Operating at the intersection of advertising and technology, it isn’t surprising that our industry is awash in superlatives and hyperbole. Anything short of “revolutionary” seems barely worth mentioning. Our myopic focus on what’s new makes it difficult to recognize a change that has been progressing over decades — and it’s on those time frames where societal and technological change is truly revolutionary.
Computers have become pervasive in our lives. Our world is increasingly realized and experienced through these machines. What we overlook is how our sense of who we are — our boundaries of self and “non-self,” a term derived from Zen Buddhism’s anatta — has grown to encompass them.
The device you’re using to read this article is likely conceptualized by your mind as an extension of you. And if someone were to take your smartphone away, the anxiety and distress you would feel has a similar pattern to losing a limb.
Needless to say, this has profound effects on every aspect of our lives. But since we operate at the intersection of advertising and technology, let’s start there.
Second Life Comes First
Advancements in digital media have made our virtual presence more vivid than ever. Content is presented in an increasingly personalized and intimate way. We effortlessly share our experiences with the rest of the world. Younger generations have come to understand individuality and self-expression as they are reflected by their personal devices. Psychologically, at least, the singularity has arrived and we have become one with our machines.
Every marketer, especially those working with aspirational brands, needs to adjust to this new reality if they hope to connect with consumers. The new breed of digitally native, direct-to-consumer startups start here, setting their stake with a carefully curated digital presence while practically commoditizing fulfillment. No wonder that companies like Glossier, Allbirds and even Casper are resonating with Millennials. For a taste of the future of physical retail and, for some, a dystopia, consider Gen Z brand Brandy Melville; the clothes are bought to be worn explicitly for social validation online.
Luxury goods have always favored expression and creativity. The best brands are simultaneously conspicuous, unique, social, hedonic and high quality. But for the owner of a luxury good, recognition of these values from others is the most important factor. Above all, luxury goods are acquired for what they symbolize. The exemplars here are fashion brands Burberry and Louis Vuitton, and auto brands Jaguar, Land Rover and BMW. Through innovations in advertising and social media, they have effectively digitized their status as iconic brands, even among consumers who will never have a chance to experience the brand directly.
How can luxury brands maintain their value and remain inspirational in a world of disparate, competing aspirations? They need to strike a delicate balance, holding a center of gravity but, at the same time, distributing their message across multiple touchpoints over a fragmented digital landscape.
We know that the more recognizable a brand is, the more valuable that brand becomes. What has changed is that representation of consumption is now more important than the consumption itself. For marketers — this means establishing, building and nurturing an online presence, both owned and earned.
As consumers expand their self-concept across digital channels, marketers have no option but to accompany them. Creative messaging needs to be showcased within formats that encourage a seamless, digitally native experience across every device and channel.
Advertising as Human
A deeply intimate relationship between consumers and brands suggests a key strategy. As our relationship to media has become personal, it is vital that advertising itself feels more human.
We are biased to believe that intelligent communication can only be generated by another person. Even if people understand that Amazon’s Alexa is a machine, she registers as a person, yet Alexa is an “It” by all definitions of inanimate objects.
We also expect humans, as innately social animals, to be polite. When a person interrupts us, we are irritated. The same is true of online advertising. A digital interruption registers as a violation of social norms. The person behind the message — and therefore the message itself — is viewed as deficient, incompetent or offensive.
There are other social transgressions. Providing too much or too little information, lacking context or otherwise misreading the nature of the conversation is emotionally frustrating. We feel personally slighted when a visitor in our virtual worlds disrespects us, even if that visitor is really just a programmatic pre-roll ad demanding too much time before the content we wish to see.
Again, luxury advertisers need to be especially careful here. Aligning a targeting strategy with audience interests and behaviors in real-time should be a given. We also recommend polite opt-in ad units that offer immersive experiences while respecting the user journey. They ensure that those who choose to opt-in are truly interested in engaging.
Technology is fully integrated into our daily lives, far past the point where it is possible to separate us. Advertisers must adapt to the more intimate and immediate digital world that consumers inhabit and depend on. Take heart, the goal hasn’t changed — we aim to build a stronger connection to the audiences that matter most.
Bryan Melmed is vice president of insights services at Exponential.