Brands in the age of digital romanticism
On reflection, it did take a while before fully accepting that the tension between the rational and emotional can remain unresolved. Once I did accept this however, it wasn’t long before I chose to forgo the large chunk of time devoted to physically handing over cash in exchange for warm greetings and the immediacy of seeing a book on the shelf and taking it home, for the plasticky click of the ‘Buy now’ button– the peace of mind knowing that I saved just that little bit more money.
And as time passed, I had largely let go of memories of the former experience. I had, while believing that great service was of the utmost importance, convinced myself that I wasn’t missing out on much. I gave up something warm and error prone for something a little bit more controlled, seamless and cost effective.
Not too long ago, ‘authenticity’ was all the rage in debate, both physical and digital. Even the great Wally Olins devoted a large part of his final book to the importance of provenance. Today the concept retains its relevance, at times misunderstood and misapplied, but relevant all the same. There’s one magazine at the front of my mind that has largely built its brand around this new romanticism (despite their own espoused brand definition). It romanticizes food, cosmetics and clothing retailers that painstakingly create and distribute their own products in small batches, with only a handful of staff.
And there’s something in this image that truly resonates with us. We watch video after video of small towns where generation after generation of makers and artisans continue to pursue their craft, and we smile to ourselves when we see prodigal sons and daughters come back to their almost abandoned villages to take up the reigns. Communities of makers and artisans are exalted for being the last vestiges of authenticity in a globalized world. On other fronts age old wisdom in the form of ancient thinkers are increasing their sway once again, with philosophers like Alain de Botton bringing them back in vogue.
I think this new romanticism is a good thing, as long as we remain cognisant of the flow on effects. Keeping local towns vibrant, people more appreciative of beauty and consumers more conscious about the entire value chain is a noble pursuit. It’s all a positive phenomenon. Where it goes wrong is when people get a bit carried away by the romanticism and get misguided, displacing the very local businesses they want to bring back with their hip new incarnations. (People forget that what they glorify as craft may be what people in other nations do to simply gain sustenance- think basket weaving, and whose parallels in a country like ours may be the people in the chicken shop next door who are equally dedicated). But that’s another debate much too important to be delved into as a side argument.
So if it’s all good, why does it feel like I’m going to place a ‘however’ at this very point in the piece? Aside from that being the way posts work, there truly is a ‘however’. So… However, there is an inequality in this market of new romanticism. As earlier suggested, young people, myself included, are unable to revel in the excitement. It’s an era of dreams and aspiration, but much of the time they remain unfulfilled.
I would love to get my hands on Japanese denim from Okayama, made by indigo dyers whose hands are permanently stained blue because of dedication to their craft. But I can’t, the price tag is too prohibitive. I yearn for a handcrafted trestle table that will age well over time as opposed to get stained, dirty and have to be thrown away. But heavy woods require heavy wallets. And we all know why this is the case. These products are justifiably expensive: lower economies of scale, distribution costs, fair wages. And that’s fine. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But the real question is — are the very budget conscious supposed to resign themselves to missing out? Are we only to get our hands on these human stories and pleasant sensations of time travel and actualization by skipping a few coffees with friends and holding out on a bunch of other purchases? After all where’s the ‘authenticity’ in experiences, previously common place in decades gone by, reserved for a select few? Why are people like me precluded from a whole suite of emotional benefits?
Yesterday, I had an experience, to some people forgettable, to some others maybe not, that provides somewhat of an answer to this problem.
I tore open the parcel, letting the stamped and addressed cardboard drop to the floor as I pulled out the brand new book. It was exactly as it was displayed online, a pristine cover, bleached white pages. The transaction was cold and efficient, fast shipping, everything as promised. There wasn’t much thrill in seeing it online, just a flash of recognition as to a want that needed to be fulfilled, and I was sufficiently pleased to have fulfilled it. Life goes on.
As I was about to put the book aside and move on, I noticed something sticking out from halfway within the book. It was a printed bookmark, with the etched artwork and typography of the very same bookmark used by that book retailer, now pulling a lot of sales online, in the mid 1800s. The paper was slightly browned, and the etching was a 19th century landscape of the street that the bookshop still stands on today, with annotations as to where the bookshop was. On the back of the bookmark there was a simple statement of what the bookshop aimed to be, a repository of knowledge for students and professionals alike, and a message to write, not email, but write, to receive some catalogues.
In writing, this seems like somewhat of a superficial marketing ploy. After all, the paper the bookmark was printed on was crisp, the edges sharp, freshly rolled off a large factory overseas. I unquestionably still received a product from the internet. I saw an image rendered in pixels, clicked buy, paid with PayPal and it appeared at my doorstep. No issues, no communication.
But in the few seconds it took to pick up and read that bookmark, I was briefly in another place. The air was different, the tint of my surroundings had ever so slightly changed, and I felt the very same thrill, yes I did, I get when I travel to a far-flung country. For a few seconds I felt a little more connected to the world I live in, its rich history and the people within it, who lead their own lives, unaware that I exist. And what was supposedly a ‘seamless’ and standard experience, had crossed an invisible line, to the realms of being unforgettable.
The word ‘authenticity’ to this day, has not really been applied to brands in the digital space. And for many brands that live entirely digitally, it is perceived that there is very little scope to be authentic. That their value lies in pointing far ahead into the future, as opposed to delving deeply into the now. After all that’s the point of technology right? Forever forward! A faster world!
But we have to remember that almost everything about our world, both physical and digital, is derivative of our human tendencies, tendencies that have remained the same for a long, long time. Watch a film from the 1940s and you’ll be surprised. Despite our fascination with irreversible change, the joys and sorrows of being human have stayed constant. We lament our anti-social behavior as we wait for our engagements outside buildings with our eyes glued to our screens, but a brief viewing of an old film shows us that we did the same, only with books and newspapers. We complain about a perpetually connected world in which young people are planning the next more exciting outing, even in the midst of friends, but exposure to media of the past shows that we were similarly distracted and upwardly aspirational.
What I mean to say is that despite claims of revolutionized behaviours, we musn’t forget that Amazon has its roots, in our collective history, in a parcel sent from a distant retailer. Fitbit, a doctor’s update on our cardiovascular condition, and Google, a day at the library, leafing through hardbound encyclopedias.
All brands, no matter how new and cutting edge, can get involved in this new age of renewed romanticism. They needn’t fabricate stories, because within human history lies a thread that links the solutions we have created to respond to our needs and yearnings, regardless of time. A continuous link between products, services and brands that have progressively improved and replaced each other, to make the way we do the same things, progressively faster, easier and more enjoyable. And ‘heritage-less’ brands in a digital world need not miss out. E-commerce parcels with notes so sincere that you mistake them as those of your lover’s, interfaces that use affordances from activities long gone and make you want to open doors and write on paper again, electric cars that roar like V8s and digital watches that tick and tock. It doesn’t take much to produce the nostalgia and ‘rightness’ that brands synonymous with ‘authenticity’ do. There’s a thread that runs through history, and in our DNA.
When brands realize this, I imagine that we can look forward to some warmer experiences, and a flourishing of digital romanticism in our fast paced world. As for me, I look forward to simply not missing out any longer. To be swept away by history; traveling to imagined worlds of well-loved and crafted products and human stories, on a cheap ticket. Fellow romantics, rise.