Pretty and other things about tech wading into luxury

I see a lot of chatter on Twitter about how some lollipop/ icecream/ sundae update on Android doesn’t work on this device or that from different manufacturers. Then there are the workarounds, the fixes that one needs to learn, and consequent boasts on Twitter. And the many exhortations to do factory reset and start from scratch.

And I wonder.

This is 2015.

I have been using a mobile phone for 20 years now.

A technology that is pervasive and unarguably central to our lives, like water and oxygen, needs to be easier than this Android malarkey. It needs to be low cognitive load. I think often and a lot about cognitive load because I research and teach masterclasses in better decision making. That is my beat. The decisions can cover a vast scope — from organisation design, to product design, to making it easy for a customer to find, buy and use the product.

My iDevices — the iPhone and the iPad in particular — are low cognitive load. The UI is intuitive, and the capacitive touch screen is sensitive and easy to use for older and younger persons alike.

Some may say these iDevices are dumbed down, and use derisive words such as Mactards (!) for people like me. Frankly I would rather use my cognitive surplus (thanks, Clay Shirky, for that wonderful coinage!) on things more productive than making my mobile phone work.

If one wishes to create a business or a product for high frequency or pervasive use, making it easy to use is essential.

Then there is designing for human follies. And real world use. And end-of-life considerations. In business speak, these are considerations for process and incentive design.

Have you ever lost an iDevice? Then again, have you ever lost any other mobile phone or connected device? Let me know how you got on with the latter!

Recently I have misplaced a device, and had a device stolen. The lost one was found because I could locate it and track its movement from the time the loss was registered with the authorities in charge to the time it was found and returned. The time one was stolen, at least I could trigger the remote wipe as soon as the thief tried to get in.

Insurance companies replace the device not they can not replace the data, which is far more valuable.

Which brings me to back-up and synchronisation.

Yes, the iTunes UI could be much improved. It is far from being the best showcase for user friendly design. But the back-up and synchronisation happen easily. Without much effort (or cognitive load, see above).

Then there is seamless recycling for old or end-of-life devices. Apple’s recycling partner agrees a sum of money during the online registration process. I wipe the data on the old devices and ship it free-of-charge to the recycling partner and receive the money. Apple is in compliance with the WEEE Directive in Europe. As a consumer, I am happy not to have old devices cluttering my shelves, and as a citizen, I am pleased I am not contributing to environmental garbage in the world.

JeanPaulGaultier_Barbican2014

Then there is pretty.

The iDevices are pretty. There is no getting away from it. I work in luxury. Pretty is luxury’s calling card. The iDevices fit the bill.

When a consumer spends a considerable chunk of money on one’s product, it behooves us as businesses to deliver a seamless, satisfying, low effort and pleasant consumer experience all round.

It is harder than it looks, it costs money, it needs a lot of imagination and profound understanding of the consumer’s journey with the business.But above all it takes commitment.

For the tech companies looking to play in the luxury or premium markets, there is a lot to learn from Apple. As well as from the fact that the best regarded luxury sector players demonstrate that serious commitment at every step of the customer’s journey with them. Those that don’t may not and often do not last. More’s the pity.

Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.

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.)