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The Guide to Humanizing Your Brand’s Digital Experience


White Paper January 28, 2021

The Guide to Humanizing Your Brand’s Digital Experience


While COVID-19 has accelerated the move towards digital technology and platforms that allow people to connect, work, shop, learn and play online, these digital experiences are also causing major opportunities (and disruption) for brands. At the forefront of those industries that are facing long-term risk are the ones that rely on branded environments and physical locations, such as banks, retail stores and services.

This article does not argue against technology, but instead focuses on how to humanize the digital experience and find the right balance between technology and human interaction. When done right, digital technology can empower businesses and lead to greater employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Without this balance, though, we believe many of the things that we take for granted when visiting a physical store will disappear, leading to fewer jobs, a worsening of service experiences, and ultimately the lessening of consumer’s buying power.


In the past decade, we have witnessed massive disruption driven by a shift in consumer attitudes, a move to digital and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes have challenged many of the beliefs we share regarding how past trends will ensure a smooth transition to the future. As Strategic Foresight strategists, we define this view as part of three horizons, where the first represents an industry’s expected future state. The first horizon is based on assumptions formed through what has occurred in the past and imagines these trends will continue well into the future before they crest.

However, we have learned the future never unfolds in a straight line and the assumptions that a business may make are often disrupted by a second horizon event – one that ushers in newly discovered innovations such as AI, genomics and robotics. We are currently witnessing many of these emerging trends and how they will shape the future of physical places of commerce, such as retailers and banks. These technologies are also putting at risk the relevancy of people and industries, creating a potential scenario divided by the haves (those with relevant careers) and have nots (irrelevant jobs displaced by technology). In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, author Yuval Noah Harari speaks of the risk technology will bring to our working society’s very fabric, creating a great schism between different working classes. The second horizon is anticipated and appears to be game-changing – but it does not necessarily represent events as they will unfold, and can even be a red herring.

The third horizon is one that eclipses the second by offering a more innovative approach. It relies on the dynamics of visionary leaders who are challenging the varying fundamentals of business by redefining what can be. Think of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Bill and Melinda Gates. This last horizon is usually unforeseen because most of us were unable to see past our biases. Fortunately, visionary leaders can. If allowed to flourish, the third horizon can bring about more meaningful change – in this case, allowing businesses and humanity to continue to thrive. Of the three horizons, the last has the most significant impact on industries since it represents a major shift in thinking based on unmet needs and offers a better future, instead of creating a newer, shinier version of the what we already have, built on past behaviors and experiences.

Companies such as Walmart, whose core value is the democratization of goods for the masses by squeezing every penny out of operations, had invested heavily in robotics to further that goal. However, they discovered that a fleet of shelf-scanning robots do not make great employees, nor do they generate revenue for their stores. In the end, they found that humans could do the task just as well as a robot, and that there were other values humans brought to the role a robot could not. Due to the pandemic and the high level of unemployment, more companies may revert to human labor as a vehicle in driving growth and goodwill. Indeed, we may be seeing the emergence of a new weak signal that, pending the pandemic’s long-term impact, may result in a shift away from robotics in retail.


Three Horizons Example

Taking a taxi from point a to point b is Horizon 1. It represents the status quo.

Uber is Horizon 2 where we change the business model slightly by moving to a gig economy model enabled by technology to address certain pain-points for consumers.

However, Horizon 3 will come when autonomous vehicles are ubiquitous. Only then will we truly see a completely different approach to taxi transport services.

Key Takeaways:

We are a society lost in the promises of future technologies.

An expected future based on current assumptions seldom comes to fruition.

A future horizon based on the foundation of human vision provides humanity and businesses with the most significant opportunities.


There is no denying that technology has allowed humans to be more connected through social media, AR and VR platforms and video conferencing. In the banking industry, it has allowed for frictionless transactions while reducing the cost to bankers. In China, it is becoming a standard practice to have robots as lobby greeters to help direct customers to the right department. For retailers, online and mobile shopping has allowed for a new channel to engage with their customers. All of these trends have been accelerated due to the pandemic and the need for self-isolation. However, scientists have identified that not all is great in the Kingdom of Digital Oz as we get a closer look behind the curtain. Many studies are identifying the negative impact technologies are having on consumers beyond putting job security at risk.

With search engines such as Google, behavioral scientist Matt Wallaert has identified that we are becoming dependent on the ease they provide. By having our search queries pre-populated and the results curated for us, serendipitous discovery (a core tenet of what separates us from animals) is becoming less common. And it’s not just undermining our ability to challenge our thinking through discovery. The heavy reliance on mobile devices is turning humans into mobile zombies, altering everything from how we interact with people face-to-face to how children are being raised. Unfortunately, these emerging behaviors have led to disorganized and lower development levels in the brain’s white matter for children – an area key to language, literacy and cognitive skill development based on a study published in 2020 that involved MRI scans of brains.

The biggest concern for businesses, as outlined by Neema Moraveji, Director of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University, is the fact that sensory dynamism could be a problem when it comes to an over-reliance on computer technology. Moraveji explains how computer and mobile screens can sometimes cloud our sensory judgement as consumers, with only factual and textual information instead of an array of human emotions coming into play. He explains that technology drives us to be less human as we become more isolated and individual in behavior rather than interconnected, and primarily competitive rather than mostly collaborative. The loss of sensory judgment undermines consumers’ ability to emotionally connect, opening the door to apathy and losing brand loyalty.


The ability to connect humans to their emotions, something machines cannot accomplish, provides a considerable payback for retailers and banks. For example, a study by Motista found that emotionally connected retail banking customers hold more products, concentrate more of their balances, remain customers longer and are more interested in opening more accounts. The study identified these customers hold 20 percent more products with their banks; have an attrition rate 78 percent lower; consider their bank as their primary bank 32 percent more often; and express, on average, 900 percent higher purchase intent for cross-selling products — credit cards, mortgages, personal loans and lines, and brokerage accounts — when needs arise in their lives. The facts are pretty compelling: a more human digital service experience pays dividends for banks and retailers.

Our own immersive experience study identified consumers view the real value of technology as an enabler to better customer service as opposed to replacing human service. The research found that consumers describe an immersive experience as one where they receive the best service and can be fully engaged participants. It is important to note that consumers link immersive experiences to a benefit. Therefore, “the use of virtual reality and augmented reality technology” and “a place where digital and physical come together” ranked extremely low in the study as a way to describe an immersive experience. This supports the hypothesis that consumers are less interested in the type of technology and its features, and more focused on how these technologies can improve the service experience.

Digging deeper to identify the one key benefit of an immersive experience, consumers in our study reported that the ability to find what they are looking for is the benefit they value most. The next most important benefits were increasing the service level, making shopping efficient and providing a great reason to shop. Millennials also ranked the ability to make the shopping experience more personalized, increase service level, allow access to videos, testimonials, price comparison and advice significantly higher than the total sample size.

If emerging technologies are all about better customer service, creating an emotional connection that has proven to drive loyalty and growth is the other side of the equation. A Gallup study identified an emotionally connected service experience keeps customers returning, netting an additional 23 percent of revenue. Emotional connections are driven by customers engaging with staff, not machines. You could also argue that more reliance on technology makes the customer experience less human.

Ensuring empathy delivered by human engagement is a key driver of consumer loyalty. Even before the pandemic, consumers wanted to bank with real people and seek advice through human interaction. Along with our own Stealth Attrition study, an Accenture report found that access to humans in a retail bank also leads to a better branch experience. The report found that 40 percent of respondents like their overall branch experience when they have access to front line staff. Not surprisingly, those who use the branch prefer “full-service branches” over all other formats (61 percent) and close to 50 percent indicated they trust their bank more when speaking to someone in person. Given the fact that our own study found that only 4 percent of bank customers view their bank as a primary source for financial advice, ramping up the human interaction with bankers can be seen a critical factor in long-term success.



Case in Point

Self-checkouts are a great example to study. When done well, self-checkouts can improve the experience for a consumer with a smaller number of items, is comfortable with technology and wants to do their shopping quickly.

But for a consumer who has a large basket, who requires additional assistance, lacks confidence with technology or who simply prefers to speak to a person, the self-checkout is a barrier. Not every shopping journey is based entirely on efficiency.

Offering a range of options that support different customer journeys is important in ensuring a digital transformation does not come at the cost of human connection.

Key Takeaways:

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption and use of digital technologies.

Heavy reliance on digital technologies comes at the cost of how we discover and absorb information.

The emergence of technology amongst children will have a far-reaching future impact on consumer behavior.

Improved technology should be about elevating customer service experience.

Emotionally charged relationships go much further than technology in driving brand loyalty.

Customers prefer to bank with bankers, especially for more important transactions. Other retail models will likely find customers prefer to interact with people, especially for higher-level advice and service.


The fact that digital transformation is eliminating repetitious, low-value tasks is also rewiring how we live our lives. There are strategies retailers and bankers can take to find the right balance between digital technologies and humans as part of an ideal service experience. However, it’s essential to identify first what is the perfect service experience for banks and retailers.

An ideal service experience, at its core, answers deep emotional consumer needs. For example, customers want expedient banking transactions where they no longer need to wait in line or fill-out massive amounts of documents to open an account or take a loan. However, if we look at the relationship from an emotional, humanistic perspective, we can see that customers need to reduce their economic anxieties about retirement and growing their financial security. Can a machine do that? Whether you are looking for a special outfit for a friend’s wedding, a new set of noise cancelling headphones or a healthier lunch, connection comes from recognition of the emotional aspect of the underlying need – in these examples, perhaps the consumer needs to feel attractive, to work from home with less stress or to address a concerning health need. If we start from empathy around consumers’ needs, we can see that technology falls short at certain points in the customer journey.


When you deconstruct an ideal service experience, what you discover is that the positive outcome has as much to do with the front-line staff as it does with the merchandise, services and marketing. This is one of the core reasons digital transformations have failed to reach their ideal outcome. They have forgotten the employee in the process, which has led to a disconnect between the external digital transformation and the service experience. The ideal service experience finds the right balance between answering deep consumer emotional needs and providing frictionless transactions or a wide range of product offerings. It allows organizations to leverage the full power of an empowered workforce. To achieve this, brands must lean into gleaning more significant insights from employees than third-party websites and search engine queries. Simply asking your front-line staff what your customers need will provide you with much greater insight than your expensive algorithm. Their input might even help you build a better algorithm.

The future of service experiences will rely on creating a knowledge-based, digitally-enabled ecosystem, one that puts people at the center of the experience. Marketers will need to have a deeper understanding of their customers beyond the conventional demographics and purchase behaviors to get at the root of their hidden needs and aspirations. As brands get better at collecting and utilizing data, they will have a much richer, in-depth understanding of their customer. Coupling clean data with AI will allow for a more robust predictive platform to anticipate and respond to each customer’s individual needs.

However, for all its benefits, if front-line employees do not activate the insights and customer-centric knowledge, much of the investment in knowledge and technology will fail to benefit the organization. The future value will be derived from linking data-rich insights to human-centric behaviors and service models.


We have identified five criteria for an ideal service experience that leverages both technology and humans.

1. Broader Insight Data Points

Technology has allowed companies to have a much more comprehensive view of their customers’ habits, behaviors and brand preferences. Companies will need to take a broader view of the customer including lifestyle and emotional needs. By capturing a more in-depth view of the consumer’s life, companies can target personalized messages better and be more proactive in filling the potential gaps currently unavailable in the marketplace.

The integration of a retailer or bank’s mobile app is another way to gain far more significant insights into consumer lifestyle behaviours and patterns. For example, insurance companies such as Allstate and Esurance use their apps to reward customers that have good driving behaviors. In these cases, consumers are willing to give up a degree of privacy if it helps provide them with special recognition or savings. As more data is collected through IoT devices, expect companies to have a much broader view of how consumers live and engage with brands.

Key Points to Consider When Collecting Data:

  • Brands must be transparent.
  • Brands much offer consumers meaningful benefits in return.
  • Allowing the consumer to easily customize or opt out of data collection encourages greater trust and engagement.
  • Brands must safeguard their customer information with best-in-class security.

2. Finely Tuned Customer Personas

The development of customer personas has morphed beyond the realm of online marketing into its integration across the entire marketing channel. As such, the process of creating personas will need to explore more specific segments and allow for greater personalization while taking into account groups that are not being addressed by competitors. As the world becomes more diverse and inclusive, your personas, marketing and communications should reflect this changing landscape.

These finally tuned personas can in turn be leveraged by other forms of digital technology to help drive greater online experiences. Virtual avatars are one way that a brand can cater to a customer’s individual need and aspirations. As technology improves, the option for a digital concierge that listens, learns and offers service advice is becoming more realistic. It will be important to understand your audience though, and gauge whether this technology will be a welcome addition to their digital journey.

Key Points to Consider When Developing Personas:

  • Learn about biases in order to avoid stereotyping.
  • Simple demographic information such as age and income is NOT a person.
  • Behavior-based customer segmentation requires empathy and a deeper dive.

3. A Well-Defined Customer Journey Map

The use of broader data points and the development of finely tuned personas will set the foundation of developing ideal customer journeys, allowing the identification of crucial moments-of-truth in addition to areas of friction. These insights will also help frame how digital, virtual and physical components will play together in building an ideal service experience. The ideal customer journey will also set the groundwork for creating the perfect service experience across these various personas.

Understanding the role humans play in the mix and how the sales choreography needs to reflect new norms will play a critical role in creating a more significant customer satisfaction level.

Key Points to Consider When Mapping the Customer Journey:

  • Customers do not experience your brand in silos – for them, it is all one experience.
  • Connecting digital and physical requires an understanding of how customers want to shop your category rather than simply jumping on trends.
  • Changing the customer journey means changing the employee choreography and staffing model.

4. Digital and Physical Sales Choreography

The development of a range of customer service experience maps that support customer shopping and banking behaviors will help identify the current staff engagement gaps and define each employee’s ideal role along the journey. The digital sales choreography will explore the role of virtual concierges, chatbots and avatars to respond to customers’ many queries while also helping to reduce lower value transaction staffing costs. New digital training and staff-driven customer engagement tools such as AI-enabled tablets will also connect the wealth of customer information and personalization at the fingertips of front-line employees.

The reinvented physical space designed to better reflect customer needs will be supported by new sales processes and potential business models. For example, with the pandemic’s rise, more in-store engagement is being driven by appointments, allowing operators to manage both staffing and customer levels throughout the day.

Key Points to Consider When Creating a New Sales Choreography:

  • Digital tools to support greater access to information for staff is critical.
  • Chatbots and digital concierges should serve to triage and support staff rather than replace them.
  • Connecting teams from online to in-store requires a new approach to employee engagement.

5. Closing the Loop Between External and Internal Marketing

There is a significant chasm between the investment of externally focused technologies such as ERP programs, AI, machine learning, online and mobile platforms and what is occurring in the actual store. The pandemic has accelerated the need to spend in these areas due to the limited access to physical stores and a desire to remain safe and virus free. However, the significant imbalance in spending has left many retail and banking businesses behind in their in-store digital transformation, delaying their move towards digital signage, voice-enabled interactive technologies and untethering the frontline staff from their desk POS systems.

Retailers and banks need to explore technologies that track how advertising is driving traffic to stores and which external marketing and social media messages are most effective at engaging with customers at the store level. Currently, most physical channel companies cannot accurately assess the ROI of their marketing investment, nor can they determine which had the most significant impact in driving in-store sales. Ensuring the vital link between the external and in-store marketing campaigns and offers will allow a platform of continual learning and improvement while also having a far greater understanding of personalization’s value and impact.

Key Points to Consider When Assessing Marketing Impact:

  • Heat mapping is a new technique for evaluating merchandising by determining how long consumers linger in one spot, where their eyes stay longest and whether those products then see an increase in sales.
  • Creating an online experience that goes beyond selling your products can engage your consumers more deeply, allowing you to understand how engagement connects to sales.
  • A robust and clean consumer database is essential for understanding how consumer behavior and marketing efforts are linked.

The pandemic and major market disruptions due to technology have forced retailers and banks to rethink their connected world. There is a need to reinforce and better define the bricks-and-mortar channel’s value by giving customers a new and more compelling reason to visit and shop. It’s easy to look back at the negative impact of these various disruptions, but the real opportunity is to avoid incrementalism and take bolder steps providing a more optimistic view of the future. We cannot change the past but can shape a more positive and prosperous future.