Kate Ivory is Managing Partner, Strategy at OMD EMEA.
In a world where our lives are increasingly optimised, it was no surprise that SXSW, a festival famed for having its finger on the cultural and technological pulse, majored in all things ‘fast and first’ in its 2019 offering.
From application of ‘EQ in the ER using XR’, to ‘Product design in the age of AI’, it was clear to me that artificial intelligence was not only the headliner but finally starting to come of age.
No longer the promise of a brave new future, this was the year that machine learning became applicable and evidenced not only in the lecture halls and exhibition stands, but also outside in the bustling Austin streets, where delegates weaved through the traffic on ubiquitous electric scooters picking up pre-ordered lattes from Starbucks courtesy of their Apple Watches. The elusive powers of AI were abundant all around me and the future was here, or so it seemed.
But somewhere between AI and XR (and possibly around session 45 on the subject) I got to wondering whether this relentless preoccupation with making stuff entirely frictionless, entirely optimised for my convenience, might actually be the single biggest crisis facing brands today. Is it possible that in the pursuit of entirely frictionless utility and seamless consumer experience, brands might actually serve to commoditise themselves into the obsolete?
After all, as Jon Wilkins of Accenture Interactive highlighted in his session on friction and the human brand experience, friction is actually a critical ingredient in the building of emotions – emotions which in turn are proven to be the most significant driver of mental availability and recall. For many brands it is precisely the ability to insert friction into an otherwise optimised experience which makes them so compelling. Take the Ikea effect. No doubt the Swedish furniture giant owes a significant proportion of its success to its curated shopping experience, but it is well documented that the act of building the furniture itself is what imbues it with additional value and keeps consumers coming back time and again. Or what about the foil on my San Pellegrino – an additional Ill afforded barrier to consumption, or evidence of manufactured friction to signal quality in a commoditised category?
Whilst there is no doubt that speed and convenience are increasingly critical components of a good brand experience, successful brands seem to be the ones that are able to identify and navigate the tension between the need for relevancy and receptivity across the consumer journey. As Tricia Katz argued in her session ‘Using AR to bridge the online-offline gap’, it’s important that we understand the layers which consumers are going through at any given stage and adapt our messages to those signals in the real world. Understanding human need requires solutions more varied than simply frictionless interaction, it requires brands to mimic the variable pace of my experience and to adjust the vernacular of their story to offer something meaningful to me along the way.
As I reflect on my time at SXSW, increasingly I feel that for brands to survive in this context, they need to stop being distracted purely by “what’s possible” and instead to consistently ask “what’s valuable”. As brand owners and leaders this means flexing our empathetic muscles like never before, and in doing so, being comfortable with shifting gears along the way. As Dr Kate Stone highlighted, the act of injecting friction into experience is often what enables brands to make the everyday magical. It is built into the foundations of some of the worlds most loved brands – hell, if Supreme can make ‘generation instant gratification’ queue for 24 hours for a pair of sneakers then I’m a believer!