Photojojo’s Jen Giese and June Kim on stage at’s workshop in 2015.

Hot topics in digital retail: Authenticity

Get real — your customers know when you’re faking it.

Consumers are increasingly sensitive to marketing-speak and can tell when a brand is faking it. How can retailers stay true to their brand and make genuine connections with customers?

Sketchquote by San Diego-based artist Anne McColl.

Genuine, not generic

Consumers consider the Internet their personal space, says Sandbox Studio CEO Joe Barrett, and they want to feel like a brand is part of their club — not the other way around. When brands like The North Face produce videos with epic, scenic footage, they’re inviting consumers to identify with their vision of what it means to be an explorer, and in turn, identify with The North Face as a brand.

Share, don’t sell

People don’t want to feel like you’re selling to them, says SoulPancake CEO Shabnam Mogharabi, but audiences do want to connect with the story around a brand. Content that inspires joy is more fun for brands to share with customers, and it makes customers want to share, too. Mogharabi pointed to a New York Times study on viral video that found viewers are five times more likely to share a video when it evokes feelings of awe and inspiration.

The value of weirdness and delight

Not every brand can strike a quirky tone, but many times authenticity comes down to not being afraid to “create fun and a little weirdness,” says Zappos’ Jason Broughton. When Kanye West slammed Zappos for selling “sh-t product,” the company made an actual product page with photos of a toilet and plunger. Not only did it show some personality, but it also inspired positive media coverage and SEO value.

Zappos’ lighthearted response to Kanye West’s criticisms was a hit with customers and media.

It’s not always possible to track the impact of a strong brand personality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Photojojo CEO Jen Giese emphasizes the importance of doing things that can’t be measured. Does the “do not pull” lever on a product page inspire customers to buy that item? Does including a plastic dinosaur in each package encourage repeat purchases? It’s hard to quantify the impact, but injecting unexpected fun in “boring” areas of the shopping experience is something that sets Photojojo apart from larger retailers that sell the same types of photography gadgets.

Deals that feel real

Heading into Black Friday 2014, Ivivva — Lululemon’s activewear brand for girls — planned to use “now or never” messaging to promote special edition products rather than offer discounts, but caved to pressure to add a last-minute offer. The offer “converted,” but Brand Manager Rachel Bellotti and Vice President Sarah Veit Wallis admitted it didn’t feel good. It taught the team to stay true to the brand and avoid overreacting. “Be nimble, but don’t panic,” Belotti says.

The company’s post-holiday campaign, on the other hand, was built around the idea of generosity and struck a more genuine chord that resonated with audiences. One-quarter of January e-commerce orders included a bonus item with a “you’re snow awesome” message and a suggestion to spread Ivivva cheer by gifting it to someone else if it wasn’t a good fit. Customers who received the gifts became brand advocates on social media, boosting organic buzz among the company’s target audience.

Photojojo’s Black Friday promotion in 2014.

Typical discounting also doesn’t feel right for Photojojo. The company tries to design promotions that are delightful, sharable and measurable, but clever in a way that breaks through the holiday promotion clutter. On Black Friday, customers played a “Get Fit” game that used the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer, unlocking discounts with post-Thanksgiving photographer workouts like the “Selfie Stretch” and “Paparazzi Pull-Up.”

This story was originally published as part of the Merch 2015 Playbook, a post-event summary of the most important ideas and tactics from’s annual Online Merchandising Workshop. Download this and other free retail playbooks from the NRF Retail Library, and learn more about the 2016 Digital Experience Workshop.

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