Brand Outlaw Book Club Review

Vinyl records. Board games. Taking notes on paper. Wasn’t digital technology supposed to have killed these things off by now? The obituaries for these and other long-time aspects of life were written a bit prematurely.

Like a horror movie where the teenage camp counselors think they’ve finally defeated the villain, several analog industries have successfully fought off the threat of digital and are now back for vengeance. Author David Sax (who’s been a guest on the Brand Outlaw podcast) chronicles multiple stories of persistence in his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Let’s dive into a few of these stories and talk about what the revenge of analog means for your business.

A quick note: this book was published in 2016, so some data has of course changed since then, especially because of the pandemic. But, a lot of the trends outlined in this book are holding. For example, in the first chapter, The Revenge of Vinyl, Sax discusses how vinyl record sales were incredibly low for years before beginning a steady increase around 2008. U.S. sales were under 2 million that year, but rose to 18 million by 2019. And 2020 saw that market take a huge leap with sales of 27.5 million. And, as Sax notes, vinyl buyers are not all aging hippies and music snobs. Young kids who grew up on MP3s are part of this wave too. They’re discovering something new that wasn’t previously available to them. More than just the physical aspect of the medium, these young music fans are realizing the power and soul of music that isn’t digitally perfected to death.

Another chapter details the revenge of print, as in words printed on actual paper. Around 2010, e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle looked poised to eliminate the need for physical books. And why not? An e-reader’s a small, lightweight device that lets you access pretty much any book you want with a couple of clicks. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. And sales trends reflected that. U.S. physical book sales took big dips from 2010 to 2012. But then, sales started steadily ticking back up. In 2020, printed books outsold e-books in many major countries, often by a lot. Sax acknowledges digital reading’s obvious advantages but also shows the reasons for tangible reading materials’ unlikely resurgence.

The revenge of print chapter focuses heavily on notebooks, using Moleskine as a case study. Even though we can all take notes on our phones or tablets for easy access later, a lot of people like carrying around pocket notebooks like Field Notes for lists, doodles, or whatever pops into our brains. For me, and for a lot of others, the tactile act of writing helps with memory a lot more than typing. And whenever I have to design something like a logo or icon set, I don’t jump into computer software until I’ve filled up at least a few pages of my Field Notes with crappy sketches. I need to get those ideas out of my head quickly before relying on the pixel perfect tools of my design programs. Look, from an environmental perspective, I’m all for cutting back on paper usage. But I try to use paper intentionally so that I’m not wasting it but when I am using it, it’s for very practical reasons. As Sax writes, “Paper may be used less, but where it is growing, paper is worth more.”

Along with Moleskine, this book provides plenty of other excellent case studies that business owners of all types would be interested in reading. One of the most interesting was Shinola, a Detroit watch company. Shinola pushes back against the image of a city in decline by selling high end watches while proudly touting its Detroit-made status. We even learn about how much value Silicon Valley tech companies place on analog. This book is loaded with stories about entrepreneurs using their passion and ingenuity to find new markets for old technologies.

So maybe you’re not in the business of vinyl records or paper notebooks. But what lesson can any business owner take away from this book? I would say the key lesson is to be prepared but not panicky when a new digital technology emerges. I certainly wouldn’t encourage any business leader to stubbornly cling to old tech just for the sake of not wanting to learn something new. You can’t let fear hold you back from progress. But you also can’t let fear cause you to make rash decisions and throw out what’s working just because of a hot new tech trend.

Yes, stay on top of the latest innovations. But instead of hitting the panic button, one thing you can do is ask yourself if there’s a way you can integrate your product with a new digital one. For example, this book talks about how the digital note taking app Evernote came to realize that it wasn’t going to make paper obsolete like many predicted. So instead, it partnered with Moleskine to create an easy way for people to digitally store their handwritten notes. Both Evernote and Moleskine understood that their products didn’t have to be at odds with each other. By teaming up, they were able to bridge a gap between analog and digital. After all, how many of us really live in a 100 percent digital or 100 percent analog world?

Another approach analog product companies can and should take is to double down on the core of their product offering. Instead of focusing on the product itself, what is it that customers really are looking to get from their purchase? For example, with board games, sure there’s a digital alternative. People have been playing video games for decades, and their popularity is only increasing, along with the stunning graphics and gameplay. Video games offer things that board games simply can’t. But the reverse is also true.

Board games offer a very different level of human interaction than video games do, even multi-player games. This is why board games are being played not just in the home but at board game cafes which are cropping up around the world. Players are face to face, not focused on a screen. And they have to communicate in order to navigate the game within the context of its specific rules. So a board game maker isn’t really selling a game. They’re selling imagination and human connection. Maybe that sounds old fashioned, but those are human needs. And clearly there’s still a market for human needs.

The Revenge of Analog is a fascinating look at a few specific pieces of our economy. It’s a fun read that offers a broader, valuable lesson. Don’t be so quick to dismiss an entire industry in the face of a hot new technology. Because if that’s what everyone else is doing, maybe that gives you the chance for revenge.

You can order a copy of this book through Bookshop. When you do that, you’ll be supporting Brand Outlaw and your local bookstore.

And click the links below for our interviews with David on the Brand Outlaw podcast.