Editor's Note: This post comes from Amy Frampton, Windows Azure Senior Marketing Manager.
Initially funded in January 2009 and headquartered in Kirkland, Washington, VisibleBrands has introduced technology built on Windows Azure Cloud Services that turns retail into a plannable media channel, enables brands to electronically deliver coupons to the supermarket shelf-edge, and offers shoppers savings at the “moment of decision” as they browse the aisles. If a shopper accepts a coupon by touching the screen, it is “clipped to cloud” and automatically applied to the purchase at checkout. As part of the Azure series, we talked to Tim Morton, CEO and Cofounder of VisibleBrands, and Tim Belvin, CTO and Cofounder of VisibleBrands, about the startup’s offering and the impact of cloud services on the $300 billion dollar consumer packaged goods (CPG) U.S. marketplace.
Azure: How does the VisibleBrands solution work?
Morton: We use collaborative filtering and location-aware wireless networks to deliver the most relevant coupons to shoppers based on real-time analytics. We can optimize against a store’s demand ratios; that is, people who like this might like that, too. We also know, for example, where shoppers are dwelling in the store and whether they are on a quick trip or a stock-up. With these CPG-focused, data-driven insights, we can optimize campaigns to deliver the right offer at the right time to the right shopper. Advertisers get the opportunity to deliver the last impression to shoppers who vote with their feet. We provide a network capability that engages shoppers when and where it matters most: the moment of decision. That’s the key. We are guaranteed enormous traffic and participation on day one because the one thing everyone does is shop for food.
Azure: How does Windows Azure Cloud Services make it possible to deliver the VisibleBrands solution?
Morton: When we started, cloud capabilities—and the ability to manage big data—along with a number of other technologies including wireless indoor location, network management tools, ad serving, and collaborative filtering were really coming online. If you combine these advancements with other market drivers such as in-store marketing, a CPG coupon industry that hadn’t changed much in decades, retailers being squeezed by big boxes, and the fragmentation of advertising media, you have a tipping point. It became apparent to us that the industry was ripe for a makeover that leverages all of these technologies and brings it into the 21st century. And that’s what we’ve done. By putting web connected displays on the shelf-edge, we’re turning retailers into publishers so that brands can now begin a conversation with consumers online and complete the conversation with shoppers in the store, in the category where purchases are actually made. It is because those displays are connected to the cloud that it is possible for us to totally close the loop in terms of accountability and control and to do it in real time. Windows Azure is an enabling lynchpin for our solution.
Azure: You probably couldn’t do this without the cloud because you’d need an onsite server at every grocery store, right?
Morton: Exactly. We started out with onsite servers, but Microsoft changed the game. Windows Azure transforms our offering because we can efficiently deliver a scalable solution across multiple chains and thousands of stores, and manage that network centrally without the requirement to put a server in each store and manage it locally. Grocers typically operate at a 1.5 percent net profit and simply don’t have the budget or bandwidth to do this on their own. This is all possible because the cloud and other Microsoft technologies that help us manage our network are available. And the quality of service available from Microsoft rivals anything available.
Azure: Talk about the scalability of Windows Azure with the VisibleBrands solution.
Belvin: Let’s say we’re working with a large chain that has 1,000 stores. By using Windows Azure, we could start in March and have everything deployed by June. You can’t do that with standalone servers. Operationally, it would be impossible. The other great game changer with the cloud is that our solution is scalable in terms of data. For example, Kraft has 56 brand categories. With Windows Azure, we can provide a subscription-based data pipeline that can be scaled and partitioned so that a brand can quickly get a real-time, 24/7 understanding of campaign performance in terms of traffic, category, brand connections, sales, lift, and ROI. Instead of having to wait weeks or months for campaign analytics or in-store metrics, supermarkets and brands can have them instantly. And then they can adjust their merchandizing or their campaigns on the fly according to what the market is telling them.
Azure: What makes Windows Azure a cost-effective way to deploy the VisibleBrands solution in a retail environment?
Belvin: Grocers are very operationally focused and nearly all of the available space is used to sell groceries. That’s the business they’re in. It’s almost impossible to deploy all the software elements into a physical store in a way that integrates with existing loyalty and identity programs. We provide an ad-funded, platform-as-a-service offering, which completely changes the game of in-store promotion. Cloud technology radically transforms how new media capabilities are delivered efficiently and effectively and without the encumbrance of heavy up-front infrastructure expenses. And, by using Windows Azure, retailers can avoid outages and prepare for down time in advance. We’re talking about 30 minutes worth of work versus an entire month of planning.
Azure: How is the VisibleBrands solution localized to each store?
Morton: Our solution features predictive analysis and location services that are precisely tuned to each store. The underlying technology uses location-based wireless networks, and every site is supported by Microsoft System Center for network health monitoring and control. With Windows Azure, we can turn knobs and manage the network from a central location on a per unit basis—instead of trying to manage servers at every physical location separately. It’s one of those situations where a platform-as-a-service play is absolutely the most efficient approach, and it offers the greatest return for our customers. With a powerful cloud-based service backbone like Azure, there’s no longer the need to worry about redundant systems or failovers. Every store is effectively a node in a centralized system. It’s infinitely scalable, literally a one-click deployment. We believe it will become the new paradigm for delivering web-enabled digital media right down to the shelf in retail.