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The Post-COVID-19 Digital Brand Landscape

·8 min read

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Zoom conferences, Instagram Music festivals, TikTok Cloud Raves — COVID-19 has exponentially propelled our use of tech platforms for immersive experiences, connection and community while also seeing platforms take on a variety of functions and uses. Now, as the Internet essentially becomes our “real world” brands are starting to think about how they can reinvent digital experiences in more creative and immersive ways, whether that’s a flagship, a fashion show, or event. Meanwhile, even the way we consume entertainment has become more interactive and community-oriented with headlining concerts being staged on Fortnite, and global music festivals — hosted by Diddy — held on Instagram Live TV, experienced with instantaneous “likes” and comments.

The truth is, these are just the latest in a major shift in Internet culture that has been driving for some time. We’re arguably going through one of the most radical transformational periods in terms of what technology looks like in our hands, environment and homes. And very few brands, or marketers, are exploring how to push these new channels as far as they can go or come up with ways to tell stories and communicate.

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Recently, Light Years teamed with London-based creative agency Cult to explore this exact transition in our use of technology and specifically how creatives are using technology in new ways to create compelling brand experiences. Our central question: What is the future of creativity and media in an era of radical technology and channel change? The three-part Creatology study explores three key territories in this space: The Sensory Internet — the future where tech is sentient, emotional and provokes our sense of touch and smell; Total Immersion — the world of 5G, the Internet of Things and blurred interfaces like Augmented Reality; and finally, Super Convergence — what media will look like in the rapidly nonlinear world of games as shops; stores as theme parks, and social networks as music venues.

Navigating ways to market, sell and create brand experiences in this new era has never been more important — especially as the pandemic might mean that in-person interactions become more and more infrequent. What is considered an interface, alone, is rapidly evolving into something sentient and sensory as voice recognition technologies start being integrated into virtually everything to cars, street lamps, stoves and more. (Brands are already rushing to create audio-first strategies.) Meanwhile, new connected devices are learning to interpret our neuro patterns, responses and decisions — not just what we type in. On cue, Google has been experimenting with Neuro Aesthetics, the emerging field of research exploring the intersection of psychological aesthetics, neuroscience and human evolution. And of course, there’s the explosion of gaming. Games are replacing our malls, our social networks and entertainment platforms. There’s also the rapid ascent of AI. (In response, see: Samsung’s Neon “artificial human” virtual assistants — the next holographic iterations of Siri and Alexa).

The transition is scary, but also exciting. What we found in The Creatology Report research is that we’re on the brink of a massive renaissance in use of technologies, data and artificial intelligence. There’s also an exciting generation of creatives using these to push the boundaries of their medium, creating new types of experiences, activations and exhibits. They’re leading the way toward a world of converged mediums generally: Where a virtual reality app can be an artistic experience, as well as an immersive health tool for fighting anxiety and chronic pain by using whimsical moving animation to guide deep-breathing exercise (see BreatheVR by Neon — a project backed by Jeff Bezos). Or where an advert for German sleepwear brand Mey can be a scientifically informed kaleidoscopic hypnotic animation that sends insomniacs to sleep (as well as, you know, sell you pj’s). Or, where a store is more of an interactive theme park-meets-art-exhibit than a place to shop for sunglasses. See the SKP-S store by eyewear brand Gentle Monster and London studio Sybarite in Beijing including a “Martian exhibit” and spaceship interiors.

This change means brands and creative agencies will need to think differently about talent.

Look to the creatives on the vanguard of this movement and you get a sense: As part of the study we spoke to Rick Farin and Claire Cochran, directors at Los Angeles-based experimental, multidisciplinary studio Actual Objects (collaborators include Isamaya Ffrench, Dazed and Nike.) To emerging band of compelling AR artists Estella Tse, and Ines Alpha and Lucy Hardcastle, leading the creative exploration of augmented reality exploration from 3-D makeup to surreal digital filters. To teamLab, the collective behind the now world-famous Borderless immersive digital exhibit at the MORI building in Tokyo. We spoke to Google collaborator, artist and art director Jakob Kudsk Steensen, behind groundbreaking interdisciplinary AR, sound and large-scale immersive installations at the Serpentine Gallery in London among others; Jenny Sabin, principal of Jenny Sabin Studio and collaborator on computational design, data visualization and digital fabrication-informed exhibits (including Ada, a living, breathing, responsive exhibit in partnership with Microsoft.) We also spoke to those at the bleeding edge of gaming and art — not least multidisciplinary artist and video game designer Momo Pixel and leading studios exploring the use of sensory technologies and how tech hardware can be designed to emit scent and use visual recognition technologies. On the subject of AI — traditionally the existential threat to everything creative — we interviewed Suzanne Livingston, cocurator of AI: More than Human, the blockbuster 2019 AI exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, which explored the creative, ethical and technical frontiers of AI.

This next generation of studios and talent is markedly more diverse and technology-fluent than ever and see no difference between a computer game, or a smartphone and a paintbrush as the medium. They also no longer think of creatives in the traditional singular sense (often valorized in agencies and at brands.) These creatives are more often than not collectives of interdisciplinary skills, combining data, science, engineering and imagination to create.

Here are just some trends to watch out for in the Creatology era:

The future is “networked” brand experiences: Brands, innovators and creatives are starting to see our interactions with technology in a more holistic way — looking at color, touch and sound collectively to design new experiences with consumers. And how all of these elements can be dialed up or intersect in real-time. They can also be Smartphone centric.

The mind is the new interface: Historically, our interactions with technology have been about willfully sharing information or instructions. New technologies, exhibits and brand experiences are experimenting with reading our minds, are starting to stimulate our subconscious.

Artificial Intelligence, once an existential threat to creatives (and humans) is being used by industry-leading creatives and brands to create new types of experiences. To Next-Gen creatives AI is a collaborator and stimulant to creativity, not the enemy.

Social-tainment: COVID-19 has given rise to new behaviors and new mediums of entertainment. Instagram Live and the long-form consumption of user-generated content, complete with live comments and interactions is just one major shift. Samsung has already introduced the Sero TV, which can be watched in portrait mode to be optimized for consumption of social media and video. Expect more experimentation with social, interactive entertainment mediums and art.

Forget chatbots — the new brand assistants will become cognitive, virtual human avatars who converse to us like our Zoom friends. What will the Uniqlo avatar assistant look and sound like?

Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Instagram are doubling down on AR, meaning it will no longer be just a glitchy tool to imagine what a sofa looks like in your living room: it will become a key medium for brand experiences that also have the potential to wrap in social networking behaviors. And also, be highly contextual.

AR filter creators are the new influencers: AR’s renaissance is not only going to collapse the boundary between our environments and the digital space. It is also leading to a new generation of AR creatives, competitively making more fantastical filters than the next. (For a taste, see Ines Alpha’s Dior 2020 cosmetic animations.)

The end of linea: Artists are using AI to rethink exhibits and brand experiences, creating highly immersive, layered, interactive experiences and upending our notion of a traditional canvas. These are also blurring the cerebral with the commercial. Artistic VR experiences are being used for wellbeing services, therapy tools of more. Magazines are creating virtual art experiences that are also branded. Expect the lines to continue to blur.

Platforms, big-tech companies, and brands are starting to take a hyper-converged virtuous ecosystem approach to entertainment, music, commerce and social networks. They’re also increasingly swapping functions. Computer games are becoming social networks. Social platforms like Twitter are introducing voice recordings. Meanwhile, Instagram and Spotify continue to connect music and visual tastes.

Gaming — and gaming metrics — are increasingly everything. Gaming exploding as a vertical in its own right — inspiring commerce, social commentary and creating new types of celebrity. Hit games are becoming hosts for major concerts and are also becoming the centers of virtual products and bands.

Lucie Greene is a forecaster, brand strategist and award-winning business author. She is the founder of Light Years, a New York-based futures consultancy specializing in cultural trends, consumer insight and innovation. Greene is the former global director of J. Walter Thompson’s futures think tank JWT Intelligence.