her last.

CX can’t get us to deeper human connection. At best, it creates a more efficient, expedient transaction. CX forfeits effectiveness in the spirit of efficiency, and empathy in the name of transparency. CX is based on what, not why; on behavior, not emotion. All the integration in the world falls flat if the marketer fails to satisfy the feeling that drives our behavior.

True brand power isn’t in integration; it’s in understanding and service. Brands will only earn committed relationships with people by making a continuous, meaningful difference in their lives. That’s not simply a matter of leveraging technology to develop a faster funnel or more seamless interaction; it’s about reorienting it to produce a more human one.

In March, Worldwide Partners and GlobalWebIndex surveyed 3,600 Internet users across the US, UK, China, Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. One of the main things we found is that the most powerful use of technology in marketing will be to bring prospective buyers face-to-face with people who make a brand and provide a service. For example, in healthcare, we found that while people in the US and UK will use telehealth in a pandemic, 67% still want to see doctors in person. What’s more, a growing number of people worry that AI and apps will diminish the time they get with doctors and nurses. 

Human experience is what people crave and brands are increasingly missing. HX is the new premium. More than all its features and benefits combined, a brand’s HX will determine its ultimate value. HX is a step change from the CX standard. It’s about how deeply we understand individual desires and how authentically we give people access to them, not how tightly we coordinate an attack on commercial targets.

Where CX identifies you, HX will understand you. So, instead of personalized marketing, we must deliver personal marketing. An example is the new campaign for "Visit California," where agency Mering gives the state a human personality and voice in text messages – talking person-to-person with prospective visitors – such as "can’t stop thinkin’ boutcha" and "get together again soon?"

HX will require marketers to use technology to support rather than transcend human experiences. For example, smart healthcare marketers will use technology to speed up the back-end administration for and between medical professionals. At the same time, they’ll bring doctors and nurses together with patients and put the professionals forward in advertising content, so they can show how technology is enabling them to know and treat patients better.

Lifestyle marketers can do likewise. When China’s stores were closed during COVID-19 lockdowns, Estee Lauder live-streamed skincare product demonstrations by sales representatives. Similarly, Nike live-streamed the launch of the Air Max 2090 to more 2.7 million viewers via Alibaba’s Taobao Live.

HX marketers will take a local approach to personal marketing. People’s values are different by demography, geography, interest group, and myriad other ways they self-classify. For example, our research found that in the CPG space, craft brands can carry a premium in mature markets but people in emerging markets will bypass them for more established brands.

Finally, HX will give people the opportunity to live out their own stories. That’s the zenith of personal marketing. For example, agency Rosbeef! made French ready-to-wear brand Gémo’s 2020 spring-summer collection a part of the video game "Animal Crossing." Rosbeef! recreated the clothing in pixel art so players can dress their avatars in the new pieces for different events and occasions. Then there’s a runway show and Gémo store in the game’s simulated village, which offers new avatar clothes in exchange for free download codes.

The defining challenge for marketing in the technology age is to put people first again. Where CX delivers a more satisfying transaction; HX will enable a more fulfilling life.

John Harris is CEO of Worldwide Partners, a global network of independent agencies.


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