We’ve all grown-up watching films that offer us a peek at the future of technology; the majority of which is utterly wondrous. We follow a daily news wave, which publicises the latest innovations and big ideas, and we are also fully aware of reports on the imminent arrival of self-driving cars, windowless planes, intelligent cities and holographic shopping. While science and technology are sexy and vital, getting it right and using them in the most effective way, is also a little like trying to jump into a speeding car from standing. This poses an enormous opportunity and challenge for brands looking to succeed in this new era of technology.

As the devices we carry become harder to distinguish, manufacturers are starting to run out of creative ideas too – a curved mobile phone screen, really?! So, the obvious next move is into ‘invisible’ or wearable technologies; this includes the clothes we wear, the sensors we walk past and the glasses we see with.

For communications agencies and brands, that are already struggling to understand the internet and changing consumer habits, the reality is that wearable technology is here and it is only going to get bigger. In a world where it is already very hard for brands and marketers to get their messages heard, wearable technology offers a wealth of opportunities, but it will not be plain sailing for all.

The current world of wearable technology

Up until now, we’ve seen the fitness industry take the lead in wearables – offering tracking wristbands such as the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex, following a path set out by Nike+ and Fuelband. Yet, despite a relatively small beginning, the wider use of them is becoming more and more apparent.

We’ve all followed Google’s adventure with the Google Glass, and its subsequent and abrupt stop to device development. We have read about Facebook buying Oculus Rift and recently seen the first steps into powerful augmented reality with Microsoft’s HoloLens too. The latter has so many obvious contextual retail opportunities, including live data feeds and reviews, product detail, dynamic messaging and personalisation. On the more adventurous side, Necomimi ears – headsets with ears that move and react to a wearer’s mood – and the recently launched Project Brainflight, has even showed us that a drone could be controlled by the power of the brain.

While most of these devices have, up until now, worked primarily for data capture, what we are now beginning to see, is a maturing of devices so that they work alongside other physical objects. An example of this is Moff, the wearable smart toy; a toy that turns everything kids do, into fun, animated sounds. But, only after the introduction of the recently launched Apple Watch will technology of this kind  become mainstream, more personal and individualised.

The evolution of wearable technology

If we first look back at what we carried around with us a few years ago – for instance, a notebook, a camera, a book, a map, or a chunky laptop perhaps – we realise just how much technology has changed our lives. Now, just a smartphone will be all of these items and more and the challenge for brands hereon in will be to establish and maintain relevancy with consumers within this technology-driven and rapidly changing world.

As wearable technology develops, the next challenge for communications agencies and brands will be to harness the opportunity to create personal and contextual dialogues, services and interactions with wearers, to evoke brand advocacy.

In the very near future we can expect to see technology such as intelligent fabric and jewellery that can interpret the context of a customer’s situation, i.e. technology that will pick up on things such as mood, location, current activity and physical health. By harnessing this correctly, brands could select both the right product and the message most suitable for each individual person.

Again, we have seen that the fitness and health market are at the forefront of these emerging ideas. Heloskin for example, is already creating intelligent biometric training garments that connect and feed data to a personal eco-system based on an individual’s performance and goals. These garments also have the ability to heat themselves based on temperature.

Concepts such as the Sesame Ring by Ring Theory – a stylish ring with all the power of a smart card – has also identified how brands might use wearable technology to interact with the everyday world, by interacting with sensors to open doors. This idea is the next logical step on from the Near Field Communication (NFC) interfaces we already have today, such as Oyster Card readers and contactless payment.

Considering this transition, it is not difficult to imagine a whole range of other everyday intelligent systems that brands could look to adopt. For instance, customers travelling home on a cold, rainy Monday night could be offered hot drinks while they travel, or even hot food ready to pick up when they get nearer home. Weather data could also be read from intelligent fabric to alert local umbrella stockists to the soggy consumer caught in a downpour.  On a more specific level, these intelligent systems might also be used in-store to help nut allergy sufferers identify ‘safe’ products appropriate for them, based on available health data. Or, at the in-store point of sale there could be electronic carousels, which would rotate items to customers based on their dietary habits or perhaps ‘favourite’ or even frequently purchased items.

The possibilities are endless and this means no one really can be sure what the future holds. Nevertheless, what we can expect to see is many brands going through a period of quite clumsy experimentation in the coming year or two, where some approach the opportunities in a blunt and broadcast manner. It’s not impossible to imagine a tidal wave of screens starting to offer consumers crude recommendations based on previous purchases or social identity – remember those sci-fi films again! However, the real value this type of technology could bring, will be to those that take a mature and transitional approach, offering more ambient, subtle and personal advertising, using a greater level of data in a more intelligent way. Yet, for this to happen, brands will need to integrate all of their environmental beacons, NFC technology and social data capture and use it to shape personal and pertinent communications for each individual customer.

What does this mean for advertisers and brands?

We’ve already seen how consumer expectation has driven the need for more personal, relevant and useful content, messages and services. It is therefore obvious that advertising will also need to offer a similar experience and relevancy to the customers it hopes to target.

As we move increasingly from a content first approach, to a more strategic and context first viewpoint, it is vital to consider what consumers need at any point, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. A one-size fits all approach to digital content and communications misses the point and by sticking to this strategy, brands will increasingly be out of step with consumer expectations.

In the retail world this is already happening. Virgin Atlantic has already played around with using Google Glass to provide a better customer experience and recently, the work done by Projection Artwork in display mapping for Nike is a big step in this direction too. Consumers are undoubtedly now more expectant of totally personalised retail experiences and, for retailers who know who we are, we want them to talk to us in a way we like and appreciate, from the moment we visit. It’s like that satisfying feeling of going to your favourite coffee shop and having the barista know your favourite coffee without you even asking.

What comes next?

Further down the line we can expect to see a growth in intelligent fabrics, helping to provide another layer to the experience of communicating messages.

Technology enabled clothes will also start to change the way people live their lives. ‘Wearable soft robotics’ for example are already in development by a team at the University of Bristol and they will have the ability to provide walking assistance, health analysis and could even be considered as an alternative for wheelchairs.

A world which frequently uses augmented reality is also well within our reach, for instance, imagine a holiday company that uses a virtual beach to entice eager holidaymakers alongside dynamic marketing pricing, personalised customer messages, and the warmth of the sun on their back – effective isn’t it?

We will also start to see a greater use of implants into the body that will talk to other devices and sensors in the street and everyday world, perhaps translating copy into any language based on preferences contained in the chips. And, as we are becoming more and more accepting of mobile payments, there is no doubt that we will start to see the integration of mobile wallets and passport features linked to our identity too. Perhaps then, we might not even need banks anymore?

So what does that mean for advertisers today?

The common thread in all of these examples is the need to provide a service to the consumers that will bring both reward and benefits. As brands and agencies help to understand and plan, they will increasingly help make consumer decisions, and start to filter out messages that do not add to a consumer’s lifestyle. The end result being more effective advertising.

As for what comes next, well, the speeding car of wearable technology throws up a lot of questions: what will Facebook do with Oculus Rift? What is the future of Microsoft’s HoloLens project and augmented retaility? What exactly are the head-mounted devices called Magic Leap, and why are they shrouded in so much secrecy? The answer is, we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that the winners in this space will be the ones that add relevancy and utility to the consumer without overstepping the mark.

We all accept that consumers are becoming increasingly less likely to sit in front of a TV all evening and watch the same commercial as the people next door so, to be part of their increasingly busy lives, brands need to have a lifestyle connection and behavioural understanding of their customer base and a contextually-led approach to building a relationship with them. A failure to realise and plan for this now will leave brands trailing far behind.

James Deeley

James Deeley


James Deeley, director of creative strategy, Amaze.