Tag Archives: brands

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

 

 

Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.

Acknowledgment:

For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

Narrative captivity: Losing Orphan Black for want of a half-fan

18706-orphan-black-s2-dvd-new_mediumI am a long standing fan of Orphan Black but this season they lost me.  I tuned in for the opening episode of the new season, and it wasn’t long before my eyes had crossed.

In the new season, it feels as if Orphan Black is being made to labor under the weight of its own complexities.  And with all the clones in motion, these complexities are formidable. And with two seasons in place, there are many additional plot points and precedents to honor.

Tedium, thy name is consistency.

Showrunners Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier must of course honor the story.  Fans, especially, are ferocious in their defense of its integrity.  But the rest of us really are not engaged in narrative book-keeping in any kind.  We love the actress, her clones, and the broad story lines that give her an opportunity to dazzle us with her virtuosity, lend some urgency to the story at hand, identify the goodies and the baddies, and that’s enough for us.

We want some sense of narrative development.  We want our heroine to mature or at least change (or at least clone) as pluckily she survives.  But give us the big picture, not what feel like pages of gawky exposition in which good actors are brought low by the need to belabor plot points.  These moments almost feel like writers and directors clarifying story complexities for their own sake, and when this happens we know that undue complexity has hijacked the show. Narrative captivity, it’s a terrible thing.

We see why this happens.  After a couple of seasons, the people who make the show have mastered the finest plot points better than the best Yeshiva student.  And fans!  Fans live and breathe the show and they often appoint themselves the guardians of the story line.  (“You want me on the wall. You need me on that wall.”)  And in a sense this is like any corporate culture, where the incumbents fall into a gravitational field and eventually can’t believe that everyone doesn’t live there too.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this.  One is to have an ethnographic panel of half-fans.  These are people who love the show but live in distant orbit around it. They know the characters and the major plot points, but they don’t know or care about the very fine details. Writers, directors and show runners can call them up from time to time and say, “So tell me about the show” and they can use this as a chance to recalibrate. It’s a question of optics.  We can hold up the half-fan’s view of the story and change the way we see the show. Or think of it as a time machine.  We can use the half fans knowledge of the show to recover the way we understood it in the first season.

Naturally, half fans, some of them anyhow, will evolve into full fans.  And it will be up to the person running the panel to replace them with more half fans.  In fact we should think of the panel as a bend in the river, a place where half fans slow for long enough for us to quiz them…before they run downstream to full fan status.

I don’t know who want to take this on.  And it would be presumptuous to suggest a name.  So I will.  Dee Dee Gordon could do this brilliantly.  What we need, Dee Dee, is a panel of half fans. As someone starts a new show, they will ask you to empanel this panel, and from time to time they will use it to see their shows (as many, most) others do.  In effect, the half fan panel (now, HFP, because that sounds way more official) is a rope that the showrunner wears around his/her waist while descending into the narrative mine shaft.  A couple of sharp tugs and they can return to the surface.

 

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.

Brands and Brand Relationships

I did a talk today for Susan Fournier’s Boston University conference called Brands and Brand Relationships.

It was illuminating, forcing me to see things I didn’t know I thought.

I will try to get the slides up for tomorrow.  (If anyone knows the most elegant way of getting a Keynote (or Powerpoint) deck onto WordPress, please let me know.   Converting them to a YouTube video just feels laborious.  Because it is.)

Stephen Colbert replaces David Letterman. Please help us figure out what this means!

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This just in.  We learned moments ago that Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman on late night television.

We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman .  He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution.   Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”   This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.

Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.

I would  love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture  his rise represents for us.  Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account.  We can make this collaborative.  Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.

Here’s the passage from my Chief Culture Officer:

The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before.  Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon.  And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up.  National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog.  By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month.  And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.

Sales is one thing.  We should also be alert to the migration of talent.  In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent.  Kenney left to write movies.  Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live.  P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone.  The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy.  Apparently this was now in demand.

We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies.  We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies.  Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980.  The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray.  The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks.  Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox.  He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.”  (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time.  It’s a frat thing.)

Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.”  It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence.  People were impatient with the old pieties.  That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.

Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world.  (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary.  If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.

The consensus was visible in public life.  Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean.  Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League.  But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.

The convergence began to recruit ferociously.  A young woman remembers.

As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek.  These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff.  I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter.  In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”).  I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks.  I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended.  […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas.  As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair.  I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.⁠1

The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone.  It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap.  It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears.  Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW.  Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status.  It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.⁠2

The tide turned again.  Repudiation was coming.  We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.”  Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.”  The prep hero was now tarnished.  (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.)  The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps.  The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991.  This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep.  At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals.  Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen.  Pity us if this is our first warning.

I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.”  Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.”  This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders.  Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn.  We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply.  Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs.  What convergences give, they take away.

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1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths.  This document may be found at http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Exanadu/preppy_handbook.html.

2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991.  BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself.  Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993.  Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School.  Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.