Digital vs physical: Why balance is crucial for brands

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By Nichola Seeley, Senior Marketing & Communications Manager, Siegel+Gale

The digital revolution continues to have a profound impact, shaking the foundations of brands to the core. When it comes to the retail experience much has been made of the misnomer of the touch screens we love to caress and so many are quick to adopt the shiny futuristic new approaches of VR and automated ordering without pause for reflection. But herein lies the danger: the consequences of investing so much in surfaces and experiences that offer us no tactile response in return.

Our yearning for everything to be friction-free feels like it’s leaving us with a wipe-clean reality, devoid of dirt and difficulties but stripped away of any texture too. And there’s much to be said for texture and the ability to touch.

We all know the fluted glass Coca Cola bottle feels better than plastic. We like the sound of a snap or the satisfaction that comes with the flicking of a switch rather than swiping a screen. These things give us sensory pleasure.

Aristotle even said that man was more intelligent than other animals because of the accuracy of his sense of touch. We use the mind and the hand together to understand our surroundings and when we don’t get a response tactile communication quickly diminishes. We lose trust with our environments.

And when it comes to brands, putting tactile materials and experiences at the heart of the physical retail experience is therefore an opportune way to connect and establish trust with consumers. The perfect antidote to the seeping sickness of our compulsive screen-swiping.

Look at the Australian skincare brand Aesop, for instance. In each detail – from the large stone sinks to the pleasant rawness of plaster, copper and ceramic scattered throughout, material honesty is key to its in-store experience. The brand’s Tokyo outlet, invites customers into the rustic warmth of a red brick environment – such materiality honors the commitment to precision craftsmanship and is a solid monument to the poetics of durability. Stocked with hundreds of amber glass bottles that give the impression of an alchemist’s workshop in which you are permitted to touch, try and explore.

Not only does it feel good to be surrounded by natural materials but it also brings with it a renewed appreciation of craft.

Opening up the workshop is increasingly becoming another opportunity for retailers – across all ends of the retail spectrum – as a way to invite consumers in. At Le Labo perfumeries customers can see how their fragrance is mixed and they appreciate the finished product more as a consequence. Whilst Melanie Upham, founder and candle maker at Pure Candles, will even recreate memorable fragrances and fill your own favorite vessel – may it be a glass vase or soup tureen – with handmade wax. We value such craft precisely because we feel the human hand within it. It has texture, implicit and explicit; both narrative and physical.

Meanwhile Burberry’s beguiling Makers House in London nods to both the design heritage that is so integral to the brand and also the importance of craft, materiality, process and people. The cream of British artisans (that’s people, not robots) showcase their skills – silversmithing, bookbinding, embroidery, passementerie, clay sculpture and ceramics – within a warren of curiosity shop-style workshop rooms making one-off products for customers a theatrical tribute to all things textural. Revealing and celebrating process.

No brand has been immune to the changes digital technology has given to the consumer relationship, but technology will never replace the human touch and tactile reassurance.

Brands need to restore the balance between our digital and physical lives and celebrate the grit and gristle of reality and not throw a plastic coating over it – or build a robot to do it for us – but rather embrace texture and craft through a truly sensitive understanding of the environmental experience. Looking at where tactile touch points fit to heighten the brand relationship and where human touch points can be maximized too.

When used properly, and authentically, the simple use of touch can be profound. Smart brands should invest more in how their product and retail environments feel before they become completely out of touch.


The views expressed by the author are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Gulf Marketing Review.