Scott (co-founder of Shape) often plays tennis with Cameron, a professor at a leading university lecturing Undergraduate and Masters students in Digital Marketing, Entrepreneurialism, and Consumer Behaviour. Cameron currently focuses much of his time researching the future of branding.
After many highly competitive games played together, Scott and Cameron would frequently chat about Cameron’s research; what the challenges are, what is changing, and what the market opportunities might be in the future. It became apparent over the course of these conversations that there was a gap in the market that could be filled. So why not fill it ourselves?
The Backstory Cameron’s research quickly uncovered a huge challenge facing every brand. They spend millions of pounds on defining their “brand identity” and how they want to be perceived by customers, but they still struggle to do this well.
We live in a rapidly changing world with increasingly sophisticated consumers and there is a big change happening in marketing; a shift from spam-like content posting to content geared more towards experiences and lifestyles, with the aim being to build deeper relationships with customers, and in turn brand loyalty.
Brands know that to build great relationships with their customers they must deliver relevant and engaging content to keep readers coming back for more.
Smart brands have realised that they can do this by creating authentic lifestyle content, showcasing how their products and services fit into the customer's life - very often in an aspirational way. For example, a fashion brand might create content on travel, like a cool hotel and have some images of the hotel and local area with a model wearing the brands clothes.
One piece of research Cameron often referred to was by Jean-Noel Kapferer, the professor of marketing strategy at a popular management school in France, introduced the Brand Identity Prism in his book, “Strategic Brand Management” which highlighted six key elements that are considered effective tools for building brand identity:
Brands try to use these elements in an attempt to build deep and meaningful relationships with their customers, but the channels they use to do this were not built with this purpose in mind, and as a result tend to fall short in serving these needs. The channels they use are known as “social networks” - places where people go to see what their friends and family are up to, not to be overtly marketed to. As a result, they are not in a very receptive frame of mind with regards to brand engagement, therefore adverts and brand-created content is far less effective than it could otherwise be.
Neither of these have anything to do with brand / customer relationships. We worked with Cameron to figure out and define what brands would need to best tell their story and convey their identity to customers.
The first step for us was to crystalise what the problem that we were attempting to solve. By doing this we put ourselves in a strong position to define and develop a product that will satisfy a need, add value for users, and that the market will love.
In this - as with any project - we wanted to establish a shared vision, set realistic goals, concisely describe the benefits Article should deliver, understand the product life cycle, the product goals, the pricing, and the marketing strategy.
We had a reasonable sense of who our target users were and tasked ourselves with clearly being able to articulate the value proposition of Article in their language. As part of this we defined why people would want to use and buy Article and why it would do a great job at creating value for them.
We looked at the tools content marketers currently used as part of a competitor analysis to understand their respective strengths and weaknesses. Cameron had some ideas on what we should be building and we helped to test and refine his assumptions about the market and the value proposition.
Having performed some qualitative and quantitative market research we mapped out the opportunity, sketching ideas, designing and testing visual ways to allow brands to showcase their best content.
The Plot Thickens (Validation and Iteration / Project Evolution) Once we had validated (or invalidated!) our initial assumptions,, we built a functional demo that we could trial with a wider user-base and show to potential investors, gaining insight and confidence as we reacted to feedback (positive or negative!) with further iterations of the product.
We wanted to iterate and design the tools and means brands can use to create engaging campaigns, but that wasn’t the only thing to think about.
We were eager to look at the other side of the equation - the customer.
One of the problems we identified during the validation phase was that the general public is “sick and tired” of seeing brands “intruding” on their social networks pages.
Two key questions were on all of our minds at this point:
Why would customers use Article? What does Article offer that wasn’t previously available to them?
We believed an answer to both of these revolves around “flipping the relationship” between a brand and a customer, placing the power back in the hands of the customer (primarily by allowing them to decide when and how often they engage) and reframing their interactions with a brand so that the relationship is more balanced.
The current status quo is a brand has the customer’s email address and periodically sends an email to market the brand, products or an offer. The customer generally has little control over this relationship other than in or out (get all emails or no emails).
From the brands perspective they have the control but information is likely not sent at a point when the customer is wanting it or has time to deal with it. Imagine getting an email every Monday morning at 11am from a brand you have purchased something from in the past but every Monday morning you are in a meeting from 10am to 1pm. The best a brand could hope for is that the customer reviews the email at point that is more convenient later but most likely the customer has some negative feeling towards it and ignores it.
Our vision was to put some control back to the customer so they get information when they want it and the result is a positive feeling, have a desire to see the content and want to engage more with the brand.
We scoped out a user experience where the customer can define exactly how often and when they are notified on that new brand content is available.
Having performed some extensive research on how brands market and what content they use we began looking at how we would present the content to the customer. We wanted to make it feel like browsing a magazine.
To us there we five key points why we liked the idea of a magazine:
A magazine is a treat - something you make time for
A magazine is something you can get to the end of, it's contained
A magazine offers an opportunity to engage in a passion
A magazine is visual - in its most basic form it contains both pictures and text
A magazine is something that makes you feel cooler/smarter/more interesting
These five points helped us arrive at a general sense of what made a magazine feel like a magazine. From this, we were able to produce a templating language to slot content into. A key difference from normal “templates” however was that ours were made dynamically, rather than relying on pre-set constructions. We called this "Squaremeal" (PDF).
We had some simple rules around placement that we believed gave each presentation a sense of consistency (always having a large hero image at the top of the virtual page, for example), but in principle we could generate a large number of subtly different templates effortlessly, each giving (we believe) a strong “magazine”-feel.
After some user interviews it became clear that users liked the images with associated captions more than the images on their own. The size was not a factor but they felt that images without captions were missing something.
Off the back of that feedback we refined the design and templating language so that every image had an associated caption. We called these “postcards” (mainly due to the dimensions of the images and captions together). Unfortunately, it still didn’t feel quite right, we wanted to do more and began experimenting with the postcards a little more.
What was missing? What makes a postcard a postcard?
We quickly realised that while our current design looked a bit like a postcard, they didn’t feel like them. That missing ingredient was a sense that each one was it’s own physical object! Excited by this realisation, we quickly got to work redesigning the postcards, and arrived at a much more physical experience, a sense of a “front” and a “back” to each one.
This way it could be exactly like a postcard, i.e. image on one side and message on the other.
Article is still under active development, we're adding features all the time and responding to feedback from the market and testing groups. We're really excited about where Article is headed, and hope we've been able to give you a little taste about the potential it has and the process we've been through so far.
Cameron is currently on an investor roadshow with a view to raising seed finance, so stay tuned to see where Article takes us! Alternatively, if you or someone you know is interested in getting involved in any capacity - be it as an advisor, investor, developer, or designer - then get in touch!