It was a daylong congregation of retailers, advertisers, data analysts and brand managers who came together to understand how the retail strategies of yesterday are no longer enough. To succeed today, retailers must think differently to integrate, innovate and engage. I attended the Retail Advertising Conference in Toronto last week, and the keynote presentation from Mitch Joel of Twist Image delivered a profound message on how we ought to look at retail today. The themes that emerged from his talk, How to Reboot Retail in a Connected World, transcended traditional tech considerations, framing retail strategy in a context that was familiar and well established, and sometimes surprising.

Direct relationships
The power to have direct relationships with customers has changed. Retailers are not just at war with direct competitors, but with its business partners too. The battle to own the customer relationship occurs with everyone in the food chain: the brand, Facebook and the retailer. Kickstarter is challenging the retail relationship model because its platform is built to allow brands and startups to stay directly connected to their customers. Pebble Watch and Pen Type A didn’t need a retailer because they had already established a profound relationship with their customers.

The power of data
Today’s retailers need to look at data as circular and semantic, versus linear. Customer research should focus on looking at who the individual is and ask, “How can we design marketing that will compel them to take action?” Consumers confuse privacy with personalization, but at the same time, customers want relevant experiences that are important to them. It’s a social contract with consumers, and they realize what they are willing to give out to get an amazing experience., a flash sales shopping site, built their platform on this social contract. You, as a customer, don’t buy from Customers join and buy from the individual retailers. is confidently able to put products on sale for only 72 hours because they know their customers will buy. It boils down to knowing what customers want based on the data they provide. currently has a billion dollar valuation.

Utility or death
What value can you, as a retailer, bring to your customers so that they will put you on the home screen of their iPhone? There’s an app out there called Sit or Squat that locates clean bathrooms around you. It’s a value driven app that’s great for frequent flyers. And here’s the kicker – the app is brought to you by Charmin, a toilet paper company. The brand extended their engagement to provide utility to both existing and would-be consumers. Dishtip is an app that aggregates human data, and picks three dishes you must try at the restaurant you’re researching. LEGO provides utility, and consequently drives in-store foot traffic, through it’s Augmented Reality Digital Box. It’s a tool that adds another dimension to the experience that you cannot get anywhere else.

One screen
“Technology has started to remove technology from technology.” We live in a one screen, post-PC world. Joel emphasized the significance of the tablet, and the fact that consumers today are untethered. He provides examples of businesses that are attuned to this notion. Nomi is a mobile app that enables retailers to track foot traffic in store(s). Square: no more cash registers.

Brand narrative
I’d like to say that Joel saved the best (point) for last, as this topic is a passion and strong interest of mine when it comes to retail strategy. He challenges retailers and brands with the story they are telling. In addition to knowing what story to tell, retailers and brands need to understand how to take this story and spread it cross-channel to deliver a cohesive brand experience. He showed us a video of Chipotle’s recent brand campaign that aired during the Super Bowl. The short film, “Back to the Start,” by filmmaker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. One of, if not the key, factor contributing to the success of the narrative is the soundtrack. Coldplay’s haunting classic “The Scientist” is performed by country music legend Willie Nelson. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.