Connected products confirm old brand truths

Agencies need to teach products to talk in the era of the Internet of Things, as the medium is still the message, Jessi Baker suggests.

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The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan said in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man, published in 1964. What he was trying to communicate to a baffled audience was that the medium affects society not only by the content it delivered, but also by the characteristic of the medium itself.

So, in the case of the humble light bulb, it does not contain content within its glass, according to McLuhan (pictured), but, as a medium, it has an implicit social effect in that it enables people to create spaces at night. "A light bulb creates an environment, merely by its presence," he said.

McLuhanWhile his phrase has cemented itself into the branding lexicon, its relevance has increased and, arguably, is starting to manifest in its truest concurrence as the emerging Internet of Things. First coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, it refers to the evolution of the internet based on connected objects and products. The IoT makes the internet ubiquitous and sensory.

The IoT radically changes the ways a brand communicates its story by its concurrently implicit and explicit nature. The medium, instead of merely existing, as McLuhan states, will now personalise the message on a far deeper level. It represents what could be one of the most disruptive media for brand communications to emerge since the internet itself. With this on the horizon, understanding this new technology now is vital for an agency’s future relevance.


Consumers are exposed to brand communications more than ever before, with the highest level of brand interaction than at any other point in living memory. However, the media for all communications have, in recent history, diversified exponentially. One hundred years ago, these would have come predominately through word of mouth or print. Half a century later, one-way mass communication media such as the television prevailed. In a comparatively recent past, we’ve added the internet, smartphones, mobile apps, social networks and tablet computers.

Looking further back than a century, packaging has been the fundamental real estate for a brand’s communication. The physical product inside embodies the brand. But what happens when products become even more powerful branding devices, not because of the witty packaging or sleek finishes, but because products actually talk?

Smartphones have paved the way for two-way brand communication and a first generation of smart devices (most of which are currently configured through your smartphone), demonstrating the huge power of intelligent, behavioural interactions between brands and consumers. With convergence of standards and protocols, as well as emergent innovations such as plastic electronics and new forms of power generation replacing batteries, swarms of connected everyday products will emerge, interacting with customers and each other. Although this is not as far away as you might imagine, this is not the reality today.


So why should agencies get involved in this rise of sensing and communicating products now? How consumers interact with connected products and the design of the two-way conversation with them will become one of the most important parts of brand communication. This evolution of the internet won’t arrive in a big bang, giving everyone time to learn the ropes; the IoT is creeping up with alphabets of interactions to experiment with already. At TBWA\Digital Arts Network, widespread

understanding and experimental creativity with branded interactions are increasingly integral to being creative. Without rolling our sleeves up and experimenting with – even inventing – connected products now, even on the simplest level, how will we teach products to tell our brand stories effectively in the future? As media become more intelligent, so the need to understand how they work becomes ever greater for creativity.

It’s not only brands with physical products that need to be concerned about the IoT’s potential to disrupt communication. Creating a device to weave a non-physical product into the physical world of a consumer can create a powerful connection between consumer and brand. A fine example of this is Red Tomato Pizza’s VIP fridge magnet (by TBWA\Digital Arts Network), which illustrated how a small, connected device that lives on your fridge formed a strong bond between customer and brand. The result was a sustained influx of sales for a small (now large) Dubai takeaway pizza company.

Connected products create a tangible relationship between the brand and the consumer. They become something the consumer interacts with and the product can react and respond in turn – becoming the ultimate tool for personalised, real-time, two-way brand communication.


But the parlance doesn’t start and end with the customer buying the product. Objects connected to the internet on shelves in stores will come with their own data shadow –pricing, celebrity endorsements and a product’s carbon footprint may all be tethered to it. This allows any physical shopping experience to become a connected media opportunity and spill out of traditional physical retail spaces. Online shopping through content and social media might connect with a "social network" of products owned by you and your friends.

The functionality that the intimate level of responsiveness adds allows you to learn from existing customers and evolve the brand as the product is used.

The new media of tomorrow is pervasive with its real-time, always-on, algorithm-driven characteristics, always sensing, learning and responding, but with the brand’s story at its heart. Agencies can continue to lead the simplification of consumer communication in a mass of squabbling products and open up the possibilities of the growing number of media formats. The medium will emerge to have as much creative importance to an ad agency as the brand message itself because, with the IoT, they are one. It’s almost as if McLuhan knew this day would come.

Jessi Baker is a creative technologist at TBWA\Digital Arts Network London

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