The Blurrification of boundaries in lifestyle, leisure and media.
The technological premise:
In his mid 90s bestseller on the future of media, Nicholas Negroponte – one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab – introduced the revolutionary notion of technological convergence: he posited that with the transformation of “atoms to bits”, and the consequent translation of all media into digital form, media and ICT technologies would converge into more personalized platforms. Tech Convergence would be such a tsunami, that we then expected all media to converge in a super-device or a super-medium. By the year 2000, evidence of technological convergence took the form of DVD players being installed into laptops and computers; TiVos spreading quickly in the US and the UK, by setting in motion the demise of the traditional “prime time” model of TV broadcasting and advertising; and, more importantly, Napster’s Peer-to-peer network for sharing – albeit illegally, in most cases – music and movies.
Early detractors of the notion of tech convergence, pointed out that “No single medium is going to win the battle for our ears and eyeballs”: while probably that holds true today, the nature of technological convergence changed with the introduction of smart phones, tablets and the smartification of devices, like our television sets and our house appliances. The number of screens is increasing and not decreasing, as one could have expected in a “convergence” phenomenon, yet the way we consume media and communicate, through this growing list of devices, is coming together in a shared experience.
Convergence: from technological to social trend
In our research on the future of urban consumption for premium and luxury goods, Marco Bevolo and I posit that tech convergence is playing a role in transforming the nature of our social interaction, and therefore has challenged the traditional fabric of our lifestyles: tech convergence is often referred to as the blurring boundaries between categories, where devices are now developed with functional abilities – and part of digital ecosystems – beyond the traditional notion of the category they belong to. Our research concludes that – likewise – the boundaries of our lifestyles are overlapping, by undermining our traditional understanding of work, leisure and entertainment. We refer to this technology-enabled, connectivity-conscious, social phenomenon, as the Blur. This social trend has it roots in the technological one, which, together with omni-connectivity, has enabled a long lasting ripple effect in the fabric of our society and personal lifestyles.
The most solid point of evidence for the changing blueprint of our lifestyle, is the Blur between “work” and “play”: seamlessly we are switching back and forth between “work-mode” and “play”, a process in which makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between the two. Offices were once designed and built with the aim of improving productivity by fostering communication and reducing distractions, by eliminating “noise” beyond sound. Nowadays we can easily observe the opposite: social areas, play rooms, hammocks and foosball – even table tennis – are taking the place of meeting rooms. Cool and inspiring walls are emerging in lieu of traditional, modular office architecture, and slides, bicycles and napping sofas are becoming the new staple of office interior design. And while offices are allowing for more and more social and relaxing moments, it does not surprise that people take a break from work – in the office – while streaming their preferred TV series – whether on their desktop, tablet or phone – or just hang with their friends on social media. The extreme case for the change of attitude of firms towards employee social and relaxed behaviors in the office, can be found in the emergence of gamification, as a tool to educate, train and innovate.
By the same token, our homes, once the untouchable sanctuary of our relaxation and unwinding, are transforming in full-fledged remote offices: technology is such that we can work from home and nobody could see the difference. And this is becoming even more true when we are on holiday: laptops, tablets and smartphones are becoming archetypal accessories when we travel on vacation, and sneaking out of our leisure time for a quick conference call, or to exchange a couple of emails, it’s becoming the new normal: more evidence that the work/ play dimensions are blurring. And of course, the advent of Digital Nomads, is the quintessential evidence of the Blur, with their notion of work unbound from an office location, with the idea of scouting a location to work that maximizes comfort and rest – rather then convenience and productivity – and the implied convergence of business and leisure travel.
More examples of the BlurRIFICATION
Beyond the changing blueprint of work and life, the Blur has many other manifestations and examples. But to understand them, we need to first and foremost understand the notion of occasion – based models: in a nutshell they are clustering exercises where the needs of a consumer are declined based on the specific boundaries of an occasion, which could be related to the time of the day, the day of the week, or a specific period of the year. Occasion-based models are the reason why the same product can be offered in different formats: you might have a small bottle of water, to purchase and consume on the go, or a large family format for water consumption at home; whereas a glass bottle – instead of the plastic one – is usually served in upper-scale restaurants. Occasions are characterized by a clear beginning and a clear end; and very important are also the transitions from one occasion to another: snacks, beer, spirits have traditionally capitalized on the specific nuances of those transitions, for example the pre-dinner aperitivo or the Friday evening after-work drinks. Because of the Blur, the traditional borders of occasions and transitions, are disappearing: so, unsurprisingly, more and more mainstream restaurants are offering “all day breakfast”. Or more and more restaurants are proposing everyday “brunches” – traditionally a week-end family occasion – as social sophisticated meals, often accompanied by liquors. Moreover, flavored beer and ciders have emerged as a key drink in the repertoire of Millennials: and this is remarkable for many reasons. First and foremost because, due to the low alcoholic nature of the drinks, they were initially targeting female consumption, a segment, with whom, many beer producers had their disappointments in the past. And under the effect of blurring boundaries, consumption spread to male consumers: a beer designed for female consumption that becomes genderless. Even more remarkable is the fact that these beers grew, by – often – stealing volumes from water and soft drinks brands, in their traditional core consumption occasions: meals and refreshment. A beyond-category competition that neither beer producers, nor soft drinks marketers, would or could have expected ten years ago.
The Blur is also affecting the way we travel: the traditional dichotomy between business travellers and holiday seekers – on which the hotel and travel industry is built – is not as clear as before. Urban Resorts are emerging as a hybrid solution to service the combined business and leisure needs of travellers. But ultimately the Blur is also affecting the way we shop, especially in the super-premium categories: already today the sales staff of top luxury watches and jewelers, are connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with their customers: whether they communicate on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, WeChat or just plain, traditional email or sms, is besides the point. And already today a lot of the sales are happening outside shopping hours, and off-premise: a very expensive watch is as likely to be picked up in store as it is to be delivered on the tarmac of a private jet waiting to take off.
The Future of Branding and Innovation
Because of the Blur consumers are more and more confused. First of all, because of the shuttering of the occasion-based model, which is losing ground under the pressure of the overlapping boundaries of lifestyles. Moreover the increasing connectivity is enabling more and more opportunities – both in geographical and chronological sense – to blur traditional patterns: one could be ordering their groceries from their phone, while commuting back from the office, and expecting a delivery with the hour. And finally confusion is also the derivative of the increase offering of products and services or of product becoming services.
This misperception stems – among other things – from the misleading cues that traditional formats are offering: more and more brands still lack mobile-ready “hero images” for their on-line shopping. This is due to the assumption that consumers will mostly shop from larger screens.
The first derivative effect of this confusion is consumers deciding to trust the judgment of those brands whose offering is most relevant to them. Brand Relevance is becoming and will be becoming – even more – a beacon for confused consumers, seeking a way of untangling the complexity of the tech-heavy, always-connected, and blurred lifestyle. This is not very different from the trading-up and trading-down phenomenon observed at the end of the 90s: depending on the relevance of a specific category of products, the same consumers could be seen shopping in prime commercial areas for luxury brand, or in private-labels discounters. The relevance of the category would determine whether the consumer would buy a top luxury brand, or a private label alternative: in other words, the category relevance translated into a brand filter. Within the reach of the Blur, the filter becomes the relevance of the specific brand: and consumers will be likely to filter out the brands and the products, which are totally irrelevant, or too confusing for them. This should pose a major concern to many brands, which are currently relying on tactical and pricing mechanics to get on the radar screen of consumers. Even more concerning, because of the emerging trend of virtual assistants – artificial intelligent based algorithms – which are posed to take over some, or most, of the repetitive shopping from consumers. Because of the Blur, many brands face extinction by algorithm, and they do not even realize it.
The Blur will also entail a change in the way firms innovate. When we see the emergence of digital services like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, we observe consumers in action, redefining the traditional boundaries of categories developed to service their needs. Mostly younger consumers don’t need, nor want cars, they need mobility solutions. They don’t need hotels, they need a bed to sleep away from their own bed. Likewise consumers will push the boundaries of many categories, until they find the innovation – being that a product or a service or a combination of both – which best satisfies their needs. In a recent co-creation session my firm conducted for a client on the theme of super-connected homes, a number of intriguing and unexpected insights emerged: contrary to consumer electronic manufacturers impressions, consumers want their CE devices to be hidden in plain sight. While manufacturers are indulging in a very big effort of improving the design to fit the taste of the consumers, consumers will keep pushing for less intruding, no-blinking-LEDs, furniture-embedded devices. This might even result in consumer electronics changing their business model, from device designers, manufacturers and sellers, to service offerings. Many will have to move beyond the “moving – boxes” commercial model, by becoming co-developers in an Open Innovation eco-system of connected furniture, and design items, while, at the same time, generating more of their revenues from services or licensing their software Intellectual Property.
In conclusion: SO what of BLURRIFICATION OF BOUNDARIES
The Blur is a pervasive phenomenon, which is already changing the traditional rules of categories, shopping and brand-building. Companies should – at least – embrace the change, by accepting the uncertainty related to this social trend. In addition to that, they should start co-creating with consumers stronger and more relevant platforms for their brands, unless they want to be dis-intermediated by a tech giant from the West Coast of the US of A. And more importantly they should develop open innovation ecosystems, beyond the fear of loosing their current business model, by looking at partners in adjacent industries.
Originally published in Polish for Harvard Business Review Polska
 Nicholas Negroponte, “Being Digital,” 1996.
 Henry Jenkins, “Convergence? I Diverge,” Technology Review 104, no. 5 (2001): 93.
 Marco Bevolo; Filiberto Amati; “Premium Beyond Digital” (2017)
 A smart phone reaches well beyond its traditional functional boundaries of making and receiving phone calls on the go.
 Gabe Zichermann and Joselin Linder, The Gamification Revolution: How Leaders Leverage Game Mechanics to Crush the Competition (McGraw-Hill New York, 2013).
 M. Rosenwald, “Digital Nomads Choose Their Tribes: Teleworkers Find Camaraderie in a New Kind of Colleague,” Washington Post 25 (2009).
 David A. Aaker, Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).
 Michael J. Silverstein, Neil Fiske, and John Butman, Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods–and How Companies Create Them (Penguin, 2008).