Let’s Get Physical: 5 Lessons Brands Can Learn From Analog

While digital has totally transformed the way we live, work, play, shop, communicate, connect and consume… well, pretty much everything, in some cases, consumers are saying no to the screen in favor of more physical experiences.

Nowhere is this change more obvious than in the recent resurgence of vinyl records. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, new vinyl sales reached 16 million units and $395 million in revenue last year, prompting a Forbes article headlined “Vinyl Is Bigger Than We Thought. Much Bigger.” Vinyl is on track to surpass two categories of music revenue next year—one of which is digital radio. Move over Pandora!

As part of our 12 For 12 series, we visited Reckless Records and Stern Pinball to see how these two companies are successfully capitalizing on the adoration of analog. Here’s what we learned. Watch our After12 Podcast, Episode 3 here.


  1. Passion is Power


“The music industry is always changing as far as what people want to buy [and] what media they want to buy it on,” explains Bryan Smith, General Manager of Reckless Records’ three Chicago stores.

But even as digital disruption has continued to transform the music industry—and the way music fans discover and consume tunes—Reckless has not only stayed strong, but actually doubled their physical space and taken sales completely offline. But how? Especially as massive retailers like Tower Records and Virgin Records burned out and filed bankruptcy.

“They were trying to be everything to everybody and catering to the mainstream,” Smith says of the former industry giants. “We’ve always stayed loyal to vinyl… I guess we don’t give up on anything too easily.”

The takeaway here for all brands and industries is that while there’s temptation to try to appeal to the largest audience possible, you can’t please everyone. What’s often more effective is narrowing the focus to appeal to a smaller, but more fanatic, audience. In differentiating themselves from the biggest in the biz, Reckless just focused on loving what they do and being the best in that space.

This is just what the leaders of Reckless (est. 1989) and Stern Pinball (est. 1930s) have done. By staying true to their particular focus and feeding off the passion of a dedicated group of diehards, they’ve survived against the odds—and waves of digital disruption—to remain successful, and even grow, in their respective spaces.


  1. Craftsmanship is Key


Whether it’s in the form of album artwork that makes the listener feel more connected to the band, or the half-mile of wire (connected by hand!) required to make a Stern pinball machine, craftsmanship, design and attention to detail are forever the keys to capturing—and keeping—a consumer’s attention and loyalty.

And while these particular examples are related to physical products, the same premise applies to the digital realm. Every element of a product, service or experience must be constructed with care. So while a roaring Incredible Hulk—like the kind seen pounding on the surface of a Stern pinball playing field—probably doesn’t figure into your company’s strategy, it’s worth considering how to create the attention-grabbing equivalent for your brand, and putting in the work on every level to make it, uh, a smash.


  1. Don’t Ditch Digital


When waxing poetic about vinyl, the bells and whistles of classic arcade games or even vintage encyclopedia sets, it’s important not to ignore the elephant in the room: inconvenience.

In a world where everyone carries a supercomputer in their pocket constantly streaming media and information, convenience often trumps tradition. This means we must recognize that there’s a time and a place for both the physical and digital—and room for them to coexist.

“Stop viewing digital and physical as separate,” design consultancy Fjord advises in its 2018 Trends Report. “Instead ask: how do we design experiences and spaces to connect with people around us, enabled by digital in a physical world? Create experiences that fuse physical and digital.”

After all, while there’s value in having a bookshelf stocked with classic literature, an audiobook is more convenient for your morning commute or middle seat in coach. And while pouring a glass of wine and un-sleeving your favorite Leon Bridges album feels great at home, the ability to access every one of his albums from your iTunes library when you’re on the move is a different, but equally rewarding, experience.

Many artists have realized this and now include digital downloads with the purchase of their vinyl records, a true best-of-both-worlds scenario. So until Elon Musk decrees that every Tesla is equipped with a dashboard-mounted turntable, consumers can get what they really want—and stream their Cake record too.


  1. Social is Significant


While the internet may offer us infinite opportunities to connect and converse with people on every corner of the planet, sometimes it’s nice to take conversations out of the comments section and interact in real life.

Rough Trade NYC, the US outpost of the London-based record label and store, has harnessed the inherently social component of record shopping through its in-store coffee shop and on-site music venue. Meanwhile, Austin’s Waterloo Records hosts intimate performances and events, and during the annual Austin City Limits music fest, fans can visit the store’s autograph tent to meet their favorite artists. On the same front, bookstores have continued to host readings, book signings and events—things one just can’t experience via their Amazon Kindle.

For a brand that’s all-in on analog to truly thrive, it’s not just about creating something people can hold and touch, but putting people in touch. Every brand, no matter their industry or focus, can benefit from cultivating community (more on that here in this blog post). As pinball enthusiast Dana Moran told us at Logan Arcade, “No matter when you play, whether you’re in a tournament or not, you’re going to meet new people.”


  1. It’s All About the Experience


Whether your goal is to cultivate feelings of nostalgia, connection, excitement or joy—whether you’re into records, or peddling pinball machines—keep in mind that it’s not just about the product you’re selling. It’s the pull of the lever, the drop of the needle and the experience surrounding it.

“It is a little bit of a treasure hunt,” Smith says, “[and] finding some new thing that you didn’t know you wanted or needed. That little burst of serotonin or whatever it is in your brain that you get from finding something like that is kind of what keeps all of us involved.”

While industries and markets may change, and technologies adapt and evolve to meet the customer, a truly great experience—like those found in a record store or at the arcade—keep capturing the hearts and minds of consumers.

So build it, and they will come. Make it until you “make it”.

And if you do it right, as Stern and Reckless have, your customers will keep coming back.

To learn more about how these two companies are defying the odds and thriving despite digital disruption, check out our short video features on the Chicago season of 12 For 12: Reckless Records Episode; Stern Pinball Episode

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