The underlying trends have been moving towards quality virtual experiences for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic could herald a new normal in digital brand interactions.

Traditionally, technology and luxury have been like awkward dinner party guests – aware that they have to get along, but not quite sure they’re speaking the same language. At its core, luxury is about quality and experience, while technology champions speed and efficiency. It’s understandable that luxury houses have treated digital as a necessary evil: one that can boost business but risks damaging the brand.

Digital experiences have come of age in recent years, however, and are now able to offer the quality interactions necessary for luxury to translate online. This was the underlying trend before Covid, but of course the total physical lockdown of the pandemic has only turbo-powered it in 2020. Although no one can predict what the new normal will look like once the dust settles on the global crisis, the smart money would be on flexible, agile, immersive digital experiences over business models that are wedded to bricks-and-mortar. It would be wrong to see this as a knee jerk response to Covid however – the global lockdown has merely given brands a powerful push towards tech that was already waiting in the wings.

 Long before Wuhan was a household name, the writing was on the wall when it came to crafting quality digital experiences. Digital trailblazers such as Rebecca Minkoff had embraced every new technological trend for the last decade, from smart mirrors to RFID chipped handbags, and while the total-tech approach is certainly not for every brand, they have reported powerful results – shoppers are 44% more likely to add an item to their cart after interacting with it in 3D and 65% more likely to place an order after interacting in AR (according to Shopify).

Virtual or Augmented Reality was offering some of the most tantalizing opportunities for luxury brands pre-lockdown, and will only become more important in the next few months. It’s something we were proud to pioneer with luxury crystal house Baccarat, partnering with Haptic Media to create the immersive My Baccarat Studio tool, which allowed salespeople to place specific pieces within the context of the customers’ own digitised home. Looking across the market, the innovation has been ceaseless in recent months: In automotive, Bentley launched their eponymous AR visualiser last year, which allowed prospective buyers to ‘park’ their new car in their own drive (think Pokemon Go! but for a £250,000 motor); In travel, British Airways recently collaborated with VR eyewear specialists SkyLights to screen a series of bespoke nature documentaries in 360 and 3D on club class transatlantic flights; And in luxury retail, stores from Macy’s to Harrods have launched VR shopping experiences of their own.

Unsurprisingly, it’s at the younger end of the market where a lot of the true innovation has been taking place, with services targeted at Millenials and the increasingly influential Gen Z. Social-commerce (S-commerce) app Genies provides dynamic avatars that integrate into messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Weibo, allowing users to create digital clones of themselves to kit out with more than a million outfit options (Gucci became the app’s first global advertiser and provider of digital luxury apparel). Similar thinking lies behind immersive AR apps such as Drest (launched by fashion editor Lucy Yeomons with fully shoppable looks available through Farfetch) and Obsess (founded by former Google and Vogue alumni, this immersive gamified in-store experience is backed by Village Global, whose investors include Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates). Last year, Central Saint Martins hosted what it claims to be the world's first mixed reality fashion show, collaborating with mobile network Three to integrate emerging 5G tech, with guests wearing MagicLeap headsets to reveal a VR overlay on the catwalk models.

It’s fair to say that these initiatives existed on the fringe of the mainstream market before lockdown, often garnering critical attention but rarely transforming business models. Covid may be the crisis that changes this for good. Take the art world, for example. Virtual galleries were once treated with suspicion verging on scorn by the gatekeepers of the international industry, but as lockdown kicked in there’s been a wholesale migration to digital platforms. Art Basel, Pace Gallery and Hauser & Wirth were all early innovators here, while Tracey Emin had her first virtual exhibition at White Cube, with high-resolution works created during lockdown displayed with a hover-and-zoom function that allowed detailed viewing of brushstrokes. Frieze has also migrated all upcoming events to virtual fairs, with feedback so far being that although the viewing experience is nothing like physically wandering those vast white marquees, the price band and search functions are actually better for those wanting to invest rather than socialise.

When technology is developing as rapidly as VR and AR, it can be hard to sort the gimmick from the game-changer, and it’s certainly not our advice that every client rushes headfirst into augmented experiences. What is essential, however, is that all ambitious brands take the time to truly understand the rapidly changing landscape and identify their potential niche within it. Now is the moment to make these investments – with a second wave of infections forecast in the autumn, it could prove to be a long winter without doubling down on digital experiences.

Written by Simon Hughes

Design & Build Co. 2021

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