Digital (and the) luxury consumers

The web, as I see it, is Ginger Rogers to the world’s Fred Astaire. Just as she did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels, the web does/ has everything the world does/ has but visibly, frictionlessly, faster.

But then those two too were role-playing. In the make-believe world of celluloid. With its own rules, relationships, frictions and language. The web, a virtual world, is no different in that sense.

A vast majority of luxury consumers have, unsurprisingly, taken to the web to consider, evaluate, buy, and well, show-off. They are choosing convenience, breadth, quality, and where available, personalised delivery. They seamlessly move between the physical world of stores, and the online world of discount-retailers, consumer review sites, official brand pages and web properties, secret and public groups discussing shared interests in a brand.

Brands and businesses, however, are slow to catch up. With such fragmentation of the consumer’s journey with the brand, it is hard to demonstrate hard numbers or directly attributable sales gains. So a traditional ROI led case for investing in social and web channels cannot be made easily.

It seems to me however that particular to the luxury and the creative sectors, some challenges are bigger than others.

The face-off between the “democratic” web and the “exclusive” nature of luxury

How do some of the well-established luxury brands deal with it? It is quite simple. They peg their expectations from the members of their various online communities correctly.

Not all fans are customers. In fact, as the Vacheron representative pointed out in Paris last week, most fans aspire to the brand and are therefore very valuable. Vacheron also has an owners’ club where current and future owners of their fine timepieces engage, converse, ask questions, answer questions, and indulge their passion for the brand.

The social media director of another aspirational luxury brand said to me, during the coffee break, that he finds questions about this “divide” offensive. After all, he went on to say, people may start with something small with us and grow with us. Of course, I agreed, having first bought just a belt from the brand when I was a young professional at 26. I have grown to admire the brand for their craft as well as cultural stewardship, over time.

It is safe to say that the democracy-exclusivity divide is short-sighted, parochial and patronizing. It may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

After all, aren’t half the advertising dollars wasted, as John Wanamaker pointed out? Why should luxury and creative brands be daft enough to expect half our social media dollars won’t be?

Finding the authentic voice of the brand

Aka how not to shill, plug, sell, cross-sell, up-sell at every opportunity?

My friend Euan Semple has written a book with a wonderful title – “Organisations don’t tweet, people do”. A succinctly stated, seminal piece of wisdom for all who wish to engage with their fans, prospects and customers on various social media properties or channels.

And people don’t just sell. They gossip, they share their joys, they show off things they bought, they share stories. Sometimes they complain. These are the moments where a brand has a great opportunity not just to be authentic but to showcase its authenticity. How would you feel in the customer’s shoes with a terrible product or service experience? Would you like to be sold-at or dismissed or barred from the community or the store? No? Then don’t do it to the customer! How hard is that?

It is kind of difficult to pick the best story about an authentic brand voice from the ones I heard in Paris. But Kenzo stands out in how it retains the spirit of the brand, while being playful, inventive and engaging all the same.

Finding an authentic voice does require brands to be comfortable with their own identities and their own DNA and their own values.

In others words — what do you stand for? And are you willing to speak up for it?

Influencers and the shades of grey

This is the most fun part. It is an open secret that luxury brands pay well-known faces and people with large social media following considerable sums to promote their products. It is however easy to see the payment dynamic when it is a celebrity talking about an overcoat or a handbag named after her.

What happens when it is a person on whom people rely for expertise and knowledge? Do brands pay her too? If they do, where is the disclosure? And what is her trade-off? Is she willing to trade-off her own brand’s hard-won reputation to build a luxe brand’s reputation? Does a full disclosure hurt or harm her “recommendations” and her influence? How does a consumer trust the “recommendation” of someone who is being paid to say nice things about a brand? What if there is no full disclosure? What about trust?

Then there are the mass influencers. Brands don’t give straight answers about them. Some say they pay these bloggers in kind. All very nice, but when did anyone last pay their rent in perfume bottles, or pay for their grocery by swapping a handbag or a pair of worn-only-once shoes? This is an unreal and unsustainable – and dare I say, arrogant – way for brands to think.

I asked some of these joyful (read: squirm-inducing) questions in Paris last week. Um, no joy. The jury is out, it appears. Brands must consider the hard choices carefully and in my view, plump for full disclosure from influencers.

So here is what I think about this “digital consumer” thing.

In the pre-web world, brands could tell their stories and consumers would listen passively.

Now it is a conversation and like any conversation, there are disagreements, segues, detours, tangents as well as commiserations, empathetic moments, Aha-moments and moments of sheer joy.

I think things have changed for the better, don’t you?

PS: For my full notes from the Luxury Society event in Paris, please see this.

Digital (and) creativity

I don’t believe in the myth-making around creativity as some spark of genius, some innate talent or something that appears out of a stroke of inspiration. That much is clear.

I also don’t believe in the myth-making around “digital” — especially as some still insist on using the word, as a marker of separation from the “physical” (or IRL as we web-types call it).

As Erica pointed out in a comment on my last post, creativity is work too.

“Digital” has transformed work and we are all experiencing that change. Don’t get me wrong. Work, in essence, remains about creating or extracting value for stakeholders, almost always with too few resources and too little time, while working with people we may not always like.

But work is no longer about a place, or the time one clocks in and out, or even the tools we use. That is the “digital” difference. Including the difference made to creativity and its outcomes.

Creativity is not organic. Creativity is no longer solitary.

It is how we rip, mix, burn.

Sometimes it is just about hanging out, messing around, geeking out.

The creative folk fluent in “the web” are collaborating on cinematic storytelling, iterating works of literature. Even creating music across space and Earth. No really!

Creativity is collaboration, iteration, creation.

Enabled by the web.

The web is open all hours; out of our control; and has its own rules, relationships, frictions and fall-outs, and its own language. But most usefully the web is frictionless, scalable and, well, cheap.

Collaboration is creation. Iterative is creative.

Suddenly it doesn’t look like work at all!

(This post is one-sided. Creative businesses have consumers too. And the relationship between the creative business and its consumer has been completely rewritten by the web. More on that after I return from Paris.)

Creative process aka why Jonathan Ive bothered me a bit

Jonathan Ive was at Design Museum a few days ago, as some of you may know. I was bothered by some things he said. Saying “I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process..” is beautiful and emotive. Saying “…the way it comes from nothing.” not so much. He talked about how on a given day at 3pm you have nothing, then at 5pm you have an idea.

Much as many of us are now full paid-up (and how!) members of the Apple fan club, this struck me as odd.

This is the sort of stuff that feeds into the myth of creativity, creativity as a “genius” thing, rather than a “process” thing; that encourages people to continue in the unawareness that even where there is a pretty front-end,there is likely a complex, messy back-end that enables that pretty front-end; that leads to many people — including customers of creative products and services — to expect “creativity on tap”.

I run a creative business, and all this bothers me.

I find that some people expect “creativity on tap” because they may have previously experienced a “creative” person ideating in real time, while they explained their problem. They confuse the process of ideation with what it takes to come up with that one perfect creative solution that will appeal to the creative and the commercial alike. The ideation, I am afraid, does not take place in a vacuum.

I also think that many people simply do not understand the creative process. The trope that creativity is an inborn talent or a “genius” element is perpetuated both by creatives and non-creatives alike, and sometimes, just sometimes, it comes back to bite us. Creativity, that can be scaled, that is sustainable and that does not run out of juice, is a process. When we create a new collection in our jewellery business, it can take us anywhere from 12months to 18months before we are anywhere close to saying “right, we are happy putting this out there!”. The effort that goes into the research, the brainstorming, the iterations, the prototyping that go into creating every single piece is not effort that can be overstated.

And last but not the least, people expect pretty things — outcomes of creativity are often expected to be pretty when it is equally true that creative problem-solving in complex organisations isn’t really a pretty process or a pretty outcome — to have pretty, magical back-ends. When people think, for instance, couture, they think Vogue magazine, fancy photoshoots, Fashion Week and models, who wear pretty stuff and feature in Tatler magazine’s party pages. They do not think months of toil, ideation, whittling down of perfectly good ideas, actual design process, sourcing of materials, trial and error, fitting, discarding of entire pieces, restarting, just the whole painful process of creation.

I do not believe in making or keeping the creative process mystical or mythical. If the product of that process is pretty — or meaningful in any other way — to the customer, most customers want to know more about what went into making it. The overused term “storytelling” is what customers often want. My experience is when they do understand what went into creating the product they are so taken by, they respect it more, they question the price tag far less and they “own” it. There is no greater reward for a creative person than a customer, who internalises the creative idea and the process so profoundly she owns it. Jonathan Ive and his team’s creativity has brought us to that point of emotional ownership, but as he said 99% of us will never look inside our iDevices where most of the magic lies.

More’s the pity.

What next for design? — Jonathan Ive at the Design Museum

Jonathan Ive was the last guest in Design Museum‘s 25th anniversary series of talks. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I stood outside the museum celebrity-watching as leading British designers steadily streamed in. The Conrans, Paul Smith, Ron Arad, and I think I spotted Anya Hindmarch.

Here are some quotes and insights from the evening.

On how objects embody our values, our identities

Talking of his first experience with a Mac near the end of his Design school education, where he had had frustrating experiences with the PC which he blamed on his technical ineptitude, Ive said:

Through the object, that I was sat in front (of), I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a clear sense of their values, their preoccupations, the things they cared about, the reasons they made it. Vicarious communication via the object, I had a really clear sense of this company in California, that I didn’t know anything about. And that had never happened to me before. This was the beginning of the realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are.

On the human condition, the imperative to create something (when asked how a company making desktop products went on to making things for our pockets)

Ive opened with a mention of the Apple Watch, a product, he said, you cannot buy yet. He said, “The parallels with what happened with the technology of timekeeping and what we are facing is really quite uncanny. .. I think it’s part of our human condition.” He later added, “And that is exactly what happened. It was a multi-century transition. From the clock tower to something that ended up eventually on your wrist. What we are doing has some robust historical precedence.”

There is this natural part of our condition. Which is when you see potent, phenomenal technology, there is somehow, I think, a desire to do a few things. You typically want to make it smaller. That always happens. The first thing you do is huge and you put wheels on it and drive around and stuff. Or you make it small, Or you make it cheaper. And therefore obviously more accessible. Then you make it better, more reliable.

On form and materials (discussing the merits of plastic and glass)

You cannot separate form from materials.

On the inseparability of making and designing (and hat-tipping Terence Conran)

Marc Newson wouldn’t be a great designer if he weren’t also a great maker.

On the creative process, its fragility, its evolution to being exclusive to being something that involves lots of people

Ive talked about the wonder of having nothing to having an idea to having a product.

I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process.. and the way it comes from nothing. … The best ideas .. start with conversations. If it is a big idea, you can distill the idea into a few sentences. I still think it is a very fragile process. Sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object.

Over the years one of the things i have had to learn a lot about is .. listening very very carefully.

A small change right at the beginning defines an entirely different product.

Part of the process is .. it always starts with a conversation and a thought. I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and could stand up in front of a group of people like you and try and explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile.

One of the things I have discovered over the years is that when you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea was, it changes. It is the most profound shift in the entire process. Because one, it is not exclusive anymore, it is not so open to interpretation, it is there and includes a lot of people.”

On the motivation behind design, respect and caring

A lot of it starts with motivation. … our goal is not to make money. It’s much harder for good design to come out of an organisation and to come from that as a driving force. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best product we can.

We are not naive. We trust that if we are successful and we make good products that people will like them.. and we trust that if people like them they will buy them. And we have figured out operationally we are effective and we know what we are doing so we will make money. But we know it is a consequence.

There are many decisions we make which may not make fiscal sense. Which is why the motivation I described is so important. And it can cost a lot more to make it the way we want to make it. And that cant justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it is the right thing to do. It’s made better. There is an integrity there.

I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness. 

And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.

On the idea that “good design lasts” and rapid obsolescence of objects now

They can not last so long because they are used, multiple hours of every day, they cannot last as long as you wish they did, because the technology relative to the technology that is now available is so much more compelling.

That is why we all find there is a certain delight in what tend to be singular function objects.

On how design has changed since Ive was a student

Ive once again referred to Terence Conran’s mantra about making being essential to design.

.. in design schools, workshops are expensive, computers are cheaper. .. It is just tragic that you spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not making them.

How on earth do you do that if what we are responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?

He talked about the physicality of objects, and how powerful devices now are in isolation and when connected, and what it means for designers.

In some ways .. the expectation that the contribution the object can make is more important than ever. Somehow for us as physical beings it is really important that the physical object is as compelling as possible. .. places a great demand on those skills to truly understand the physical world, to truly understand the nature of materials.

On copying by competitors and others

Ive discussed how a design studio plays with and develops ideas over extended periods of time, never knowing quite which one will work.

But once you have got a proof of concept “it works”, and then somebody.. it is not copying, it is theft. They stole our time. Time we could have had with our families.

“Do you think when somebody copies what you do it is flattery?”. No.

On being innovative

You know this George Bernard Shaw quote. .. it’s a beautiful thing to say “to do something truly innovative does require you reject reason“.

The conversation and the questions from the audience continued for just over an hour. A lot of thought-provoking points made. Time well-spent.

And one more thing…

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum, Nov 13, 2014