All the Feels
Quick! What do Malcolm Gladwell and Beyoncé have in common – other than the fact that they are both household names? Having never experienced Malcolm’s dance moves, off the charts entertainment is probably not the right answer. What connects these two today is their deep understanding of our hunger to engage with the world on a deeply personal and physical level. If you think about it, the flip side of a digital detox is a hunger to do. And we do things, in order to evoke feelings. Right now, we want fully formed multi-dimensional experiences that allows us to submerge ourselves wholly and completely. Beyoncé rocked the world with her explosive Lemonade video, anticipating where we stood as a people and an audience. To quote one critic: “Lemonade —both the visual and the audio album— is all about the feels. Strikingly direct and damn-near transparent, it’s by far her most personal work. The artist mined her diary and bared her soul, and we felt every moment of that journey.” I thought of her when I read about Gladwell’s quirky new hybrid audiobook for “Talking with Strangers”, his soon to be released musings on the dark world we live in today. As opposed to a simple read through, this ‘newfangled’ audio book merges Gladwell’s narration with interviews from criminologists, scientists, actors reading court transcripts and a Janelle Monae song. It is deeply personal, and multi-surfaced. We get to know the author on a level we never did before.
Back in August 2013 I had the great good fortune to sit in an audience and hear Jinsop Lee’s well-known Ted Talk: Design for all 5 Senses. Lee is an industrial designer who opened with a pretty catchy hook. As he walked onstage, he mused to the crowd “why is sex so damn good?” Needless to say, we all were riveted. Lee went on to share with us his theory that the more products were designed to fully engage our five senses, the more effective and welcome they are to us. Great design engulfs our very humanity and triggers a type of fulsome response that begs repeating. Like sex, those experiences that bring us fully alive are those are memorable and more deeply felt.
We are hardwired for physicality. Memories are embedded in scent, in the rough texture of a beach towel, in the lingering hook of a pop song from summers long ago. We create the fabric of our personal lives through these sensory materials. We crave them. We seek them out.
A number of people in the business of brands cackled with a sense of “I told you so” when offline start-ups like Bonobos and Birchbox opened up physical spaces. They saw it as a justification for ‘old retail’ – the need consumers have to touch and see the products they want to buy. Maybe, it is actually simply a smart next step in the relationship of those brands with their consumers. After the initial online meetup – with both parties expressing curiosity and interest, the next step is to meet IRL, and to get to know each other a little better. Retail space is personal. It is that moment in a courtship when you are invited into your prospective partner’s home. You know it will be a treasure trove of information and experiences that will help you flesh out so much more about this person you are just getting to know. Smart brands are using their spaces in ways that tell that personal story –ones that are deeply human and sensorially rich. From scent to surface, salespeople to seating, every element layers clues to who they are and whey we like them. It is a delicate and critical dance.
Why is this so important right now? Simply put, we are living through a period of acute sensory deprivation. We are flooded with content: pixels and sound bites swarm through our vision 24 hours a day. But they are flat and two dimensional. Much like a glass of Soylent, they offer what we need, but fail miserably at what we want. What we crave is the explosion of umami on our tongues, to feel the hair on our arms quiver in anticipation, to hear the thrum of our own heartbeat as we lean into feel something. We flock to Comicon and Goop’s Wellness summits, and every Beautycon knock-off available in order to feel something, with all five senses. We don’t need places to look at stuff, we need places to experience a change in ourselves. The experience is not a destination, it is the offering.
Brands that win today understand human physiology as the keeper of the keys. As the pace of consumerism slows, we need to understand the why behind brand engagement. Younger Millennials and nascent Gen Z are making more thoughtful and purposeful purchases. They are looking to engage with a story, with a human, with a set of values that make them pause and consider. They ask, “Show me who you are” rather than “Tell me what you have”. One young girl told me that when she holds a piece of clothing at a Buffalo Exchange she “Likes to imagine the life and loves of the person who wore that dress. I like to think about a date she went on, or a job interview she was nervous about.” It is the life, baked into the garment, that attracts her, as much as its shape and size. The hit and run of sheer consumption is over (we are no longer Forever 21.) We long to linger, to learn, to find our own meaning in what we buy.
A group of designers in Yorkshire England just launched a new beer. Thoughtfully, and painstakingly, they sketched out what they wanted to create: something multi-sensory, something new and fully engaging that would serve as an homage to the Northern area of the country that they call home. Called Ute, the whole concept of the new beer is inspired by birch trees and West Yorkshire forests, with everything from the promotional materials and the beer itself taking cues from the Great Outdoors. The packaging is based on the idea of sunlight peeking through leaves in the forest. Promotional posters feature photographs of the forest, with each image sharing a longitude and latitude of where it was taken, allowing consumers to connect physically with real points of inspiration for the brand. The photos will be shared on a record at a launch event – which will also feature one full side of recordings of the sounds of the forests. As one of the creators explained, “This needed to be a true auditory, visual and taste experience for the customer. From the photography of the forests, the field recordings and the beer – altogether it needed to be an immersive experience. We like the idea that someone will sit down, put the record on, take a drink of the beer and instantly be transported to the forests of West Yorkshire.”
These small, thoughtfully created offerings are the future. To paraphrase Beyoncé, “we stand with our lonely ears, pressed up against the world.” Brands that win are brands that ultimately intuit need. What the world needs right now is not things. What we need are places and spaces that amplify all the beautiful and strange glory of what it means to be human.