News & Views

From Intangible to Tangible: Designing Material Brands

by Contagious Contributor

Organisations and companies of all kinds need to become more consistent in a new material digital world argues Anthony Hamelle, Director of London-based digital and technology studio Applied Works

Digital as Physical

Digital technologies began as very physical objects. In the 1950s digital installations were to be found inside large warehouses where a little less than 100 instructions per second would be processed using Turing Machines or IBM computers.

In this era, most companies did not have to pay too much attention to these issues. To be more accurate, in any given company, even when the company had to deal with physical digital issues, a vast majority of employees – and customers – did not have to know anything about what was going on in these warehouses, they did not have to interact with the digital world.

This physical digital world, also known as hardware, is still expanding its footprint: Facebook’s largest server farms are each 300,000+ square-feet for instance. This physical digital world is still innovating at the speed of 1,000,000,000 instructions per second: a ten-million-fold increase in 50 years. This physical digital world is still growing in value: the annual IT hardware market is worth more than 1,000 billion US dollars.

Digital as Virtual

Alongside the physical digital world’s expansion, another realm appeared around software, operating systems, the web and all that ensued (social media and networks), taking the whole digital industry with them into a virtual world.

This is when brands began to bother about digital. Companies’ entire ecosystems were now using graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to complete many of their tasks and interact with their social and business environments. Today the digital world can finally be touched and experienced, and this has made a big difference to how brands tell their stories. Multiple channels and platforms require a consistent digital presence to communicate what they stand for – but this is no longer enough.

Like Digital, Like Brands

GUIs have ushered in the democratisation of the virtual digital world, and they are once again called upon to take the digital-verse one step further. Haptic devices, mostly in the form of smartphones and tablets, have made users touch the digital world, in addition to seeing it. Smart things are about to make users experience the Internet in whole new ways. Never before have interfaces had so much social, political and business value.

Companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (the GAFAs) have understood that their digital products and services need to be immediately seen and touched in this 'material world'. Billions of users, whether business or consumer, are getting accustomed to the ease-of-use, the familiarity and the frictionless flow offered by Google Search, Apps, News and Android phones. Users are more and more poised to judge and adopt digital products through their material interactions with them, through the interfaces they offer, through the feel they get out of it. To hammer this even deeper, Google has recently launched its Material Design platform, offering a unique, consistent experience across devices and services.

What is the future of brands in this material digital world?

Material Brands

Most brands have so far remained in a virtual world, focusing on their visible representations, their baselines, their video scripts, their conversation. Some have begun exploring the material world through gadget-like mobile apps, at worst, or utility-driven service apps, at best. Yet few brands have realised that most of the contacts and interactions with them are bound to happen through digital products and services that are, for now, out of their reach.

Utility companies, like energy or water providers, have made great efforts to communicate clear and comprehensive stances on sustainable development, transparency (including price clarity for consumers) or innovation and progress. However the same companies are finding it more and more difficult to stay in touch with customers, due to regulatory mandatory market organisations on the one hand (providers must go through one or several distributors that are in contact with the client), due to competing services from technology companies on the other (Nest for instance, a Google property, is trying to become the de facto material interface between consumers and energy utilities).

Transportation companies, whether of the public kind (e.g. subways or buses) or private (e.g. taxis, airlines, parcel delivery), are facing the same sorts of challenges as new entrants become new middle men or provide altogether new services  when you think of Uber you think as much about its cars as about its app interface and seamless payment experience, i.e. the material contact you have with the brand.

Silicon Valley startups are organised in matrices that allow them to design their brands in a material manner, focusing on what really matters first, the interface, before moving to other, visible and ethereal branding artefacts. Older organisations and companies find themselves gridlocked because a clear and relevant hierarchy has not been set. They still move from the top down, from the brand platform to all its executions, when they should be moving from centre to periphery, from where customers spend most of their time to where they spend the least, from the interface that can be touched dozens of times a day, to marketing elements that are only going to be seen or noticed occasionally.

Most companies face organisational issues, where interface design rests with several company functions (IT, R&D, Product development, Marketing) with no clear line of command. And as, after all, this is but an issue of consistency, an issue that should rest with the brand, it might be time for marketing departments and professionals to reinvent themselves; to bring new skills and talents on board; to shift their focus and decisively walk the talk of the material brand.