Traditional ads are on their way out. We explores how tech is enabling brands to get more personal
Advertising has long been a dirty word. It’s all too often an unwelcome invasion into our lives – whether breaking up our favourite TV shows, splashing all over the website we’re trying to read or assaulting our eyeballs as we walk down the street.
One thing that all of these examples have in common is that they’re old school one-way broadcasts that target the mass market. What savvy brands now know is that shouting in someone’s face is rarely as effective as taking them by the hand and leading them somewhere. Everything is changing.
‘Storytelling’ is now a buzzword on the lips of ad agency creative directors. How can a brand immerse you in its world? And how can you truly engage with it in a way that’s relevant to you? Put it this way, Don Draper’s creative process would have to change somewhat if he wanted to snare this generation’s consumers. You need much more than a catchy slogan these days.
It’s simple: in a world where just ordering ‘coffee’ in Starbucks or ‘a sandwich’ in Subway is practically unthinkable, the personal touch is everything. And a shedload of emerging tech looks set to make it easier for ad agencies to create a seamless link between brands and consumers with that very goal in mind.
All of this makes for a rather exciting next few years on the horizon for forwardthinking ad agencies, and plenty to look forward to for tech-savvy, media-literate consumers. So what does an ad campaign need to do to engage the often cynical public in a meaningful way through technology?
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge,” says Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies at AKQA, a pioneering agency with offices from Shanghai to São Paulo.
It also has an outpost in Portland, deliberately opened near the HQ of its long-term collaborator Nike, for whom AKQA recently developed the world’s first full-size connected LED basketball court – which not only displays ads during the game, but was also pivotal to deliver a groundbreaking interactive training programme for young Chinese athletes.
“The key is to utilise innovation to actually bring value to an experience, and achieve something, rather than merely to create novelty,” Hood continues. “People tend to appreciate, remember and value those things that improve their lives, even on the very smallest scale.” It’s a compelling point, and one with which Tom Wason – the top ad man who works with the likes of Google, Intel and Skype – concurs.
“Advertisers have to both use tech in an interesting way, and be useful or entertaining for people,” he says. “To make this happen, they need not only a big idea but the understanding of the technology at the same time. Not one, and then the other.”
“Brand-consumer engagement has evolved, and in our times, brands can’t just say. They need to do,” says Anthony Baker, associate technical director at R/GA London, an ad agency that is closely involved with the wearable tech scene, having worked with Nike to develop its FuelBand.
Information that is not contextual to the user is simply not relevant anymore, and can’t be personal. By way of example, one of R/GA’s own recent projects, Google Outside, displayed smart contextual ads on digital screens at bus stops, tube stations and other locations across London, taking into account factors such as time, weather, current events and more, to provide ever-changing info that’s relevant to passers by. ‘It’s raining outside – here’s an umbrella to buy’ for example, or info on your destination.
At the same time, consumers are also looking to engage with brands in dialogue. People don’t believe and buy traditional marketing buzz anymore. In a world flooded with information where people are always on, consuming content through multi-channel environments, brands need to connect, talk and listen.
Many ad men expect this to be a breakthrough year for virtual reality in advertising. “The floodgates have opened on VR headsets since the Oculus Rift’s launch, and the results so far have been impressive,” says AKQA’s Andy Hood. Of course, as Hood continues, the real value of VR is not so much the escapism and thrills that virtual worlds can offer. It’s its ability to provide access where it has previously been denied, to objects, locations or even other people.
Over the next year or so we will undoubtedly begin to see VR spreading into fields such as education, engineering and travel. AKQA pioneered this when it presented Nissan’s IDx experience at Tokyo Motor Show, introducing a new way to collaboratively design a concept car. There were queues of over 70 minutes to use it, which just shows the appetite for VR experiences that add this kind of value.
VR and other wearable heads-up-display (HUD) devices have yet to hit the sweet spot, despite their sci-fi allure. “Oculus Rift and Google Glass brought them to life,” says R/GA London’s Anthony Baker, “but also show how difficult it is to change behaviour and get users to accept them in public environments.”
Despite these hurdles to mainstream adoption, new devices and beta prototypes are beginning to emerge, such as Google’s Cardboard, which could help make the technology accessible to the mainstream. And with Samsung, Zeiss and Sony exploring their own VR devices, soon brands will have a whole new world – albeit a virtual one – in which to engage their consumers.
Beacon of light
Beacon technology, and most notably Apple’s iBeacon, is also set to make a significant mark on advertising this year. Beacons send a message to nearby smartphones and are, therefore, used to locate the presence of people in retail spaces, galleries, airports and so on. But, like VR, they have so far been used to do rather obvious and arbitrary things, like sending vouchers to nearby shoppers. This is undoubtedly a huge missed opportunity to not only identify where consumers are, but exactly who they are – linking their online identity with their ‘real world’ self in a seamless blend between the digital and physical worlds. We should start to see personalised, guided services and experiences being delivered by retailers in 2015, not just vouchers. And that’s hugely exciting for brands (and beneficial for us).
Beacons can take personalisation to a whole new level, but they are just one part of a much broader trend for micro-location services. Cheaper, smaller and more accurate than ever, these devices incorporate everything from sensors such as Kinect and Leap Motion to proximity technologies such as RFID (Radio-frequency identification), NFC and BLE (Bluetooth Smart).
It’s personalisation at its most granular level. By filtering information that’s relevant to our position and location, it can become highly contextual, and therefore relevant and personal. And if a brand knows not only where exactly you are in any given building, but can also access information about your preferences and interests, messaging can suddenly feel tailor-made.
Brands can serve you content, either by pushing it to your mobile, or displaying it in a building through screens, lights, or even alerting staff members to your presence. It means the information is accurate and relevant to the user at that moment in time and place. Even though it might annoy you a bit when the salesman knows your name and what you’ve come in to buy.
This transformation from a broadcast-like message into two-way dialogue has huge significance and potential for adverts. It fundamentally changes the way brands can interact with consumers, and how content is consumed. What’s more, as smartphones and tablets are supplemented by smart wearables, interactive campaigns can reach you in more ways than ever before.
As emerging tech becomes more familiar and seamless in the way it integrates into the public’s daily lives, it will inevitably become less visible and more natural. Nowhere is this more evident than where sensors are embedded into smart clothing and other traditionally non-digital products, providing connectivity without the need to interact with a visible, high-tech gadget.
According to AKQA’s Andy Hood, products that provide feedback and visualise info from a range of sources as part of the environment, such as smart mirrors and ornaments that are connected to online feeds, result in less reliance on screens and apps – and that is what the big brands want. They want to be part of your life away from your smartphone (as well as on it, of course); to integrate seamlessly into your being. It’s a scary, Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque vision, but one that is quickly becoming reality.
This way of using technology is the future that ad agencies have been driving towards for a long time, where you – the consumer – are informed, advised, guided, even entertained by the world. And in 2015 we are bound to see more of this emerging, and with it the potential to improve lives and drive positive change. So it’s not all sell, sell, sell.
Although new innovations in wearable tech may have included as many misses as hits, the desire for brands to embrace the potential in the wearables industry shows no sign of waning. Smartwatches and wristbands still have a long way to go before they become truly functional and relevant, but the sheer number and variety of them available is exciting for both brands and consumers. Intel’s new low-powered, button-sized Curie module may be a catalyst – being a chip that enables always-on tracking, social and other features that wearable manufacturers are looking to implement into their devices.
The future is smart
As advertising begins to make full use of an increasingly integrated network of devices, it would be nice – from an ad man’s perspective as well as the consumer’s – to see a marked improvement in the quality of the campaigns themselves. The advertising industry is starting to come up against the law of diminishing returns and investing in better quality creative in digital advertising is becoming a more numerically provable effort. In short, quality over quantity.
The future of advertising is about smart combinations of many different platforms to unlock new opportunities. The so-called Internet of Things promised an interconnected web of smart gadgets, and a dynamic domestic environment may provide an even more intimate connection between brands and consumers, should they want it.
It’s not exactly hard to reel off a list of devices that can combine into a connected environment that brands and ad agencies can utilise. Smartwatches such as the Samsung Gear, Sony Smartwatch, Moto 360, Pebble, LG G Watch and, of course, the forthcoming Apple Watch are all major devices, as are smart wristbands including Jawbone, Gear Fit, Microsoft’s Band, Sony’s Smartband and Slash Gear’s InBody. And then there’s smart clothing. Connected devices like the Nest thermostat and smoke detector, Xbox One Connected living room and Kevo Smart Lock could see brands infiltrating our homes – with the right level of privacy, of course. It’s no coincidence that tech giants Apple (HomeKit, HealthKit) and Google (Home, Fit) are investing heavily in connected home platforms. Connecting lighting, motion detection, screens and content with the overall environment will engage consumers in new ways and take future advertising campaigns to a whole new level. This time, it seems, it’s personal. Nick Carson