Branding for a life in paradox: The value of serendipity

In the second of their series of articles for CR on Branding for a life in paradox, Coley Porter Bell’s James Ramsden and John Clark look at consumers’ seemingly contradictory demands for both serendipity and predictability and how brands should respond

Image: da-kuk/iStock

A Guardian article published last year argued that the death of hitchhiking is a tragedy. It suggested that ride-sharing apps have made getting from A to B something that can be managed and monitored; but that the loss of this free-spirited action in the process is “sacrificing an element of serendipity, the happy accident of the unexpected place or person, to the security of predictability”.

Is knowing too much killing the magic? Or, in this case, is serendipity being killed by predictability?

Uber ad by BBH

Serendipity versus predictability…

What is predictability and is it all bad? The short answer is no… humans love routine and we love being predictable. Brands use algorithms and data to find out how we move purposefully, because we are creatures of habit.

Knowing what we’re doing is crucial and successful, highly personalised experiences, products and services work because of the data we have to make them right for people. Farfetch, an e-commerce company, has recently created the ‘Store of the Future’ which logs customers’ clothing preferences as they browse the store creating a wish list through a connected clothing rail. This blends the shopper’s physical interactions with predictability creating a very effective and memorable experience.

FarFetch’s Store of the Future

Predictability can also be used to manage relationships which is what PPLPKR has been created for. It’s an app that uses algorithms and data to monitor and decipher your physical and emotional reactions to social interactions and, in turn, manages who you should – and who you shouldn’t – be spending time with.

The opposite to predictability is serendipity. It conjures up ideas of romance, chance, fate – it’s emotive, surprising and is rooted in feeling rather than hard data and facts. It can’t be tracked, its nature is to be illusive and in-the-moment.

Brands are starting to realise the importance of serendipity and are increasingly finding ways to incorporate this into its customer journey, especially in certain sectors such as travel and hospitality.  LuckyTrip is a prime example of this – it’s the simple design of one button, which will create a journey customers may never have dreamed of within the budget they’ve set. This mentality has also been utilised for smaller occasions such as evening plans which Bar Roulette can be used for. By using Yelp, Uber and Foursquare, the app supplies bars that suit the individual’s taste in their vicinity. This is a fantastic way to introduce serendipity to an evening.

Can you be predictably serendipitous?…

We need serendipity to counter our predictability. When you excel in one, you need to balance with the other – they are yin and yang.

To incorporate both, you need to design in surprise, giving the consumer a happy equilibrium which is exactly what Beeline has managed to do. It is a smart compass for bikes which gets you from A to B but leaves the exact route down to you – giving the user the freedom to choose their own path and discover new things, feeding both predictability and serendipity simultaneously.

We are so used to big data and technology increasingly making life more predictable and reliable that cookie cutter experiences are lurking in the shadows. Another way to restore balance is to re-introduce humanity as the app for the Museum of Brooklyn has done. Like many museums, there’s a wealth of information to guide you round the museum and inform you about the exhibits you are viewing.  But as well as this, you have the option to live chat to a team of real life art experts, based in the museum who can answer questions, give you more information, or even make suggestions as to other lesser known exhibits you might like.

Creating a flexible visual identity system that liberate a brand’s DNA is another way to be predictably serendipitous. Burger chain Byron retained key elements within their identity system but allowed for them to be executed in a myriad of different ways to fit in with, and reflect, the local surroundings, giving endless variation whilst retaining their essential ‘Byron-ness’. The rapper M.I.A did a similar thing for a recent release, where the logo and artwork elements for her merchandise were able to be downloaded and printed in your own design onto bags, hoodies and T’s etc. giving control to fans.

Byron hoarding by Charlie Smith Design

So, whilst some brands will go all out for the comfort and control that comes with providing us with predictability – others prefer the wild, unknown plains of adventure and serendipity. Fortunately there are some brands that are finding interesting ways to provide both.

James Ramsden is ECD and John Clark, Planning Director at branding and design agency Coley Porter Bell

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