Robots, pets and peanuts: What’s the future of retail marketing?

The robots have landed, the planet is burning, and nobody has any cash. But don’t worry because we have more pets per capita than pretty much anyone – and even though we’re buying our veggies on Afterpay – we still have the world’s best peanut butter. That’s the big news from our Future of Retail Marketing Conference 2023, an eclectic collection of great minds, great stories and great enthusiasm for the power of AI.

The day kicked off with a reality check from Gemma Rasmussen, Head of Research and Advocacy at Consumer, who NZ shared research on what customers care about. The biggest thing right now is cash. Back in 2021 our top three money worries were housing, health and education. Fast forward two years and the burning issues are the price of carrots and concerns about debt.

That’s not good news for retail sales. It’s our job to sell more widgets and the people doing the buying are cutting back. We have to get smarter to make the same sales. So, the question on the table was ‘how?’

It’s not just money that matters

Building on ‘what customers care about’, there was a panel discussion on ESG (I had to Google it). It’s about the intersection of environmental, social and governance responsibilities. The discussion, led by Nicky Greville, Managing Director at Spark Foundry involved Rachel O’Connor, Marketing Manager at Toyota New Zealand and Suraiya Phillimore-Smith, Chief Marketing Officer of Westpac New Zealand who shared a lot on sustainability and carbon reduction. But the key point was the importance of ‘social license’.

In the old days, ‘eco’ was something you might add for competitive advantage. Today, it’s the rules of the game. If you don’t have a commitment to triple bottom line, your customers are likely to call you out. And it’s harder than ever to fake authenticity. It’s great that the big guys are passionate about people and planet, but people now notice when you deliver record profits while they’re having trouble paying the rent. 

Omnichannel pets and peanuts

Next up were some case studies: pet care and peanut butter. Both were great in different ways. Maybe it’s easier to sell stuff in a categories people care about. But Animates and Pic’s have got the recipe right. 

The team from Animates – Rebekah Gierlinska, Managing Director at Hearts & Science and Nathalie Moolenschot, GM Marketing at Animates – talked about Omnichannel marketing. The guts of it was simple. Rather than chase down the spaces we could sell stuff through, we should focus on the space between our customers’ ears. The refreshing take from that team was “We’re not worried if people buy in the short-term, we just want to make sure they trust us to give them the best advice”. 

The story of Pic’s Peanut Butter, shared by CEO Aimee McCammon was similar, but different. Their thing is to make the best product possible and trust the people to tell each other how awesome it is. And it works. A passion product from Nelson is the country’s number one peanut butter. Success delivered through old-school story-telling and their passion to act like pirates.

The robots are ready for anything

The last gig before lunch was a panel discussion on AI. And that was cool too. It was the usual line up of tech evangelists and fast-flowing acronyms. But their message was simple. The robots aren’t coming, they’re already here. And stuff is changing. Fast. 

We learned that “Predictive AI” is pretty much everywhere. That’s the one where robots dig the data to serve up next best conversation. It’s a goldmine in marketing and the engine behind the stuff you see on your social feed. It’s optimised, effective and delivers serious results.

“Generative AI” is the new kid on the block. That’s the noise you’ve been hearing ChatGPT, Bard and Co-Pilot. These are the tools that turn simple inputs into creative outputs – like predictive text on steroids. Just tune up your ‘Prompt’ game and these tools can spit out great creative, faster, cheaper and often even better than human creatives ever could.

But the big news in the robot talk was humans. It’s easy to conceive a world where so much of what we read online is delivered by robots that nobody believes the internet anymore. So trusted brands will be the fuel that powers the robots and those human moments like in-store interactions and brand activations may well become more valued and valuable than ever.

The panel included: Matt Bain, Marketing Director at Spark, Spencer Bailey, Head of New Zealand at Meta New Zealand, Nick Houldsworth, Board Chair at Ambit, Connor Archbold, Co-founder of Tracksuit and Hayley Burrows, Head of Social at Dentsu Creative Aotearoa.

At the heart of number crunching

For many marketers, data is king. From analysing the number of ad impressions to deciding which subscribers to blitz with eDM messaging. In the afternoon session, presenters Rob Leach, General Manager at Kargo APAC and Lizzy Ryley, CEO of Loyalty NZ crunched the numbers in their respective presentations.

We learnt from Rob that Click2Cart technology is changing the way consumers buy online. No surprise there with consumers favouring efficiency and convenience when consuming shoppable ads. Some impressive tech coming our way. Rob however did reinforce the importance of strong creative in these ads.

The final talk of the day was on loyalty. Lizzy shared that brands are largely falling short in this respect, and that the way marketers use their data is beginning to frustrate consumers. The key takeout was the human element of data interpretation and use, brands need to be smart (human-smart, not AI-smart) when using data to target consumers.

The future of retail is framed by the past

Whether it’s AI informed, omnichannel or delivering on a triple bottom line, my big outtake from a day on retail future is that core marketing principles are more important than ever. Make a product people want to buy. Get into the placeswhere people buy stuff. Stay true to who you are when you promote it. And price it in a way that people feel is fair.

But there’s new news too. There’s far more awareness of how our products and business practices impact the world we live in. And the sandle-wearers of yesterday are today’s mass market – we know we can change the world by changing our choice of cornflakes.

And the robots will just get faster and smarter and better at what they do. They’re already better at finding the right person and the right time. Now they can fire out a thousand different versions of the right message too. 

Soon the only thing left for marketers will be the thinky bit in the middle. Why should people choose us? Why should they trust us? What’s special about our product that will make them believe us? And how can we create human moments that humans will remember?

And luckily that’s the best bit of marketing, right? 

NZ Marketing magazine’s Future of Retail Marketing Conference took place at Auckland’s The Cloud on June 8, 2023. MediaWorks is the Premier Sponsor with support from conference partners Kargo and SCG.

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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