Brands today face herculean challenges. They have to deliver experiences on a laundry list of social media platforms, as well as through traditional media and sales channels. And being everywhere at every moment is not enough. They also have to engage with consumers across a broad cultural, social, and political spectrum.
When you think about it, there’s only one real solution: Brands have to embrace ambiguity. As the futurist Bruce Sterling put it at SXSW 2018, “Hope is the awareness that what you’re doing makes sense, even when everyone else fails to understand.”
This may be a tough sell for companies that elevate measurable outcomes above all else. Over two years ago, I left the strategic design consultancy Frog to join Verizon as the director of strategic initiatives. My goal was to help Verizon provide better value and worthwhile experiences to its customers. But I witnessed firsthand the inherent conflict between the role of marketing to drive business goals and service customer needs. The motivations and outcomes of sales and service are difficult to align.
But not impossible. Recently, I joined the creative agency Droga5 as the chief design officer and immediately gained a better understanding of how exceptional creativity–a necessary ingredient for any company that accepts uncertainty–can help brands better connect to audiences. This year’s SXSW offered a taste of just how powerful that experimental advertising can be–and underscored five key tenets of branding in the 21st century.
Interact With Your Audience Or Die
At SXSW, Land o’ Lakes Butter developed an experience that let participants interact with exhibits and donate to charity in an effort to expand their understanding of farming and responsible food production. HBO built a replica of Sweetwater, the town in the hit drama Westworld, to usher people, quite literally, into the show. The takeaway? Interaction drives curiosity. Brands without interactions risk boring their audiences and miscommunicating key product features and benefits.
Diversity And Inclusion Are Business Imperatives
With Black Panther surpassing $1 billion in global box office sales, we’re reminded once again of the power of and promise found in representation. As John Maeda put it in the Design in Tech Report he released at SXSW (and which Co.Design covered here), inclusivity in creativity and design is “just good business and expands your addressable market.” If you’re in the business of content creation and curation, you won’t survive unless you bring varied, underrepresented, and underserved cultural experiences and ways of thinking to the whiteboard.
Creative Curation Is A Must
Enough with the marketing gimmicks. Advertising agencies should be in the business of “creative curation”–pairing cultural trends to market opportunities that makes sense for consumers. The LVMH Benefit Cosmetics Brow AR experience is a good example. It capitalizes on developments in AR to give customers a genuinely useful way to experiment with different eyebrow shapes.
Mixed Reality Is Ready For Its Close-up
When you walk into a clothing store and use your mobile device to read reviews of something you hold in your hand, then step into a dressing room with a virtual mirror and your friend Skypes in to help you pick an outfit, that’s mixed reality. Creatives in advertising need to start thinking about how to design these “mixed” moments. At SXSW, the lead researcher Elliot Hedman at mPath emphasized “the tyranny of choice” many consumers feel–and described how brands are failing to create a mixed reality that engages people in “the feeling of the joy of learning.”
Death to the Agency of Record, Long Live The Special Projects Roadmap
Companies often hire an agency of record to handle their advertising needs. That works for many companies. But brands also need help tackling special projects that may determine business priorities, potential partners, and other strategic imperatives.
To be clear, just because brands embrace uncertainty doesn’t mean they’re venturing out into the world uncertainly. Quite the opposite. A strong sense of purpose is what gives brands the freedom to experiment. And with all of the ambiguity, we must remember to focus on what matters: the human experience.
Jason Severs is Droga5’s chief design officer.