It’s become something of a cliché to talk about the disruptive power of technology, but this doesn’t make it any less of a truism. And if SXSW is about anything, it’s about disruption.
This year more than ever the connective tissue linking all the product wizardry, technological innovations and emerging cultural memes is their ability to transform the very fabric of our society. Take for example the evolution of wearable technologies, the impending robot apocalypse and the fast-becoming-a-reality internet of things. Not to mention the raging debate around privacy and the transformative collision between the digital and healthcare industries.
But more than this, and even more than all the mind-bendingly cool shit that permeated every corner of Austin this year (check out the Moff wearable smart toy that gamifies your life, the Avegant virtual reality headset that translates sound into vision and the No Trace invisible messaging system), arguably the most important of SXSW’s underlying themes is centres on the fact that the way things are made – from microwaves to mobile phones – is changing forever, with truly revolutionary consequences for brands.
Let me explain. By and large in our lifetime global manufacturing has been centralised into hubs. Stuff is built at scale in one place and then shipped around the world where it is sold locally – think American cars, Chinese electronics, Brazilian coffee etc. Recently, thanks to the ability to share ideas and inspiration freely across the web the ‘maker movement’ emerged with artisan manufacturers forming online communities through which they could sell their homemade products. Components were still produced centrally but were assembled locally by enthusiastic amateurs. Etsy, the ecommerce site for handmade products, generated over a billion dollars worth of revenue last year emphasising the demand for this kind of manufacturing, whilst companies like Quirky and Kickstarter continue to provide the funding necessary to fuel the growth of the so called maker movement.
Now, we are entering a third phase in the evolution of ‘making’. 3D printing has made it possible to create rudimentary objects like key rings and iPhone cases, as well as component parts for more complex machines, but so far this has largely failed to set the world on fire. However, so-called factory-in-a-box innovations like the Thing-O-Matic and MicroFactory are taking things a step further by allowing people to make and assemble complex products from scratch in the comfort of their own homes or garages. As Ideo Chief Executive Tim Brown and Director of MIT Media Lab Joi Ito explained in an SXSW session entitled ‘The Future of Making’, long manufacturing supply chains are being replaced by a process of shipping data over the internet to people so they can make products on demand where and when they are needed.
Of course this kind of DIY product engineering is still someway off but if it catches on the democratisation of manufacturing stands to have truly fundamental implications on the way things are made, sold and marketed around the world.
The knock on effect for brands could be game changing. As Douglas Rushkoff explains in his book Life Inc. brands were only created to substitute for the direct relationship that used to exist between buyer and seller. For example, people used to buy their oats from the miller, then industrialisation came along and made it possible for oats to be produced faster, more cheaply and on a much bigger scale. Suddenly instead of buying your oats from a human being you knew, you were buying them from a factory hundreds or even thousands of miles away. They came in a brown box and there was no miller to be seen. Then in 1901 the Quaker Oats brand was created. Suddenly instead of seeing the miller at the general store you’d see his face on a box. Quaker had changed the way America bought its oats by replacing the human being that people knew with a fictitious brand.
If the manufacturing continues to evolve in this vein we could find ourselves in a scenario in which it is cheap, easy and reliable to buy a nearly-one-of-a-kind mobile phone, tablet or even a smart TV from a friend or neighbour. Suddenly making the same purchase from a faceless organisation with which you have no personal connection doesn’t seem so compelling.
This is still much more of a vision than a reality but the disintermediation of manufacturing will inevitably lead to the disruption of it’s associated industries. It follows that brands may find themselves in a situation wheretoday’s corporate powerhouses are replaced with millions of much smaller ‘micro brands’ that more closely reflect the dynamics of an interpersonal relationship – effectively bringing us back full circle to where it all began. To some extent whether this happens or not is irrelevant, there is a clear lesson that today’s brands can learn from their potential future: be more human. (It’s as true now as it was in 1901 when Quaker Oats launched.)
Gareth Jones to is global chief brand and content officer and international chief marketing officer for DigitasLBi. He is responsible for creating a coherent content marketing and thought-leadership strategy to promote the DigtasLBi brand globally. As international chief marketing officer, Jones also works with CEOs in the UK, Germany, Western Europe, the Nordics and Asia Pacific to bring the DigitasLBi brand to market and support business growth through localised marketing activity.