Five minutes with Ben Harwood
Ben Harwood, creative director at creative agency Feed and co-founder of design studio So Far So Good, spoke to Transform magazine about the digital transformation brands have undergone during the Covid-19, how the crisis has caused a higher demand in authenticity from brands, and the role AR and VR will play in the creative industry's future.
How has Covid-19 influenced communications? Has it now become more important for brands to make a real emotional connection with their audiences?
Covid has forced brands to communicate in a way that they weren’t expecting or prepared for. The pandemic propelled a wave of digital thinking and put digital transformation at the forefront of brands’ minds. We've seen a shift in how brands communicate, ideate, share and develop ideas both externally for consumer campaigns but also internally, as they adapt to managing teams digitally and even build their workforces remotely or change staff over Zoom. Here at Feed we opened a new office in Toronto at the start of lockdown and the entire onboarding process took place remotely.
Regarding the consumer reaction, Covid has caused people to ‘wise up’ to brands’ levels of responsibility and demand authenticity. Facebook Ad boycotting, NHS funding, Black Lives Matter have all put pressure on brands and contributed to how brands show up. Their actions are being scrutinised and the way a brand delivers can be the difference between life-long commitment and a one-time purchase. Look at H&M and their latest ‘greenwashing’ tactic with the sustainable $19.99 dress - faking responsibility can backfire and consumers are wiser than ever to this.
How can brands use increased digitalisation to their benefit, especially during these unprecedented times?
As screen time soars (mine alone is up 400%) and 80% of UK consumers admit to consuming more content, brands have a huge opportunity to create impactful campaigns that resonate with their audiences.
Targeting is even more important as brands can now directly pin-point the user they wish to speak to. It’s important they spend time building bespoke content and utilising tools to optimise creative and headlines so they are able to speak to the people they wish to convert in a more efficient way.
Consumers became used to shops being closed and many defaulted to touching base with brands online. With this likely to continue, a brand’s website has never been more valuable. It needs to be user-centric in its design, and engender emotional resonance with the consumer at every point. Brands should be asking themselves: does this line of copy help bring our brand to life? Does this button style? That image choice? That interaction? Are the colours we are using accessible to our entire target audience?
You have worked for a lot on ethical and sustainable projects and initiatives. What role does sustainability play in the creative space? How important is it for brands to embrace this?
One of the first things I learned about design was that it had the power to persuade, inspire and sometimes do good. The projects that contribute to positive change are, obviously, the most rewarding to work for but also tend to generate the most creative outcomes. Ethical brands are often open to utilising new trends and technologies and there are so many opportunities to stand out and own a sector through an untapped colourway or through custom typography.
There’s an oversimplification that a sustainable or ethical brand has to be green or use earthy illustrations or tribal typefaces - this is a massive oversight. Green companies that are ready to embrace bold, digital identities can stand out in a market that is becoming busier and busier - it’s a big growth sector after all.
How has the digital creative industry changed over the years? Will increased technologies like VR and AR play a big role in its future?
Digital has boomed over the years. We have moved on from manually creating assets, pixel by pixel in photoshop to automating design layouts in sketch by plugging them into pre-QA’d display and email templates. Digital advertising needs to move at the speed of retail, and technology can make that a reality.
I think VR is great for gaming, but I struggle to see it’s long term adoption by the average consumer. You need the kit, the space and the patience so until they can make it as convenient as an iPhone in my pocket or a watch on my wrist, I can’t see it ever being adopted by everyone.
AR, however, is much more interesting and brands like Ikea and Quay Sunglasses are already utilising this technology in an inherently useful space - I think AR is at its most powerful when it is used in a way that is beneficial for society. Saying that, some of the most exciting, high end stores are using AR in a more creative way - Auxillarys AR shoe collection in Selfridges is a great example of this or the partnership between Chelsea and Three network which has just released their new kit via the powers of AR and Whatsapp, an adoption that combines the power of social, technology and a hot merchandise release.
What does it mean for a brand to be digital-first?
To be digital first means to live and breathe in pixels, not print. It means that data informs visuals and brands colour choices pass accessibility by default. It’s when a brand is created with digital design systems incorporated into its identity - selecting social templates over business cards for instance.
It means thinking about animation first and foremost - extra points if you can make the motion reactive to live data. And it’s the brand living and breathing through their website and other digital channels - being where their consumers are, rather than relying on real-life interactions (though obviously those are important too).
What led you to the founding of So Far, So Good?
I wanted to launch a company that pushed the envelope of branding by incorporating the sound digital foundations learnt through my time in agencies. I had start-up businesses in mind and imagined our clients to be fresh and innovative brands who are on the right tracks, doing something amazing but often slightly scary, and hoping everything goes right. Maybe so far, it is, but they come to us to deliver a creative flair and to give that extra push - hence the name So Far, So Good.
I also had a desire to lead a studio that could use design for good whilst feeling at the forefront of tech and design trends. Lots of branding principles seemed archaic to me and hadn’t moved forwards at the same rate as digital marketing. Responsible companies were doing some of the most interesting things and had the most interesting products and I wanted to be involved in projects that made me question my own thoughts and change my own perceptions. Our industry is ever-evolving and I like to think we never stop growing, learning and adapting - I was ready for the challenge.
We launched the studio in November last year, and so far, so good!