Analogue is back: hug the experience system

It’s a brand new world: digital by default, analogue by choice. People are seeking out premium experiences — and want them physically again.

If you’re still analogue by default, you’re in trouble. But if you’re digital and ignore the analogue, you’re missing the major post-pandemic opportunity.

Why? Well, look at what happens when we’re accelerated into the digital future at an unprecedented pace. Inevitably, we’re pushed to confront what we love about analogue experiences, if only because we miss them so much. The world has inverted. We’ve moved from analogue by default, and digital as a value add, to the reverse. 

The last few years have tested digital like never before. Remote working… works! Digital retail is efficient, convenient and continuing to grow. Even video-conferencing, a tech whose time never seemed to arrive, is now central to our lives. Poor old Apple seems to have missed that one, with its new Studio Display taking a well-deserved kicking for the poor quality of its webcam. We mediate so much of our lives through the lens of our webcams.

So, if we don’t have to meet, why do we want to? What analogue experiences do we value? If we don’t have to travel to stores to buy what we need, what makes us want to do so?

Building premium analogue experiences

This is a question some retailers have been battling with for decades. Amazon quickly transformed the book industry, and some book retailers tried to adapt by becoming experience destinations, with book buying only part of it. The convenience of Amazon and ebooks, coupled with no longer sustainable retail overheads, killed some major businesses

Those that are surviving are leaning into the analogue, into the human experience. Indie book retailer James Daunt has become an unlikely saviour of bookstore chains:

“A good independent bookshop is something pretty special,” Daunt tells me. “It has personality and character, and that’s primarily driven by the people working in it, the booksellers. Also, the manner in which they display their books, the amusement and serendipity of how they curate their shops.”

Now those questions are spreading further. Even sectors like fashion, which many perceived as the least likely to fall to online retail, have become ever more digital. Britain may well become the first European country to have the majority of its clothing bought online this year. 

So, is that it? Is our future in physical goods bought digitally? Well, it’s certainly part of the future. But the retail centres are not yet dead. 

An inherent need for human closeness

It is a fundamental human desire to gather and share experiences. Shopping with friends online is nowhere near as satisfying an emotional experience as trying on clothes in a shop. Improve that experience: more and better changing rooms, with more assistants to shuttle clothes backwards and forwards, for example. A premium service that people will pay for. Make sure your retail stores embrace neighbouring coffee shops, restaurants and bars, to give people the complete experience of a day out. Hug the experience system. We can no longer assume that people will come to buy things — we need to lure them there.

Heck, even build on online retail by connecting returns and collections with enhanced service experiences. Remember: we are now digital by default, analogue has to be a value add.

There’s a lesson we can draw from history on this. New formats rarely completely destroy old ones. We can enjoy Disney+ and YouTube — but we can also head to the cinema or enjoy the theatre. Theatre may not be the dominant performance medium it was in Shakespeare’s day, but it’s there and thriving globally. Be it big cost, high production value shows, or small, quirky shows in tiny experimental theatres, the old form thrives in a new niche.

Even film — photographic film that is — thrives. You might not be able to wander into any chemist to pick up a roll as you could when I was a teenager, but for film aficionados, you can still shoot negatives or slides — and have them developed. (Although, even that enthusiast market has been unable to avoid the blight of global supply chain issues.) It’s a premium experience of photography — an aesthetic expression that marks the true photographic devotee. 

Digital by default means analogue is premium

At one level, the sudden push towards VR and other metaverse-style technologies seems ill-timed. It wasn’t ready two years ago, when we really needed it. Equally, the evangelists, from Meta downwards, are trying to get us enthused just when many of us are starting to rediscover the analogue world. They’re trying to sell us a premium digital experience, just when many of us are re-discovering the joy of premium analogue experiences. 

We’re placing our own bets. Much as we know that NEXT folk love digital, we’re providing both an in-person conference again this year — and a book, available in a traditional “dead tree” edition. As so much of our life becomes screen-based, cracking open a book and enjoying a more tactile experience of diving into a deep read without the ping of notifications feels like a blessed relief. 

We spoke to Isabelle Conner of Generali for the forthcoming Next Level CMO, and she talked of a financial services business that’s trying to mix digital and analogue touchpoints as seamlessly as they can. This allows the customer to choose the mix that suits them. 

Analogue is back, baby. In a post-digital world, where we turn to online tools by default, we need to concentrate once again on analogue experiences, reinventing them, so they deliver premium value. Those who embrace the new reality will thrive; those who long for an analogue-first world are seeing themselves up for disappointment — and an unnecessarily hard few years.