The best example of skywriting I’ve seen in a long time appeared over the beaches of Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.
Unlike most brand communications — which despite the promise/threat of smart, contextual advertising still mainly turn up in the wrong place, detract from their environment and won’t fuck off, no matter how much you stab your thumb at them — these white clouds appeared in the perfect environment and for just the right amount of time, expanding lazily until they disappeared just as you tried to Instagram them.
Compton … Compton … Compton … over and over again, promoting an album, a movie, Apple Music and Beats with just seven letters, and demonstrating that — no matter whether Los Feliz, Silver Lake or Silicon Beach is making a claim for this week’s hot neighborhood — there’s only one city that owns LA.
Beats defies many of the things we think we know about how brands work. It has easily straddled physical product design through its headphones and speakers and a social experience through its music streaming. Beats may have reached its true value through smart software, but its origins were in the unavoidable plastic "b"s that adorned every athlete and musician’s ears. The best example of the usually intangible cool having a very tangible value.
There are few brands that are as comfortable navigating the online and real world as the digital natives they hope to attract.
More frequently we see a new generation of brands that have been born online trying to materialize themselves, to give themselves substance in the physical world, because so much of their experience takes place through mobiles, constricted to tiny screens and muffled audio. Mobile delivers against many promises, but scale and viscerality are not two of them.
These interface brands want to feel real, to leap off the screen, out of your phone and into your life. Hence the screen-printed mission posters that pervade Facebook’s campus. Google Glass. Amazon Dash. And Snapchat’s iconic outdoor buys. No words, just vast expanses of yellow, saying we’re here. We exist. We won’t disappear like the conversations that live on our platform.
Much as the debate about what is digital has become meaningless, so is any conversation about brands inhabiting either the online or offline worlds. There is no choice — you’re always in both — it’s just how you show up that matters.
Airbnb joins Beats in this alternative unicorn club, creating the first truly tangible social network. Connections that are made online only become meaningful when a traveler steps through the door of a host’s home. Likewise Tinder, where a gesture born of a touchscreen — the swipe — culminates, if successful, in much more physical contact. True 21st century brands are able to navigate the ephemerality and velocity of the online world while having presence and substance in this one.
This materialization works both ways. The recent exposé of Amazon’s brutal work culture seems at odds with the slickness and apparent automation of its delivery system. The inconvenient, emotional needs of today’s workers clashing with a mythic future where everything is done by drones.
The hacking of Ashley Madison reveals how something that felt ephemeral and unreal can suddenly come crashing into existence, with very tangible and wide- ranging implications. I’ve read, with a fascination that borders on amazement (why would anyone trust a site that has infidelity and deceit as its core values?), account after account of people (okay, men) who claim to have only been "visiting" or who deleted their accounts without committing adultery, but still have shown up on the leaked lists. Where curiosity and intention are too easily transformed into a kind of betrayal.
If social media — with the selfie as its ubiquitous calling card — is the existential cry of the individual to be heard, to be recognized and validated, then the manifestation of interface brands in the offline world is a collective yell for substance.
This substance is not always found in the traditional places. As Airbnb and Beats have shown us, you can be casual and generous with the things that we used to think were solid and immutable — a logo, an endline. But Amazon and Ashley Madison demonstrate how precarious things can become if you forget that any brand is only as substantial as the communities (the staff, the users) who give it meaning.
Nick Barham is chief strategy officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day LA.