David Sax is a business and culture reporter whose most recent book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, is about the surprising success of analog products and technologies in a world that’s supposedly enamored with digital.
Since the book’s release in August 2016, markets have continued to bear out Sax’s thesis: Vinyl sales eclipsed digital downloads in the UK this year, while cassette tapes also saw a sales bump in 2016. In what might be the ultimate triumph for analog, Amazon is pushing further into physical retail, with bookstores opening this year in New York City and other locations.
JWT Intelligence first noted the return of analog in 2013. Below, Sax discusses why the “revenge of analog” remains relevant for marketing in 2017 and beyond.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
Around the same time that people first started to get smartphones—the age of the BlackBerry, around 2006—my roommate and I inherited his parents’ record collection. This happened just as we had uploaded all of our CDs to iTunes and figured out a way to stream them through the wireless router in our house. So right as we had gotten rid of all our physical music, we brought in a big chunk of analog. That’s where we got talking about the difference between analog and digital, and how this manifests itself in our lives.
Looking around, I started to see that there were companies out there that were selling analog things and thriving. There were local record stores. Moleskins were becoming popular in North America. The Lomography cameras had been around for a couple of years, and they had just opened a store in Toronto.
I tried selling publishers on the idea, but it wasn’t there yet. They would say, “What? No. It’s all about digital.” Every couple years I kept coming back to the topic as it kept growing.
What changed in the time that you’ve been researching this that made analog a more attractive topic to publishers now?
I think it’s the prevalence of it. It’s as though there’s a correlation: The better the digital technology gets, the more valuable the analog has become. People said “Well, once we have the iPhone 5, no one is going to need these film cameras. The resolutions can be so much better.” But almost the opposite is true. As digital became the dominant technology, the value of analog grew.
There’s this notion that analog is going to grow, but only up to the point where digital technology becomes so good that we don’t need it. And we’re past that point. We’re post-digital now. The digital revolution is here; it won. It’s conquered. All these things are happening in a post-digital environment, where digital is the dominant force. It is going to be the dominant force. So the growth of analog is not due to the inferiority of digital technology; it’s due to the sacrifices you have to make. And because of that, analog is finding its niche.
Are analog technologies a complement to digital, or are they a new path forward?
It’s a harmonious blending of the two technologies. The idea that it’s one or the other is the false narrative of digital. If you go into a coffee shop or an agency, people are going to have a notebook or field notes next to their iPhone and their MacBook. They might listen to Spotify when they’re taking the subway to the office, but they’ll go home and put on the record collection. They might read certain books and magazines on tablets but other books on paper.
People want that balance. Ten years ago, the attraction was that everything in your life would become digital. You wouldn’t need any distractions; you would live in a perfect, uncluttered, Zen-like house where you would stream your art to the wall.
It’s something that most people don’t want. People still want things. For the consumer, if you can’t define yourself by the things on your walls and in your house, you’re going to search for something, and you can’t do that digitally.
There’s all these companies that do digital art. Even those virtual picture frames. You have your photos and it’ll just stream through the frame, which sits in your house. Anyone who has those, it just sits in the box. I’ve never been into someone’s house where it’s actually working. It’s in a horrible restaurant in Murray Hill, or something. Like a banquet hall.
You’ve mentioned vinyl, notebooks—what are some other examples of analog coming back?
The market for board games has been growing. And the store itself. Everyone assumed that bookstores would be dead, and now what you’re seeing is the opposite. Ecommerce brands like Amazon or Warby Parker are all rushing to open stores.
And then you see the less obvious ways. In the desire and the look of luxury goods, for example. It’s hard to sell luxury goods in digital. The idea of digital is that everyone gets the same thing and there’s no difference in quality, so it’s hard to do something that’s luxury-added.
But in analog, you can differentiate more, with everything from actual luxury goods to things like paper publications. A magazine like Kinfolk, for example, where people will pay $20 for an issue but it’s a gorgeous coffee table thing.
That doesn’t mean it’s expensive. You can go to Urban Outfitters and buy a turntable for $100, and you can buy records at a used record store. It’s not luxury in the dollar sense, it’s luxury more in the sense that it’s no longer a necessity. It’s an option B. If you go out and buy a copy of a used book, that is a luxury when you could get that on a Kindle or whatever.
Is it more about the emotional connect? It sounds like there’s an element of a status symbol to some of these as well.
I think it’s a personal, emotional connection in some ways. For the person who’s buying books or records or board games, that is because it’s something that gives them pleasure. It gives them a sense of identity and community with the other people who are indulging in that hobby. It’s something they can display and identify with and socialize with, as consumers.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a company using whiteboards or notebooks. There is some idea of, “I use a notebook, so I’m a creative.” But there is also a very practical element to it. “This is the tool that works best for me.” There’s a lot of elements of analog technology that work in that way.
Did you look at any particular generation? Did you notice any particular changes across generations?
The assumption out there is that this is nostalgic older people who don’t want to adopt new technology. For boomers, they’re actually not the ones who are driving this at all. They’re in love with their iPads. To them, it’s incredible, and they have very little nostalgia for these analog forms of technology. They’re enamored with digital.
It’s driven mostly by the generations who have grown up with digital technology in one way or another. To them, analog is not a nostalgic thing. It’s something interesting. It’s almost something new. And I think that’s going to continue, because as those consumers grow up and gain some sort of identity as individuals, they’re going to search for things out of the norm
The default now is digital everything. If you’re going to establish yourself as an individual, you’re going to have to do something different. That difference is found, in many ways, in analog things.
What are some of the major takeaways from the book?
The buzzwords around digital and innovation are pitched very frequently as the solution. Agencies and brands need to be digital, need to be social, need to be mobile. This is the future and this is what everything is and this is what you have to do to be innovative.
Too often, that is translated into, “Just do a bunch of digital things and you’ll have an impact.” But the reality is, you can maybe have a more meaningful or lasting impact for your brand by figuring out what your analog strengths are and the ways you can connect with a consumer on that level. That’s going to be a deeper and more lasting connection than chasing likes or social views.
If you open up a store or you do a campaign where you’re sending people things, it might seem more outwardly costly or less innovative, but it has the ability to connect with consumers on a much deeper level. That is something that is becoming more valuable as everyone else goes out there and farms for the same likes and clicks and shares as you are.
Print is great. It’s so much more effective. People read more of the ad, they see it and you get a longer impression and a bigger impact with it. But there’s been a stampede away from it. Not because it’s been less effective, but because people have the assumption that it is dead and that the money would be better spent in digital.
Think about zigging where everyone else is zagging, and what the real long-term value of analog is. Whether it’s a radio ad, or an ad in a print publication, or a paper or a billboard. It’s not necessarily as easy or cheap, but it engages in a different way.