Milwaukee firm expands digital retail marketing capacities

Milwaukee-based retail marketing firm DCI-Artform has expanded on its forward-thinking, scientific, data-driven approach to retail marketing.

The company’s most recent upgrade is to the software powering its “CAVE” (Computer Automatic Virtual Environment), a space where digitally-projected 3D renderings of different retail spaces are used to accelerate testing and better analyze different options in customer engagement and retail design.

This upgrade is the latest in several examples of DCI-Artform’s use of advanced technology to bring a scientific, tech-heavy approach to retail marketing and design.

DCI-Artform works with big-name clients in four sectors: consumer electronics (Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Samsung); grocery (Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Publix, Hormel); cosmetics (L’Oreal, Coty Rimmel, Revlon, Maybelline); and transportation (Cadillac, Subaru, Nissan, Mazda, Harley-Davidson).

With that mix of clients, there’s a long list of different things that DCI-Artform does, but its recent emphasis on the use of cutting edge technologies is exemplified in projects such as the “CAVE,” which is one of only four environments of its kind in the United States, and the only one of its kind in Wisconsin.

“The applications of (the “CAVE”) are basically unlimited,” said Bill Jacoby, senior 3-D digital modeler and animation artist, a recent hire who previously worked as a video game developer and artist, creating things for Xbox, Wii, Playstation and mobile games, before joining DCI-Artform. “It’s based on your imagination. Whatever you can create in the 3-D space on a computer, you can visualize here.”

With high-quality, shadow-less digital renderings projected on four screens – the floor and each of its three walls – the “CAVE” looks almost as if you’ve been dropped inside of a video game. In fact, moving around the digital environment is done by using an Xbox controller, but it also allows for someone to step out into the space to get a feel for the environment.

“You can actually walk out to a shelf or display and you can see it on a one-to-one scale,” said Jacoby. “In the ‘CAVE,’ we can actually present multiple variations of a concept and discuss it collaboratively. We can have 12 people in here and we can toggle through five different concepts, and people can get up here and point at something and discuss it. People are talking with gestures, they’re pointing, they’re able to talk about color, etc. They can make decisions in this prototype before having to spend a dime on materials.”

Because of the recent software upgrade, DCI-Artform can take feedback from those demonstration sessions and the company’s designers can make rapid alterations to showcase more options based on a client or consumer’s feedback. The upgrades also allow Jacoby and his team to integrate actual audio and video and other display apps into the “CAVE,” as well as bring nuances and subtleties – things such as ambient sound, improved lighting, and reflective qualities – to the 3D environment to make the experience more “immersive.”

“The goal is to immerse people in environments to get really good feedback from them,” said Robin Shea, senior marketing manager for DCI-Artform. “It’s hard for somebody to predict their behavior. It’s a lot easier to try to observe them in a real scenario. When you’re in the process of developing something new, you can’t do that. The ‘CAVE’ gets us as close as humanly possible to recreating those environments, and it’s more than anyone else is able to do.”

From a business perspective, this creates certain advantages.

“Here’s what it allows for,” said John Minnec, chief marketing officer of the firm. “It allows for speed to market, because in the old days, you would have to physically build prototype after prototype, put it in an environment, and then take that environment and demonstrate it (to the client). In the ‘CAVE,’ we can have our 3D artists render those environments with a couple of keystrokes, and you can literally step into 8-10 different environments and you can save time, money, effort and energy and get real-time feedback.”

“We’re kind of Milwaukee’s best kept secret,” said Shea. “I don’t think a lot of people know all of the Willy Wonka stuff we’re doing here.”

More of this “Willy Wonka stuff,” including the “CAVE,” is in the InVision Retail Science Lab, a 14,000-square-foot working facility and education center that allows brands and retailers to research, experiment, test and prove the effectiveness of retail solutions.

More still is happening in the Digital Media Lab, the company’s “incubator for new technology,” where new jobs have been added in recent years.

“We want to be forward-thinking,” said Joe Leitner, digital strategy. “We want to future-proof what we have out in the field. When it comes to new technology, we try to sift through what’s future and what’s fad.”

Technologies being tested in the Digital Media Lab for use in retail spaces include touch-screen interactive units, real-time data integration, a variety of uses with digital menu boards and sensor technology, and uses of advanced interactive technology like augmented reality, radio frequency identification and gesture technology. Work is also being done with synchronized messaging and wearable technology. These are all tested in a variety of different ways, said Leitner.

“At a very basic level we’re testing three things: new technologies, how they integrate with our current platform and how the content and user experience needs to be built so customers can truly understand it,” said Leitner. “That’s all based on our day-to-day ongoing research that we do in understanding what emergent trends are out in the marketplace, where the market’s moving in general from an adoption standpoint, and also what are some best in class out in the field for that – and I look a lot to Europe for that, because they’re incredibly further ahead than we are.”

The company, previously known as DCI Marketing, expanded its international footprint in March of this year by combining resources with U.K.-based Artform International.

The firm has 225 employees at its Milwaukee headquarters, a 100,000-square-foot facility at 2727 W. Good Hope Road, and more than 600 are employed company-wide, with other U.S. offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Detroit, along with international offices in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and China.

The work done by DCI-Artform can be seen in a variety of ways, but very often, it’s about the nuances and the subtleties of retail.

Products like its grocery pusher trays – like what you’ll see with Hormel lunch meat or packaged salads – are now in 70 percent of all grocery stores. At car dealerships for clients Subaru, Cadillac, Nissan and Mazda, DCI-Artform’s work can be seen as digital displays, layout design and a variety of consumer engagement vehicles. The company built an adjustable motorcycle for Harley-Davidson showrooms, in an effort to target female customers, which improved sales 5-8 percent. For cosmetics, different lighting displays are used to best showcase a given product.

“Our work varies by client based on what we think is the opportunity to have the most meaningful intersection with a client,” said Minnec. “Retail science sometimes turns into a lighting example, or custom publications, or sometimes it’s a retail display. A lot of things like that are what adds to the overall experience that we’re trying to create.”

Determining what it is that adds to that overall consumer experience is very much based in data and metrics.

“Everything that we do when we talk about retail science is grounded in insights that are built on real-time data and metrics to understand what’s happening. We’re always watching these things to understand the habits of the consumer,” said Minnec. “We measure everything. If we can’t measure it, then it really didn’t happen, is how we look at it.”

On Oct. 16, it was announced that DCI-Artform was acquired by The Marmon Group, a Chicago-based company under the umbrella of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, from DCI’s previous parent company, IMI.

“Not only does this move ensure DCI-Artform’s continued growth and profitability, it is also validation that our Retail Science approach to shopper insight-driven solutions is legitimized by Berkshire Hathaway, one of the most respected and successful businesses in the world,” said Mike Doody, CEO of DCI-Artform. “This is as good as it gets for our business and it solidifies our commitment to the continued strength of the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor economy.”

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