Communication doesn’t, behaviour does

By Martin Smith, Strategy Director at Communisis

13 March 2019

When it comes to in-store communications, don’t just say it, do it.

Rumours of communication have been greatly exaggerated for some time and as the retail environment evolves, this will only become more acute. I’d like to suggest a more realistic goal: behaviour intervention: from focusing on the message, to focusing on the action and developing tools to provoke it.

Communication is a catch-all for what we do as client, agency and marketing services people. We take comfort in it, like the biblical farmer sowing seeds, not many of which fell on fertile soil.

George Bernard Shaw said “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. He should have worked in marketing. Just because we say it, doesn’t mean shoppers hear, listen, find, choose and buy because of it. In our offices, we strategise, craft and produce the messages we send, but have less and less control or understanding of what messages a shopper actually receives.

The big trends in our space seem to support this. Retailers like their stores to be clean of branded noise. We can buy display media, but only a fraction of its communication gets measured, with tools as reliable as election polls. Cardboard is increasingly seen as wasteful, giving way to always-on digital screens that display ever-more messages at ever-greater intensity. Magpie shoppers go on a journey of deselection: tempted by shiny and new, snapped back to reality with handy barriers that keep them on budget. Our carefully crafted shopper claims get lost in the choice complexity.

If all of that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t, because there’s something much more powerful that our shopper displays can do in order to stop, hold and close. It’s as old as shopping itself and will still be around when we’re all born with microchips in our brains. It unites old and new channels and, done well, can communicate to the shopper, through the most powerful medium there is: personal experience. I’m talking about shopper behaviour: understanding it, then directly intervening and influencing it.

What’s especially good about this approach is that it need not – indeed must not – be complicated. For an industry that prizes big ideas, this is an area where no idea is too trivial. Sometimes the smallest interventions turn out to be more powerful than big ideas that ask the shopper to join in, download or go on the journey.

By way of illustration, here are five examples:

Don’t just say something, do something


Who’s never squirted some deodorant into the can lid at the fixture, secretly wondering if they’re going to be told off by a store manager? This brilliant Lynx shelf strip celebrates that behaviour loud and proud, giving shoppers a trial of the product at the same time. It doesn’t say much, but I’d argue that that it gets shoppers to do actually communicates a lot more than most claims or calls to action. 

Think fast – better still, don’t think at all

One of the most useful things about Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is that it makes us appreciate just how many marketing campaigns rely on people using ‘slow’ thinking (high-effort, analytical, reflective) to take in a finely-tuned message or abstract idea.

What shopper has time for that? Much better to go straight for base desires, in the case of this aisle end display for Kit Kat, the core product benefit and appetite appeal. The brand line is present, but more as a reminder than a message to be communicated.

Make it easy to choose

People are lazy and that’s a good thing. Being economical with effort and attention has probably helped humankind immeasurably over the last few thousand years and it definitely helps today’s shoppers to navigate a busy supermarket, full of shouty in-store displays.

In that context, easy-choice displays like this Pringles magnet-retained grab & go unit are pure genius. No ‘buy now’ commands are needed when the brand offers itself up to the shopper in such an enticing way: there for the taking, practically lifting itself up off the shelf and into your basket.

Personal shopping is within reach


Digital screens have a lot to offer in-store displays. They can add engagement, education and clarity to fixtures that often confuse or underwhelm.

But let’s not use them to make a busy shopping journey even busier. Let’s think about how they can transform what has always been a ‘one to many’ channel into ‘one to one’ instead, solving shoppers’ problems in ways that have never previously been possible.

Two promising examples of that are the digital chiller door screens being trialled by Walgreens, that turn a barrier to browsing into a personalised promotional screen, and COTY’s smart mirror technology that allows shoppers to try on hair colours, without actually having to take the plunge.

Let the pack do the talking

Byron Sharp’s distinctive brand assets are hard to argue with and keeping recognisable branding locked and consistent over time makes absolute sense.

But whether it’s routine replenishment or smash and grab impulse, we all shop like magpies – on the look-out for something shiny, interesting, new and different. It’s what has led shopper marketers to seek maximum disruption since the birth of the barker. But at a time when in-store display is harder to come by, this example of limited edition packaging from Nescafe Azera suggests that it’s possible to maintain brand recognition and add high-impact, high-emotion standout that shoppers find hard to resist stopping to pick up.

Behaviour, more than communications: a true north in a changing world

I’d like to suggest that all these examples do a better job of communicating with shoppers than any claim, message or call to action. They do this through the magic of experience: as a shopper experiences each display, they understand the brand’s message at a deeper level than if it was merely ‘said’ by a passive display.

I’d also like to suggest, as retailers change, grow busier and more digital, that human behaviour rather than communications offers an enduring constant, making shopper’s journeys and retailer’s environments more efficient, enjoyable and even profitable.

Communisis are the official sponsor of the Marketing & Branding Stage at RetailEXPO 2019.

Find out more about Martin Smith and his career to date, check out his profile here


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