05
Oct
13

Context as Conduit for Branded Communication

In many ways, reaching people with a motivating message has as much to do with the context you create as with the substance or the medium of your talking points. That’s not to say that “the context is the message”— merely that context has an inseparable impact on how you’re received by your audience.

A case in point, perhaps, is the user experience Whole Foods creates for its hungry, quality-conscious shoppers. Created, I assume, with an eye toward evoking the breezy, offhand style of Pinterest or Tumblr, the focus is on  the experience of delicious, well-prepared high-quality foods, rather than on price, discount-shopping or numerical measures of value.

Rather, the market’s sales, specials etc. are integrated into the total picture, in a section called “The Whole Deal.” In general, the site is an exemplar of the difference between marketing by bullet vs. marketing by message.

Nav floats free of restraints.
A  major contributor to the site’s successful UX is a subnav that appears as a link-filled pop-up instead of a cluttered accordion drop-down. You get the overview fast. This approach also seems to free navigation design from the straight jacket of grid formations and mindless “consistency.”

And in a telling decision, the first nav item is “Healthy Eating,” which appears before either the redundant “About Our Products” or the doubly redundant “Mission and Values” section. That decision begs the question: Why, even here, on a site so clearly organized to deliver brand value, the specter of Marketing Anxiety still looms large, demanding the explicit, mechanical statement of that value in literal terms.

Anxiety’s sway.
Apparently, some worried soul feared that people informed enough to absorb the points expressed elsewhere in the site need aggressive hand-holding to get the message. As with most discussions of user experience, at issue is the native intelligence of an imaginary subset of the American population known as “The Average Person.” It’s the same subset, I’m often told, who “won’t get” the simplest of digital interfaces without a 500-page guide book.

Strangely, despite mushrooming sales in smart phones, tablets, despite the coming new generation of wearable tech, the myth of a large, technologically clueless sector of the population persists. Makes you wonder why some brands even bother to build a digital presence—considering how hard it is for Imaginary Bob Neanderthal to put down his stone tools and lumber over to the Kompoodoor.

That it’s to everyone’s benefit to bury this myth is everywhere in evidence on a site that includes not one single instance of “Click Here.” For, as it should be obvious to everyone, users who can’t identify a text link on a Web page without a sign post are users who can’t navigate the Web, period.

Any part of your audience in that category needs to be addressed through Direct Mail—assuming, you can verify they grasp the function of an envelope. Of course, considering the number of times I’ve been directed to add the phrase “See inside for details” to a #10 OE, I wonder how many marketers are willing to take the risk.

Better play it safe then, and revert to door-to-door sales-mongering, even if arriving with a truckload of organically grown produce proves a tad awkward.

A victory for honest, human emotion.
Ironically, one of the major achievements of the Whole Foods user experience is a feeling of genial intimacy—exactly the sort of thing you used to get from a well-trained sales rep, in the days when a brand’s business model involved more than a series of stratagems for raiding your wallet. It’s a welcome relief from the smarmy, self-absorbed tone adopted by so many “this changes everything” marketing campaigns.

For if anyone’s looking for a model of what “thinking different” looks like, it starts here with a communications strategy that takes as its first principle that consumers deserve to be sold on the merits, not manipulated into co-dependency by “you-can’t-be-cool-without-it” toxic branding.

In this instance, the site itself refutes the need for the anxious steps it takes to make clarity clear and communication communicate. That it does so by creating a distinct, ownable and evocative context for its message, points the way, as I see it, to a refreshed definition of what branding means in the post-iPad era.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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