Identities in sync: the end of distinct digital and physical selfhood

Identities in sync: the end of distinct digital and physical selfhood

Physical and digital space. These two distinct realms have long defined and determined the way brands conduct themselves in their relationship marketing.

Because, in reality – the customer, your client, your target consumer – whoever it is you’re trying to reach will have multiple, complicated selves that you’ll have to contend with, depending on the physical context in which you engage with them. Selves that may well effect how well your activation reaches them, or how receptive they’ll be to it.

Traditionally, if you’re hosting a panel event, for example, your audience member is likely to be less distractible and more passive, and you’ll likely be able to express far more nuanced, long-form and narrativised arguments about the benefits of your product.

Whereas, when engaging with your audience across social media platforms, your content will be competing against a high volume of information within a social feed, and you may only have seconds to win vital attention.

In such disparate environments, individuals’ responses will also be more or less predicated by their values, or the values of others in the environment around them. A room full of like-minded individuals at a conference may be more aligned with your message than a wider digital audience with conflicting political beliefs and pain points.

This is due to the effect of the Social Comparison theory: the idea that we develop our self-concept through comparisons to other people, and the values and behaviours they exhibit. It represents just one of the many factors at play in the formation of complex, contextual audience identities.

In our last piece in this series, we defined how brands need to find and embody such multiplicities in their own brand personalities, in order to meet audience members’ needs and expectations at a consistent, human level, no matter the medium.

But once the humanisation and homogenisation of a consistent ‘brand self’ is achieved across varying environments, how should we begin to think about the environments your audience members are inhabiting? Is it one of their physical, or digital selves that you’re trying to engage with?

Realistically, how often is it that the marketing examples given above are mutually exclusive? After all, omni-channel activations, such as a panel event infused with a strong social media element, demand that an audience member who’s attention may well have been entirely captive and single-minded should now be sharing it between the live event, and the mass of digital information they’re expected to process, capture and post.

As our audiences get younger, this tension is only set to deepen. In fact, as Campaign Monitor’s study shows, the average Gen Z attention span is around only 8 seconds, down 25% in comparison to the already dwindling 12 seconds shared by most millennials.

And, as the wider, physical world increasingly mirrors this omni-channel attention grab, it manifests as a space that demands individuals to be present both in the physical, and the digital, via their smartphones and hybrid working environments, is it really still useful, or even realistic, to separate out the physical from the digital anyway?

In order to answer these questions, let’s examine a couple of key trends acting as contributing factors which, together, form a new framework for conceptualising physical and digital space in the relationship economy.

Hybrid environments: life imitates work

The idea of the physical and digital merging is something we as marketers have long discussed as a key future trend. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, this trend has accelerated, and amplified the ways in which digital spaces have become an integral part of our collective lived experiences. In fact, 84% of households purchased a new device during the pandemic.

Our work environments are blending seamlessly with those of our homes and favourite hangouts. We take meetings in our living rooms, with our partners and children next door. We enjoy barista quality espresso from the comfort of our favourite cafés, whilst attending webinars, courses and brand activations.

And all of this is made possible by swathes of technologies that have integrated seamlessly into our environments, from meta portals in our kitchens to an ever-enhancing suite of softwares that turn any location into a portable office with the touch of a key.

As individuals, this makes us far more able to move far more fluently between versions of ourselves. Our work self, our studying self, our parental self, our self in a space of leisure, these can be cycled through so quickly that they’re starting to merge.

In very visceral ways, we can even see this merge being injected into our lived environments by brands looking to emulate and capitalise on this fluidity.

This 3D printed bridge, for example, was installed over an Amsterdam canal in 2021. It was intended not only to inspire awe in passers-by, and to highlight the amalgamation of physical and digital worlds. It was designed as a ‘living laboratory’, armed with a suite of sensors capable of recording data as people cross.

This is symbolic not only of the merging boundaries between physical and digital, but of the ways in which brands can meet their audiences simultaneously in both, rendering one inseparable from the other.

The bridge performs several functions at once, all of which provide value to the audience member: mobility, beauty, literal common ground with other pedestrians and something to engage with in on their social media, connecting them to others.

In turn, the Turing Institute can gain vital data about the performance of their bridge to aid future construction and improve their product. To them, the passer-by is both a physical entity, with physical needs, and a digital imprint of that individual from whom a wealth of data can be extracted.

Whilst this example may be more symbolic than practical for most organisations, whose products are perhaps less tangibly physically and digitally integrated than a 3D printed bridge, this level of integration and symbiosis can provide powerful insight into consumer behaviours in both the physical and digital world, and is one which brands should seek to channel on their own terms, in order to get the most out of interactions with their audiences.

Screen culture has consequences

Even now, after national lockdowns have ended and the world has largely resumed business as usual, technology has remained so interwoven with our lives that we, as both brands and individuals, need to consider how much our interactions with digital spaces are influencing our behaviours, and what consequences our online actions have.

The way we live our lives online is now having a direct impact on how we live them in the so-called real world. The work we do, the interactions we have and the opinions we express online now have as much effect on our lives as any physical labour, face to face conversation or relationship.

Universally, this means that brands are met with an additional layer of complication and nuance when interacting with audiences, in that multiplicity is a far sharper factor in the lives of consumers. As Nathalie Béchet puts it, “The myriad digital mirrors we interact with, since the birth of the internet, present different sets of rules for the definition of self. We now negotiate our multiple online selves with a sort of ‘cyber grammar’.” 

To an ever-increasing extent, this means that the digital moderates and affects the physical. Consumers can no longer isolate the self they present as online from the one they carry through day-to-day, physical life. In this equation, complexity is king.

As platforms such as the Metaverse gain prevalence, this moderation is only set to increase, with standardised conceptualisations of the ‘physical world’ being rewritten by the development of tangible 3D avatars and artefacts, and digital environments which echo those of the physical world with striking accuracy. These affects will further amalgamate notions of physical and digital identity in consumers.

In fact, as UCL professor of business psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic states, “in psychological terms there is no difference between the meaning of these dematerialised digital artefacts and our physical possessions – they both help us express important aspects of our identity.”

This amalgamation will completely overhaul the way in which our digital personas are perceived, creating a whole new set of tools through which brands and individuals can express themselves, form more holistic identities and, ultimately, connect with a potentially far deeper impact.

To view technology, then, as an outside force, as wholly a tool that consumers and brands alike manipulate and utilise in the real world, is no longer realistic.

Instead, brands should see the audience member and their technology as entwined, as well as their own technological tools, as a core component of their marketing and their identities. This applies in equal measure to their physical presence.

They should view digital spaces as a tangible extension of the physical world, and vice versa, needing to be worked into any marketing and communication universally, and in tandem.

A true universal approach to engagement

Considering your marketing and communications as a universal endeavour intended to engage a fluid, multifaceted consumer is a powerful tool in combating the rapidly evolving terms on which brands engage with their audiences.

It is vital that no activation in today’s relationship economy is ever single-minded, without depth or lacking inclusive, multi-channel activity. When considering a digital activation, brands must consider the physical element of their audience member’s lives, and vice versa, in order to emulate the complex needs of the complex individuals you have within your audience, and provide, deep, truly universal activations that result in meaningful engagement.

At mci group, we leverage our omni-channel network of innovative agencies to address the ever-closing gap between physical and digital, ensuring we deliver consistent and innovative activations across all mediums and touch points. If your brand needs help bridging the gap between physical and digital, call +41 22 33 99 500 or e-mail:

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Identities in sync: the end of distinct digital and physical selfhood

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