Feeling is Believing!

In a time when brand marketing investments seem to be prioritized for virtual/digital innovation over physical engagements, it begs the question of whether or not our future will be one where simply seeing is believing.

In the dystopian future of “Ready Player One,” where many (if not most) people have no reason to ever leave their homes; the environment is in shambles, unemployment is rampant, and blight is the norm. If there is money to be made or spent, it mostly happens in the the Oasis, a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). If you need anything for your physical existence, you order it through the Oasis and it is delivered to your door. Plus, why would you care about the real world when you can be whoever/whatever you want in the Oasis?

The thing is, it’s easy to forget that although the Oasis is virtual, it is very much a touchable world for this future population of Earth. To function in the Oasis at anything beyond the most basic level, you need to be able to feel things. Oasis-goers use haptic gloves to touch, grab, and manipulate objects and controls. Serious users shave their bodies and encase themselves in full-body suits which provide sensory feedback while enabling interaction at a micro-muscular level. This is because although made entirely of ones and zeros, the Oasis is still a world for people, and people are tactile beings.

“...although made entirely of ones and zeros, the Oasis is still a world for people, and people are tactile beings.”

Now, we all recognize the world concepted by Ernest Cline as pure fiction (for now), but it makes us wonder where the threshold for virtual/digital immersion and brand engagement is, when will we cross it, and if we really will want to when that time comes. But what we’re finding is, despite for years reading about the decline of brick & mortar retail as consumers find fewer and fewer reasons to leave their homes to engage in traditional consumer behaviors like shopping for commodities, a bird in the hand will always be worth two virtual fowl. And this is especially true if the bird in hand is of immediate need, or tied to a compelling consumer experience.

Despite the undeniable (and unstoppable) movement of brands into the digital frontier, some are doing just the opposite. This truth is evidenced by digital juggernaut Amazon rolling out a fleet of Treasure Trucks in 25 cities across the country. Does this mean online is in decline? Absolutely not. Digital retailers and services offer invaluable conveniences. However, many purchases (especially ones that are deeply personal, too-good-to-be-true or satisfy an immediate need) inspire and sometimes even require actual brick and mortar shopping. How does this fabric feel? Is the quality as good as advertised? Does it really make me look (insert adjective here)? I WANT IT NOW!!!


“Despite the undeniable (and unstoppable) movement of brands into the digital frontier, some are doing just the opposite.”

The Treasure Trucks illustrate the immutable connection between people and things. Digital retailers will continue to bring levels of efficiency and convenience never before dreamed of, but will never be able to completely replace physical experiences. Take eyeglass retailer Warby Parker. After a successful launch as an e-commerce business, one co-owner actually started letting people try on frames in his apartment in response to customer requests. There was just no way around the fact that their many of their customers wanted a physical experience. They now have dozens of retail locations across the nation and demonstrate their belief in the benefit of customers physically experiencing their products by offering consumers try-at-home kits, as opposed to augmented digital mock-ups that some eyewear brands have committed to.   

Although advances in technology challenge the traditional ways brands function in the marketplace, technology also provides brands with never-before available opportunities to invest in unique and unexpected experiences to entertain the perpetually evolving and evermore curious sensibilities of today’s consumers. Thus, as we move ever closer to a world where something like the Oasis is a possibility, even dominant digital forces like Amazon will have to occasionally reach out from behind their screens to tap consumers on the shoulder and remind us that they are real. Because sometimes seeing just isn’t enough.


Karen Newman