The era of Quantum Commerce will require new mindsets, skills and partnerships, argues Beth Ann Kaminkow, Global CEO, VML Commerce and NY CEO, VML.

Raja Rajamannar, the chief marketing officer at payment technology company Mastercard, laid out a major challenge facing brands in “Quantum Marketing”, his landmark book published in 2021.

“Our imminent future will be totally disrupted by an explosion of new technologies, tectonic cultural shifts and a tsunami of data. Everything in marketing, as we know and practice it today, will be stood on its head. Marketing needs to be totally reimagined to succeed and thrive in this brave new world. That new way of marketing is Quantum Marketing,” he wrote.

Replace the word “Marketing” with the term “Commerce”, and this argument stands as strong as ever in 2024.

Towards an “infinite” shopper journey

Rajamannar’s thesis is that marketing has evolved through five stages. The first paradigm was product marketing; the second was emotional marketing; the third, encouraged by the rise of the internet, was the initial wave of digital marketing; the fourth was focused around mobile and social.

The new, or fifth, paradigm is “Quantum Marketing”, with unprecedented disruption caused by a sudden deluge of emerging technologies – from artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality to wearable devices and drone delivery.

Similarly, the current revolution in commerce has progressed through a series of phases. We started with single channel (store) promotions, moved on to multichannel shopper marketing, then redefined how we operate in an “omnichannel” way with the addition of e-commerce, before settling on an “end-to-end” framework with a unified perspective on commerce that considers numerous channels and shopping moments.

But that still implies a linear approach. The fifth paradigm for our discipline is an “infinite” shopper journey, impacted by an ever-evolving set of technologies, channels and platforms – hence “Quantum Commerce”.

A challenging environment

From the perspective of a practitioner, “Quantum Commerce” is a difficult enough concept to get your head around. But, in execution, it lives or dies on specialist skills. No one person or organization can be as adept at understanding the emerging field of retail media, for instance, as they are at implementing a livestreaming commerce strategy.

What I’ve discovered, as I have travelled the world talking with our commerce clients and experts, is that there is a shared sense of feeling overwhelmed by this era of Quantum Commerce (no, it’s not just you!).

Brand marketers are being stretched to their breaking points trying to solve for everything and be already “into the next”. Their roles, remits, objectives and key results are changing daily, but they have not been given the time to upskill or add more resources (either from agencies or internally).

I have heard a multitude of fundamental questions, from, “Where do I start?” to, “How do I ensure that my brand, shopper and media teams are in sync?”, as well as more specific queries like, “How much of my budget should be diverted to retail media?”, “When will live streaming actually take off?”, and, “Where and how should I be experimenting with AI?”

Our client partners have been handed aggressive growth goals, often digitally-driven, such as, “Increase share on x marketplace by 25% by 2025”, or, “Launch a new direct-to-consumer channel by back-to-school with a unique limited-time offer to capture first-party data.”

They are expected to become wizards, juggling massive amounts of variables each day to move and optimize product on- and off-shelf. The capabilities, and the skills that are fundamental to succeeding in this dynamic environment, are constantly shifting, at a pace that means training is taking place on the job. 

This means mastering an ever-evolving Amazon ecosystem, new marketplaces, retail media networks, direct-to-consumer strategies, digital shelf optimization – and this is only in a day’s work. 

Three principles for Quantum Commerce

Right now, there is no playbook for Quantum Commerce. But I propose three principles that will ease the pressure and help navigate the complexities of commerce today:

  1. Embrace the universal language of Creative Commerce: Market by market, retail, and retailer data, systems and environments do change. Flipkart in India is a world away from Mercado Livre in Brazil; Amazon in the US is unlike Alibaba in China; and John Lewis in the UK is a very different proposition to traditional retail in South Africa.

  2. But I have found that Creative Commerce can be understood everywhere and helps to simplify the complex, unite the divided, and empower the rudderless.

    What is Creative Commerce? Very simply, it’s creativity that inspires conversion, regardless of channel.

    When you think about it, creativity has been an essential part of commerce since the very beginning – witness the merchants in the 500+ year old Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, with their colorful displays, tempting opportunities to sample and clever sales patter.

    Today’s commerce tactics are often the same, but what’s different is the tools and technologies. So, beyond the data and the insights that fuel Creative Commerce, you need a deep understanding of how channels and environments operate now and how consumers engage with them.

    Once you have that understanding, it’s about executing creatively and nudging shoppers towards conversion.

  3. Develop a generalist view of Quantum Commerce: If you can’t see the wood for the trees in commerce, take a helicopter view of the forest.

  4. Zoom out and you will appreciate the infinite journey that consumers and shoppers are on, from search to social to store (online or offline) to post-purchase loyalty. (It’s not a difficult mental leap – as a starting point, just think about how you shop yourself.) 

    In taking a holistic, shopper-centric view, you’ll see how counterproductive it is to adhere to artificial corporate “lines and divisions” because that’s out of step with the real world. Rather than uniting behind a common purpose, corporate silos uncouple the organization, the planning, the data and the performance measures.

    Whether organizational designs are shifting or not, there is a definite convergence taking place between sales and marketing. Those fluent in both are best equipped.

    That potential disconnect extends to agency partners as well. Just as organizational structures that separate sales and marketing teams are becoming obsolete, agencies broken into “above the line” and “below the line” represent old thinking. Separating out “creative” and “activation” misses the fact that the opportunity lies in applying creativity to moments of commerce.

    It all adds up to this: as you take a “big picture view”, it becomes abundantly clear that, in a Quantum Commerce world, the marketing funnel framework as a linear journey is history.

  5. Lean into specialist partners for specific commerce skills: Commerce today is a team sport and you need a bench of partners, from technology to communications, who you can count on for specific advice and capabilities. I believe that all commerce agencies have a role to play here, not just in providing services, but in education … in demystifying commerce.

  6. Organizations are not set up to scale every skillset and capability needed to succeed within today’s modern commerce ecosystem. Specialist requirements run deep, from leaders who are up to date on the latest from Alibaba to technologists building out artificial intelligence toolsets ready to drive commerce applications that we haven’t dreamed up yet.

    We must all work together like a collective system of individual experts, integrating brand, CX and commerce, so that we meet and beat customer expectations at every point. 

    Specialist partners can also be invaluable in evaluating changing technologies … and helping decide which ones might provide oxygen for your brand versus what is just hot air.

    They can help in separating fashion from function – for example, the “metaverse” is widely debated as being “over” in the West, but virtual reality is being employed to great effect by luxury brands in China and could be right for your brand.

Quantum Commerce, like Quantum Marketing, is by its very nature complex. But along with all the challenges, this era provides unmatched opportunities that are genuinely exciting. We are not far off a time when all marketing will be considered “commerce marketing”. The false barriers between “brand love” and “brand buy” will disappear and we will all be purely focused on the same goal – engaging and converting the end customer.