Colour me happy: The design world goes gaga for gradients (again)

Where Instagram ventures, the rest of the world typically follows. Think selfies. Photo filters. The craze for captioning an edited snap of one’s café breakfast with an inane hashtag like #sundaze. If it didn’t happen on Instagram, so the popular refrain goes, did it really happen?

The re-emergence of colour gradients is a case in point. A popular hair and beauty trend in the early 2000s known as ombré, gradients took a while to catch on in the design field more broadly, which for the next decade or so preferenced flat design. But when the social media giant ditched their baby-poo brown camera logo in 2016 in favour of a boldly coloured rainbow gradient with a simplified lens and viewfinder, the design world snapped to attention. (The new icon wasn’t without controversy, however: The New York Times called the internet’s reaction “The Great Instagram Logo Freakout of 2016”, while one Twitter user argued the logo looked “like a rejected Starburst flavour”).

What a difference two years makes. By 2018, the prevalence of attention-grabbing gradients was so prominent that many in the design community dubbed 2018 the “year of the gradient”. And in 2019, we see this trend only continuing to gain momentum.

Of course, gradients have been found in nature since the dawn of time. From a simple green leaf to a lingering sunset, they carry a sense of life, energy and movement that is immediately arresting. It was only with the global rise of digital, however, when new opportunities arose for brands to own visual, that the gradient emerged as a popular design technique in computer graphics. Previously, choosing a colour that wasn’t already associated with another brand was difficult (Tiffany blue, Cadbury purple, Coke red – the list goes on). Gradients allowed brands to create something unique and ownable – something that cut through the noise.

A way of capturing an audience’s attention in this saturated digital age, gradients are exceptionally versatile, whether used subtly in the background or as the striking focal point of a design. They’re also a great way to add visual depth and dimension, a trend that may be linked to the rise of augmented and virtual reality as designers attempt to create ever more immersive and realistic designs. Certainly, combining colours in a manner that’s never been done before is a sure-fire way to create something uniquely fresh and modern. And which brand doesn’t want to do that?

Indeed, studies show that the relationship between colour and branding can’t be overstated, with up to 90% of consumers judging a brand’s personality based on their gut reaction to the colours used alone. Given that a brand’s success is crucially bound up with their audience’s emotional connection to it, it makes sense that designers are turning to colour-bending gradients to connect an audience with a product or idea. Unsurprisingly, colour theory and psychology play an important role in determining whether the particular gradient used in a logo, web design or app succeeds in attracting customers or not.

In his famous book Color Psychology and Color Therapy, Faber Birren explored how colours elicit specific emotional reactions in people, even those from vastly different backgrounds. Red is recognised as the colour of passion, in other words, whether you’re from Melbourne or Marrakesh.

Through engaging with colour theory in a groundbreaking new way, Spotify’s hugely influential duotone gradient campaign succeeded in conveying the emotional “burst” one feels when listening to a much-loved song. Other big brands like Apple Music, Sephora, Nike and Samsung have also jumped aboard the gradient train.

A runaway design trend that shows no signs of slowing down, gradients look set to power through the coming year. What lies ahead in 2020? Only time will tell.



Digital Lead

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Amazing tech, but who’s it for?

Month after month we see industry news articles about how the big players are filling their stores with cutting-edge tech to improve the experience for customers.

This article
, for example, explains how Walmart has recently been updating its store in Levittown, New York with enough cameras, sensors and processors to pump out 1.6 terabytes of data every second, and enough cabling to scale Mt. Everest five times.

Similar to what can be found at Amazon’s Go stores,  this incredible amount of tech monitors stock levels in real-time and notifies employees when an item needs replacing, at the same time freeing them up to engage more with customers.

Dubbed the ‘Intelligent Retail Lab’ – or “IRL” for short – this is Walmart’s future-focused retail testbed. Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL, explains that learnings from this store will be rolled out across the Walmart chain once proven.  

Great news for Walmart’s customers, right?

Certainly, it’s great when there are knowledgeable team members available to help you when you need it, either by showing you where something is, or sharing their expertise. And depending on the application, if it’s tech-powered, even better.

Take Sephora’s Color iQ foundation match for example. To find the foundation that perfectly matches their skin tone, customers must visit a Sephora store and chat with a team member who uses a special Pantone-powered handheld photographic device. It’s over six years old now, but it’s still genius. It gives customers a reason for heading in-store, and it gives team members a tool to support their knowledge and passion for cosmetics.

But in the case of Walmart’s IRL store, are the millions being spent on new tech – at least from a customer’s perspective – just fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist?

Let us explain what we mean.

Walmart, like so many retailers, already has excellent fulfilment in place. So too do almost all retailers these days. Generally speaking, if it’s not on the shelf, it’s not out the back – it’s completely out of stock. And no amount of fancy real-time tech will fix that.

When it comes to Amazon Go’s checkout-free stores, sure they’re ‘frictionless’, but just how much of a benefit to customers is this really? In other words, just how frustrating is it to wait at the checkout at your local supermarket for a minute of two? Is it frustrating enough to make you choose to shop at another store if it’s further away? Probably not – especially as the problem doesn’t happen all the time. 

Photo by Fabio Bracht

Thinking about all this reminded us of Rory Sutherland’s excellent Ted Talk from back in 2009. Rory talks about perceived value, and gives the fantastic example of engineers being tasked with a way to make a train journey from London to Paris better. The engineers, Rory explains, came up with a very clever (and very expensive) engineering solution that would shave the travel time. As an ad man, Rory suggests a better solution would be to pay male and female supermodels to walk up and down the train aisles serving fancy French wine for free. Passengers would, Rory suggests, ask for the train to slow down. A tongue-in-cheek idea, sure, but a good point nonetheless.

Now returning to Walmart’s IRL store. When we hit the webpage of the article about the store, the first thing we noticed was the striking motion-tracking art installation that Walmart has installed (pictured above). For us, that’s a brilliant example of a great use of in store tech to surprise and delight customers. It’s genuinely cool – and we bet it cost a lot less than all the other cameras and sensors that have been installed to monitor stock levels or help customers save time at the checkout.

As humans, we care about efficiency – but only up to a point. According to a 2016 study,  US shoppers spend about 43 minutes on a typical grocery shopping trip. What percentage of that time is spent at the checkout? Not all that much. 

We’re not suggesting Amazon’s Go stores aren’t great – they are – but we’re wondering whether the few minutes saved at the checkout are really a big practical advantage to the customer. Because convenient as just walking out is, there’s actually a fair amount of effort required to enter the store in the first place. You need an Amazon account, a recent iPhone or Android phone, plus the Amazon Go app.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the stores are in convenient locations, they look fantastic, that the food is fresh and that the prices are right that has led to their success more than the ‘just walk out’ factor.

Imagine the exact same store, but instead of being able to just walk out, you have to use a self-checkout – but the self-checkout tells you a different joke every time you use it. Would that put just as big a smile on your dial as being able to simply walk out does? We think it probably would. 

While we understand the commercial reasons behind equipping big retail stores with futuristic tech, we wonder whether customers could be impressed with much, much cheaper experiential elements.

Now that’s one way for brick and retailers to fight back against sales being lost to online.



Digital Lead

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Click And Collect: When Impatience Is A Virtue

It seems like every week there’s a new doom and gloom article on LinkedIn or in the trade press about The Retail Apocalypse. High rents, long leases and a growing number of sales lost to online has led to bricks and mortar retailers shutting up shop rapidly.

For example, as of Mid-March, retailers in the US had announced the closure of 5,000 stores since the beginning of the year. Compare that to the 5,524 stores closed during the entirety of 2018, and it’s clear to see that the rate of closures is increasing quite dramatically.

In the UK and Australia, it’s a fairly similar picture. As sales move slowly but surely off the high street and onto the information superhighway, what can physical retailers do to keep the online beast at bay? Surely the answer lies in capitalising upon their real-world presence. After all, no one likes being forced to wait for the delivery man.

Making fulfilment more fulfilling

By now, it seems like most retailers have either introduced or are in the process of introducing Click and Collect, but how can the experience be improved for both retailers and customers alike?

As we see it, there are two types of Click and Collect – ‘in-store’ and ‘out-of-store’ – and both have their advantages.

In-store Click and Collect gives retailers a chance to try to entice the customer further into the store to make spontaneous purchases. This can be achieved by a store assistant simply asking the customer if there was anything else they needed that day, through special limited time offers (e.g. 10% off storewide valid for the next hour), or by providing an opportunity for the customer to sample the goods before leaving (change rooms, for example).    

Stay in the car

When it comes to ‘out-of-store’ Click and Collect, several supermarkets in the US and the UK are already offering drive-thru services like the ones pictured below. While this is super convenient for customers, it provides little cross-sell opportunity for the retailer. However maybe that’s not really a big deal, since the retailer already had a cross sell opportunity when the customer was at the online checkout, and then had a second cross sell opportunity when they emailed the customer their digital receipt. On top of that, if they decided to, the retailer was then able to attempt further cross sell through ongoing eDMs and display retargeting.

We can easily imagine out-of-store Click and Collect becoming more and more common at big box retailers in the future, as well as collection points servicing multiple retailers at once in large shopping centre carparks.

Smaller is better

Almost every article we’ve read in the last few years about retail store closures seems to feature the term ‘right-sizing’. But it’s not just more ‘right-sizing’ through the closing of underperforming stores that we’re expecting to see in the near future. We’re also predicting many stores will follow in the footsteps of Argos, Sears and others and start heavily embracing smaller format stores with Click and Collect front and centre.

Because if Click and Collect continues to grow in popularity and fewer customers are venturing into the heart of the store, retailers will surely ask themselves why they’re paying such high rents to hold so much stock out on the floor.

As rents continue to climb and retailers around the world ‘right-size’, maybe Click and Collect will provide both physical retailers and customers with a win-win.


Manny Navarrete

Website Editor

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Ecommerce learning algorithms – how much are we willing to sacrifice for convenience?

Have you ever jumped online to buy a simple black office chair, only to be bombarded with a host of related furniture products before checkout? Before you know it your cart’s overflowing with framed art prints, decorative bronze side tables and synthetic parlour palms… And you’ve dropped nearly $1500.

In an online retail world increasingly ruled by learning algorithms, shopping is becoming more and more about the power of suggestion. Personal data is a powerful commodity for modern retailers, allowing their algorithms to target us with ever more customised offers. The upshot? How we’re consuming online is progressively being controlled by the way things are suggested to us.

Unfortunately, retailers’ learning algorithms often don’t understand us well enough. Humans are complex, nuanced beings, and the products we want and need stem from complex, nuanced desires. Yet the recommendations we receive online are largely two-dimensional.

Say we buy a country album as a gift for our Mum. We’re not fans of the genre ourselves; those bronzed crooners irritate us. But suddenly our screens are being assaulted with similar country albums – products we find frustratingly irrelevant.

While this scenario is all too common, we continue to pledge allegiance to the booming ecommerce market. Why? It all comes down to convenience.

Since Amazon revolutionised online shopping with its patented one-click ordering system in 1999, purchase and delivery has become rapidly faster and cheaper. This celebrated convenience, however, requires that we trade precious personal information for the instant reward of a quick online purchase. We accept pop-ups and user agreements; we populate forms with detailed behavioural data. And we read and write user reviews.

User reviews in particular offer ecommerce retailers a significant strategic advantage. While market leaders like Amazon and eBay possess vast stores of these, even smaller online retailers incorporate the learning gained from aggregated reviews to offer their customers tailored purchase suggestions.

Given their influence, the credibility of these user reviews is an important issue. Amazon continues to battle accusations of untrustworthy customer feedback, with a scathing article published in The Guardian earlier this month criticising the online behemoth’s policy of bundling together reviews for different products. With everything from butchered translations of Jane Austen’s Emma to critically panned remakes of classic films receiving over a thousand 4.5 star reviews each, it’s clear the world’s largest online retailer isn’t too worried about the misleading consequences of blithely consolidating reviews based on product name alone.

Which all gives rise to some uncomfortable questions. With the rapid growth of predictive artificial intelligence in online retail, have we given over too much responsibility to these learning algorithms and their profit-driven owners? How can we wrench back some autonomy so the experience is more like physical shopping?

Precision marketing – the ability of marketers to hyper-target ads to prospective customers with greater accuracy – is an exciting new concept in the world of curated commerce. Given that American consumers receive a massive 3000 marketing messages daily, it makes sense that shoppers gloss over anonymous communication in favour of targeted personal messages that resonate on a deeper level. Crucially, precision marketing also allows retailers to gauge the ROI of individual ads, permitting them to target customers with increasingly specific and personalised offers.

In terms of user reviews, the rise of retail review aggregators (already common in online travel) promises to help offer more reliable reviews in future, while the trend towards having more offline, brick-and-mortar stores to enhance the online shopping experience could be another answer to the potential privacy invasions and questionable ethics of ecommerce.

One thing’s for sure: If we put too much trust in the system, it could lead to us snuggled up on holiday with a lousy version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion because it popped into our browser and ‘rated’ well. An inconvenience, surely.


Manny Navarrete

Website Editor

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Decoy marketing: giving customers a little nudge

At the nexus between marketing, consumer behaviour and good ol’ fashioned psychology, decoy marketing is a popular retail technique used to steer or “nudge” the consumer towards a targeted product.

Say a customer is shopping for a new set of premium bed linen. Sheet set one is made from a 500 thread count Egyptian cotton-blend, and retails for $200. Sheet set two is made from 1200 thread count pure Egyptian cotton, and retails for $400. Faced with these two choices, many will purchase the cheaper option, feeling that the pricier set is too much of a splurge.

Decoy marketing, however, introduces a third middle option – a decoy – whose sole purpose is to nudge the consumer away from the “competitor” (the cheapest option), towards the pricier “target” option. So, in the case of our bed linen example, we introduce a third sheet set made from 600 thread count pure Egyptian cotton that retails for $389. Suddenly, the $400 set seems like a steal!

Welcome to the decoy effect.

In a nutshell, this strategy uses clever pricing to steer the consumer away from the decoy towards a certain choice. This is known as “asymmetric dominance” – the decoy is priced to make the costlier, more profitable option look more appealing. In the process, the decoy is “dominated” by the perceived value of the target product.

By utilising cognitive bias, the decoy effect unconsciously directs the consumer to make the purchase. Unconscious is the crucial word here. Few people will purchase a product if they know they’re being coerced.

The decoy effect falls under the umbrella of the brilliantly titled Nudge Theory – more commonly known as “nudging” – defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Faced with what psychologist Barry Schmidt calls the “tyranny of choice”, the majority of consumers will experience a level of anxiety that impedes their decision-making.

As Inside Retail explains, in order to simplify this process and make a purchase they feel is good value, consumers rely on a couple of key choice attributes, namely price, quality and convenience. By manipulating value perceptions, decoys nudge the consumer towards a particular outcome while still giving them the illusion of making a completely logical choice.

A little bit sneaky? Maybe. Good business practice? Definitely.

Next time you find yourself online or in-store deliberating which item to choose, weighing up their features, their quality, and which one seems the best value, consider whether you’re being nudged. It may give you a wry smile.



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