Monday, September 30, 2013

Suddenly I see

On a train back into London last week, I sat next to a blind couple and their guide dog. It was interesting to watch them complete tasks we sighted people take for granted - storing their bags, settling into their seats, and ensuring their dog wasn’t in the way of people in the aisle. As we approached the city, they began to discuss their immediate plans upon arrival. The woman suggested they find a bench and use BlindSquare to - as she put it - “see where they were”. I’d not previously heard of BlindSquare, which is an award-winning app that “makes use of the latest features available in smartphones to aid the blind and visually impaired in their daily lives”. According to the website, BlindSquare uses information from Foursquare and Open Street Map to make spoken recommendations for the user. As a blind interviewee was recently quoted in the New York Times, “The belief was the tools for the visually impaired must have a tactile screen, which, it turns out, is completely untrue”. Of course, noone who works in branding or advertising can ever observe new or unusual human behaviour without immediately wondering how they’ll be able to incorporate it into a PowerPoint presentation. So, while watching this couple disappear into the crowds at London Bridge, I was imagining what a non-visual world meant for brands. If we removed sight, what could we see?
It is now commonly understood that a modern brand is built on experience; how it feels to use and interact with. And yet it is undeniable that a great deal of our affinity with brands is based on how they look - the emotions we associate with the experience of the brand often prompted by seeing the logo or visiting it online or in-store. Even with brands we are unfamiliar with, we can use subtle visual signals such as naming, typeface or colour palette to determine whether it might be something we’re interested in. I’ve written previously about how lost I found myself in Havana - the land without brands. Indeed, without sight the visual signals that help us find our way, discover new things and even keep us safe disappear, and brands lose their power. For the couple on the train, BlindSquare provides vocal prompts to help them navigate London, but what else could a brand do to assert their presence? How could a brand use smell, touch, sound and even taste to quickly prompt that comforting feeling of recognition not just in blind people but in everyone?