The umlaut-studded Swedish outfitter Fjällräven has been around since 1960. Back then, it was dedicated to providing sturdy Scandinavians with parkas and backpacks that could stand up to the region's frigid temperatures and rugged terrain. Now, nearly 60 years later, you're as likely to spot Fjällräven's iconic fox logo on a backpack in Brooklyn as you are on a trail in the Arctic Circle. Fjällräven didn't change, but it's marketing tactics did.

The brand's transformation was a conscious one. Fjällräven didn't want to be seen as just another clothing brand; it wanted to inspire fierce devotion among its customers. That drive to differentiate was behind the creation of Fjällräven Polar and Fjällräven Classic, a pair of bespoke excursions that lets customers experience the brand in the wild. Both have been a huge success, attracting new customers while giving established ones something novel to be excited about. In an increasingly digitized world, physical experiences can create a visceral link between consumer and brand, and savvy companies are making that bond a priority through every channel possible.

THE EXPERIENTIAL FEEDBACK LOOP

The demise of brick-and-mortar retail has been greatly exaggerated. So says Scott Lachut of retail consulting firm PSFK. He points to digitally native brands that are discovering the appeal of physical stores to potential customers. "There's a direct-to-consumer luggage company that found a 40% lift in website sales wherever they open a new store," Lachut says. "They've realized they can capture passersby by having them come in, speak to an expert, have an experience, and test out a product before they buy it online."

Those bridges are becoming even more central to social-media strategies as retailers start to realize that throwing money at Facebook and Instagram without a comprehensive plan can result in diminishing returns. "Brands are moving into physical spaces almost as a marketing channel," Lachut says. "A lot of discovery is happening online, but that's starting to draw people into stores where they can walk out with a product and share with their respective audiences right away." Think of it like a feedback loop: A customer discovers a product on Instagram, visits the store in person, snaps a picture of the product, and then shares it on Instagram, starting the cycle again. The physical amplifies the digital.

ANALYZE, CUSTOMIZE, REPEAT

Brands are awash in data, and the smart ones are funneling information about customers into innovative marketing approaches. Artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques are being applied to old-school social-media strategies, with brands feeding what they know about their patrons-;and potential patrons-;into algorithms that can make interactions more personal and human.

"As machine learning and AI become more generally available, retailers can create smart digital interactions," says Jeff Neville, executive vice president of BRP, a retail-transformation consultancy. He cites the rise of chatbots as a prime example of AI becoming more mainstream in retail. "There isn't a script that the chatbots are following. They're listening and then they're responding as best they can." By extending that logic and technology to the rest of a brand's footprint, companies can provide customized experiences across the board. "Maybe it creates a unique branded landing page depending on the situation, or if I go in store it might create an in-store experience through an app," Neville adds.

Data remains the best conduit between the physical and digital worlds. The more you know about your customers, the more customized, personalized experience you can give them, both on- and offline. Neville likens it to a return to the "good old days" of retail, with a digital twist: "I worked with a merchant who told me, 'I remember when it was just my grandfather in the shoe store with his customers, and he knew everybody-;knew their parents, their kids' names, what they liked, where they lived.' I think we're close to digitizing that one-on-one conversation."

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Published on: Jul 30, 2019