Chris Gokiert of Critical Mass: “Put performance over price”

Put performance over price. One of my favorite examples of performance over price is Dollar Shave Club. Dollar Shave Club doesn’t talk about how cheap their blades are; they talk about how great their blades are. DTC brands know that they need to better reach the consumer of today, so they emphasize how their products […]

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Put performance over price. One of my favorite examples of performance over price is Dollar Shave Club. Dollar Shave Club doesn’t talk about how cheap their blades are; they talk about how great their blades are. DTC brands know that they need to better reach the consumer of today, so they emphasize how their products are made with care, quality, and thinking. It’s about care and generosity, and giving customers something better.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Gokiert.

Chris Gokiert is the CEO of Critical Mass, an award-winning digital marketing and experience design agency. Since joining Critical Mass in 1998, he has been instrumental in growing the company into the successful global agency it is today. Case in point: during his tenure, most of which has been spent in the C-suite, Critical Mass has expanded from just 35 people in one Calgary office to more than 1,000 employees based in 11 global offices. Chris has led many key client relationships over the years and has launched major initiatives for Nissan, INFINITI, adidas and AT&T. Prior to his role as CEO, Chris served as president of Critical Mass for more than a decade.

Chris lives in Calgary with his wife, three daughters and two dogs. Fun fact about Chris: he holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology (cue the Indiana Jones theme music).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had just completed my degree, and I had an epiphany while on a dig in the hills of Greece. The world of academia wasn’t for me. Once I made that decision, it took some time to transition out of that world. I did a brief stint at a family-owned business. Then, I ended up landing a job at Critical Mass as an assistant to the project managers.

I figured I would stay for six months (tops!) and learn as much as I could about tech and creativity. From there, I was going to find a way to bring together the worlds of online gaming and ancient history. I wasn’t sure if that intersection actually existed, but I was determined to find a way. Instead, I caught the bug for creativity, technology and agency life, and never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting story probably occurred at some point in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Those were wild times in the industry, and I’m afraid that most of the stories would probably be a bit embarrassing — nothing salacious, I hasten to add. There have been many times when something big happened for the first time — winning at Cannes, launching our first global roll out, landing a dream client — and I remember thinking, “How the hell did we end up here?” But, when you mix a high-adrenaline environment that moves very fast with a bunch of crazy-talented people, stuff just happens.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

At the time, I didn’t think it was funny, but I made the mistake of sending a very honest email to the wrong person and having a bit of a foot-in-mouth moment. Why does that happen? Fatigue. When you’re starting out, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to do everything, which can lead to one too many late nights. Trust me on this one: your brain will be better and sharper in the morning, so don’t do too much too late — and try to find co-workers and bosses who share that philosophy.

So, while the immediate lesson is don’t send sensitive emails at 1a.m., the bigger takeaway is: you’ve got to have good, honest relationships. If your relationship isn’t strong enough to say something to somebody’s face, then you’ve failed at building the relationship.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Right now, all of my energy is being poured into Critical Mass. I’ve just taken on the role of CEO and am working with a new leadership team. This is a very busy time for the company, and we’re rapidly evolving during a time that is pervasively and increasingly digital. No matter what’s going on with the world or my own career, everyone at our agency, including me, pours their heart into everything that we do. Our mission is to make peoples’ lives better, and the opportunity to make a positive impact in peoples’ lives through digital has never been greater. It’s also something that we believe we have to deliver to our employees. So, yeah, things are busy at work!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I’ve always viewed work/life as one thing. It’s basically a see-saw where you can be fully on and sometimes fully off, but it’s always in motion and everyone is different. Being able to re-energize quickly is obviously important. It’s something I’ve always been able to do, and I’m lucky for that. But here’s something that’s always worked for me: I’ve worked hard to surround myself with good people who inspire me. Not only can you trust them to help you through the tough times, but they’re also the ones that make me laugh and move onto the next item without dwelling on the negative too long.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Di Wilkins, our current Chairperson and previous CEO of Critical Mass for 15 years. Di is a friend, a mentor and the smartest person I’ve ever met. She’s always there to help, no matter what.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Critical Mass is a purpose-driven agency. As I mentioned earlier, our mission is to design experiences that improve peoples’ lives but we don’t stop there. As a successful agency, we think we have an obligation to give back and help people who aren’t necessarily clients or customers of our clients, and we want to empower our employees to do the same. So, we work with and support a number of different charities to pass on our talents and help their causes. We do this regionally, by office, but also globally.

That is why we always say that the people we want to attract to Critical Mass are driven by a need to find meaning in their work. They’re the kind of people — talented, purposeful, open-minded — who rally around a shared purpose. And, on that note, we’ve defined four basic areas of focus: Advancing Education, Protecting the Environment, Supporting Human Health and Championing Equality. These areas of focus help us think concretely about making real and lasting impact in the world.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

When you say that our lives have changed, you have to remember that when life changes, behavior changes. And when human behavior changes, brands have to start rethinking and reassessing pretty much everything. For that, you need the power of data. Take consumer demand, for instance. Almost overnight, we’re seeing how some clients need to adopt predictive analytics to get ahead of unprecedented changes in inventory levels. Armed with the right predictive models, they can adjust their marketing to account for a new world of ebbs and flows. Away and Blue Apron are doing roughly the same thing — using machine learning to increase and forecast demand. Those are sophisticated, digitally native DTC brands. That said, anyone with the ability to conduct qualitative and quantitative research can obtain the specific customer and business intelligence needed to determine the right opportunities.

So, I’d say data is the big one, especially since data is something foundational — an ecosystem-wide investment — but there are some other more tactical things that brands are doing:

Resuscitating the catalog. Here’s a surprising one. A recent study found that 64% of millennials would rather scan through mail (yes, postal mail) than browse an email. Some clever brands must have run the same study because we’re seeing companies that began 100% online start to embrace printed catalogs — Bonobos, Wayfair, even Amazon.

Revaluing customer service. Here’s one that was always true but is more urgent than ever. Customer service is a pivotal part of the brand experience, especially in the current retail landscape. Millennials are willing to pay 21% more for great customer service. Nike has a Twitter handle just for customer support and has been applauded for the way they solve customer problems.

Making personalization more personal. This is no longer optional. Today, 75% of online shoppers want brands to personalize their offerings and messages. Thrive Market, a natural food and e-grocer, developed a quiz for new members that enables hyper-personal recommendations, leading to increased sales conversion and repeat customer engagement. But receiving digital content by algorithm will only get you so far. Liberty of London, Tiffany & Co. and even Chewy send handwritten notes to customers.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Yes, I do think retail stores and malls will continue to exist. While brick-and-mortar retail has suffered, storefronts are opportunities to create spatial, in-person experiences. Even DTC brands understand this, which is why Warby Parker and Casper have invested in physical stores. More generally, the shift to e-commerce makes it harder for brands to emotionally connect with customers, which is a key driver for success and brand loyalty. In a digital world, tactile, physical moments are all the more memorable. There will never be a substitute for in-person help and assistance.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

It would be easy enough to look at the brands you’ve listed and say, “Customers want convenience, immediacy, simplicity, choice, and a great experience — and these brands deliver it.” Now, rather than look at what they do to succeed, I’d suggest looking at how they succeed. Since you mentioned Costco, I’ll use them as an example. Costco has clearly figured out what their customers value about the wholesale club category, as well as the Costco brand. With that kind of insight, they can pinpoint gaps in the category (i.e., things that people want but aren’t getting) and then provide those missing experiences and perks in a way that’s authentic to Costco’s specific brand (i.e., what people expect and associate with them). At Critical Mass, we’ve got a research-intensive process called Pivot that does exactly this. We talk to actual customers and then figure out how to build the brand by looking at what customers aren’t getting from a category, as well as what’s ownable for our client’s brand. So, it’s not just about providing any old “convenience, immediacy, and simplicity.” It’s about finding the nuanced forms of convenience, immediacy, and simplicity that no one is offering, and how those opportunities can translate into unique brand experiences.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

This is a great question, which funnily enough, we can answer along the same lines as the last one. Understanding what people will value in the category and brand is a good place to start. Don’t get me wrong, price will always be a big factor, but it’s still just one factor. Brands will win if they define moments that matter and build experiences around them (i.e., the experiences that people value and that the brand can truly own).

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

To be honest, there’s one thing that’s more important than anything — a connected brand ecosystem with real humans at the center. No silos, no inconsistency, no barriers. Brands need to use their first-party data backed by third-party data to better understand the needs of modern customers and, in turn, design deeply connected, digital ecosystems that are attuned to the complex needs and journey of today’s digital-first customer. But getting into the nitty gritty of that is a topic for another article!

If you’re looking for five specific things, then let’s look at the DTC arena. I recently wrote about five things that DTC brands should do and think about to pull ahead of the pack. To be honest, they’re good advice for any retailer. So, in no particular order:

  1. Challenge the legacy category. DTC brands are convenient and affordable, but more than that they represent a fresh perspective — one that aligns with a new generation of consumers and eases pain points for the experienced shopper. No longer are consumers required to accept outdated “truths” of retail. Today’s consumer is presented with a plethora of options that seamlessly fit their lifestyles. Brands must evolve with this new reality in order to be top of mind the next time they need a product or service in your category.
  2. Put performance over price. One of my favorite examples of performance over price is Dollar Shave Club. Dollar Shave Club doesn’t talk about how cheap their blades are; they talk about how great their blades are. DTC brands know that they need to better reach the consumer of today, so they emphasize how their products are made with care, quality, and thinking. It’s about care and generosity, and giving customers something better.
  3. Appeal to our unreasonableness. Digital technology has enabled instant gratification. God forbid the WiFi goes out for 30 seconds and we’ve got to wait through a load screen! What we search, how we communicate and what we buy is available at the click of a button. Brands are circumventing even the traditional e-commerce platforms to sell to consumers in the places and platforms they most frequent — TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, the list goes on. The rise of “social shipping” from popular platforms to consumers’ front doors will continue to rock the market. The brands that are able to master the supply chain while leveraging these connective, instantaneous technologies are going to win.
  4. Rethink retail and service. While the shift to digital continues to accelerate, DTC brands are still building flagship retail locations to complement their digital channels. A store is a physical touchpoint that drives people into the shopping ecosystem. It’s a chance for people to interact one-to-one with sales associates who address their needs. Customer service is pivotal to the experience a brand delivers and even more important in the current retail landscape. Retail is about building a connected messaging platform, both in-store and online. There are aspects of service that cannot rely on technology alone. That is where brands need to spend more time and resources.
  5. Be purpose driven. Consumers today care about purpose and values more than anything else — they want to buy, wear, and promote brands that stand for something. When a brand leads with its ideals and can genuinely make an impact on how its audience lives and works, customers are more likely to form a long-lasting relationship.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not original here at all. If it could be summed up in one word, it would be “equal”. The very fact that somebody thinks of somebody else as “lesser than” not only rubs me the wrong way but starts down a very negative path. I really don’t know what the movement would be to solve this — as many smarter folks than me have tried to tackle it — I just think that making every interaction based on the principle of equal would really make the world a better place.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I’m not a prolific writer/poster, etc. but if you follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter, you’ll see me liking or sharing the great work that we do at Critical Mass.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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