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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Hymers

Make it Human, Make it Connected: Re-Defining "Product" for a Hyper-Connected Age

Your car tires, a coffee mug, your towels, your running shoes, a sweater, a rain jacket, a designer dress, sunglasses, a stainless steel water bottle. We tend not to think of any of these everyday things as a service but ultimately that is what they are. They protect you, they keep you warm, they keep you dry, they make you feel and look good. Whether it be a practical function, a peacock like ornamental display or a combination of both, the products you buy serve a purpose and we choose, buy and desire them accordingly.

Your clothes for example provide you with a service. For as long as they have been around the brands that make these clothes attempt to differentiate themselves and drive sales through a combination of price, materials, functionality, design and smarty pants marketing. It’s all to make us think we need more, newer, better, on-trend, latest technology, same as celebrity everything. They do it because their business model relies solely on volume. More, more more. This is how the industry works. However, attitudes, particularly amongst the younger generation of hyper-connected people, are changing as fast as and according to our technological capabilities.

As technology ever more rapidly develops new ways to create, share and engage with information and the world, the tastes, desires, needs and expectations of people shift with it. This is constantly driving businesses to find new ways to meet them which in turn pushes the technology. It’s a cycle that is in perpetual motion, spiralling towards a place we cannot yet even imagine and, in this age, it’s all driven primarily by connectivity.

This mass and ubiquitous connectivity of seemingly everything is creating a world where our day to day reality is a multiplicity of seamlessly mixed physical and virtual experiences, connected things and access to whatever we want whenever we want it. Everywhere, value in whatever form it takes, is shifting from the physical to the virtual. Just look at the rapid rise of NFTs and the Metaverse. From a newspaper, half chewed by the dog and soggy from the morning drizzle to asking Alexa what the news headlines are in the morning. It’s still news, the same information, but it’s packaged differently. It’s instant, global, voice activated and carried over a virtual worldwide and local network that is accessible all over my home and always in my pocket. It’s an experience, not a “thing” anymore.

But for many product led industries this shift is yet to take place, held back by attitudes and legacy thinking, and business models. A shoe is still just a shoe. A jacket is a jacket. A dress is a dress. A football jersey is a football jersey. A product in many cases is still just that. But in today’s world they can and should be so much more.

People, to whom virtualized services and experiences are now not only the norm but the expectation, are increasingly favoring and valuing experiences over “things”. Because of the transparency that technology provides through mass access to information, they’re wary of the impact of production and commoditization on the environment and their ability to be unique, express themselves and stand out as human beings. At the same time as wanting to be like everyone else, people want to be themselves, unique, special, noticed. This creates an interesting dichotomy whereby at the same time as wanting to save the environment people feel the need to buy more stuff to feel like they belong in the here and now. As an example of this, we recently surveyed 500 football fans across Europe. 86% of these fans agreed or strongly agreed that they consider the environment and sustainability when they make a purchase. At the same time, 82% said they buy a new football jersey every year. These jerseys are exclusively made from plastic and almost all end up in landfills. The problem is they're marketed as "sustainable" because they are made partially from recycled materials. This couldn't be further from the truth but to the fan it's a justification. Smart marketing.

It’s a paradox, one which product led industries thrive upon upon, but people are now questioning the system and challenging the definition and meaning of the word product by demanding that it is transparently sustainable and something more. More meaningful, more unique, more valuable, more experiential, more connected.

In reaction, brands are throwing everything at “digital”. More instagram, more “influencers”, more videos, more e-com, more information, more "sustainable" materials, more supply chain transparency, more ads disguised as authentic content. But it all still seems disconnected. Because it is.

Omni-Channel, that oh so trendy buzz term that’s a bit long in the tooth, in essence, determines that all brands must be all things in all places to all people and retail, to survive, must now be “experiential”. But what does this all mean and what has it resulted in aside from more crowded, albeit mixed with virtual, spaces filled with more of the same thing just repeated in different places? How do you cut through? What’s next? How do you think about it differently and truly take advantage of the intersection between technology, your products and the needs, wants and expectations of people and the planet in a virtualized, hyper-connected world? Is more Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, youtube views, likes, screens, ads and clicks the answer? Think about it, you already know the answer to that question, there has to be more to it.

The question I am really posing to you is this: if the world is digital and increasingly and ubiquitously connected, and technology is redefining what it means to engage with people, and people primarily and ultimately interact with your brand through your product, and these people value experience over things, then why isn’t your product connected, interactive and experiential?

Simple, right? Why isn’t your product also the experience and the service?

Our digital focus for the last decade plus has been on marketing and sales through every social and digital platform there is. Where the myth of measurable ROI has become a story of the slimmest of pickings, Gandalf-like interpretations of crap data, and a cost of acquisition that is skyrocketing. This cycle simply repeats itself with every new platform. Everyone talks about it as their “digital ecosystem”, look up the definition, go on, I dare you. The platforms brands call their eco-systems are generally not theirs and therefore neither is the audience and they certainly do not function as a cyclical and mutually beneficial system. Ecosystem my ass. What we see is almost exclusively bad advertising and void of meaningful experience. It revolves around trying to find creative ways to push people through a magical digital funnel to purchase. Stuffing product down the throats of unsuspecting innocents watching cat videos. In general, all of this so-called digital strategy is marketing and sales-focused and neglects the only thing that really matters and will have an impact beyond that point of purchase, the product itself and how the consumer interacts with it.

To be truly meaningful in a hyper-connected world, both right now and in the future, your products need to be more than just products or things. They need to be alive and connected to enable something more, a value beyond their physical being. They need a voice, a purpose.

This requires a different mindset, a different skill set, a different strategy, and leadership that realizes the business of fashion and clothing and products, in general, is the business of providing a service. That the meaning of the word service in a digital world has changed to be more holistic. That the only way to differentiate your service from others is by delivering great, truly integrated experiences and that only technology applied in the right way can enable you to do this meaningfully and at scale. It requires brands to focus on engaging with the usage of their products not just the purchase via a constant meaningful & valuable connection, a conversation, a relationship in the true sense of the word. A relationship and connection that enables brands to play a meaningful and valuable role in the lives of the people who buy their products.

When we think of products like this, where perhaps a running shoe becomes a digital access point to services that improve performance, a community that shares a passion, knowledge or a goal, a physical space that offers a running and brand exclusive experience or a network of affiliate and complementary product and service providers, it becomes so much more than a shoe. It becomes a partner on whatever running journey you are on. When a static lifeless object moves beyond its physical attributes to become a borderless dynamic digital entity with a voice, we have a whole new ball game on our hands. A game that no brand has yet shown enough skill to play at the level consumers expect.

Thinking like this opens up a world of possibilities in terms of engagement, advocacy, business models, relationships, insights, collaborations, and transactions. When the product is a flexible, digital access point not an analog purchase endpoint, the possibilities and perspective on what value is and how it is created and delivered, changes completely.

Think of the way in which the introduction of the iphone changed not only the definition of the telephone but of the world itself, simply by making it more than a means by which to make calls and send short messages. Apply that same thinking to everything around you. The transformation is already in full swing, from smart metered power plugs to paper notebooks that instantly translate your physical notes and sketches into digital formats and everything in between. Connectivity is changing the way we interact with the world and the way in which we assign value to things.

We are all experiencing the world changing at a rapid pace. We talk about it, we read about it and in business we are all doing “something” about it, but it seems clear that it is time for the world of what we wear and the products we use daily to catch up.

Many will read this and immediately think one thing; what about wearables? To which I say, what about them? It’s absolutely true that the integration of technology into the things we wear, AKA "wearables", is part of the overarching shift into this world of ubiquitous connectivity. The Internet of Things. It is in its infancy though, and early adopters quickly reached the limitations of what was promised to be a revolution ten years ago. Many crashed and had their fingers burned, few limped on.

The problem thus far has been that the revolution has turned out to be more of an evolution and just offering access to information collected by a sensor quickly ran its course as a value proposition in the eyes of consumers. 10 000 steps, ok what now? Wearables themselves have so far failed to deliver value and engage people beyond the delivery of this sensor based information. Knowing how many steps you took each day wears thin quickly for most people. They failed to realize that it’s all about the human element, the experiences they could have enabled, not the numbers.

It’s all well and good to have the ability to measure this or that, but without a continuous value adding and continuously developing experience attached to or driven by data collected by a sensor, there can be no or little lasting impact. It normalizes too quickly. Thus the kitchen draw has become the favorite hiding place of most wearable devices, like a sock behind the dryer. Sad, dusty, and alone.

It’s even taken apple a dedicated and persistent seven generations of hardware and software to truly get to the point at which the apple watch can be considered something that is playing an important and meaningful role in people’s lives. That is what it has taken until now and their success with the apple watch proves it, but things are changing.

Strava has nailed this space beautifully by focusing on exactly that. Leveraging the technology available to them, with hardware made by other companies, to create meaningful experiences and communities for people. They have more than seventy million users and add and extra million every month. Meanwhile, every big sports brand has splashed ridiculous amounts of cash on digital sports platforms or made their own and done nothing with them. Zero. Because they treat them like just another channel to sell products or, even worse, like a product themselves. There is great opportunity in this space that is yet to be realized and not just in performance but for fans and fashionistas too. Sports brands have a clear advantage that they are gun shy about using, the product, for fear of the unknown. It will be their downfall.

Wearables and notion of the Internet of Things have not yet lived up to their hype, but their impact in the long run is not to be underestimated. This whole space is going through a period of consolidation, integration and maturation in multiple cycles, those that stay the course will win. The apparent lull in activity in this space is simply the calm before an already developing, furious storm of activity. The feet of the calm faced duck are paddling furiously under the water, powered and enabled by the likes of AI and 5G, smarter, faster mobile devices, smaller more powerful chipsets, and an increasing number of connected devices and cloud computing capabilities. Ignore it at your peril but if you dive in, for god’s sake, focus on your consumer and the experience not your product sales targets.

For the clothing and fashion industry, and indeed anyone making analog products these days, it should then come as no surprise that this presents both a threat but more importantly, an opportunity. An opportunity to think of the products we wear and use as a service that goes beyond their physical function to include any number of value-adding technologies which enable experiences and services that go far beyond dry, warm, light, fashionable, functional, sustainable and luxurious.

The opportunity is already well within the reach of any brand who truly wishes to realize it. The technologies, many of them robust and well established but still coming into their own such as NFC, RFID and QR are already there and underutilized or soon to be available at scale such as battery free bluetooth chips and fiber optic fabric sensors. Capabilities and, more importantly, the needs and desires of the consumer are rapidly developing and advancing, get involved or fall behind.

The problem is that change in product led industries and incumbent brands high on tradition, legacy and low on real digital expertise (despite what they like to think of themselves and tell others) is difficult, scary and risky. This is without mentioning the almost exclusively short term seasonal or quarterly focus that rarely looks past the end of its own overlapping nose. The consensus seems to be that the technology will make its way naturally into this space, everyone talks about the magical future, few incumbents truly or meaningfully act upon it or even know how to do so. They simply do not have or will not let loose the true expertise and thus fear and avoid it. Enter the bad guy, disruption! da da dum.....

The stark reality, as in any industry that ever was or will be, is that it will not be technology that makes the change happen, it will be bravery and boldness in leadership. A belief that things can be done in a new and better way and mobilizing the people around you to believe in it and do it. People willing to break the cycle by thinking and doing, differently. People open to sharing expertise, collaborating and developing partnerships which complement core competencies to drive innovation beyond the traditional borders of their industry. They drive change using technology, not the other way around. Few understand this.

For any brand looking to exploit this opportunity, the basis and foundation of this paradigm shift from product to product as a service is identification and access. Until now, products have been digitally unidentifiable, unaccessible entities, largely untraceable as individual items beyond, and even in the supply chain up until the point of sale, after which they disappear completely. The ability to individually identify a product is the most basic and powerful prerequisite to enabling the next wave of connected products.

When an individual product can be uniquely, digitally identified and that identity can be virtually accessed, the opportunities afforded to the brand in terms of its ability to deliver value beyond the product itself to any and all stakeholders become infinite. All it takes, to begin with, is embedding a small digitally interactive chip or code via one or more of the aforementioned technologies.

When a product is assigned a unique digital identity or a digital twin it becomes an access point and a platform in and of itself. A portal that enables the exchange of information between the physical and virtual world which creates a seamless pathway for value to pass between the two.

All of a sudden from the moment of the product’s inception, every single piece of information can be attached and made accessible. The source of every material used, the place, time and date of production, the size, the color, the designer, its entire journey to the point of sale. All of this of course has been done and the data is available, often in multiple internal systems, but, despite the many marketing claims, it has never been properly used to inform and engage the consumer. Even though brands know we live in a world where the environmental impact of what people buy increasingly factors heavily into our purchasing choices and habits, the ability to bring true transparency to this has been ignored.

Saying something is made of ocean plastic is one thing, being able to prove it, show it and enable consumers to truly participate in its purpose and then ensure it gets recycled again is another. Product provenance information is a key and under-utilized tool for engagement and transparency not to mention accountability when it comes to truly acting on and executing sustainable practices and policies. I wonder why…

But let’s look beyond the efficiencies and transparencies connectivity provides on the supply side. A product that houses a connection to a digital identity enables the attachment of any number of digitally focused experiences for the consumer once it hits the store floor and beyond. From enhancing the in-store experience and enabling a constant and continuous connection to the consumer, to managing second and end-of-life programs, the opportunity to bring valuable services and experience to life through your products is one that truly does promise an entirely new way of thinking about and delivering value.

A connected product can truly enable a completely new way of delivering value to your consumers. When you consider the ability to identify each and every product in circulation at every point of its life cycle, the possibilities for engagement are exponentially increased and enhanced. When you shift the value from physical to virtual it may for example mean you need less physical product to satiate the seemingly zombie-like needs and herd mentality of your consumers. Sustainability. Engagement. Profitability. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Brands could now implement and control their own secondhand marketplace with the ability to identify products, guarantee their authenticity and even be able to gauge the level of usage, wear and tear to offer complete transparency to potential buyers and re-conditioning programs. This has the potential to create entirely new value streams that allow brands to sell products more than once in a real ecosystem they can own and control.

Connected product also enables entirely new business models such as rentals and subscriptions in a manner that was previously not truly possible because products could not be efficiently or accurately identified and authenticated. On top of this, it gives brands the opportunity to explore and connect the attachment of 3rd party or in-house provided complementary auxiliary services that furthers the amounts and types of value they are able to give to and receive from their consumers. Collaboration. Tick.

In retail specifically, the opportunities are even more profound in terms being able to actually execute on the often talked about but never executed seamless shopping experience. This is a very loose use of the word seamless indeed. The fact is, it has not and will not be possible to execute on until the products a brand sells are an integral part of that experience. This logically requires identification and accessibility. Hence the silly use of the word seamless and the inability of any brand thus far to execute on it.

The intent though, it must be said, is clearly there to see with many of the world’s leading retail brands in their flagship stores. From Nike, to adidas, to Puma, H&M, Dyson and many others with stores on the likes of 5th Avenue, the Champs-Élysées and Oxford street, the physical/virtual divide is being closed, experimentally. Squeezed ever closer to the holy grail of true seamlessness. What a word.

None of them though, really, truly execute on it despite the claims. What you read about them in Fast Company and HypeBeast is largely fluff and bullshit painted with pretty pictures and videos for shareholders. Look ma! We’re digital! No, honey, you’re not, nice try though. This is because none of them have individually identifiable, accessible, interactive product and none of them are really seamlessly tying product, service and experience together to blow the minds of their consumers in their stores. Fin.

Individually connected product in retail would mean brands can truly tell the stories of their products and brand in a way that builds long term relationships, advocacy and loyalty. From complete transparency on materials, availability and production to design processes, personalities, stories and interactive features, functionality and value propositions in the palm of the shoppers hand. Interactive product opens the door to an endless line of engagement and value delivering opportunities.

Individually identifiable, interactive products could tell their own stories directly and adaptively to the shopper and even offer the ability to pick it up off the rack, tap it with your phone and walk out without needing to visit a counter or to save it directly in a wish list or online basket to purchase later or have delivered to your home. Brands could accurately and efficiently run second hand and recycling programs, identify faults at the most granular level and truly understand how their consumers use their products. Many brands are leaning in this direction already, Nike and H&M do standout as leading examples, but none of them are executing as seamlessly as they could if they had individually connected products.

It’s nice to walk into a store, scan a barcode that allows you to save the product to buy later, know its availability, have it brought out so you can try it on or to buy it in-store without the check-out counter, these are all nice but they all essentially focus on making an existing process easier.

It’s another thing to have that product then provide you with and be an access point to a unique, valuable and authentic experience in and once you walk out of that store. This is about how you make a product more than a product, to give it value beyond its physical presence and make it play an active, responsive role in the day to day life of your consumer. The ability to bring such a service or experience to life in retail opens a new dimension of thinking when it comes to the in store experience and how it extends and evolves beyond the point of sale.

What does it mean to have a running shoe that gives you access to an exclusive physical and virtual club based on how many miles you run? Access to a physical space with everything you need to be a better runner, keep your routine, improve your diet and meet like minded souls, physically and digitally. A real community. What if that space was your premium store and the product was the key to where the best, latest or even experimental products in the latest colours with the latest technology were made available to your best customers? Not the ones who buy the most, the ones who use the most.

The ones who use your product day in, day out and come back for more when it reaches end of life. What does it mean for retail if we can really provide the right experience for the right people based on who they are and how they use your product? What does it mean in terms of business models and changing the way we think about value delivery throughout the consumer journey?

Only implementing connected product with a constant connection to the consumer can answer these questions and only those who are bold enough to challenge the status quo and be different will reap the benefits. A store, a place where you literally store your products to sell them, can now be something else. Something more meaningful, more valuable, more sustainable and more profitable.

All of this potential and opportunity comes from the ability to do one thing, connect. Connect your brand to the consumer through the product. Doing this gives you as a brand a unique and exclusive channel through which to build evolve and explore a relationship with its consumers and enable like minded consumers to connect with each other. Your brand becomes more than a maker of products. Your products become functional enablement devices to a whole new world of experience and value. This ability to connect on a constant basis is enabled and driven by technology, yes, but the connection itself is innately human which means your brand can be too.

The word connected has been used intelligently but, like it’s buddy seamless, loosely used to describe what social platforms and networks have achieved in the last decade. We tend to think of our world as being closer together than ever before but the digital connections we have are fickle. They can be switched on and off, they might not even be real or what they claim to be and they’re not physical, or, in a word, human.

Through our human thirst for connection, we are addicted to our phones, that suck us in with constant access, content, communication. Our attention spans made so fickle as to be rendered virtually non-existent. We take selfies and dragnet the web to find or create anything that makes us feel something. Something we can share for a fleeting moment of meaningless virtual status. It’s all engineered to be addictive and it’s almost as if the elephant in the room has become our physical selves as we develop virtual personas.

From gaming avatars and instagram profiles to amazon habits following you around the internet like a bad smell, nothing feels real or authentic anymore. Social networks are not really social or networks, they’re advertising platforms and it’s products that are front and centre, not people, competing ever more ruthlessly and with diminishing returns for your unconscious attention until the cycle starts again on a new platform.

Brands seem content with this status quo. Yet we see that consumers are developing a distinct preference for experience over “things”. A different kind of connection. A real one. In response brands place a screen in a store or offer a free boat ride with a clapping seal and Brad Pitt, but it all it seems brands are missing a trick. They’re not experiences, again, they’re advertisements. But the world, both virtual and physical is in a state of flux and a paradox is emerging.

Consumers are increasingly disillusioned with what could be termed “mass digital”, the facebooks, instagrams, tiktoks, snapchats, so called “communities” along with the likes of iphones, google and amazon. They’re searching and in need of something more. Something unique, authentic and crafted but connected, digital and experiential. Our digital selves, lives and devices are here to stay, the question is how do we make them more human and in tune with who we are not what we buy. How do we look to digital to enhance and augment relationships? To connect rather than simply drive commerce. It’s swung so far the one way that old mother equilibrium will surely soon have her say.

In this vein, brands, as commercially focused as they are and indeed need to be, should be shifting towards focusing more on how to play a truly meaningful role in the lives of their consumers, not just how to make them complete a purchase. To do this, brands need to be present in the day to day life of their consumers within the context of the service they or their products provide. It needs to be an experience that is continuously value adding for both the brand and the consumer.

The physical and virtual worlds are merging into what generation alpha will experience as a truly seamless reality where the distinction between physical and virtual is completely fluid. This is the expectation of the modern and future consumer. They and therefore companies that serve them need constant connectivity. The imperative is therefore to find a way to truly engage and deliver continuous, meaningful value that makes people feel and experience something with the caveat of doing it transparently and sustainably.

This is the reality and connected products go a long way to realizing the future that all the buzzwords and marketing speak seems to allude to. The facts are that a sustainable future is essential, connectivity is ubiquitous and experience is the only true differentiator.

As a species we need to leverage our technological capabilities to build transparency, accountability and responsibility into the value chain. We need to create a future that relies less on commoditization and consumption and encourages quality, longevity and longer life cycles. This can only be driven by the ability to identify and expose everything at every step and provides a means of value beyond the physical product. A value that enhances and augments it.

Technology enables us to do this if we so choose. Our ability to connect and collect and analyze data is driving a paradigm shift from sense and respond to predict and act which in turn enables a whole new world of possibilities. When it comes to sharing information, automation and the ability to connect the physical world to the virtual, connecting our things and finding new value streams and models is the only way to stop the cycle of the damage done by the consumption of physical goods.

There is a world available to us in which we make vastly less but more meaningful products and still make more money. There is an endgame that is better for everyone and a way forward for those willing to take a stand instead of hiding behind the here and now.

The focus to achieve this is simple. Understand your consumer and what they want, build experiences that deliver on that need and include your products as a vital part of that. The consumer is connected and digital but socially active and relates to causes without borders. They demand transparency and social, environmental and economic responsibility. They crave authenticity, something real, personal and diverse that can only be driven by seamless value adding experiences. They demand hyper-connectivity, in every sense of the term.

So as a brand, pull your products out of the black analog hole it was born in and give them a new life, a voice. Be part of the coming Renaissance. Make them work for you beyond a one-off purchase and let them be a part of something that is meaningful for the people who own them and the planet on which they exist.

The potential to do something special, more meaningful and valuable for your consumers, your business, communities and our entire existence is there, waiting. It is just a matter of whether you are brave enough to do it. To change your way of thinking and look at things in a different way. To challenge what you know to be true and to take a step into the great unknown. This is an age of connectivity and discovery like no other, focused on a virtual world we have made for ourselves and, as it always has, fortune favours the bold.

Reach out if you want to do something about it.

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