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Beyond the Browser: How Digital Brands Become Tactile

Digital brands finding ways to interact with their audience in the non-digital world are fostering greater levels of connection and communication.


by Kelly Sarabyn

For the first time ever, digital giant Amazon has mailed out catalogues. With a Pottery Barn Kids-esque aesthetic, these catalogues include stickers that children can use to quickly tag their favorite toys. And Amazon isn’t alone: Facebook is placing printed ads at train stops to encourage people to join their online marketplace. Companies who were born and live online — such as Amazon,Casper, and Birchbox— are opening or buying retail stores to sell their wares to customers human-to-human.

Why are digital giants, who have the latest digital tools and analytics at their disposal, now trying to connect with people in the physical world? After all, people have unrelentingly continued to migrate their lives onto the internet, forever plugged into their devices as they work and play. Perhaps these tech companies have realized there are still dramatic benefits to consuming content and interacting in the non-digital world.

Some tech leaders — sharing economy leaders such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb; and multiplayer video game companies such as the makers of Fortnite — are purely digital, but have always bridged the digital and non-digital worlds by enabling interactions between contractors and customers, hosts and renters, and players and players, that are all too human. But these digitally driven companies have been largely agnostic to the human interaction. Uber is indifferent to riders giving the best reviews to silent drivers, and Airbnb does not weigh in if renters rave over the ease of picking a key fob out of a box rather than having to speak to a host. Uber is even developing self-driving cars, whose successful creation will presumably cease the company’s facilitation of any human interactions.

Nowhere is the struggle over whether companies should communicate with their audiences in the digital and non-digital world — or both — as real as it is in the media industry. Even with a print circulation of 2 million, Glamour is going all-digital in 2019, which follows a decision by Glamour’s beleaguered and financially troubled publisher, Conde Nast, to pull Teen Vogue and Self from the shelves last year.

The print circulation of newspapers continues its long, sharp decline. Printed circulation of the top “alt weekly” newspapers, most of which are free, dropped 37 percent from 2012 to 2017. Even publications such as The Atlantic and Seventeen, which still print magazines, have shifted to a “digital first” strategy, focusing on building their digital brand over a print experience. Media monoliths like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal’s revenues continue to slide toward making money from digital advertising and digital subscriptions rather than the print form.

The two print magazines with the largest circulation in the country — both from the AARP — are given away for free, and it is unclear whether they are financially self-sustained. AARP chooses to communicate with their audience in the non-digital world, even if they pay for it partially as a marketing expense. The same can be said for the number-three circulating magazine, The Costco Connection, which is free to members but also profitable in its own right.

Some print publications, such as Garden & Gun and The Times Literary Supplementhave continued to increase their print circulation, and thrive financially. Though Garden & Gun has less circulation than Glamour did, they have managed to make a profit with their smaller circulation.

In other words, some brands have figured out a way to not only exist but to flourish in the non-digital world, even in the face of the digital world’s ever expanding ownership of people’s lives.


Succeeding in the Digital and Non-Digital Worlds

Studies comparing humans’ consumption of content in print versus digital form have repeatedly shown that people have greater focus, can better refrain from multi-tasking, and remember more information when they absorb content through a printed medium. This is especially true for longer or more complex content.

Non-digital interactions between people, when compared to digital interactions, leave people feeling happier, with a more positive view of their conversational partner, and lead to fewer misunderstandings and with people less likely to feel cold about the interaction. In addition, non-digital interactions, even of the same length, are more complex and nuanced due to the role of facial expressions, physical gestures, and tone, leading to greater levels of human communication and feelings of closeness.

Conversely, digital communications can more efficiently solve certain types of problems, and are often more convenient, and more affordable.

For brands, then, venturing into the non-digital world can still be advantageous depending on what they are trying to accomplish in their interactions with their audiences. It is no accident that Amazon’s launch into the non-digital world of physical catalogues resembled a Pottery Barn catalogue and not a flimsy Walmart circular. Walmart is about convenience and affordability, where the digital world is at its peak performance; the additional expense of print offers little advantage.

For more affluent parents and children — to whom Amazon selectively sent their beautifully designed toy catalogues — a print publication provides an experience that parents and children will focus on more, and better remember. The same imagery would resonate less online, and for the busy affluent, a print catalogue better captures their attention and their larger share of disposable income.

Similarly, Amazon has refrained from digitizing the experience of their higher-end retail acquisition, Whole Foods, where one can still only check out by speaking with a member of their staff. Affluent Whole Foods shoppers continue to interact with their knowledgeable staff, who can recommend the best cheese, explain the latest charity Whole Foods is funding, or point out their preferred local chocolate. This human-to-human interaction dovetails with the Whole Foods’ brand of creating high quality experiences and a sense of community.

In contrast, Amazon’s Amazon Go retail stores are physical stores, but they require no interactions with humans. A customer can simply walk into the store, pick up items, and get charged via app on the way out the door. These fully digitized stores’ brand, unlike Whole Foods’, is built entirely around convenience. Walmart, similarly, has instituted self-check-outs so customers can get in and out of the store as quick as possible.

Casper, the internet-native online mattress giant, explained their foray into retail stores as an attempt to create a “fun atmosphere,” “build a community,” and start a “conversation around sleep.” Clara Sieg, a partner at venture capital firm Revolution, commented that the future of retail, for many internet-native companies, will be “developing unique and tailored retail experiences” that “create more intimate connections with consumers.”

It is these intimate connections, a feeling of closeness, and more robust memory that cannot yet be replicated in the digital world. Humans are ultimately still analog creatures, even as they continue to migrate their lives into the digital world (Americans spend almost 24 hours a week online, more than double the amount of time they spent 16 years ago.) Brands who find ways to interact with their audience in the non-digital world, whether it be through print publications or in person, can foster greater levels of connection and communication with their audience.

Garden & Gun might not have as much as a circulation as the soon-to-be purely-digital Glamour, but their affluent audience is highly engaged with the publication, leading to better ad and circulation revenue. Garden & Gun plays to print’s strengths by offering high quality, curated, and tailored content, creating a memorable and intimate experience for their audience.

The Costco Connection does the same. Unlike Walmart, Costco’s brand is about both convenience, and quality in product and experience — Costco is the largest seller of organic food in the country, has an affluent customer base, and treats their staff notoriously well, which leads to exceptional customer service. By providing quality content tailored to their audience, rather than a slew of coupons, the audience remembers Costco and associates them with knowledge that they actually process and remember.

Brands that are purely defined by affordability, convenience, and efficiency, need not venture into the non-digital world, and can in fact, continue, like, to keep their entire customer experience in the digital realm — as digital experiences accentuate their strengths and brand promises.

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and their sending out of a high-end toy catalogue suggests they are experimenting with diversifying their brand holdings, to develop and include brands that are about more than convenience and an on-demand efficiency, and in fact about sharing knowledge, and creating meaningful connections.

For tech companies operating in the sharing economy, like Uber and Airbnb, who have traditionally facilitated non-digital interactions, as automation technology, whether it be self-driving cars or IoT homes, makes it possible to eliminate those interactions, those companies might rebrand, with some promising a highly convenient, automated experience, while others — who would likely charge more — promising to facilitate a sense of community and intimacy that can only arise with the facilitation of non-digital experiences.

Whether born in the digital world or born in the non-digital world, brands should consider the message and experience they are trying to deliver to their audience. As the world inevitably marches toward the digital, even digital giants are recognizing there are still distinct advantages, that are often worth the price, to communicating and interacting in the non-digital world.


Kelly Sarabyn is a partner at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.