Traditionally, the outside world has driven online conversation. Things happen in real life, and the discussion around them ripples through cyberspace.
But interesting things happen when it's the other way round.
Ideas, fashions, and memes now make waves through online discourse, eventually finding their way out into the real world. Through commerce, culture and crypto, the way brands interact with consumers is becoming a hybrid of the tangible and the technological.
If your brand presence is mostly online and you're looking for inspiration for spicing things up in the real world, the brands and examples below will give you something to think about. Let's take a look at some of the ways in which digital trends are impacting what happens in the physical world — and how brand managers can get in on the fun.
1. Online Trends Are Curating Physical Retail Experiences
Would you trust your home decorating to a social media platform? Crowd-sourced interior design might actually turn out better than you think.
In early 2022, UK retailer Argos announced a collaboration with Pinterest, launching the Argos Mood Hotel in Bethnal Green, London. It was a pop-up hotel with rooms decorated entirely with products from Argos, based on interior design trends on Pinterest.
Pinterest Predicts is the platform's annual report of the hottest new trends in fashion and design, which, in 2022, highlighted popular choices like luxe gold accessories, biophilic design, curved sofas, and goth kitchen décor. These are the trends that pinners have recently been excited about, and bringing them into a real-world setting was a fun way to see the trends up close.
Pinterest has a strong focus on shopping, being one of the most prominent links between the digital space and the physical world.
But this collab with Argos was only a three-day affair, and it wouldn't be worth doing if it was only for the hundred or so lucky tenants that got to book a stay themselves. So, the space was recorded in 360° video and alluring photos were shared through a wide variety of publications — letting anyone buy the curated products themselves through the Argos website.
The Takeaway: Where else could you take this model? We've already looked at brand-building in the metaverse. But instead of taking your real-world brand into a virtual universe, why not think of it the other way round?
The world of gaming and virtual reality is a canvas for infinite creativity — and spaces like Minecraft, Roblox, and even The Sims show that people just love creating their own digital spaces.
Savvy retailers and brands will look at what people are building in their digital lives and help them recreate it in real life.
2. Online Brands Are Growing Through Offline Channels
Glossier Flagship Store, Source: Dezeen
The eCommerce boom of the last two years has resulted in some amazing new brands springing up in the digital world. Direct-to-customer retail brands are growing at pace, and online commerce is going from strength to strength.
And the success of these eCommerce brands is literally breaking out into the real world by prompting the creation of more brick-and-mortar retail locations.
With an increasing appetite for in-person experiences, the opportunity for digital brands to connect with customers and grow their presence in the physical world is abundant. Online shopping remains mostly transactional, while physical retail benefits from the obvious human interaction and knowledge of in-store staff.
Direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker, Everlane, Glossier, Yardbird, and others all experienced a boom in customer demand during 2020-2021— each deciding to increase their physical retail footprint afterward. It seems counterintuitive, but it actually increases sales and brand value as a whole.
One specific way this manifests is through Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Having physical stores grants a place in Google's local search rankings, enhancing a brand's overall visibility for their eCommerce site. Funnily enough, existing in the physical world means digital brands increase their footprint in the digital world.
According to Luxe Digital:
"...the multiplication of brick-and-mortar locations usually means an increase in brand mentions and searches online, which is often accompanied by increased financial returns, making physical stores a good investment both in terms of popularity and profitability."
Luxe goes on to note that when a digital-native brand opens a new store, its web traffic can increase by up to 45%:
"Physical stores also drive digital engagement and improve brand health such as awareness, consumer perceptions, and recommendations."
The Takeaway: So, if your brand is dominating its online niche and your eCommerce operations are optimized, your next growth channel could well be a good old-fashioned high street store.
It may seem counterintuitive, as, for so many years, the focus has been on getting everything online and digitally streamlined. But as it so often happens, the pendulum swings a bit in the other direction — bringing back trends we thought long gone.
3. Web3 Goes Real World
Source: Wunderman Thompson
At 2022's South by South West (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, there was a particularly popular attraction by the name of Doodles. Doodles is a colorful collection of NFT illustrations that turned out to be hugely popular in the digital art space.
At SXSW, the abstract became real, as part of an immersive festival experience where “owners” of Doodles NFTs were granted access to exclusive parts of the exhibition. Visitors could explore a pastel-colored feast for the eyes, and get themselves a bowl of Doodle-themed noodles as well.
As a brand-building exercise, it was a fun endeavor, generating a good buzz online as well as throughout the event. It shows the actual utility of NFTs as access-granting tokens — which may persist past the current hype phase, predominantly made up of cartoons and art projects.
Of course, there are some things to be wary of. If you search for news about the Doodles SXSW event, you'll find it was unanimously reported as a “huge success”. But if you look a little closer, every site reporting this is an NFT / Metaverse / Crypto publication. In other words — those that have a stake in maintaining the hype are the ones hyping it up.
Other pop culture and tech brands did cover the story but in a much more level-headed tone. Even a surprisingly hyped headline from the Wall Street Journal ("SXSW Goes Crazy for Doodles") turns out to be a rather snarky putdown.
The Takeaway: The main problem facing NFT projects — and other Web3 darlings — is that their value is so abstract that it's hard for everyone to agree on what's worth what. By bringing their value from cyberspace to meatspace, people can see, touch, hear, smell and taste what they're paying for.
And that means there are a lot of potential opportunities for brands and brand managers to make successful crossovers — although you could achieve a pretty similar result using regular coupons or tickets.
To Consider: The Influencer Backlash
Influencers continue to have a massive impact on the branding landscape, both physical and digital.
For example, home cleaning and design enthusiast Mrs. Hinch wields a sensational effect over the shopping habits of her millions of followers — participating in a growing global market expected to reach $320bn in the next five years.
But what happens when the tide starts to turn against influencers — will brands lose out on valuable growth opportunities?
Casual burrito brand Chipotle is one of a number of brands joining BeReal, an anti-influencer social media platform. It's designed to get users to share real, unfiltered photos by sending everyone a notification at the same time and giving them two minutes to upload a picture. The thinking is that you've got no time to pose a carefully-manicured photo that glamorizes your life in an unrealistic way.
Chipotle was one of the first brands to join BeReal, offering a promo code for free food in its restaurants to followers on the app.
With Instagram being identified by users as the worst social network for self-esteem, there's been a notable backlash against the traditional influencer platforms of choice, and there's a growing online trend for being online less as a way to live a healthier life.
Is the right way to deal with this to join another social platform like Chipotle did? Or is it to ditch them completely, like Swift Cup Coffee did (finding their sales continued to increase after leaving Instagram)?
While Chipotle's experiment may have increased footfall in a few stores, it's not certain they'll be able to turn this into a big win in the long term. If they're really sincere about promoting good mental health and discouraging inauthenticity, why not promote their restaurants as a spot for connecting with friends and family over authentic Mexican food?
Online trends don't just shape online commerce — they influence real-world culture and the physical spaces we spend time in.
As a brand manager, the most important thing you can do to harness the digital zeitgeist is to listen intently.
You don't have to kit out an entire hotel to bring digital trends to the real world. It all goes back to the fundamentals of marketing — finding out what your ideal customer wants and providing them with it… wherever they might be.
So, are you going to set the trends yourself, or use them as inspiration for your next big move?