John Gao, Corporate Vice President Software and Digital Technology, Henkel

John Gao has been the CTO of Henkel’s digital business since 2020. Before he joined Henkel, he held various global and regional CIO and CTO positions for MNCs in Asia-Pacific and the US.


From the retail shelf to an online shop and eventually to the multiverse? In the era of exponentially disruptive technological change, the dynamics of the markets are changing as fast as never before: products and services that are cutting edge one day are outdated the next. Not only the opportunity of selling to customers directly has changed retail forever, customers too, faced their own digital journey, which altered the course for in-demand shopping expectations, proactive service, personalized interactions, and connected experiences across digital channels. To convince consumers, companies must not only deliver amazing marketing, sales, ecommerce, and service interactions, but also prove that they have the customers’ best interests in mind. While retail continues to lead for us as a consumer goods company, the demand for digital experiences with our brands is growing rapidly and disproportionately. That is why at Henkel we are following an omnichannel strategy, covering both retail and digital commerce. 

Everyone is Unique

One size fits all? That was yesterday. We are experiencing a social shift from the “we” to the “I” – because individualization and self-expression are very much in vogue. But it is much more than “just” a trend. We are consciously aware of this cultural change, appreciate the diversity of society, and support people in expressing themselves. The message is: everyone is unique. And this rubs off on consumers’ behavior. The way of buying consumer goods has changed significantly. Historically, customers have expected basics like quality service and fair pricing: We have gone to the store to buy our shampoo. Maybe we would have had eight different shampoos to choose from, we selected the one that fits our hair characteristics the most and that was it. Today, we witness a completely different consumer behavior. Consumers want to receive a hyper-personalized product, which they can buy online and – ideally – get delivered to their home. 

Hyper-Personalization – A Win-Win Situation?

Accordingly, companies are responding to this development and are addressing the needs of each individual instead of developing products and services for the masses. To address consumers personally and retain their loyalty in the long-term, companies are relying on the mega trend of hyper-personalization for their offerings. Research shows that the vast majority of consumers say a company’s understanding of their personal needs and expectations influences their loyalty. Direct-to-consumer concepts are a great help to own customer relationships and leverage available data. In the process of hyper-personalization, artificial intelligence (AI) is often used to analyze real-time data in order to uncover patterns and correlations in consumers’ shopping behavior and to create a holistic picture of them. For example, search queries, wish lists, and purchase history are analyzed. This automated process enables what is known as one-to-one marketing, in which products, services, or content are tailored to specific customers and in detail. This allows a new level of personalization of products and experiences. 

Best-In-Class Consumer Experience Across All Touchpoints

Digital content creators and social media influencers have gained a tremendous influence on consumers’ purchasing decisions. Given the gravitation shift we’ve experienced, consumers and customers are now even more in control of when, where and how they engage with products and brands. This requires not only a deep understanding of our consumers and customers but also outstanding experience delivery across all touchpoints. A study by McKinsey shows that 76 percent of consumers are more likely to consider purchasing from brands that offer personalized interaction points along the customer journey. Everything is about the consumer experience – consisting of content, community and personalization. Companies who deliver 24/7 personalized, frictionless, digital content and services win the game. We support our retail partners grow their digital and social sales, working hand-in-hand to bring shared expertise to the table. However, following an omnichannel strategy, it is at least as important to drive our own digital commerce platforms and initiatives. Here, too, strategic partnerships are key. At Henkel, our digital business platform RAQN, which we’ve developed together with Adobe, helps us to rapidly respond to the new reality our consumers and customers are living in. It allows us to deliver hyper-personalized content and omni-channel experiences with the Consumer & Customer Intelligence (CQ) Engine at its core. CQ enables us to transform available data into consumer and customer profiles that update in real time and use AI-driven insights to deliver the right experiences across every channel. Currently, more than 81 brands and 285 Henkel websites worldwide run on our RAQN platform, one of which is for example Ask Team Clean, a community platform where consumers can interact with the community and henkel experts, share household tips, receive personalized content and product recommendations. 

Bridging the Virtual and Physical World 

Nevertheless, despite the ease and comfort of the virtual world and digital services, the digital environment will never fully replace the real world. Instead, we want the virtual world to be present in real life. That’s why the digital world needs technologies blending it with reality while at the same time meeting the consumers’ needs. Thus, creating a hybrid experience with the best of both worlds. But how can the same trend be adapted offline? Here, too, the use of AI is essential: digital experiences in the store offer another customer experience highlight. In combination with personal interaction on site and the haptic experience of products and services, we can create a particularly valuable shopping experience that strengthens the bond between the brand and the customer.

Creating a Unique Brand Experience

To give you an example: With the launch of the new Schwarzkopf Professional hair care brand SalonLab&Me, Henkel is addressing exactly this point. By combining hairdresser expertise with an innovative digital experience, salon clients can receive hyper-personalized hair care that is customized to the needs of their hair. Additionally, a direct-to-consumer experience is combined with an in-salon experience, as customers can order their personalized hair care products through an online store that is exclusively linked to the salon. Based on the hair analysis with Henkel’s SalonLab Smart Analyzer the consumer does not only receive hyper-personalized product recommendations but also customized hair care tips and advice from the community. Only with our digital business platform RAQN we were able to bring this new business model to life and get one step closer to the hair care of the future. 

Just a Dream of the Future or Reality Soon? 

Going one step further, in the (near) future I also see great potential in leveraging the opportunities of social commerce and synthetic reality. In Europe, this trend might still be at its infancy, but I envision AI to build a bridge to a synthetic reality, where data from the multiverse will upscale our daily lives in the digital and physical realm and deliver personalized experiences for individual consumers. That’s why aside from sustainability, our corporate venturing arm for consumer goods business called Henkel dx Ventures invests also in digital commerce including aspects like Conversational Commerce, Web 3.0, Social Commerce or P2P Platforms to make Henkel an even more future-proof company. 

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles