PSFK has spotted a trend bubbling up at the confluence of exclusivity and community, where brands and retailers are tapping into the ephemeral and the human with unique networks as a remaining way to differentiate and connect more deeply

Last weekend, Prada held the fourth installment of its traveling private club, ‘Prada Mode.' In tandem with the kick-off of Paris Haute Couture week, the event took place in the city of light's famous Maxim's, where the 19th-century restaurant immersed members in an exhibit themed around data collection and identity creation as well as featured live performances plus fine dining. According to the club's site, Prada Mode Paris was designed to give invited members a unique way to experience a particular theme or facet within contemporary creative culture, as well as connect in real life over an ephemeral, unrepeatable experience—and it's not the only brand activation of its type.

Our keen researchers at PSFK have been watching, seeing through the hubbub and glamor to understand how brands are now driving engagement at the intersection of community and exclusivity, leveraging limited, invite-only experiences to connect with their most valuable customers and fans. We recently dived into how gaming is a popular new context to achieve this; now we turn our lens to the idea of membership to look at how brands are deepening connection by creating rich contexts and social networks of their own.

Just take a look at Reebok's Unlocked program, launched last year, which works to build a community around fitness while rewarding its most loyal members. Not only do participants receive points that they can accumulate and use towards unlocking experiential perks, but they actually get credit for activity like social media posting and attending experiences—a strategy that incentivizes engagement and interaction above all. The program also invites its top-tier members to join exclusive occasions like concert series and partnered events, forging connections to other elements of culture and media. A program like this fundamentally changes the way that brands assign value to their customers, looking beyond transactions into more meaningful measures.

While these communities cropping up can be mostly or purely digital—like Tulerie‘s invite-only closet-sharing network—many brands and retailers are focusing on cultivating a strong IRL presence, and for good reason: 81% of surveyed consumers say it's important to be able to connect with people who are into the same things that they like, and 75% say they enjoy using social media to share one-of-a-kind products and/or exclusive experiences, including limited-edition product drops or invite-only concerts.* Brands are taking note, with SoulCycle sending customers on branded vacations, LIVELY growing its brand and reach through its community of ambassadors, and Illy taking coffee lovers on international café-themed retreats, according to the Robb Report.

Why are brands and retailers increasingly acting as networks for activity and socialization? Because in a world of Amazon everything at any time in any place, this is an area where our researchers believe brands can still differentiate themselves. We are increasingly seeing exclusivity in retail take the form of the ephemeral and human—what transpired between people at a particular place and time, and which can't be repeated or recreated. Howard Sullivan, retail design expert, has been predicting this for years, telling PSFK in 2018, “It might be that we're going into an era where the impact of something that can't entirely be shared has to be taken into consideration as well. I do think there's a lot to be said for a little bit of mystery where people really want to experience something and maybe there's an element that they can share, but there's a bit more that's the icing on the cake. You have to experience it in the moment.”

Rather than cultivate exclusivity through inaccessible price points, now brands and retailers are turning to one-of-a-kind offers, often involving a social element, to generate hype and drive interest.* This brings us back to the Prada party—an exclusive, time-bound context that is as sharable as it is unsharable, that leans on a base of human-to-human interaction, and that aligns with larger cultural events to occupy an audience's time and space—and also to give people the sustenance of real connection and experience.

It appears to us that the new definition of exclusivity in an age where so much can be captured or shared involves harnessing the power of live connection and experience bound by time and space—and in another sense, the enduring.

*What's Next: Generation Antidentity. Complex Networks and PSFK, 2020.

Lead image: via Unsplash