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David Kepron

Brain Food: Be Creative. Be Brave. | Part IX

Transformative tech, regenerative places: Using technology to enhance connections to ourselves and brand experiences

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THERE IS AN OFTEN-CITED CRITIQUE of digital experiences: They diminish deep connections to other people and disconnect us from true embodied interactions with brands in relevant places made for engagement. This is being challenged by a wave of immersive, digitally enabled experiences that are transforming data into physical places that are able, despite being digitally created, to connect on a profoundly physical level with captivating sensory experiences.

I am sure that philosophical polemics will erupt regarding whether or not architecture is a necessary requirement for places of brand experience as I have suggested in previous parts of this series. No doubt there will be hardliners who will consider that digitally mediated overlays on existing architectural environments may be seen as some sort of sacrilege. Not discounting the value of what could be robust discussions on these topics, the “digisphere” is upon us in the way the new stocking frames of the early 1800s were upon the Luddite stocking weavers.

The fact is, that we don’t only experience places with our eyes and ears but with our whole body. So the VR world of experience is OK but we still have a need for some sort of “place” in which engagement can occur – one in which we connect with real people. In the end, experience is only partly “out there” through forms, light, materials and finishes, geometries, furniture, colors and other attributes of the built environment. Our body acts as a filter of perceptual inputs. Our brain assembles the signals and turns them in to meaning. Nothing would exist without the brain’s ability to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

It is important to remember that we were built from the bottom up, a single cell evolving into larger organisms with simple neural structures, eventually to some sort of spinal column and eventually into the nervous system and brain we have today. It didn’t happen the other way around. There wasn’t a sea of fully functioning human brains floating around in Earth’s primordial soup from which a body developed. All experience processing starts in the body with environmental inputs and then moves to brain-body feedback loops. It is bottom-up and top-down brain-body activity with neurons around our hearts and gut as well as in our heads. We have five senses for a reason. While moving across the savannah, more input equaled more information about the world around us, which inevitably allowed for better decision-making to determine whether the movement in the tall grass meant I was going to have lunch versus being lunch.

Because our bodies play such a critical role in determining the nature of experience, environments that activate multiple senses will be those that more deeply resonate with people who engage with them. According to Martin Lindstrom, author of “Buyology” and renowned branding consultant, “The most effective experiences stimulate multiple senses at the same time and can increase brand impact and engagement by over 70 percent.” The more senses you involve, the deeper the connection between the body, the brain and the brand. Add novelty into the equation, and you are triggering the reward system in the brain and a series of neurons in a particular area called the nucleus accumbens that is more commonly known as the brain’s “pleasure” center. This all suggests that commercial dominant brands will likely be those who adopt a multi-sensory approach to the making of brand experience places.

There is now a wellspring of new consumers in the digitally enabled realm that are seeking out experiences that enhance their well-being, draw them closer to others and help them detox from digital overload. As an in intriguing counterpoint to the pervasive use of digital media, we are also seeing a rise in mindfulness practices, like yoga and Ayurveda. People may realize that there is no way to fully escape the digital world, but they can find a balance to the stress of our fast-paced modern world with active engagement of these ancient practices.

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There is a whole industry in “transformative technology” that focuses on turning the awesome power of technology toward human well-beings. This is way beyond counting your steps or letting you know how many hours you slept (though these facts can be instructive). There are technologies that allow for deep monitoring of our inner world, making us more attuned to ourselves and to others. Nichol Bradford, the CEO of the Transformative Technology Lab, puts it this way: “There is no nobler use of technology than to bring peace to the minds of mankind.” As so, we have had a proliferation of devices like Muse and Fitbit that help us monitor our heart rate, breathing and brain activity in support of mindfulness meditation practices. We could all use a little peace of mind in a pernicious pandemic.

During the past year, the tools of the transformative tech industry have proliferated amidst a COVID-19 pandemic that has kept many of us from our biological imperative of gathering in groups whether it is at work, restaurants, theaters or little league practice. Being in pandemic shutdown has had drastic consequences on emotional well-being, and we will likely see an increase in depression and other behavioral health issues in the coming year. Going from virtual meeting to virtual meeting can be exhausting and devoid of the thing that settles our souls, real connection with either colleagues or cousins. “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing.

The interest in counteracting the effects of living in a digitally immersed world are spawning hyper growth in the wellness category. In the U.S., the self-improvement market will be worth $13.2 billion by 2022 up from $9.9 billion in 2016. (Stylus – the Sensory Opportunity – Lifestyle). Devices that use technology to bring us back to center are not just for the wellness aficionados, either. There are a growing number of places and products that, despite being digitally driven, serve to get a wide swath of the population out of their heads and back into their bodies.

As we reconnect to each other in physical places where gathering has been restricted over the past year, we will certainly need to understand and address the needs for health safety. This will be table stakes. And a focus on well-being, eco-centric and sustainable design will lend some support to frayed emotions and the environment. Brand environments that help to bring a sense of agency and well-being to guests will be winners in the coming years. Beyond the architectural attributes of a place, we can turn to using technologies to enhance visitors’ sensory experience and perception of well-being. Deeper felt-body experiences, deepen memories and long-term relationships. Places that embrace technology to transform experience and that are generative, will bring renewed purpose to brand engagement places.

David Kepron is formerly the VP - Global Design Strategies – Premium Distinctive Brands at Marriott Intl., responsible for the strategic design direction for Westin, Le Meridien, Renaissance, Autograph Collection, Tribute Portfolio, Design Hotels and Gaylord Hotels. He is also the founder of Retail (r)Evolution, LLC and NXTLVL Experience Design, LLC. In his latest venture, NXTLVL Experience Design, Kepron brings years of retail and hospitality design expertise to the making of meaningful customer connections at brand experience places around the globe. His multidisciplinary approach to design focuses on understanding consumer behavior and the creation of relevant brand engagement moments at the intersection of architecture, sociology, neuroscience and emerging digital technologies. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com.

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