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Relatable Content in a Post Covid World with Mark Stocker of The Very Group

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester. And this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast.
Daniel Jester:
During the pandemic, there was a necessary shift in how we produced content, and what it looked like. We moved away from polished studio work and towards something more real, authentic and relatable. Returning to this show is Mark Stocker of the Very Group. And we discuss the future of relatable content, as we move into a post-COVID world.
Mark Stocker:
We capture moments now. We've gone away from staged, visually merchandised shots, with the perfect lighting, the perfect product, the perfect models. Where we've got to is relatable content that resonates with the customer because families are important. And if there's one thing that's came out of the last few years, is that bond that we've all gained.
Daniel Jester:
Mark is going to be speaking in person at the Henry Stewart Creative Operations London event on March 18th of this year, 2022. If you'd like to hear more from Mark, and a whole host of leaders in our industry, check out the show notes for the registration link. Now, let's jump into this one. The E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I'm your host, Daniel Jester, and welcoming back to the show for round two, Mark Stocker of the Very Group. Welcome back, Mark.
Mark Stocker:
It's great to be back, Dan. Thanks.
Daniel Jester:
How are things in Liverpool right now?
Mark Stocker:
Wet, miserable and windy.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, you guys just had that big storm blow through.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah, yeah. We're on the back of a storm, we're on the back of a storm, back of COVID, but we're back up and running. I don't want to jinx things, but it feels like this is a post-pandemic world now.
Daniel Jester:
My wife and I have been having the same conversations recently, is that we want to be cautiously optimistic. I shared with you before we started recording that we've got some travel planned this year. We're going to be getting out there and doing some things. This past weekend, we went and had brunch at a restaurant with our kids, which was the first time in a while. We're vaccinated, we've stayed home for two years, we've done all we can do.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah. I mean, we've just had great news this week that all restrictions are now getting lifted as of Thursday. So no isolation, nothing. So we are quite literally back to how it was pre-pandemic. And in workplace, it's exactly the same. Volumes are coming up, samples are returning, energy is back in the studios, hybrid's odd.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah.
Mark Stocker:
Odd. We haven't settled on it yet. We've talked about hybrid working now for two years. We thought we've been doing it, or we have been doing it, but we've been doing it with this cloud over us, of a pandemic and rule changes and restrictions. But now we can really explore what true hybrid working means for the teams, for the outputs, for the inputs, everything. Quite an exciting time.
Daniel Jester:
I think that's a great place to be. And we talked a little bit, I think the last time we had you on the show, and just in general on this podcast, we've talked a lot about studios and teams institutionalizing some of the things that they've learned from COVID. And a lot of those things had to do with stuff like sample management and flexibility, and being agile to things changing rapidly because the last two years we've had to do that, as we've tried to continue operating a studio, COVID flare ups happen, people need to be out, samples get delayed, that's become a standard part of doing this work, even more so than it was before. And the other thing, from a soft skills standpoint, is that we have a lot of mid and senior level creative leadership now, who've spent the last two years really understanding and talking and having honest conversations with their employees about how they're feeling about their work and doing those things. And I hope that's something that sticks around.
Daniel Jester:
So I wanted to chat with you today, I took the liberty before this recording of listening to our last episode, and there was a couple of things that you touched on in the last episode that I thought we could dig into a little bit. And it was really about the idea of relatable content. And for context, I think we recorded this a few months ago. Feels like, the time warp of the last two years, it feels like it could have been a year ago. I know it wasn't that long, but you talked about the content needs to be relatable. And at that point, it was middle of COVID, it was top of mind, and it was just like, "We can do this at home. We want our content to look comfortable and be relatable to the customers. And it doesn't make any sense for us to be out there traveling and showing people in tropical locations," because nobody was traveling and that sort of thing.
Daniel Jester:
And I wanted to revisit this conversation with you because I think that this is something that's going to stick around. But as we're starting to open up, as COVID restrictions are getting lifted, are we paying attention to what the customers are thinking and feeling? Are we moving towards things that are more aspirational? And then for a second element to this conversation is, how is technology going to impact this, the relatability of the content?
Mark Stocker:
Starting with that whole relatable content piece, I think during the pandemic, it was arguably the right approach and it worked, and it still is. We capture moments now, we've gone away from staged, visually merchandised shots, with the perfect lighting, the perfect product, the perfect models. Where we've got to is relatable content that resonates with the customer because families are important. And if there's one thing that's came out of the last few years is that bond that we've all gained. We've got closer to our families, closer to our friends, closer to our communities. So when we see that content, it really does ring home. And that's what we need to do to kind of make that connection between our brand and our customer. We want to inspire them to be with us as a brand. We want to be relatable to them, we want them to understand we know what they've gone through, and accept it. We don't want to be putting your perfect staged families in front of them because let's be honest, we'd not, we've all got imperfections.
Mark Stocker:
And we've got to celebrate that diversity. And by making that connection with the consumer, they're going to want more of it. And I think then what we've got to do is make sure that we continue that conversation once the with us. Once they're on site, once they're shopping, we want to make life as easy as possible, because let's be honest, it's tricky, life. Especially when you're talking families, and you've got kids, you've got holidays, you've got school, you've got everything going on around you. The minute you put a really poor customer journey in front of them, when you make shopping difficult for them, they'll go elsewhere. And we need to hold onto that customer base. I've got a vision. We've got to get two things right. Relatable, inspirational content to drive them onto site, and in a really clear, simple customer journey to keep them there, so they can find and buy what they want. And when they buy it, they keep it. No one likes a return. No one likes the hassle of a return. But that is just the basic, that's just to keep ticking over.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah.
Mark Stocker:
I think what we then need to look at is what stands us apart. As a retailer, how do we differ from everyone else? The competition online is huge at the minute. I wouldn't say high street's dead, it still has its part, but these big high street retailers know the value and the importance of online. And there's a lot of investment and a lot of drive for them to go online. And arguably, for those that haven't been there and are starting afresh, it's a lot easier than what I refer to ourselves as the big container ships trying to turn around. It's a lot difficult as an established retailer to flex that quickly versus these new up and coming online brands. We've got to look to the future. Although we're a department store, we still have a big focus on fashion. And as a fashion retailer, what makes us different? Got to look at what customer's needs are. We know that credit is no longer our USP. Other retailers, everyone has credit now, everyone's affordable.
Mark Stocker:
We know that and we can't compete with that. We've got a great financial model, but we've got to look at the way we put content in front of the customer. We've got to look at that whole inclusivity piece. We've got to look at the size, we've got to look at diversity, we've got to be able to make what we deem a commercially acceptable asset, resonate with a customer, in a commercially as viable way as possible. But we can't throw money at it. We still have to be savvy with our cash, especially with the throughput of products, product offering's growing, assortment's, growing customers want more. We've gone full 360 a number of times on this where we have a large assortment, and we refine it because there's too much choice. And then the customers want more choice. So we're always ebbing and flowing with that. But we've got to be really clear about our ambition, what we're putting in front of our customer and why. And they've got to see that. Customers are not soft. They will see right through anything that's false. It's got to be authentic as well.
Daniel Jester:
That's a great point that you bring up. The last few years of shopping predominantly online, it means that E-comm torpedoed to upwards, even beyond its already pretty staggering trajectory in terms of retail market share. But the other point to bring up is that you've got loads and loads of very savvy shoppers who understand the machinations of buying stuff online. And like you mentioned about still seeing a lot of the trend, nobody's really cracked this nut of, "How can I get the right size information in front of my customer? How can I get the right color information?" It's still very much about if you might be between sizes, buy two of them and return one of them. And that's great for the customer, but it's not great always for the retailers. It's certainly not great for sustainability. That's a really interesting point to think about, that we've got some very, very experienced e-commerce shoppers now because people were almost exclusively buying that way for such a long time. People who weren't as interested in shopping for themselves, especially when it comes to fashion, shopping online, it's hard to do.
Mark Stocker:
We're talking a lot about social responsibility, sustainability, the environment. Let's be honest, all retailers are clearing stock, week in, week out. We're trying to do our best with the dead stock. And it's because we have to give that wider assortments, that wider scale of sizes. If we start getting more data on the way customers shop, if we could nail inclusivity, and we started getting greater data on the way customers are shopping, the sizes they're buying, reducing returns, we can probably tailor our stock. We could target our stock more. So again, we're not facing this kind of beast of clearing stock, dead stock in a warehouse, all that kind of stuff. And then obviously, the sampling inside of it, we've got to really look at the environment, the future, and the impact we're having on it.
Daniel Jester:
We just recorded an episode of the podcast that, for our listeners, it may have gone live by the time you hear this, my timeline's a little bit fuzzy, as we all are, but we talked about the idea of what technology could potentially do for stock. And now we're really venturing outside of the content part of it. But I just thought it was so interesting to think about a future where customizable, bespoke garments that are cut for us could be something that we have from a retail standpoint. Someday in the future, we're going to get into our body scanning booth and it's going to be like, "Yeah, technically you're an extra large, but really you have a very long torso and short legs." And for the listeners, I'm very accurately describing myself. But it's just really interesting to think about what technology can do in terms of sustainability, and setting aside the scary part of your own biometric data being out there and accessible to people who want to sell you stuff.
Mark Stocker:
I suppose you're liking it to an e-commerce platform that just serves up content when a customer lands on a website, it's exactly the same.
Daniel Jester:
Right.
Mark Stocker:
The customer doesn't know what it is until it's in front of them, and you're talking that with the physical there, aren't you?
Daniel Jester:
Right.
Mark Stocker:
And yeah. What an exciting future it could be. I think if there's one thing we've learned, and I'm particularly proud of, is how forward-facing we all are now. I think that cold shock of the last two, three years has made us realize you can't rest on your laurels and you've got to be expecting everything now, whether it's global crises, whether it's tech, whether it's innovation, and you've got to be grabbing that and going with it, and trying things, and being a little bit brave as well. We got bills to pay, but I think we've got to experiment, and we've got to get this in front of the customers, and almost see what happens.
Daniel Jester:
I think you're right because I think, aside from the pandemic, there have been, I mean, the pandemic has been the overarching last couple of years, but even within that just day-to-day, things shifting, things changing, bizarre, weird things happening.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah, yeah.
Daniel Jester:
Socially, politically, across the board, it's just strange days and every day is different. And I think it feels like what you're saying is accurate, that there is a little bit of an understanding that, "I don't know what tomorrow's going to bring, so if this works, let's try it." The hurdle, the investment hurdle to get into it. And that's what we talk about when we talk about agility is, at the end of the day, putting a little bit of money into trying something new from a content perspective is not the worst thing that you can do. And you and I talked the last time we recorded an episode. That was how we thought for years. It was like, "We're going to spend the absolute minimum that we can, we possibly can, on per shot cost." And now, it's like, "Okay, maybe we'll invest a little bit in some creative content that's going to really resonate and be relatable to our customers. Maybe that's not the worst thing."
Mark Stocker:
[inaudible 00:14:06].
Daniel Jester:
Increase the budget a little bit, and let's see what we can come up with.
Mark Stocker:
I think you're right. I mean, we're taking stills from video now. We're spending more money on video to invest in that, but we're seeing some efficiencies we can get out of it as well. But we can't just stand still because the market is moving so fast. We see studios shut down, we see retailers going pop. If you stand still, that's unfortunately what's going to happen.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, absolutely.
Mark Stocker:
[inaudible 00:14:34], you've got to be looking forward. And really, the competitive side of you says you want to be first to market with some of this as well.
Daniel Jester:
You don't always have to be the best if you could be first, it turns out.
Mark Stocker:
Exactly.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, sometimes you can be second and still end up being the best, once you get there. But I love the idea of pulling stills from video. I want to talk a little bit about that for a moment. I feel like even a few years ago, you'd get both digi techs and assistant and art directors, like, "Oh, can we do that? I don't know. Is it going to be okay?" And we talked a little bit before we started recording about there's a lot of operational things that you can gain from this. For one thing, just the ease of working with the assets themselves, I think there's a lot to be said for shooting video, and deriving your stills from that. But the other thing, just talking about relatable content, and video is going to be it.
Daniel Jester:
I don't know if there's a future where if there's more videos on a PDP page than there are stills anymore. But we're getting back to the point now, it's like, for a few years pre-pandemic, there's a handful of retailers out there who are shooting video for every product and posting it on every page. And now, I've done a bunch of shopping, I've been shopping for tennis shoes over the weekend, and I was comparing four or five different brands. Everybody had a product video. Everybody had a homepage, a landing page for their each model of their shoe, that was video heavy. It's just, I guess, video is the relatable content.
Mark Stocker:
I think there's a couple of sides to it though, if I'm honest. We've been there before, we've come away from it, we're heading back to it. We know customers like it, but I think there's an expectation, which is why we are doing it? It's almost a hygiene factor because if you don't have it, it goes back to the standing still comment. If you don't have it, you're not competitive with everyone else. I think there's an expectation from the customer that there should be a video there. And then, I'll put me creative hat back on, culturally shooting video is very, very different. It's more real, it's less staged. You haven't got teams of stylists moving garments by the millimeter, steaming things, there's imperfections. And I think the imperfections are what makes it a little bit more real, a little bit more relatable. Even color, we talked earlier about color.
Mark Stocker:
I think if you can get a commercially acceptable asset on a product page to sell the garments, if you're pulling stills from video to compliment it, to drive traffic to your site, the product becomes secondary, and the emotions first. We've all been guilty in the past, and even today, of overthinking the detail. And as a creative, you're a perfectionist, you're a purist, and you go back to the trade you learned. And I think sometimes it's terrifying just stepping back and letting things go. But we've got to see it through the eyes of the people viewing that content, and engaging with that content. And ask ourselves really, "Do they see it? Do they notice it? Does it mean anything to them?"
Daniel Jester:
That's literally the crux of this content being relatable, right? Is in order to achieve that ability to produce consistently, content that your customer's finding relatable, it really becomes about having a mechanism that you can listen to your customer. We talked a few episodes back about the idea of social listening. So this is where your social media teams come into play. It's not just a matter of the social media team getting content out there in front of your customers, but that's also about making that a two-way conversation. What's resonating? What's working? What are you hearing? And how are we funneling that information to our content creation teams, in order to produce stuff that our customers want to see and care about?
Mark Stocker:
There's a very fine line there though. I'm not saying marketeers can manipulate data at all, but you can always find the data that you want to find and tell the story. We've recently plugged in a piece of software onto our site called Contentsquare, which you can plug it into any element of the live site. And anyone with any simple training can see, "Okay, how's that performing? How can we compare assets over a time period with the controls in place?" We can look at clicks, we can look at views, we can look at everything on it, and anybody can see that. And whilst it's brilliant, selfishly, if we're looking at PDPs as an example, as a creative, we can actually look at data, that it'll mean something to us. We've got to understand that data and be honest with ourselves, first and foremost.
Mark Stocker:
Because again, we'd be the marketeers trying to make things work because as creatives, we love what we do. We want to try and create that most beautiful shot, but it's not always the most beautiful shot that's the important thing. And I think it's having that really unbiased view and balanced view, to say, "What is the customer doing with it and what tech can support us to do that?" And no disrespect, but I'll quite happily call myself a data idiot when it comes to that because I don't know the first thing about data. There's some very, very clever people in our business that analyze the data that give us all the great insights. I'm not one of them. But in the wrong hands, it can be very, very dangerous. And we've just got to take that little step back, not get too excited, but use what we understand, and make some decisions based off of that, without the fluff of marketeering,
Daniel Jester:
That's a great point, Mark. And you've got my wheels turning here that there is an element that we do need to, to some degree, have that little bit of data science understanding. The path that we're on pretty clearly leads to this point where it's almost individualized content. Not quite there yet, but we're not far from that Back to the Future II future where you're walking down the street and the ads are speaking directly to you.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah, yeah.
Daniel Jester:
I guess I could have used Minority Report also, I just watched that movie recently. That's another dystopian future situation there. But you're absolutely right, and I have the kind of unique background of my path into creative production was through merchandising, and specifically as a merchandising analyst. And you said something that is absolutely true, which is that any data scientist, any analyst, can find a way to take a data set and support a narrative that they want to tell. And so we have to get good at parsing nuanced information, if we want to be effective at the way that we work. And whether that means having a data scientist in the studio who helps support some of these decisions or works with marketing to try to make sure that we're telling the right story in the right way that our customers want to hear it, or if it's just everybody having that baseline understanding, I think creative data science is a whole other podcast episode topic for this show because it really is going to become necessary and powerful. I'm looking at the Contentsquare website that you mentioned right now, and it is...
Mark Stocker:
It's awesome.
Daniel Jester:
It's awesome but it's also a flashing graphic on the screen that's showing you percentages and dollars and everything of every element on the page, and that already is and is going to be the future of how we sell to people.
Mark Stocker:
I can literally switch on any page on our website now, press go, and it can tell me over a timeframe period, how much cash has that made. On a PDP page, what assets are the customers clicking more of? We had some great ones recently with lingerie, and we can see what they're clicking. So why wouldn't you bring that front and center? But didn't articulate it very well. This is where you've got to be so, so careful, because it's almost head and heart. You've got the data analysts, which would almost be security, computer says, "No, you cannot do this." You've got the creative side, who is, "It looks fantastic, you must do it." I believe we've got to get some kind of gray area because there has to be a human emotion side of it as well.
Daniel Jester:
Right.
Mark Stocker:
If everything was what the computer said, everything would be vanilla. If everything what the heart said, everything would be vanilla. We've got to try and somewhere balanced, I believe
Daniel Jester:
You can see a future with these insights that something like Contentsquare can provide you, where it turns into this bizarre idea of, if we add more images and more little boxes and more little things to the site, we've got more places to click, more ways to see things. If you're approaching that only from the data standpoint, without seeing what your customer experience or what your website actually looks like, you could be creating an experience that is unusual and strange, and isn't necessarily brand appropriate. You're absolutely right. It boils down to this, hey, we talked in our last episode about this idea of a pendulum. And the goal should always be to keep that pendulum from swinging too far, too quickly.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah.
Daniel Jester:
It makes me think a little bit of the movie Moneyball, of the discomfort of people in that baseball organization, where they were trying to build a team based off of solely statistics. And everybody's kind of like, "This feels bad and wrong."
Mark Stocker:
I liken it to UX design to a degree. I mean, I'll be honest. I'm a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to creative and designing. And my background's graphic design originally, very, very old school. But you've had this probably five-year trend of UX design now, where they're using data led to show us the customer journey, the right approach. And you're just seeing this vanilla approach across many, many different sites, many, many different brands, because data's telling us that this is right, but then nothing stands out, nothing stands apart. And I think that's where you need that little bit of emotion back in to say, "What's the right journey?" But then what's the element that keeps you different, that makes the customer know who you are, rather than the same font, the same structure, the same almost content management on the site. I think we've got to get a bit cleverer with it.
Daniel Jester:
Mark, let's pivot a little bit for the last few minutes of the show and talk about your upcoming, you're going to be involved in the Henry Stewart Creative Operations London 2022. It's coming up here on March 18th, in London. Can you tell us a little bit about that conference and what you're looking forward to?
Mark Stocker:
I'm really excited to actually be in a conference with real people again. And that's honestly what I'm looking forward to. There's going to be a panel of four of us talking about brief and content creation, and the evolution of that. And I'll be honest, it will be a conversation starter and I'm really excited. We'll be talking with people from Fender, people from Twitch, around their approach to a brief what their direction is. Yeah.
Daniel Jester:
Yeah, I really encourage our listeners to check that out. Registrations look like they're open. We'll of course put a link in the show notes to the registration page. But Mark, you came on the podcast after you were part of the Creative Operations event, the virtual event last year. To our listeners, I really encourage you, if you're anywhere near London, can get to London for this event, there's no doubt in my mind that it's going to be informative, it's going to be great to see people in person, and our guest today, Mark, was fantastic at the virtual event. I hope that means he's fantastic in person too, we'll find out.
Mark Stocker:
I'm sure, I'm sure we will. Do you know what? I would actually add though, I've not done many of these external events. And the one thing that came off the New York conference last year was just the similarities across the water of all different dynamics, but problems remaining the same.
Daniel Jester:
Absolutely.
Mark Stocker:
And I hate the word problems, but it's just quite humbling to know that we all face challenges. Most of our challenges are similar, and it's been really good to keep coming back together to solve them together. We've stayed in touch, we will continue to stay in touch and help one another as we move forward. But yeah, it's so great to have that soundboard and start to build that network out. And yeah, going back to your previous question and what am I most excited about, it's continuing that network and making it even greater.
Daniel Jester:
Absolutely.
Mark Stocker:
We're all in this together, aren't we? We're a great big community of practice, how can we work together?
Daniel Jester:
All right, Mark. Well, thank you so much for your time, for coming back on the show with us, and chatting with us a little bit, and we look forward to seeing you. And I won't be able to make it to the London event, but I'm looking forward to seeing how that goes.
Mark Stocker:
Yeah, yeah. I'll let you know how it goes, brilliant. Thanks Dan, it's been great chatting to you.
Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode. One last reminder, that registration is open for Creative Operations London, and you can reserve your place by checking out the links in our show notes down there in the section that's called Resources. The event is March 18th of this year, in London. Check out our show notes for your registration link. Many thanks to our guest, Mark Stocker. And thanks to you so much for listening. The show is produced by Creative Force edited by Calvin [inaudible 00:27:25], special thanks to my good friend, Sean O'Meara. I'm your host, Daniel Jester. Until next time my friends.

About the host

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.