Playing the online game: Data versus Emotions

Giraj Sharma October 31 | Updated on October 31, 2021

Is e-commerce a threat or saviour for brands?

A to Z of your needs is something that the Amazon logo hints at, and we are seeing that getting delivered in India now. Consumers are increasingly getting hooked on to e-commerce. According to NASSCOM projections, India will close the year 2021 with an e-commerce sales volume of $56.6 billion. Though largely price-offers and discount deals driven, the e-commerce phenomenon is posing some pertinent questions to marketers and brand custodians. ‘Is e-commerce a threat or saviour for brands?’ is what we examined at our latest M.A.D.D. (Marketing Academy’s Discussion & Debate) — an informal platform, where branding and media professionals get together in a huddle to re-examine tenets of marketing.

Reach vs democratisation

For niche brands and for young brands that lack the distribution muscle, e-commerce certainly has started levelling the playing field. As Sridhar Narayan, Digital Sales Director at Adobe India, put it during the session, “e-commerce is equal to reach”.

But while the reach is an opportunity, the absence of exclusivity of that reach and the democratisation of the distribution could be a threat.

What ecommerce does provide to brands is huge amounts of data and analytics to serve their customers better. This could be their saviour in today’s complex world, where the more you personalise, the more you score.

Conventionally, branding used to be all about emotions. At least that’s the foundation on which many a great brand has been built. Can data or the algorithms that the e-commerce evangelists swear by track emotions?

On this, opinions differed. Data, according to Rishi Srivastava, a former Microsoft honcho who now invests and mentors technology start-ups, can help create an emotions map and thus facilitate an outreach where the brand can connect emotionally with the consumer.

But brand communication strategist Sanjay Sarma felt that AI could at best map one’s mood and not emotions. Emotions, according to Sarma, are a bunch of memories that eventually consolidate to create a certain kind of trigger. These are built over a longer period of time and rely on a lot more variables, which make it difficult for data to track.

Competition and ethics

Data itself can become a threat — especially as the repository is with e-commerce portals, who could use it for their own purposes. As consumer behaviour specialist, B. ‘Nary’ Narayanaswamy pointed out, e-commerce platforms have the behavioural data and they have used it ‘pretty ruthlessly’ to create private labels and, in the process, cannibalise sales of regular brands.

For some categories, such as grocery, private labels are certainly a threat for established brands. They know who is buying what, when and how, and can deliver tailored products. Nary felt that consumer behaviour would not get impacted by brand values and the traditional brand thinking that marketers have in mind.

Whenever one talks of data being captured and used — the issue of ethics, makes its way into the discussion. There are still no clearly defined laws across the globe. The average consumer viewpoint on this, however, appears to be that they have no quarrel with their data being tracked, if brands can use it to serve them better. And this is where brands are still not measuring up. As Jose Leon, COO at Indigo Consulting said, brands would do well to track the entire journey of the customer right up to advocacy and employ Chief Journey Officers!

Finally, as Shekhar Nerala of SN Strategy Consulting summed it up, e-commerce has changed the game because of the phenomenal convenience it provides customers. “It actually helps the consumer the freedom to vacillate, ponder, discuss, research and go back and forth without being judged.” And, hence, that leaves brand custodians with no other option but to immerse completely in the world of e-commerce. The challenge is to take the fundamentals of conventional marketing — especially customer experience and moment of truth — and embed these in a meaningful way in the e-commerce universe.

(Giraj Sharma is founder director of consulting boutique Behind the Moon and curator of marketing platform M.A.D.D)

Published on October 31, 2021

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