We started fall 2023 with a nice event and some afterthoughts. After being out of the digital agency game for almost 3 years, it was time to dive deep and see what the digital brands of tomorrow look like. These are my impressions of my visit to Emerce eDay 2023.
Experience Building at scale
eDay is always a nice accumulation of three industries: marketing, design and tech. This year we mainly saw the results and faces of the latter. Reason being: many digital agencies have fused their execution power into larger IT businesses, or perhaps more realistic: IT have absorbed the power of experience design to deliver value to brands.
As such we saw that many of the booths were manned by people looking to help businesses at scale. Digtial Experiences have, it seemed, made a giant leap from pretty immature, experimental and bespoke, to an industrial scaled product line that can be implemented by many of the IT Service suppliers and builders. This leads to cost saving, but might also hamper innovation and the ability of a brand offer unique experiences to their customers.
I’ve got to see the Lego block approach of brand/ marketing experience building by Mars, supported by Valtech. One thing really stood out: they believe in an IT ecosystem that grows beyond their (Mars’) brands.
Mars presented: they have setup the basic building blocks to support their vast portfolio of brands through a common library of experience tech. Next phase is to become a central hub and supplier of such technology to other brands outside of Mars. To be sure a bold move.
Mobility Services: Solutions rooted in Collaboration
I also had the privilege to join my friends at Fresk.digital, a young and upcoming digital agency with great heritage in the industry and with the makings of a strong, independent voice in both customer experience and the industries they work with.
At eDay, the Fresk talk on mobility overlapped both public and personal transport and wrapped into a single conversation on collaboration. Bottom line: follow the path of the consumer and add true value in their day to day needs.
As I gathered from the conversation: mobility in the Netherlands has become a patchwork staple semi-governmental public services and that of mostly investor supported initiatives (like point to point scooter rentals and transport cards) that try to claim, or facilitate the entirety of our day to day journeys. There also were representatives of many public transport organizations and their partners.
Although many participants verbalized their frustration of the weight of politics, legacy legislation and even the diversity of perspectives in the industry, one thing everybody agreed on: the flexibility in mobility is going to happen and depending on the players in the space, it will happen soon. Quite exciting.
Speculative Innovation, a.k.a. make it until you make it
An other outstanding talk that I saw twice was that of Timmy Ghuirau of Volvo. He talked about his journey as an innovator at Volvo and his quite impressive involvement in projects beyond that. To name a few he talked about the power of virtual reality to test out scenario’s that might be too dangerous, expensive, or even unethical. He also touched on his ‘strategy’ to start experimenting at Volvo that I really liked and have tried myself.
Timmy described the beginning of his innovation lab (about 400 people at this moment) with putting up a ‘out of order’ sticker on a janitor closet and having the rumors of his projects and responsibilities roam free. In the meantime he was tinkering away on way more ambitious projects.
Timmy had some wonderful insights on speculative design, reminiscent of the gaming industry: How would you know the future products without imagining the entire future world they live in? So that’s what you do as a designer/ innovator: you build worlds, with different economics, different social contracts and even different ecology. Quite interesting.
Where are the brands?
Although many brands could be seen on eDay, they were mostly a case of agencies and technology partners. To be frank, most of it seems to have been stuck since I left the industry. A lot of very impressive imagery and a rare true integration of digital services into the brand marketing and holistic experience design. Never the less, not much seems to have been new, or exciting to me.
One outstanding brand that should have impressed me was Balenciaga’s collaboration with Bang & Olufsen. Although these two strong and quite bold brands could have made a huge splash together, the resulting collaboration seemed to me a quite vapid merch-grab.
I was very disappointed to be frank: the outlandish and larger than life, critical and wonderfully obnoxious brand image of Balenciaga is kind of toned down by the mundanely plastic and overly smooth radio with no particular outstanding features and engineering impossibilities we know of B&O. However, true to both brands the portable speaker is exclusively available at premium Balenciaga outlets. Perhaps it’s more of a failed statement, rather than a real product that could create a bond between the two industries.
To me a great example of two strong brands and design philosophies joining forces are Teenage Engineering and IKEA. The two brands combined with a collaboration that created an exponent of both brands: the Frekvens line. Truly transcending products and to me: fun.
I get we can’t make all winners, but the Balenciaga radio bag was so overwhelmingly covered by all the visual noise, that it’s mediocrity was even more noticeable. They presented their handbag speaker with lots of so called AI generated imagery and false references to Braun design. To me it seems they dropped the ball on both product and presentation.
AI-ification of the Brand
As a final talk I also have to mention a (relatively) young, or perhaps I should say: uninformed speaker that introduced AI as the biggest changing factor in both marketing as well as brand driven experiences. This might be prefaced with that I have experienced the very beginnings of the modern internet and what we used to call the world wide web in my life time. This talk was old wine in new bottles and it made me a bit sad. Be it as it may, the presentation totally missed its mark.
The presentation also made me feel very experienced, but also lose some faith in the brand and marketing industry. An industry that lives on hype and short cycles, should not automatically be this obtuse and vapid. There’s loads of exciting and truly valuable things to do that integrate with all other aspects of great brands: value, a reciprocal relationships among industries, customers and society and of course mutual growth. Great brands have proven this and subsequently have lost this. A new approach is looming in for example ecosystem thinking.
The talk I visited of aforementioned marketeer came across as a talk that introduced new and exiting opportunities that have come and gone a couple of times in my professional life time. It’s always good to reminisce, but I would press upon this industry to build on the learnings of the past, collaborate and integrate more, rather than repeating the same cycles with no extra iterations.
eDay felt familiar after the over three years that I have been away from the industry. Kudo’s to the organization and guests to have made me feel welcome straight away. I found myself in a great venue, nice vibe and a natural environment to get to know each other again. However, an aspect of that same familiarity was also kind of a let down. I expected loads of growth by the many brands, technical partners and creative parties.
Unfortunately there was barely any of that energy and both the talks and presentations felt like a rerun of days gone by, only now without the ambition, excitement and wonderment. People I spoke to also seemed a bit browbeaten by the pressures of their investors, the economy and the race to optimization, reduction and pragmatism without fantasy. No more fun, risk and boldness.
Growing bigger and optimization are, it seems, is not the path to true and inspirational growth in the industry. Excitement rooted in reality and vision is something people seek out at any event and it’s perhaps also expected at this wonderful staple of Dutch brand marketing, tech and design. I hope the industry revives itself and reveals great collaborations and inspiration in the years to come.
Disclaimer: I have not seen all talks, but have dipped in and out many of them so I could get a good general impression.