The lives of workers and citizens worldwide has been revolutionised by the advent of digital technology in every part of our lives, from our workplaces to our pockets.
Over 68 million personal computers were sold worldwide in the second quarter of 2018 alone. There are reportedly over 2 billion personal computers in circulation and smartphones are becoming similarly widespread. The convergence of digital and physical is throwing up new challenges for businesses to face.
Businesses have tended to see their online and physical stores as separate entities. Quality brand experiences could not be recreated online in the age of never-ending page load times, expensive hardware and cumbersome software. Now that digitally connected devices are everywhere, all the time, high quality digital brand experiences are a must. Brands that were created in a physical-first world need to be able to thrive in a world where digital is increasingly an equal partner. Those that fail to do so may see their fortunes flounder.
The early noughties doomsayer’s view that the internet would kill physical shops has not proved to be entirely true. Many people still prefer to visit physical stores and purchase items themselves, but these shopping trips are increasingly influenced by online behaviour. Digital interactions influence 56 cents of every dollar spent in brick-and-mortar stores (Deloitte 2017). The age-old act of “window-shopping” has been digitalised; consumers now spend time researching products and prices online before heading out to a physical store to actually make a transaction.
Getting a feel of fit, materials and look of an item are still important to consumers, or when the experience of purchasing is itself part of the draw, for example with luxury fashion or perfumes. The savviest brands have already adapted to this new way of shopping. It is now fairly common for clothing websites to feature videos that show the way an item fits and flows on the catwalk, or real time inventories of stock in the nearest physical store location to an online browsing customer. Those brands that fail to offer this service look archaic in comparison.
The convergence of digital and physical is also happening in ‘reverse’ as some businesses that have always been online-only are starting to trial the use of physical presences. Amazon has blazed a trail for online-only retail over the past 30 years but the company has launched a new sub-brand tasked with establishing a physical foothold in book selling. Jennifer Cast, Vice President of Amazon Books explained this strategy in an interview with Business Insider in 2017: “In today’s world, when you know what you want you can easily go online and buy it. With a physical store, our mission is to be a great place to discover books.”
“In today’s world, when you know what you want you can easily go online and buy it. With a physical store, our mission is to be a great place to discover books.”
Vice President of Amazon Books
In this new converging world, a well-designed user experience (UX) is essential for any brand. UX can be defined as a “person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.” In a world of convergence, restricting UX to computer, tablet or smartphone devices is misguided. A consistent and homogeneous UX across all touch points is a key part of building a successful brand experience.
Where previously sales and customer service could be handled independently as different disciplines, they now need to be managed under a wider umbrella, whether they are bricks and mortar or online. A seamless experience is the minimum requirement, whilst truly disruptive brands will bring out the best of each channel and use it to support others.
At the same time, brands must not become overly dependent on any one technology. Because technology changes all of the time, as do customer perceptions. A brand that puts all of its emphasis on a single channel or technological fad may soon find themselves in trouble. Just look at Snapchat, which lost $1.3bn in market value when celebrity idol Kylie Jenner tweeted “sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me” to 24 million followers. Couple this with Facebook and Instagram’s innovation to add an instant story feature to their platform that mimicked Snapchat’s core offering, and the potentially disruptive Snapchat was seen off by social media’s incumbent giants.
Facebook’s actions were very much in line with their wider business strategy. Their attitude of changing and always looking at what the competition is doing when designing new features is ingrained in Facebook’s culture. In 2012, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued to all Facebook employees where he outlined the need to keep diversifying.
“If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will. “Embracing change” isn’t enough. It has to be so hardwired into who we are that even talking about it seems redundant. The internet is not a friendly place. Things that don’t stay relevant don’t even get the luxury of leaving ruins. They disappear.”
(Martinez, 2012) It is important to note that “staying relevant” doesn’t mean changing who you are or what you stand for. It does, however, mean finding a way to express it that remains differentiating and relevant. For brands to stay immune to market fluctuations and to consumer habits, they need to be clear on what they stand for and ensure their offering delivers this idea across all platforms, channels and brand experiences. As we tell our clients, new technologies should not be seen as an end, but as a means in useful and creative ways to fulfil a brand’s promise. Innovations should be linked to a core brand idea.
Checklist: take advantage of the convergence of physical and digital
- Have a clearly defined brand idea and strategy to guide your digital decisions.
- Design your user experience to encompass both physical and digital touchpoints.
- Look for inspiration in other sectors that may have already migrated online and find best-in-class examples.
- Ensure you have a digitally native visual identity.
- Never underestimate your customer. Design for the savviest consumer.
- Don’t pin all your transformative efforts on one trend or piece of technology open for disruption.