McDonalds, Target, GM marketers: Digital acceleration is about delivering a human touch

Marketing and digital leaders from McDonald's, Salesforce, General Motors, Target US and Instacart share the digital advancements and tools uniting content and commerce experiences during Consumer Electronics Show panel

The pandemic may have been a time of digital acceleration, but it’s brought with it the tools and tenacity to enable brands to find more human connections with customers and employees.

That is at least is the view of marketing and digital leaders from McDonalds, General Motors, Target US, Instacart and Salesforce, who participated in a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) discussing the growing connection between content and commerce in CX thanks to technology.

Target US chief marketing and digital officer, Cara Sylvester, said the most interesting thing digital acceleration has done for the retailer is to deepen the relationship with guests through omnichannel retail experiences.

“If you open our app, we know you – and that’s not just based on what you bought but who you are as a human,” she said. “For example, if you are a teacher, you’re getting an offer for classroom supplies; if you’re a parent, you’re getting ideas on what to put in kids’ lunchbox this week. Closing that loop is the Target Circle loyalty program, which now has 100 million members. Guests love that they can find deals as well as contribute back to the community.”  

The other consequence of digital that’s unlocked deeper connection, according to Sylvester, is moving marketing from an episodic relationship with key guest segments to an always-on approach.

“For example, previously we would have had a Black History Month campaign for month of February. We now have an always-on approach for guests allowing them to find and support emerging black-owned brands and emerging brands all year round,” she said. “Digital platforms have allowed us to drive growth in and visibility of these brands. While DE&I has always been part of or agenda, digital expanded our reach and to drive positive change.”  

It’s a similar story over at McDonalds. Chief marketing and digital experience officer, Tariq Hassan, said the pandemic and the many and continuing supply chain, health and accessibility challenges it’s created forced the QSR giant to focus on “the things that really matter to customers”. This was evident throughout messaging to digital and app investments.

“It forced us to remove the noise in many ways and easy distractions we might have looked at by expanding, instead of going deep on the things we know that matter,” Hassan explained.  

“Thanks to our forefathers, we already had drive-thrus. So accessibility wasn’t the immediate challenge. The immediate challenge was how to deliver on things customers expect – speed, convenience and accuracy. And in many ways, it required us to increase the importance of and remind people what’s great about our food.

“We also used digital and engagement to connect with customers in different ways. An example was bringing in celebrities to define their favourite orders and making those available. Accessing that with customers was a way to unlock content in a way that engages customer with the food they love.

“Then it as about extending value to customers with things like the app and rewards program. So yes, we focused on the core message then built around the value from us.”

GM chief digital officer, Edward Kummer, agreed customers are much more educated across all industries than they were before, including automotive, and noted the growing role digital channels play in the purchase process.

“When you buy a car, you do it in different ways – some go into a dealer and drive away, others research for months, some do most online or do most in the showroom. In addition, there’s a lot of paperwork that might have to be done online. We serve customers in a way they want to be served,” he said.  “People in future will buy and interact the way they want to do it.”  

At grocery delivery and pick-up service, Instacart, Covid forced a focus on three key tactical responses, chief operating officer, Asha Sharma, said. These were: Keeping customers on top of mind; serving as many customers as possible from home and ensuring safely; and fulfilling orders at the highest quality level that so people had their essentials.

But the biggest strategic learning was that people have keystone items, pandemic or not.

“What we found was people were incredibly frustrated if we couldn’t deliver their keystone order,” Sharma said. “We had to get very good at predicting and understanding fulfilment rates, availability and gearing our engines to achieve that.

“This keystone item mentality is important as we have progressed and it’s relevant for all shopping needs. There is a centrepiece almost every basket is built around. That might be a special roast for a recipe, or a birthday gift. If we don’t have that item, we are disappointing the customer. So we worked very closely with CPGs and retailers to get really great at that occasion phase and basket shopping experience, helping people basket build and knowing and predicting what will be available when they want it and how they want it.

“For many, a shopping trip isn’t a basket of groceries, it’s a set of experiences they want to create.”  

Technology advancement

Technology and digital again come to the fore here. Both Sylvester and Hassan pointed to relatively new loyalty program mechanisms as significant in advancing customer experience on a more human level.

“That [loyalty mechanism] enables us to get that data and understand our customers on a human level. It’s one of the single biggest unlocks over the last year to develop more relevant and inclusive experiences with us,” Sylvester said.

“It’s the same experience for us,” Hassan continued. “It’s under six months since our loyalty program launched, and it’s already biggest than Starbucks’. The value of that data isn’t just about ensuring you do what customers require you to do at the point of transaction – those things are now table stakes. The question becomes how you start to know them.

“We all have those keystones we need to understand about our customers – whether it’s their weekly behaviours or what is important to them. In our case, we’re using it to inform what we do in terms of menu or adding customisation or personalisation.”  

But it’s also important to remember technology isn’t just of customer benefit. Panellists concurred it has massive operational and employee implications, too.

“This presents an opportunity to improve quality of the lives of those working on the frontlines for us every day,” Hassan said. “You’re creating a better engagement opportunity for the crews working for you, and to have them engage with customers in a different way that makes it more meaningful.

“It’s important we talk about tech in terms of benefits provided to customers. But those wouldn’t happen if they created more operational complexity or breakdown. There is an inter-relationship that’s really important.”  

At Instacart, a lot of tech innovation has been around operations and logistics, Sharma said.

“This year, we’re focused on making deliveries cheaper. The way we do that is through automation and micro fulfilment centres with our retailers, and by investing in Google Apps for service workers,” she said.

“We’re also doing acquisitions to enable the in-store experience for retailers. For example, we’ve invested in smartcards, allowing customers to bypass checkouts; order ahead capability; and allowing retailers to bridge in-store and ecommerce experience. All those cater to shoppers but also service workers, who then create better customer experiences.”  

People and purpose

Alongside technology and people power, panellists agreed purpose was a corralling force. Salesforce president and CMO, Sarah Franklin, said the purpose-driven nature of marketing continues to be important to the technology giant and proved paramount during the pandemic.

On the people front, she also highlighted resilience as a vital muscle for every business. “We have to innovate not just with products and services, but also our perspectives. We need to continue to embrace an open mind,” Franklin argued.

“Something may not have worked a day ago, but it may today. We also have to understand from a global perspective the supply chain challenges presented by Covid and how it’s impacting people and places at different times. That flexibility is part of what we have to embrace. And we need to be empathetic to what people are going through in different times and locations.”  

Kummer said how companies lead is with a purpose. “That has helped be a magnet for talent, and helps you focus on what your truth is. We have and others have this, and it solves a lot of these problems – it brings tenacity and passion to what people are doing,” he said.  

For Hassim, the Covid period has seen many organisations confront the responsibility to activate their purposes. Sylvester agreed Target’s magic sauce for getting through the pandemic strongly has been strong purpose and values.

“We are fundamentally operating differently across our organisation and in a way we’ll use and leverage way beyond the pandemic. Whether it’s digital, pricing, logistics – we’re having those conversations. It feels very good,” she added.

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