Tag Archives: artisanal

Creator brands: Brands that make culture

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At their most powerful, brands actually make culture. Creator brands, let’s call them.

Nike changed the way we thought about exercise, fitness, bodies and diet in the 1970s and 80s. Most of us look different and feel different for the work that came from this brand and those brilliant meaning-makers at Wieden + Kennedy.

A cluster of brands and industries after World War II helped create “mid century modernism” which in turn shaped how Americans lived and thought of themselves in a very fluid moment. Brands were minting fundamental ideas of who were we were, what we cared about, and how we lived.

In the present day, Uber and AirBnb are changing the way we think about travel and tourism. Netflix is changing the way we think about TV and storytelling.

More often, of course, brands are fellow travelers. They identify what’s happening in the culture and put themselves “in tune” with it.

Subaru and the agency Carmichael Lynch are now brilliantly in tune with culture. They continue to speak to (and speak for) a new feeling for community and family. Now that competitive individualism is in retreat, this is the way Subaru made itself a “brand of the moment.” (This is exceptional work and I hope the brand and agency are being showered with awards. And enjoy them. Principal Financial Group and agency TBWA now threatens to do still better work.)

Sometimes the brand resonates with culture in a painful, unconvincing way, as when a big processed food companies struggles unconvincingly to show us how “artisanal” they are. No one’s buying it, figuratively or literally. The brands of the consumer packaged goods world are really under challenge at the moment. It’s sad because they were so perfectly in tune in the first few decades after World War II.

Getting in touch with culture is hard. Creating culture is harder still. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. It takes intelligence, imagination, a virtuoso control of the organization, the message, and the moment.

The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. The brand that creates culture becomes a kind of navigational satellite in our world. It becomes one of the places from which we draw our ideas of selfhood and in the Herman Miller case, the work place. Most brands are “meanings made.” Creator brands are meaning makers. They help make the meanings that in turn make us.

With this in mind, I read with interest a wonderful essay in FastCo Design by Diana Budds about Herman Miller and its plan to change our culture.  In the words of CEO Brian Walker, the firm has undertaken a

“shift from being just a contract company or just an industry brand to truly be a powerful lifestyle and consumer lifestyle brand.”

This is the language corporations use when it setting about to change culture. They talk about becoming a lifestyle brand. They are now embarked on styling life.

The trouble with this approach is that many people want to style life but they have no clue about what culture is or how to change it. And you can’t style life unless you are prepared to reckon with culture.

Too often, “lifestyle brand” means slapping a new coat of paint on the brand. Too often lifestyle branding is all “style “and no “life.” The brand remains an PET plastic soda bottle sitting on the surface of the Atlantic, incapable of any sort of real contact (thank goodness). It’s just another contribution to the detritus that flows from the land of bad marketing.

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The good news is that Herman Miller hired a guy called Ben Watson (pictured here with his muse, a beautiful Burmese). Ben is a designer and, at their best, designers are good at helping connect the brand to culture. The best of them have an extraordinary combination of intelligence, imagination, strategy, craft, cunning. They grasp cultural foundations and the cultural moment. They can see culture in all it’s manifestations, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, material and emergent, and they have a way make these manifest in the brand in a way that points us in new directions, in this case away from old concepts of work and work place to new concepts of work and work place. This makes them a precious, possibly irreplaceably precious, resource. This makes them seerers where the rest of us are blind.

But it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes designers just don’t get culture. Pepsi and Tropicana hired Peter Arnell to “rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture,” and Arnell promptly engaged in what BusinessWeek called a “five week world tour of trend design houses.” (More details in Chief Culture Officer, pp. 161 and following).

This is a little like asking an astronomer to look for uncharted planets only to discover that he’s spend his time touring observatories chatting up other astronomers. Yes, of course, you can learn a lot this way, but at some point you have actually have to leave the design world bubble and talk to people who aren’t wearing really cool glasses.  Anything else is threatens to deliver the provincial and parochial. Anything else is an echo chamber.

I don’t know Ben. Let me point out that there is no criticism implied or intended. For all I know, he is absolutely the most gifted “astronomer” in play and Herman Miller’s best chance to change culture. Fingers crossed! (I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have done several projects for Herman Miller. For all I know Ben is drawing on my work. In which case, god speed!)

Ben has an extraordinary Nike-esque opportunity. We are in a moment of real cultural confusion. There are several big questions in play. What is “work?” What’s a “workplace?” These things used to be defined by several pretty clear distinctions: work and home, work and play, work and life, public and private, instrumental and expressive, pragmatic and recreational, men and women, hierarchical distinctions of rank, exquisitely clear divisions of labor. nice, neat boundaries of inside and outside, them and us. These cultural meridians once so helpful in defining social life are now well blurred. Blurred? They are thoroughly tangled.

Ben could bring clarity here. He could create a space that accommodates these confusions, that enables what we hope for, and helps to “edit out” what we wish to escape. Ben can made a contribution to Herman Miller and through Herman Miller to us. He can actually clarify our culture. He can humpty-dumpty us back together again. He can help make us ready for a postmodern existence.

What’s especially interesting about Budds’ essay is the attention it gives to the way Herman Miller intends to use retail and display spaces to define the brand and through the brand the rest of us. Designers control the manifestations of culture in the world. And when we give them Herman Miller spaces (and furniture) we give them something with which to work.

Will Ben transform us? Will Herman Miller become a creator brand? It depends to some extent on how well Ben and Herman Miller understand culture. And if manifestations are designers’ strength, culture is, by and large, their weakness.

Post script.

I think we are seeing public space and public events used more and more to stage the brand. Even as we avail ourselves of social media and digital content, we like to make the brand live in the “real world.” (Note to self…and anyone else who’s interested: we need a model that distinguishes all the media and messages at our disposal and shows how we can divide branding work across them.)

I was interested to see the work being done by a Canadian bank called Mojo. Here’s a photo of their interior. As a Canadian I can say with confidence that this is the first time any message even remotely like “IS U REALLY BOUT UR MONEY OR NAH” has even been by a Canadian bank.

Ember Library Mediator

Normally, Canadian banks prefer to look like this:

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Which to be fair is it’s own very particular symbolic statement, and in its moment superbly in tune with Canadian culture.

Thanks to Gerald Forster for the photo of Ben Watson. Gerald is the founder of Here We Go Now.

For more on culture, try this.

CCO cover 1 breathing

 

 

Artisanal Trend Timeline

I gave my Culture Camp in London last week.  I feel a little like a peddler producing my new array of household cleaners and brushes.   “Here’s a lovely notion no planner or strategist should be without!”

Here’s one slide that people seemed to find useful.

Artisanal Trend Timeline G. McCracken II

(Apologies if WordPress compresses this slide too much.  Try clicking on it for a larger view.)

The idea was to show trends in motion.  The events picked out in blue represented the pre-artisanal era, the period in which we liked our food fully industrial and the more artificial the better.

(In Camp, we talk about all the machinery perfected for the war effort applied in the late 40s and 50s to food, and the great explosion of prepared food and fast food brands, including of course Tang, that utterly artificial foodstuff endorsed by astronauts!)

Then the reaction, the repudiation, of artisanal food begins with the counter culture and the emergence of the person who was to be the goddess of the new movement, Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse, the one that was to prove the beachhead of the new movement.  Waters and CP brought a new idea into the world and then sent a diaspora of chefs and enthusiasts who went out into the world to colonize it in the name of the artisanal.

And then comes the reaction to the reaction.  Those events picked out in green are harbingers of the new, as new innovations and inclinations rise up to propose new approaches to food.  This is not to say the artisanal trend will disappear.  Some of its transformative effects have changed us forever.  But a new perspective will emerge, and it will set in train a great revolution in chefs, restaurants, TV shows, cooking magazines, and food culture generally.  And it will change the way we are eating in a decade or so.  At this point, all we have are “faint signals.”

As readers of this blog now, I am looking for more sophisticated ways of looking at culture.  We need these devices if we are to make sense of the great turbulence of our culture.  But I think they also help us clarify culture for clients for whom it is mysterious.  I think this Artisanal Trend Timeline is a good way to say, “Ok, here’s the bigger picture.  This is why we believe you should be primed to launch product X at moment Y.”

If you are interested in attending the Culture Camp, please let me know at grant27ATgmailDOTcom.  The next one will be in New York City possibly in the late summer.

If you want a high rez version of this slide, send me an email at the same address.

Period Piece

Ember

Or

Silky Szeto
Silky Szeto

This is a great essay in Pacific Standard by John Gravois.  It should be read for its sheer skill and evident pleasure it brought the writer, then the reader.  But I couldn’t help looking at it anthropologically, breaking it down alphabetically, as above.  (I did the first image.  And Silky Szeto took pity on me and offered his alternative, used here by kind permission!)

A  Author spots something in the world (artisanal toast)

B  Author tracks trend to point of origin in the world (Trouble)

C Author discovers the originator (Giulietta Carrelli)

D Author discovers the origin myth which proves to have 3 layers:

D1 Carrelli as a Berkeley students conducts a culturematic experiment in the street, discovers the magic sociological properties of toast

D2 Carrelli wanders in the world before discovering a very wise man (Glenn)  on a beach who gives her essential advice (he is the Buddha CA style, hence his name)

D3 Toast and Trouble prove to be a very good solution to a deeply personal problem, Carrelli’s psychological affliction

E This is the trajectory of so much cultural meaning in American culture.  It begins as a  personal invention, created for  personal reasons, and then it finds its way by logical and diffusion stages into American culture, installing itself in our lives, as a much more public, but still resonant, meaning.  The personal becomes the public becomes the personal.  Think Z-dogs skating abandoned houses in southern California.  Think Alice Waters.  Think Lou Reed.  Think Pete Seeger.  Some film makers.  Most novelists.  All poets.

And I love how well this essay works as an essay.  This may have something to do with the double construction.  Gravois’s quest becomes a study of her quest.  Gravois gives us an artisanal treatment of her artisanal treatment.  The mythic construction. that’s evoked, not inked.  The “just so” quality of the story, how inevitable it feels.  Fragile, perilous,  but necessary.

(This is a nice thing to reckon with: necessary things that seem implausible and barely possible.  Maybe that’s the post hoc at work.  In the early 1970s Alice Waters’ revolution seems implausible.  But these days it now feels like something that had to happen.)

It’s fun to think how much American culture comes from the personal.  From individuals making cafes called Trouble and authors discovering them in essays called Toast.  Apparently, we have pipes down everywhere, there to capture innovations and bring them to the surface.  Meaning as energy.  I’m not sure we know enough about this process.  This is the social face of innovation.  We know how bags of data and thinking on technological and business innovation.  But the social stuff, that’s less clear.

Last thought

Sorry for my graphic.  I thought it would work as a kind of a road map for the post.  But really it just ends up looking like one of those combination locks on the driver’s door of a mid size, turn-of-the century Buick.  Sorry.  I really will have to talk to the guys in the lab.  Design, this is not something they know from.  Silky Szeto was kind enough to intervene with a second, better, graphic.  Thank you, Silky. See more on Silky’s splendid work here.

Low Fidelity culture

A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?

Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome.  Very low fi indeed.   It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun.  The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.  It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.”  This is the kind of lab where you really only feel  comfortable in full body armor. 

Addy’s right.  The paradox is palpable.  On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision.  On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does. 

We have seen this paradox before.  Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand.  There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful.  (I hadn’t seen it before.)

The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

I think there are three drivers of this paradox. 

The first is a simple nostalgia.  That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency.  Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well.   The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident.  Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well.  And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost. 

The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness.  As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s.  There almost no moving parts on my iPad.  It operates with silent precision.  So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts. 

Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory.  They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow.  Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it.  This is candor we can believe in.

Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka  KiddieCorder.  Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision.  (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.)  Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth.  In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical.  It grounds us.  It lets us back in.  Most important, it flatters us.  (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)

Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now.  The new tech world may be  rational, exact, dependable, reproducible.  But the cultural effects are entirely opposite.  They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle.  Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over.  It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control.  We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control.  We have many players and an immense number of plays.  Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once. 

In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories.  We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics.  And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants.  I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable.  I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?” 

This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory.  This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.  

References

Dugdale, Addy.  2010.  Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech.  Fast Company.  June 10. here.

Frauenfelder, Mark.  2010.  Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.  New York: Portfolio. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it.  This Blog.  November 6.  here.