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How the Digital Era Has Redefined Brand Experience

David Schwarz, HUSH

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It’s been nearly two decades since mobile phones began making imprints in our pockets and on our lifestyles, becoming household items while shifting the paradigm of communication.

But within the last ten years, easy access to broadband connectivity, evolution of camera technology and the social media takeover have given rise to the equally transformative ‘Instagrammable’ era—one that is continually redefining how we live, design, and experience everything from food to brands.

The impact on experience and the growing experience design industry has been especially powerful. The spaces of art and commerce were always shifting, but the specific consequence of social media’s rise is that physical experiences are no longer ​intrinsically​ valuable. Rather, their value is now intimately related to the social media imagery that’s produced and shared with the masses. ​It’s not so much about the experience itself, but the validation that an experience actually happened, ​and furthermore, happened ​to me. Essentially, it didn’t happen if no one took a photo of it. And that may pose a real problem, to experience designers, brands and to the audiences they engage

Beware the Rectangle

Brands go where their audiences are—and their audiences are, of course, now on Instagram and other social photo platforms, which allow them to document their own experiences. Shareability has become central to the success of every brand experience. But what are the consequences of brands’ reaction to this sharing culture, its new digital tools and how those tools affect the way people interact with the world?

Brands want audiences to share and so, unconsciously or not, they maximize visual impact by ​deftly “helping” the pic-snapping public control their points of view, directing where to point their cameras, what to crop out and where to stand. In this way, they control the narrative and the audience’s story becomes the brand’s story as well. But there are diminishing returns.

Ironically, in an age where we can point and shoot at anything, capture the world in full resolution, in slow-motion, in time-lapse, in any shape of rectangle, and even in full 360 panorama, the results of our collective photographic social memories are reduced to the same handful of rectangles the world over. From the ​Sephora x Coachella – Makeup Stations​ to Refinery29’s 2​9 Rooms​ to Kusama’s Infinity Mirror space​, the visual narrative becomes startlingly similar: a grid of identical photos with similarly structured backdrops - the only difference being the people in them. It’s a result that is at odds with the usually personal and spontaneous natures of art, design, and experience—which can work together to create lasting memories and a genuine emotional brand connection.

By reducing the audience’s frame and ability to capture a unique experience, brands are making an exponential impact with these visual messages by forcing us to be very specific and repetitive in how we share experiences. While it’s a marketer’s dream, we as agencies need to question how complicit we are in the potential devaluing of the experiences we create, and instead push for deeper, more engaging solutions.

Maintaining Integrity in Experience

At a time where short attention span theater reigns and “shareability” is often mistaken for a core principle of user engagement, it’s important for brands and their partners to protect their​ authenticity of mission and vision to propel experiences towards success​. While it might be tempting to follow the lead of social media culture, the experience design industry needs to realize that brands can’t build real relationships with their consumers if they aren’t maintaining the integrity​ of the real-life experience. This means creating experiences where the core value is​ the experience itself, not just the social photographic ​record​ of it.

Social media is a truly powerful tool and I understand why its promise of data analytics and curation are very attractive. More importantly, social media is a large part of people’s lives, and integral to how they experience the world. But, we have to remember that the real goal is to design unique experiences from an authentic, ownable point of view. This can be achieved by using aspects of the company, its people, products, services—or even data—that simply cannot be replicated by another institution. Instagram is not the only consideration.

As the industry focuses more and more on the importance of experience, brands can inspire and motivate their audiences by prioritizing a captivating experience over the allure of grid-riddled, social immediacy. Now picture that.

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About the author: David Schwarz is an award-winning Co-Founder of HUSH, an experience design firm. He has spent over a decade working with brands to design compelling experiences utilizing content, interactivity, architecture and technology.