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Capturing The Zeitgeist Through Product & Network Design

Ana Andjelić is a strategist, writer and doctor of sociology who has amassed experience working for the world’s top advertising agencies and brands, like Tom Ford, Belvedere, Sergio Rossi, Moet Hennessy, Sotheby’s and Tag Heuer, in the United States, Europe and Asia. She explores the ways in which technology changes the behaviours of humans, organisations and businesses.

You’re a doctor of sociology and a strategist helping luxury, fashion and lifestyle brands like Tom Ford, Moet Hennessy, Olivia Palermo, Sergio Rossi etc. What’s the backstory – how did you find your passion for this niche?

The focus of my sociology degree was sociology technology, which means how the values and behaviours we design in technology then consequently shape values and behaviours as we use that tech. Even while I was doing my PhD. I started working at digital agency Razorfish, then Huge and so on. The whole idea was always like: Don’t make ads, make something the people are going to love, and going to love to use, and going to tell others about.

When the retail space started transforming rapidly, with Amazon and major retailers like Target, and mergers with a lot of direct-to-consumer brands, I became interested. For me, that was very rich territory to explore from the strategic and business perspective, from the design perspective, but also from a sociological point of view. How do we, as humans, make decisions? How do we pay more attention to what our friends say than to the ads and what advertisers say? The question is how you capture the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – through the design of physical products. And how do you capture the Zeitgeist through content, community and internet community management, services and so on.

How has the Brand Identity changed with the digital age? What are the elements of a modern brand identity?

Traditionally, brands would always give the attributes of their brand identity to the media, and in the time of mass media, brand identity became separated from its execution. Modern brands don’t give their attributes to the media. If we are seeking a tangible expression of brand identity today, that would be a network. 

Modern brands are identity networks. When we look at brands like Glossier, SoulCycle or Away luggage, all of them have created identity networks by being very close to their customers. Thanks to that close proximity to customers, they managed to create a shared identity, a shared story and a shared sensibility. In the process, they created meaningful brands that people love to talk about and that make money for their founders.

In the digital age, what are some of the challenges that need to be tackled by luxury brands that often come with a rich heritage and are perhaps not so keen to shift the paradigm?

I think that heritage is worthless unless you make that heritage relevant to the here and now. Today it’s more about consumer identity and less about the company that creates products and services, while it’s also more about the person who’s going to consume those products and services, who will buy, wear, share them, and so on.

The service is your product, your actual physical product is a bi-product of that relationship. Your actual thing is the experience

Unless luxury brands create an identity that piggy-banks on the identity of their consumers they are not going to be successful. There are ways to translate your heritage. You can create a universe around the meaning of your brand, but if you keep doing that as though there’s only one-way communication and mass broadcasting, it’s not going to be successful.

As a brand strategist, what challenges do you face?

As Chief Brand Officer of Rebecca Minkoff, my job is not only to come up with the strategy but to lead its execution. Twenty per cent of the process is me thinking about everyone else? Does everyone know what everyone else is doing?

The third challenge is how do we address the strategy. How do we really implement it on a consistent basis, to ensure it is ongoing and creates a kind of snowball effect.

And then, finally, how do we empower these people? How do you make the brand strategy their own? They need to feel it because they are going to carry it forward. I can make the best strategy in the world, but it’s just going to sit in a drawer and nobody is going to pay attention to it if I don’t actually empower the people tasked with implementing it and compel them to believe in it.

What can big, traditional luxury and beauty brands with a long heritage learn from newcomers and start-ups, and vice versa?

Traditional brands can learn a lot from start-ups in terms of proximity to their consumers, finding a way to add value to their lives; not merely telling them “this is the lifestyle you should have”, but actually enabling them to have that lifestyle. Everything should be organised around the journey of the customer’s decision and the customer experience. The service is your product, your actual physical product is a bi-product of that relationship. Your actual thing is the experience.

Digital increasingly introduces numerous points of contact between the consumer and the brand, and each of those touch points is an opportunity to apply some level of service. There’re lots of opportunities to add value

When it comes to what start-ups can learn from major brands, I think it’s a matter of creating an intriguing story and the level of taste. If we look at the history of all these brands – like Balenciaga, Dior or Chanel – they all started from the ateliers of their founders. People came not only to get a great design but also to hear gossip, to discover what’s new, to find out what’s coming next, to kind of feel plugged in. There’s a big level of shifting culture, of participating in the cultural conversation, and capitalising on having a very clear role in culture – not just having a seamless service, but also having a strong story.

You speak about products being “highly Instagrammable” and about their “share-ability” as a legitimate design decision. This is one of the examples of social media is a crucial part of the buyer experience. How does the digital world transform our purchases and experiences?

I think you have to look at it in the context of a customer journey and then a media funnel. Because the media funnel traditionally generates all the attention and resources needed to create awareness, reach and then sales, pushing people towards purchases.

And when you think about who people actually make decisions, that tends to be through friends, influencers, taste-makers, content, communities etc., whatever creates a relationship. If the hundreds of millions of ad-blocker users are any indication, ads don’t do anything for us except interrupt our decision making.

Digital increasingly introduces numerous points of contact between the consumer and the brand, and each of those touchpoints is an opportunity to apply some level of service. There’re lots of opportunities to add value.

The impact of AI on our lives is only increasing. How do you think AI is impacting on luxury brands and luxury experiences?

There are three levels.

The first level is clearly the level of a consumer, for example via a chatbot. You can ask the most questions through WeChat, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram Messenger or however you want. You can automate a lot of customer service through AI, and at the same time glean a lot of data at scale, so you can provide more personalised answers.

The second level is the level of supply. How do you match supply and demand in such a way that you avoid overproduction? Through the crunching of all the data about buying and selling, and what trends are the most popular, AI enables you to know how many units you need to make, in which colours, and so on.

And, finally, there’s a creative way of using AI. How do you create big data and how do you localise it in a way that inspires creativity? This is a very rich territory in which you can explore and crunch a lot of consumer data and conversations in order to come up with creative solutions.

Since I wrote that piece, like a year ago, I have found that it has become a giant conversation. I was inspired to write it while I was at MIT’s Media Lab programme, where there was a woman who has a company that uses blockchain for multiple purposes, one of the first of which was as a defence against counterfeiting. It can be a guarantee of authenticity.

The other use is that you can see the entire chain of previous owners of, say, a piece of jewellery or art, so, again, transparency, the fight against counterfeiting and the provision of authenticity. It’s also an alternative currency and in some way will bubble up, with rich individuals investing and using it in transactions.