Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality?

The technology is still a wonder. The software that comes with it just never seems as exciting.

Virtual reality is the breakthrough technology that seems perpetually on the verge of actually breaking through. It’s been around in some form or the other for almost 20 years, and yet, is still seen as a niche innovation, best suited for gamers. But even within that niche, virtual reality hasn’t taken off the way we expected it to. So what happened? 

Back in 2018, I wrote a research report on the emerging business use cases for augmented, mixed and virtual reality and was pretty bullish on the technology. It was hard not to be — Facebook had just released Oculus Go, the first cordless VR headset, and gifted it to all the attendees of its F8 conference that year. At $199 apiece, this was the first affordable VR headset entering the market. As I put it on and demoed a virtual roller coaster, I was blown away by how real the experience felt. I walked away convinced that anybody who tried VR would think it was the most incredible technological innovation in the last 10 years. 

As I enthusiastically demoed the headset for my work colleagues and family, I began to notice a common theme. After the first 10 mins of oohing and aahing over the roller coaster game, there was always a “now what” moment with anybody who tried it. The excitement had quickly worn off, and I didn’t have a new shiny thing lined up to show them. 

“I walked away convinced that anybody who tried VR would think it was the most incredible technological innovation in the last 10 years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the problem with VR. The technology is a wonder, and it continues to become even more impressive. However, the software simply isn’t as compelling. The platform doesn’t have any blockbuster games the way Xbox, PlayStation or even mobile phones have. And while VR headset makers like Oculus, HTC and Sony continue to make great leaps in making VR headsets more affordable and less clunky, the experiences within them are still, for the most part, mediocre.

As Ben Kuchera acknowledges in his article for Polygon, “There’s a secret the VR industry doesn’t want you to know, however, and they’ll never talk about it. Especially since people like older virtual reality enthusiasts like me are often so ready to praise the latest breakthrough: For all the exponential growth the technology has seen in just the last decade, as it exists right now, VR is still horrible.”

When it comes to commercial use cases, companies are more likely to get value out of augmented reality, which enhances existing physical experiences, rather than forcing you to immerse yourself in a virtual one. And ultimately, the average consumer simply doesn’t see the value of owning a geeky-looking headset to play a few games that make you dizzy and disoriented after 30 mins.


So what’s it going to take for VR to truly take off? As is usually the case, it’s a combination of many small factors that eventually will lead to the tipping point. These include lighter, less cumbersome headsets, affordable price points, and seamless integration with existing devices. But the single most important factor will be the software. For VR to be a compelling buy, it has to offer something exclusive to it, an experience that simply can’t be replicated outside it. This could be a blockbuster game, a new way to experience interactive cinema or something along the lines of a shared social experience within a virtual environment. Think of how Netflix and Hulu only really took off when they started offering original content that was exclusive to their platforms. VR has to make the same play in order to capture the moment and become mainstream. Till then, we’ll refrain from continuing to call it a “breakthrough technology.”


How Five European Brands are Winning Over U.S. Consumers

IKEA, LEGO, Dyson, Spotify and BMW keep finding new ways to gain relevance.

The Prophet Brand Relevance Index® ranks hundreds of brands on the characteristics that U.S consumers find most meaningful. And while many of the usual suspects rise to the top, a year of pandemic and political upheaval has caused dramatic shifts. People are embracing and rejecting brands in entirely different ways.

This is the sixth iteration of our ground-breaking research, based on the same core principles of relentless relevance. We measure whether a brand is customer-obsessed, ruthlessly pragmatic, pervasively innovative and distinctively inspired.

Five European brands have risen fast in the relevance stakes, offering lessons that transcend industry and category and apply to any brand trying to compete in the U.S.

LEGO: Providing creative escapes for all generations

Danish brand LEGO has shot up 23 spots into 5th place this year. And while competitive toy brands like Mattel, Fisher-Price and American Girl also saw their relevance scores increase as parents adapted to their unexpected role as home-schoolers,  yet LEGO was the brand with the highest marks for innovation. Consumers love that it “engages with [with them] in new and creative ways” and perceive that it has better products, services and experiences than competitors.

Much of LEGO’s purpose is built around its commitment to helping children flex their inner architect. However, it also understands that adults hunger for creative play too, launching such products as LEGO Botanical Collection, which allows grown-ups to build flower bouquets and bonsai trees from its bioplastic components.

Spotify: Hitting those personal sweet spots

Pandemic living is zapping some of the music streaming category’s relevance, with fewer people commuting to work. Yet Swedish music maestro Spotify (#12) sits at the top of all media and entertainment companies, outperforming Pixar and Netflix. It wows in the attributes that drive customer obsession, ranking fourth among all brands in both “connects with me emotionally” and “makes me happy.”

One way it does that is by offering intuitive, adaptive and highly personalized products. It then communicates those advantages with dialed-up marketing. To introduce Spotify Premium Duo, adorable puppets dramatized couples’ challenges in sharing music accounts. And as people scrambled to find productive ways to fill the downtime created by stay-at-home orders, it introduced a digital campaign called “Music, Meet Podcasts.”

Spotify’s real relevance comes from understanding its users’ deeper yearnings. “Listening is Everything,” for example, is a brand platform that continuously reminds people of everything they love about music, doped with personalization and inventive social-media interactions. A sharp marketing effort that truly reaches users’ emotional sweet spots.

Dyson: Limitless capabilities for the ‘Apple of Appliances’

Very few companies can inspire the same sort of brand loyalty and consumer confidence as British brand Dyson.  Jumping up to #30 in this year’s ranking, up from #51, its commitment to continuous innovation sees it disrupting markets and outpacing the competition. The brand reimagines mundane domestic appliances – such as vacuum cleaners, air purifiers and hair dryers – to spectacularly enhance their utility. And with more people spending time at home over the past year, appliance-buying has been on the rise.

Respondents rated Dyson highly for being modern and in touch, engineering technology to actively destroy harmful gases in the air and to dry our hands in rapid time – just in time for the world’s obsession with hand hygiene.

But good products alone are not enough to win consumer favor today. Nor is it about innovation for novelty’s sake. Consumers want products and services that align with their personal values and genuinely benefit the greater good too. As a brand built on ‘lean engineering,’ Dyson is devoted to making things more efficient while using less resources – putting sustainability is at the center of its business.  Whether they are better for the planet, for people – or both – purchasing a pricey but environmentally responsible Dyson product makes consumers feel good about their buying decisions.

IKEA: Offering initiatives that support a shared sense of purpose

With hundreds of millions of people staying safer-at-home, the living room couch became the center of the universe. So did the need to quickly turn laundry rooms into office nooks, kitchen tables into classrooms and bedrooms into a place to hide from the rest of the family. This was IKEA’s moment in the sun. It sailed into the #42 spot, up from #93, easily passing such companies as the Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wayfair.

For all its practicality and commitment to affordable, functional furniture, its strong suit in the U.S is an inspiration. And it earns its highest scores for “having a set of beliefs and values that align with my own.” IKEA has baked purpose into everything it does since the furniture maker was founded in Sweden in 1943. Initiatives such as #buybackFriday, where the company bought back unwanted IKEA items for Black Friday, demonstrates how the brand’s North Star goes well beyond kitchen cabinets. IKEA extends its trademark warmth to everyone: One advertising effort, “Be someone’s home,” encourages people to accept all sexual orientations and gender identities.

BMW: Linking heritage to innovation

Fastest-rising brand in the automotive category? Look no further than Germany’s very own BMW. Accelerating 45 places to #67 in the BRI, its growing relevance in the U.S. could answer why BMW beat Lexus and Mercedes-Benz as the best-selling luxury car brand in the country in 2020.

With more time to think about cars and road trips, BMW stands out from other brands by aggressively showcasing what it has always stood for: Well-designed vehicles that push the boundaries of what’s expected.

Autophiles are already drooling over the BMW iX, the electric sport utility vehicle that will compete with Tesla, due in the U.S. next year. And it’s making waves with its Remote Software Upgrades. No wonder people give it such high marks for “always finding new ways to meet my needs.”

At the massive U.S. Consumer Electronics Show, BMW released a short film that both mocks and brags about its innovative history, including a car fight between a 20-year-old “Grampa” model with a smart-mouthed all-electric “Whippersnapper.” An artful blend of safety and familiarity in its marketing strategy that builds trust with U.S. consumers while emphasizing design and innovation signals its commitment to continually improving.

“Consumers want products and services that align with their personal values and genuinely benefit the greater good too.”


Of course, we know that the brands that rank highest in the BRI aren’t doing one thing. Those leading relevant brands are pursuing multiple paths.

Here are four key areas on which to focus in order to connect better with customers:

Lead with purpose.

A compelling purpose is a roadmap for change and should drive everything a brand does.

Adopting a mindset of customer obsession.

Focusing on increasing customer understanding so they can invest in delivering products and services that truly meet an important need in their customers’ eyes.

Improving the customer experience.

Making bold steps to delight and drive loyalty. Driving more holistic, targeted and personalized omnichannel marketing efforts.

Innovation is critical.

Without innovation, organizations will not be able to grow and thrive. Many are moving at two speed, introducing products and services to address immediate needs, as well as driving a forward-thinking innovation strategy that paves the way for future business growth and success.

Want to learn more about the most relevant brands? Download the Prophet Brand Relevance Index® today. If you need help building and maintaining your brand relevance, then our expert team can help. Get in touch.


Turn Your Employee Experience Into Your Competitive Advantage

Start by fostering flexibility, connection and wellbeing–at every level in the organization.

COVID-19 forced every organization on the planet to prioritise employee experience (EX), whether they had ever considered it before or not. Empathetic leadership, flexible working conditions and emotional support all came into play, immediately and universally. The task of keeping employees safe, well and working, rocketed to the top of every employer’s agenda.

Progressive organizations lost a significant amount of their EX advantage overnight. In 2019, Glassdoor cited Worldpay, Telefonica and Thomson Reuters amongst others, as ‘amazingly flexible.’ Most of the accolades relate to working from home or flexible hours, neither of which would differentiate their EX today.

Whilst attrition rates are very low at the moment when the labour market stabilizes, EX will have a significant impact on talent retention and attraction. Those organizations that are proactive will be able to capitalize on the situation.

There is no silver bullet but at Prophet, we see a new employee experience equation emerging that can help organizations focus their efforts and regain their advantage going forward.

Flexibility is Here to Stay

The flexibility that COVID-19 has forced is irreversible. The pandemic segmented workforces according to parameters we hadn’t seriously considered. From ‘total isolationists’ to ‘contact cravers’ and everywhere in between, the enduring legacy will be flexibility and choice in how and where we work.

We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube – for many employees, it is now possible to work successfully from anywhere and shape whatever mix suits their preference. To compete for the best talent, you need to build flexibility into your operating model permanently and adapt your culture to support hybrid ways of working. From enabling sales teams to meet and sign contracts virtually to setting up a design club that creates forums to get peer feedback on work – the challenges and changes that flexibility drives are endless.

“To compete for the best talent, you need to build flexibility into your operating model permanently and adapt your culture to support hybrid ways of working.”

The good news is that flexibility increases your talent pool as recruits aren’t tied to geographical locations. However, the same is true for your talent competitors, increasing the importance of focusing on the employee experience you provide – ensuring that candidates contemplating joining your organization understand that well-being is a business and cultural priority.

Early movers in this space are Twitter and Spotify. Twitter enabled its employees to work from home ‘forever’ and Spotify is adopting a “Work from Anywhere” model, which will allow employees to choose to be in the office full time, be at home or a combination of the two. A word of caution when rolling out a hybrid model, businesses will be at risk of a two-tier workforce, with some colleagues having full flexibility while there will be certain roles that must remain ‘on-site’ – something that could lead to perceived inequalities.

Connection is Your Secret Sauce

Having lost our watercooler moments of social and work-related micro-interactions, the organizations that discover natural and sticky ways to create connections and build internal relationships will emerge stronger.

In the same vein as signature moments for CX, touchpoints for employee experience that connect your people to each other and to your purpose will serve to strengthen your culture, support motivation and keep productivity at a healthy level. Creating collaboration moments and finding new ways to have fun (beyond the Zoom quiz) will help organizations embrace agile working and break down silos. Taking a human-centered and strategic approach to ‘people technology’ is necessary to properly adapt the many tactical apps and solutions that came out of the pandemic.

Connection is not only important at a peer-to-peer level. Increased access to leadership has helped reduce hierarchical barriers. HP created a series of “Connect with Enrique,” talks with CEO Enrique Lores, which enabled connection with 85 percent of staff members in just a few months. “We have learned different ways to communicate to employees and collaborate,” says Tracy Keogh, Chief Human Resources Officer at HP. “I think those have been really positive.”

Wellbeing is Key to Employee Engagement

COVID-19 catapulted emotional and mental wellbeing to the same level of employer responsibility and duty of care as physical health and safety. The legal requirements haven’t caught up yet, but they will. Sustaining this level of care without reducing capacity in the workforce will be a critical balance for businesses to achieve. Flexibility and connection are as central to business growth as is a renewed focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

It will be critical to ensure fairness and equity for all employees to influence and improve the general measure of wellbeing. It’s not difficult to conceive that wellbeing will emerge as a key driver of employee engagement, becoming a leading indicator of growth, CX, revenue and profitability. Unilever, for instance, found that they get a $2.50 return for every $1.00 invested in employee wellbeing.


The EX equation will not be solved in one move. This is a continuous journey and the trick is to run at two speeds – taking a proactive, long-term approach to EX whilst starting now with some symbolic, signature moves to signal your intent to your workforce. To cover both the near and far horizons, we recommend three simple things to get started:

  1. Get OD professionals, IT, creatives and service designers together to reimagine connectivity and create meaningful and sustainable connection moments.
  2. Prepare leadership for their role in the ‘new normal,’ agreeing that as EX continues to evolve, there will be more adjustments to the operating model and changes in responsibilities of the leadership team.
  3. Start a boardroom conversation that puts emotional and physical wellbeing as a key pillar of your people strategy, to be measured and improved as a key business indicator.

As Ben Whitter of the World Employee Experience Institute says, “We want people to be at their best and deliver their best work. Any option or choice that helps with that is in scope.”

Looking to reimagine your next employee experience moves? Our expert team can provide a rapid assessment of your EX equation and how to make it add up for the future. Get in touch today


How Innovation Is Powering the Most Relevant Experiences

Costco, LEGO and Peloton prove that the stickiest engagements build the strongest fan base.

Prophet’s 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index® ranks hundreds of U.S. brands on the characteristics that consumers care about the most. In the sixth edition of our ground-breaking research, we measured brands’ relevancy based on how customer-obsessed, ruthlessly pragmatic, pervasively innovative and distinctively inspired they were.

After a year of global economic and social upheaval, it’s no surprise that the rankings have shifted dramatically. Our world’s abrupt transition from physical to digital, high degrees of consumer uncertainty and an increased need for human connection have all impacted how strongly brands across all industries showed up for consumers and continued to deliver innovative experiences.

Here are three brands that led the way in the innovation stakes over the past year:

1. Peloton: Improving virtual experiences through real-time data immersion

Its bike may be stationary, but the Peloton brand wasn’t, cruising in at No.2 in our Index, up 33 spots. The pandemic’s closure of workout studios and gyms definitely helped boost its brand relevance, but to get customers paying a premium for at-home sweat sessions, a fine-tuned experience was core to success. Peloton’s personalized workouts, digitally connected community and relentless in-category innovation delivered experiential excellence by enabling customers to be in unparalleled control of their health.

Peloton now has over 3.6 million users, with the average Connected Fitness subscription user clocking in 20.7 workouts a month. The brand has innovated its product line by expanding from bikes to treadmills and even commercial fitness equipment, all while establishing itself as an on-demand content powerhouse with over 10,000 classes in its digital library. Users can track every joule generated and calorie burned – and Peloton’s UX acts as a personal trainer, providing personalized “power zones” and class recommendations to optimize individual performance.

On our Index, Peloton scored highest on providing emotional connection and meeting new user needs. We see these attributes inextricably linked with the powerful, data-powered experience it consistently delivers. For consumers looking for sanctuary in a time of record uncertainty and atrophy, Peloton doesn’t just sell exercise equipment or even a good workout – it sells motivation.

Takeaway: Truly innovative brands are the ones pushing the status quo by finding new ways to engage customers in experiences that most matter to them.

2. LEGO: Blurring the lines between physical and digital experiences

LEGO zipped into 5th place, rising from No.28. As the pandemic shut schools and corralled an entire generation into at-home classrooms, LEGO unleashed countless experiences that combined play and education. Its ability to blend the digital with the physical, collaborate with innovative out-of-category players and craft experiences that make consumers feel safe and connected all helped the brand stack up high on our experience & innovation winners list.

With some 90 percent of children outside their usual learning environments, the Danish toymaker launched digital initiatives like “Let’s Build Together,” which produced thousands of hours of online content for kids. It also maintained a strong product design offensive with new toys like LEGO VIDIYO, which is AR-enabled and comes with an app to build music videos in a modular fashion.

LEGO was also unafraid to explore collaborations in verticals like fashion and multimedia, recognizing that entertainment has fewer bounds today than ever before. At the same time, it also catered to a clear consumer desire for online safety by creating kid-safe digital ecosystems through its LEGO Life App.

With these innovative pushes, it’s no wonder LEGO received top scores on the Prophet Brand Relevance Index for “engages with me in new and different ways” and “has better products, services and experiences than competitors​.”

Takeaway: Innovation winners are extending their lead by finding new ways to inspire their customers, especially with innovative out-of-category partnerships.

3. Costco: Keeping the customer experience fresh

Grocery stores got plenty of attention in 2020, but Costco made the biggest strides in relevance, rising to No. 6 from No.15. Even more impressively, it’s the first time any retailer (except Apple and Amazon) has ever appeared in the Top 10. Beyond a nice categorical boost, Costco’s north star of fair pricing, membership-based business model and simplified product matrix helped it excel in its customer experience strategy.

“Simplifying choice amidst chaos and focusing on quality products is, in an age of information overload, a revolutionary act..”

Costco is a bit of a dark horse among its peers – a low-tech, brick-and-mortar play in the age of e-commerce and grocery aisle robots. Last year, it held back on curbside pickup despite many other retailers doing so and has kept its retail experience famously streamlined, with utilitarian signage, bulk bins and nary an external ad to be seen. Yet the brand boasts a 90 percent member retention rate, thanks to its ability to double-down on the right customer segments and make each warehouse trip a satisfying haul.

Costco understands the psychology of their target consumer to a tee, enabling the brand to deliver a consistently excellent experience. Simplifying choice amidst chaos and focusing on quality products is, in an age of information overload, a revolutionary act. As a result, Costco scored highly on our Index for “lives up to its promises” and “is a brand I trust.”

Takeaway: Stay true to your brand experience “north star”, consistently delivering against this matters most to your customers.


While the end of the pandemic appears in sight, people’s expectations of brand experiences have changed for good. Brands must be more diligent than ever by crafting strategic consumer experiences and infusing continuous innovation into their business portfolio. Those that develop more connected, emotionally compelling and pragmatic experiences will win the race to relevance, generating greater revenues – and uncommon growth.

Learn more about the brands that stood out in this year’s Prophet Brand Relevance Index®. And if you’re looking to build and maintain the capacity to innovate then our Experience & Innovation practice can help, get in touch today.


Back to the Office: Reimagining the Workplace

Modern workplaces need some places that promote collaboration, and others that enable concentration.

After months of working from home, some businesses are eager to return to the office–and many remote employees can’t wait to get out of the house.

But as case numbers continue to surge, employers are moving deeper into pre-emptive planning. When will it be safe to go back to work, and when it is, what should offices look like? How should they function, especially with millions of people planning to continue to work remotely?

Workplaces used to be default destinations–a place we went just because we had a job. Now, as 42 percent of Americans continue to work at home, we have learned we don’t need to be in an office building to be productive. But the truth is, we all seek human connections, and many companies are aware that while the work is still getting done, leaders worry that employees are not as engaged or collaborative as they used to be – the jury is still out.

“The truth is, we all seek human connections, and many companies are aware that while the work is still getting done, leaders worry that employees are not as engaged or collaborative as they used to be

The design questions keep multiplying. First, there’s safety. How many people in an elevator? Are HVAC systems adequate? What about contact tracing? Fairness is also an issue: Can workspaces integrate and support digital workers and those who are physically in the building? And perhaps most importantly, there are concerns about adaptability, how do we design offices for a hybrid workforce that will use spaces in ways that continue to evolve and change?

As Prophet reconfigures our own workspaces, we’re taking into account a need- and desire- to be physically together, at least some of the time. And we’re using service design to zero in on the four major “use cases” that our new offices will need to support: connection, collaboration, concentration and culture. While these principles have always been a big part of our work lives and office design, they will be enabled in the workplace in different proportions now.

A more intentional design inverts the current allocation of space from productivity to collaboration. Besides potentially reducing square footage by 20 to 30 percent, it also requires that the office become a place that supports the work of both physically present and remote team members.

[Figure 1a & 1b:] A more intentional design would invert the current allocation of space from a “productivity” orientation to be more “collaboration” focused.

Flexibility is key to these plans. The question for all businesses isn’t so much who will work remotely and who won’t, but rather, when do team members need to be in an office and when will they be working from other locations.  The share of working days spent at home is expected to climb from 5 percent, pre-COVID, to 20 percent. Experts say employers should envision a world where people work remotely from one to three days per week. How can they work better when they are remote? And what “jobs to be done” should be supported on days when they choose to work from an office?

While offices must accommodate the activities of some specialists, the new space configuration must primarily work for an interdisciplinary workforce and support a wide variety of activities. Multi-functionality and flexibility will be important to feasibly and practically accommodate these four use cases.

Connection: Co-workers need each other

The need to connect goes beyond the transactional aspect of production and knowledge sharing – even the most intense introverts need to know they are part of a larger whole. We’re envisioning this space as informal, with cafes, kitchens and casual spots to catch up, as well as digital, with places to check-in and gather daily information.

[Figure 2:] Connection includes digital check-in capabilities, casual touch base areas and kitchen amenities.

Collaboration: Building better ideas

For many companies, the biggest emerging challenge in remote working has been in encouraging innovation. Like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, some call working from home “a pure negative” when it comes to ideas and creativity. We have been employing effective ways to be creative with a more distributed workforce, but after canvassing our team we recognized a need for providing ways to work together in our offices.

We see the need for at least three types of space: traditional–but teleconference enabled–conference and teaming spaces, more fixed “studio” areas with workstations and equipment that doesn’t travel easily and work that benefits from collective interactions, and flexibly outfitted areas that can accommodate medium to large groups in easily re-staged, digitally supported environments with moveable equipment, furniture and fixtures.

[Figure 3a & 3b:] Collaboration spaces include digitally-enabled conference and team rooms, flexibly outfitted spaces for medium to large groups and more fixed studio areas with workstations that enable collective teamwork.

Concentration: Alone together

Perhaps one of the pandemic’s biggest take-aways is that not everyone can focus while at home, with working parents especially struggling. And even those in more collaborative roles still need a quiet space to write a memo or a phone booth for a conference call.

Quiet rooms for more individual “deep work” like copywriting or product design and development, are becoming a destination for those jobs requiring more solo work, more mental focus and concentration. But they still want to be close to others, creating more of an “alone together” feeling.

[Figure 4:] Concentration supports workstations and furnishings and lighting to enable deep thinking for solo practitioners.

Culture: This is who we are

Finally, shared spaces need to do something less easily defined. They should express what an organization stands for, accommodate its rituals and project its values. Again, flexibility is critical–how can these spaces make occasional large group interactions and events possible? How can they bring teams together–both in-person and virtual–in new ways to reflect a new way of working?

Ultimately, this piece of the puzzle may be the most important. The pandemic has taught us that “work is not a place;” and that the workplace can be so much more than a lobby, a desk and a conference room.

The spaces and functions of the workplace need to come together for a purpose–and with a purpose; representing and enabling what an organization stands for and believes.

[Figure 5:] Culture space includes flexible but well-equipped environments with fixed and movable equipment and furnishings that support external meetings and internal gatherings.


Organizations must continue to envision their future by balancing the threat of rising case levels, the hope for vaccines and the genuine costs of remote worker burnout. But designing offices for a return to “normal” is not enough; we must challenge our default assumptions and build on what we’ve learned to reimagine the workspace. We believe that the best designs will accommodate hybrid office-based/distributed workforces–and they will also say something about who we are.

Is your organization thinking about how to return to the office and what that might look like for its employees? Reach out today to our team of innovation strategists and experienced designers.


Human or Abstract? Defining Your Conversational Brand Experience

Gender, name, visual identity and personality all factor into what a brand should sound like.

Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with voice technology. Digital assistants, whether chatbots or voice agents, can bring brands to life in new ways, adding personality, differentiation, warmth – and even humor. They can turn static digital experiences into dynamic conversations, deepening the connection between brands and their customers.

The Conversational Brand: Strategy for a Digital-First World report by Altimeter, Prophet’s research arm, outlines the key decisions to consider to bring a conversational experience to life. The report seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What is the role of the conversational experience in the broader brand portfolio?
  • How closely linked should it be to the master brand?
  • What use cases will it deliver on?
  • What benefits will it bring to its users and to the company?

If the goal of the conversational experience is owned by one product or channel, it may look and talk very differently than if its role is to represent the master brand and provide a connective thread across different touchpoints.

Human or Abstract: That Is the Question

First, one must decide how to design the persona –either human-like or abstract. The main factor that should influence this decision is the strategic intent of the conversational experience: is the goal to humanize the brand? To create a deeper relationship with customers? To stand out in the market with a relatable character? If the answer to these questions is yes, then a human-like persona may be preferred. If, on the other hand, the goal of the experience is to automate repetitive tasks, to increase the speed of transactions, or to simplify processes in the background, then an abstract persona may be preferred.

In practice…

When AXA asked Prophet to create a conversational experience, we aligned on some clear strategic objectives: deepen customer engagement while humanizing the AXA brand as it was making the shift from payer to partner. A human-like avatar made the most sense, and so Emma was born. We built Emma to become an empathetic navigator, helping customers easily navigate the journey – from accessing services and making claims to reviewing health information and checking symptoms.

“The experience is futuristic and high-tech to create a futuristic and high-tech identity.”

Choosing a human conversational identity is an approach other companies are finding success with, as well. For example, Microsoft recently announced that it would turn Xiaoice, its highly empathetic chatbot, into her own entity, paving the way for new licenses and ventures.

Microsoft has described this virtual teenager as “sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy and always streetwise.” She’s fond of joking with users, even offering encouraging advice on life and love. With 660 million users worldwide, Xiaoice works on multiple chat services and is trained on data that Microsoft gleaned through the Bing search engine.

In addition to its abstract Google Assistant, Google is developing Meena, a human-like avatar that observers expect to deliver the best conversational AI yet.

But for some purposes, abstract identities offer more possibilities. For example, Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, is designed to help customers unlock their Samsung devices’ full potential. Bixby is an always-on feature. But instead of simply following commands, it’s built to have conversations. It encourages exploration and offers insightful curation, all the while making the everyday tasks feel easier.

In other words, it acts as a users’ bright sidekick, bringing together more information than a human could possibly manage. And while the technology is friendly, its features are best expressed through an abstract experience, not a human one. The experience is futuristic and high-tech to create a futuristic and high-tech identity. Even its name is not human, which allows it to appear and perform consistently in markets worldwide.

Developing Your Brand’s Conversational Identity

Once a company has decided what type of AI assistant it will create, there are still many decisions to make in developing its identity. For example, we established guidelines for the many ways Emma communicates with consumers, allowing personality to shine through in every interaction. She is curious, smart and thoughtful, determined to help users take care of their physical, financial and emotional well-being. Even her physical appearance is distinctive: She’s an approachable Pan-Asian woman with a little French flair.

Often, these seem like minor details. But digital assistants are functional, transactional touchpoints that benefit from small, purposeful doses of personality, including:


Users expect a gender even in abstract assistants. If it’s not immediately apparent, they’ll often ask. Both Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, for example, are positioned as vaguely female. And Samsung made this question a core part of the Bixby’s user experience, with devices prompting people to assign Bixby a voice that is either male or female.


Even beyond suggesting gender, names are a key part of developing an identity. Some names sound young. Some sound formal. Choosing a too familiar name might at first make customers think they’re dealing with an actual human. And some names have specific class, geographic or even religious associations.

Visual Representation

Since users see these assistants while they are talking, aesthetic considerations are important. These questions go far beyond simple graphic design and are at the heart of strategic positioning. Should the assistant look like it is closely connected to the master brand? Should the visuals be able to translate into more extensive advertising efforts? Or can it take on new dimensions, possibly paving the way for new offers, markets and customers?


Customers will only respond to digital representations that are likable. Like in real human relationships, personality traits shape communication. Should it be bold? Curious? Serious? Funny? Thoughtful? Clever? A Gen Z customer expects a different type of conversation than a Baby Boomer does. Use cases also matter – customers probably won’t feel like joking if they’re sick or just lost their credit card.

But ultimately, the best choices all support the strategic foundation, turning digital assistants into brand allies. And built carefully, with thoughtful updates as more data is collected, they can spark growth and deepen digital connections.


When designing the conversational experience’s identity, merely finding an interesting avatar or mascot is not enough. It is crucial to consider the strategic imperatives to make the experience consistent with the master brand.

Interested in developing a powerful digital experience and virtual assistant for your brand? Contact us today.


Post-COVID Shared Spaces: From Response to Reimagination

Shared spaces need to be reimagined. Here’s how to deliver thoughtful experiences and services.

COVID-19 has changed our perceptions of physical spaces. It has caused an upheaval in how we work, shop, interact with one another and so much more. But as society re-opens, we need to move past the short-term “fixes” that many essential businesses introduced during the onset of the crisis and think about the long-term implications of what comes next.

Businesses and brands need to understand what are and what will be, the drivers of customer behavior in this next period so that they can reimagine their experiences and services to deliver against them. Without question, digitally-enabled experiences will play a major part of the “new possible” and brands need to respond and prepare their organizations today.

Read our guide to learn:

  • What does the “new possible” look like and how to accelerate transformation
  • Where to start and what are the steps required to develop the right strategy and new experience principles
  • What are the next generation experiences that will define how to operate effectively in this new environment

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Five Consumer Trends Impacting Future Business Growth

Self-care, moving from “I” to “we,” and a reshuffled e-commerce world shake-up experience expectations.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on businesses and their customers. Some industries have been disrupted, while others thrive despite the crisis. Leading through disruptive times requires businesses to consider new consumer perspectives, rethink their value propositions and further accelerate their digital transformations. At Prophet, we have identified two imperatives that will help businesses achieve uncommon growth in the post-COVID-19 world: adapting to the new normal consumers and accelerating digital transformation.

Considering Asia is ahead in getting back to a new normal, in this series, we will delve into the underlying consumer trends, social and technological enablers as well as emerging patterns of digital transformation that all work to point out new opportunities in Asia and also soon to be in the rest of the world.

Adapting to the New Normal Consumers: Five Major Customer Experience Trends

In order to reimagine your business, you must first understand the new consumer habits, perspectives and expectations arising from the pandemic. COVID-19 does not change the fundamentals, but it is accelerating the trends that were underway. As consumers are immobilized at home, they are forced to rethink how we work, learn, live, entertain, stay healthy and buy. Such seismic changes are a wake-up call for companies to rethink their value propositions and accelerate digital transformation.

1. More “We” Less “I”: A Greater Sense of Community and Social Responsibility

After years of rising individualism and personal expression, the pandemic has sparked a greater sense of community and civism. As social interactions are limited, the post-COVID-19 world will be one that is characterized by a shared desire for deeper, more meaningful connections both with others as well as the planet.

Companies will be held accountable for their business decisions more than ever. Fashion, for example, will accelerate its efforts to deliver more sustainable and responsible products through a cleaner value chain. In response to this trend, global companies are taking the initiative to become more eco-conscious. In May 2020, fashion label The R Collective launched its Denim Reimagined collection using surplus denim from Levi’s jeans. Officially endorsed by Levi’s, the upcycling collection was launched at Levi’s flagship store in Hong Kong.

Deeply impacted, the travel industry will also need to reinvent itself to match the new travelers’ expectations. Post-lockdown, travelers will not only expect the highest degree of protection and hygiene, but they will also travel with a renewed sense of purpose and sensitivity towards the health of people and the planet. They will actively search for activities and experiences tied to communities and look for greater transparency on sustainable measures taken while on the road.

2. Home Sweet Home: A Safe Haven Where Everything Happens

While the world can expect a surge in attendance at theatres, bars and gyms once quarantine measures are lifted, many consumers will have already formed routines indoors. With the convenience brought upon by a range of digital platforms such as TikTok (抖音), Hema Fresh (盒马鲜生) and (饿了么), the home has become a place where we can work, learn, shop, exercise, socialize and entertain.

For example, many have found peace of mind in the kitchen and picked up home-cooking during the crisis. McCormick, a food company that manufactures spices and condiments, is seeing a double-digit YoY increase for its products in China, even after quarantine restrictions have been eased, indicating cooking at home is here to stay.

This means that traditional service providers will either have to outcompete the home experience or adapt to offer the digital equivalent substitutes for their services. In May, Apple launched an online shopping experience offering the same services available in its retail stores, including the virtual ‘Today at Apple at Home’ classes recorded by Apple’s Creative Pros. Across Asia and in China, many nightclubs have delivered on needs for social connection by launching dance parties on TikTok. Bars and clubs will need to ‘up’ their game and reclaim their spot as favorite destinations out of the home.

3. ‘New’ New Retail: A Reshuffled Game of Online and Offline Retail

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced consumers to become familiar with engaging online, even those who were previously slow to adopt a digital lifestyle. It is no wonder that the pandemic has upended the retail industry and compelled retailers, both large and small, to provide online shopping experiences that offer escapism and instant gratification.

“Online shopping has become social, personal and entertaining.”

Online shopping has become social, personal and entertaining. Appetite for live-streaming content on platforms such as RED (小红书) and BiliBili (哔哩哔哩) is growing, which puts more pressure on offline retailers to deliver a truly distinctive customer experience that online shopping journey cannot fulfill.

The food delivery industry has also found new and improved ways to provide its services to the mass. Across Asia, services such as KFC, McDonald’s and Meituan (美团) offer a completely contactless order journey and assure high safety and hygiene standards at the same time. Traditional retailers will have to rethink their experiences and the customer journey to deliver on the same guarantees.

4. Health is the New Wealth: A Renewed Focus on Self-care

With COVID-19 exposing the vulnerabilities of our food systems and prompting increased vigilance over personal hygiene practices, staying healthy will become a top priority for consumers. This not only means that products need to guarantee safety, but healthcare will also need to be accessible through digital means. The customer experience in healthcare will need to be on-demand, accessible at a distance and highly personalized.

Online medical consultations were already becoming ubiquitous in China, but the use of digital platforms is a defining characteristic of COVID-19. The Ping A Good Doctor (平安好医生) app saw a 10-fold increase over the coronavirus outbreak to reach 1.11 billion accumulative visits in January.

The insurance industry will also be transformed with rapid demand for better health coverage and life protection. While international players like AXA, AIA or MetLife will compete with enhanced services to capture the more affluent rising middle class, mutual-aid insurance platforms, such as Xiang Hu Bao (相护宝), are capturing the lower end of the market with a peer-to-peer business model (300M members as of April 2020).

5. Value Redefined: A Shrewder Consumer and Smarter Purchasing Decisions

With millions being affected financially as a result of unpaid leaves and extended furloughs, many will shift preference toward low-priced value propositions and will want to be financially savvy. Consumers who have the spending power will also reassess their definition of ‘premium,’ seeking more pragmatic, tangible superiority in the brands they choose and putting greater value on responsible buying.

Shopping festivals such as Valentines Day, Double 11, 618 will continue their hot streak as over 15 e-Commerce holidays are scheduled in 2020. But the journey doesn’t end after such “deal hunters”. Gen-Z and millennial shoppers are learning to offload used possessions and embracing a more sustainable attitude. Chinese social media saw the rise of #ditchyourstuff (断舍离), and the second-hand or flea market app, Idle Fish (闲鱼), has witnessed accelerated growth in recent years.


The post-COVID-19 era provides an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to lead and transform, achieving uncommon growth in the face of disruption. While many businesses recognize their consumers are no longer the same, they are eager to learn where to start in order to seize the transformation opportunity.

By pulling different levers from consumer insights to brand marketing, experience design and digital transformation, businesses can formulate a strategic roadmap to respond, adapt and transform. Act now and win the day.

Stay tuned for the next part of the series, in which we will delve deeper into the major enablers that will fuel and accelerate digital transformation in this new normal.

Download the PDF report, or contact us to learn more about what levers you can pull to reimagine your business for uncommon growth in the post-COVID-19 era.


Learning from the Leaders Behind the Johns Hopkins Capacity Command Center

Its work with GE Healthcare helped mix, filter and create real-time information from dozens of data streams.

When one thinks of innovation and healthcare business transformation, it’s often in association with young, West Coast start-ups founded in the 21st century.  Rarely is an organization that was founded prior to 2000 regarded as modern and innovative.  Not to mention one that was founded in the 1800s. That’s what makes the Johns Hopkins Capacity Command Center, designed and built with GE Healthcare Partners Group, so interesting. It’s a collaboration of two organizations, both over 125 years old, working together to create one of the most impactful healthcare innovations in recent years.  

In this article, we go beyond how the GE Command Center at Johns Hopkins works and get into how it all started. Let’s dive into how the leaders behind the GE Clinical Command Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine have driven business transformation in healthcare.  

Where It All Began 

Soon after the Johns Hopkins Capacity Command Center went live, the Economist cited that “the biggest upgrades to hospitals are needed behind the scenes”—and went on to describe it as “a NASA-inspired ‘command center’ to manage its patient flows. Surrounded by 22 beeping flat screens, live video streams and lots of phones, staff members wearing headsets orchestrate the 1,100-bed institution around the clock. 

 GE Healthcare, a medical-technology firm, helped mix, filter and create new real-time information from dozens of data streams— in addition to designing the operating mechanisms, processes and even the physical space of the new center.  Bed-planning has gone from an art to a science with the help of programs that predict demand with great precision and warn when a crunch is approaching. 

Given the maturity of GE Healthcare and Johns Hopkins Medicine, and their ability to continually innovate, they classify as a “Transformer archetype” within the Evolved Healthcare Enterprise model.   

Recently, I spoke with Jim Scheulen, Chief Administrative Officer, Emergency Medicine and Capacity Management, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Jeff Terry, CEO GE Clinical Command Centers. Here are a few themes behind their partnership that made the Command Center possible. 

It’s About the People Before It’s About the Technology 

Jim and Jeff both agreed this initiative would not have gotten out of the gates if it wasn’t for the leadership from both sides. Jim highlights, “Johns Hopkins clinical and administrative leadership is very strong and forward-thinking, who see immense value in using sophisticated tools and analytics to run operations. It was never a question of ‘if,” but ‘when’.” Jeff added, “We were struck by the humility of Hopkins’ leaders, at every level.  That translated to efficient interactions, which is key to moving forward at pace.And on the GE side of the house, the GE Healthcare leadership team provided broad success criteria and a budget. From there we had a safe space to innovate within.” 

This is quite important to highlight, as many mature enterprises tend to be risk-averse and are slow to adopt the technology. It has little to do with the age of the organization, but the degree to which leadership takes a progressive view on running a modern enterprise. Second, we often see older enterprises holding onto an “operator approach,” micromanaging everyone’s activity instead of setting parameters and letting teams operate with autonomy, speed and agility. This is what makes a Transformer different than older enterprises that are “just hoping” to be more innovative but don’t follow through from a leadership or supporting operating model perspective.   

Breakthrough Innovation Begins in Increments 

According to Jim, “As a lot of these things start, the lightbulb didn’t just go off and we decided to build the command center. Roots started when we at Hopkins started to think that we should use simulation modeling, good data and statistical analytics for how we do our business. Running it in small bits at first.”  Jeff adds, “From the GE side, we had been working on patient flow, access and throughput for about ten years with steadily increasing analytic capabilities. GE had explored something like this for the city of Rio de Janeiro and when we shared that with Jim and the Hopkins’ team it seemed like a very natural evolution of what they were already doing in small bits.” This is a huge advantage to Transformers. They often have a variety of low(er) tech solutions in place, acting as proofs-of-concept and allowing for these large, healthcare business transformations to be evolutionary from a risk perspective. 

Patience and Speed Aren’t Opposing Forces 

Many large, mature healthcare enterprises get into an “operations and optimization” mindset, and whenever an innovation opportunity comes along, there can be a knee-jerk reaction to ask, “What’s the cost? What’s the ROI? How long will it take?”  Breakthrough innovation takes time and comes with a fair degree of uncertainty. Coincidentally, health companies are well versed in this, as most clinical products and services don’t come with quick ROIs. As Jim explains, “Johns Hopkins is comprised of financially smart people, not unfamiliar with long returns. We are a research organization and used to seeing returns take time; we had targets set and have hit our targets as planned since opening the command center.” GE Healthcare was equally prudent in making adjustments as they went, “We didn’t just jump in and constantly make changes,” Jeff added. “We focused on solving one problem at a time for caregivers, confident that this would eventually coalesce into an integrated software platform. And that’s exactly what has happened.”  

Above all, Jeff underscored the importance of a common purpose. 

“There is no doubt that at big companies there will be many agendas in play. The key to this effort was to stay focused on authentically helping caregivers, and almost ignore the rest.”


Keeping the purpose at the core of a healthcare business transformation is important, as challenges and new insights will emerge along the way. As Jim points out to others that take on serious innovation opportunities, “It will be more than you think it is, and its an adventure, requiring a lot of adaptation along the way. Something of this scale was first-in-kind work. It was hard. And the talented, hard-working people behind it all are able to make it fun, and something we’ll never forget.”   

Jim and Jeff wanted to acknowledge some of their great colleagues who made this happen:

Ron Peterson, Judy Reitz, Mary Margarette Jacobs, Steve Mandell, Catherine Boyne, Alan Coltri, Jim Hainley, Damon Fisher, Bree Bush, Andy Day, Kathy Martin, Jim Livas, Manny Singh, Anne Cole, Ryan Treml, Ryan Mancl, Christine Peeters, Sreelatha Surendranathan, Pradeep Rai and Steve Verdi.

Ready to drive your business transformation forward? Learn more about Prophet’s services and feel free to get in touch today. 


Understanding Use Cases for Augmented, Mixed, and Virtual Reality

With consumer curiosity about AR and VR growing, these technologies offer many opportunities for brands.

Immersive technology, in the form of Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR), and Virtual Reality (VR), is transforming the way we experience and learn about the world around us. It enhances our reality by letting us interact virtually with people, objects, and places we may not have access to otherwise. It has also opened many opportunities for brands, allowing them to create experiences for customers and employees that are not constrained by the limits of the physical world. From demonstrating products to simulating environments, there are endless ways for brands to engage, entertain, and, most importantly, enhance the customer and employee experience through the use of immersive technology.

However, as with any new technology, for most companies, the idea of using AR or VR poses more questions than it answers. What are the specific advantages of each type of immersive technology? How can they be incorporated into our business strategy? And if we have to prioritize among them, which technology is most worthy of our investment?

This report is a guide to the entire spectrum of immersive technologies, as well as to understanding which use cases might deliver the most value and impact for your company. It also offers a set of recommendations for how to best plan and successfully deploy the technology.

Key Findings:

  • Detailed use cases for each type of immersive technology (VR, AR, and MR)
  • Videos and case studies showcasing leading brands’ successes in the space
  • Recommendations for incorporating these technologies into your business strategy

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Smart Places: The Digital Transformation of Location

Hear about what’s working, with insights from early adopters, device makers, industry groups and vendors.

The growing adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) consumer electronics — such as smart thermostats and digital assistants — has paved the way for brands to use connected devices in their physical spaces too. The same sophisticated technology that powers “smart home” devices is slowly finding its way into stores, hospitals, and other public spaces, creating “smart places.”

For this report, we outline how location-based brands can take the battle offline by investing in technology-rich locations that raise the bar for Customer Experience (CX).

We also examine the barriers brands will face, balancing the value of enhanced consumer insights, customer experience, and operational efficiencies against heightened risks around consumer privacy.

Key Findings:

  • Detailed use cases distilled from research into hundreds of different ‘smart place’ devices
  • Interviews with early adopters, device makers, industry groups, and vendors who focus on CX management in physical locations
  • Recommendations for incorporating these technologies into your business strategy, and the challenges therein

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The State of IoT In the Home: Part 1

As consumer interest in connected home devices grows, home security, health and safety get star billing.

The “Internet of Things” (IoT) market for the home — in which disparate devices work together to create a “smart home” — is in its early days. Some connected devices have long been in use in municipal life, at work, and in our personal lives (e.g., smartphones and “wearables”). But while home security systems and smart utility meters have been around for years, the “digital transformation” of the home is still just getting off the ground.

Our research shows that while adoption for home IoT products is in the early stages — only 23% of consumers own at least one IoT home product, like a smart TV — purchase intent is very strong. We anticipate three waves of adoption over the next several years and, if consumer intent is realized, an average global growth of 265% (in units sold) in the next 12 months.

In this report, we answer questions that help brands position themselves for this market: Who is the smart home IoT product buyer? What does the next wave of buyer look like? What drives consumers to purchase, and what obstacles do they perceive? What products for the home do consumers want to be smarter and connected?

Key Findings

To form a clear picture of where the smart home IoT market is headed, we started by researching who’s buying connected products today, who is likely to buy in the next phase, and longer-term prospects. This is what we learned:

  • “Early Adopters” are frustrated by a lack of automation at home and view connected technology as the solution. They are young, skew male, and are less price-sensitive. Once aware of a new connected product, they are more likely to purchase it
  • “Fast Followers” are more concerned with the ease of use of home IoT products and expect them to learn their habits, becoming more useful over time. Although their incomes are on par with Early Adopters, they are much more price-sensitive, less brand conscious, believe connected products shouldn’t cost more, and less likely to value premium products
  • Although “Laggards’” awareness of IoT for the home in some product categories is on par with awareness of Early Adopters and Fast Followers, they are much less likely to convert to purchase. Having the latest technology products is less important to Laggards, who skew older and just slightly more female
  • The Chinese market for home IoT products is particularly promising, especially when it comes to ownership of connected devices and intent to purchase. Chinese consumers are the least price-sensitive of any region and focus more than consumers in any other region on health benefits when making purchasing decisions
  • Our research findings point to three waves of home IoT product adoption. We believe near-term adoption will focus on the Home Security and the Home Environment Control product categories, followed by the Home Entertainment and the Health & Fitness categories, and, lagging, the Bed, Bath & Kitchen and the Pet, Child & Elderly Care categories
  • Consumer priorities for health and safety — and for product attributes like relevance and value — are leading drivers for the next wave of adoption. Device aesthetics and prestige of ownership lag in priority. Again, significant cultural differences between China and Western cultures should be studied by brands that target both markets

Looking for Part 2? Download here.

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