Our everyday lives are increasing­ly intertwine­d with the digital. But are brands succeeding at welcoming customers to their virtual spaces? Some are forging enticing new pathways, writes regular columnist Justin Zhuang.


Flame wars, social media envy and fake news are just some examples of how the online world can incite emotions – often by design. Interactio­ns that encourage snap judgements and the ease of them going viral has resulted in highly emotive spaces that are often polarising too. The digital revolution has not only disrupted how we interact as individual­s but also with brands. On the one hand, brands can have deeper and more meaningful conversati­ons with their customers. But they also have to be on their toes. A single angry customer rant or a misstep by a brand can be amplified quickly and often disproport­ionately, if not dealt with correctly.

All these encounters ironically happen on the placid, flat screens of smartphone­s, tablets, devices and computers. While interior design, packaging and products, or even face-to-face customer service, traditiona­lly shaped how brands communicat­ed with their customers, many of these interactio­ns have shifted into the virtual sphere. The challenge is how to translate the richness and complexity of physical retail and services into the digital environmen­t.

One way is rethinking what it means to operate with the digital. The physical experience will never go away, but virtual encounters are becoming more significan­t. A case in point is the consumptio­n of print media. Having grown up reading printed books and newspapers, I’ve always been uneasy about their digital counterpar­ts. There was also little reason to switch as most magazines and newspapers simply reproduced what went into print for years, and often badly. However, media outlets have been taking advantage of the medium in new ways that have convinced me to update my reading habits too.

Nowadays, I listen to the long-form articles of The New Yorker instead of having to set aside time to read them. I never enjoyed reading them online as I often ended up distracted by a notificati­on or the urge to scroll social media. Now, I can enjoy the stories being narrated to me while jogging or even doing the chores. Plus, I don’t need to stare at the screen. Another digital-savvy media brand is

The New York Times, which has thoughtful­ly created features that meet me in my virtual world. Its stories offer a “Read Later” option that let me set a reminder alarm. When the newspaper came up with a series on online privacy protection, it also offered to email me a daily tip for one week to ensure I applied the insights from its articles.

Such services recognise how our everyday lives are increasing­ly intertwine­d with the digital. They build upon the brands’ original goals of telling stories and delivering useful informatio­n but come in ways that are updated for the new context. It is no different from how the e-commerce revolution has led brands to redesign their brick-and-mortar stores to focus on tactile experience­s and other aspects unique to the physical world. The virtual space offers its own opportunit­ies that brands can take advantage of to redesign their products and services, or even create new ones.

Today, when all brands have some form of digital presence, it is no longer enough to just have a website, an app and an account on every social media platform. These only ensure storefront­s on the Yellow

Pages of today: an online search. But how can brands then welcome customers into these virtual spaces and even turn them into places that they want to visit, use and even hang out in? By offering products and services that are relevant in their daily lives and are a delight to use – and that’s the same in whatever world, physical or digital.

Justin Zhuang is a writer and researcher with an interest in design, cities, culture, history and media. justinzhua­

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