The Power of Real in a Digital World

Submitted by on the 29th of April 2015

I believe in the power of the Polaroid. My phone contains 2,684 photos, with over 6,000 in my iCloud account. My photos are duplicated on my work and personal computers and I can access them via Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram and a few other digital spaces. But the blurry Polaroid of my school friend – if I lost that, I’d be devastated.

In October 2014, Taylor Swift released her latest album, 1989. Included in each physical copy of the album were 13 Polaroids of Swift, with a handwritten lyric at the bottom of each one. With 65 Polaroid pictures to collect, many fans bought five, or more, copies of the album, just to ensure that they’d own a copy of each Polaroid.

Why buy a hard copy of the album? It can be downloaded off iTunes, and all the pictures can be viewed online. Isn’t that the same thing?

Not really. While I could view an image of a Polaroid online – in fact, I could even print out the image and cut it to size – it wouldn’t be the same. The hook for Swift’s fans was the possibility that Swift herself could have written those lyrics on the limited number of Polaroids. Sure, it’s more likely that she had a small army of pen-wielding assistants to fill the blank space at the bottom of each picture. But, the slightest chance that she wrote it herself (or touched it or saw it or breathed near it) is enough for her fans.

What Swift (and her marketing team) understands is that people place sentimental importance on tactility. The lesson for brands? It’s important to create as many tactile and real connections with customers as possible.

The trend to move away from physicality towards digital convenience is, of course, fantastic. It’s brilliant when businesses transcend physical barriers and customers can reap the rewards of services such as online banking, shopping, and dating. Ordering a ride via Uber, for example, is easier than remembering to carry cash in case you might need to catch a cab. But, while the move towards an entirely digital relationship with brands and services provides users with accessibility and safety, it also creates distance between the two parties.

There are opportunities, albeit scarce, for brands to leverage tactile connections with customers to create meaningful relationships. I can’t count the number of people I know who don’t drink Coca-Cola, yet proudly display a can on their desk because it carries their name. In creating something tangible that people could buy, hold and relate to, Coke formed a relationship with its customers that was more authentic than posting a tweet featuring their names.

If brands want to keep the connections they’ve built with customers, they need to straddle the digital and tangible. While making customers’ lives more efficient and convenient, they also need to work hard to hold on to the tactile, human connections that carry incredible value.

What we all know, and treasure, is that a Polaroid can’t be downloaded off the Internet.