Tag Archives: brands

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.

Culture Camp London 2014

Ember

I am doing a Culture Camp in London June 13.  Here’s the description.  Please join us!

Course Description

This culture camp is designed to do two things:

1) expand your knowledge of the big changes transforming culture.

2) develop your ability to put this knowledge into action.

Culture is at the core of the creative’s professional competence.  It is the well from which inspirations and innovations spring.  It’s one reason startups and corporations need the cultural creative.  This culture camp is designed to enhance your personal creativity and professional practice.

1. Knowledge of culture

We will look at 10 events shaping culture.

Half are structural changes.

1.1 The end of status as the great motive of mainstream culture.

1.2 The end of cool as the great driver of alternative culture.

1.3 The movement between dispersive cultures and convergent cultures.

1.4 The movement between fast cultures and slow cultures.

1.5 The shift from a “no knowledge” culture to a “new knowledge” culture.

Half are trends:

1.6 transformations in the domestic world (aka homeyness to great rooms)

1.7 transformations in the scale and logic of consumer expectation (from the industrial to the artisanal)

1.8 shifts from old networks to new networks (especially for Millennials)

1.9 shifts from single selves to multiple selves (especially for Millennials)

1.10 [this one is ‘top secret’ and will be revealed on the day]

2.  Using our knowledge of culture 

2.1  how to discover culture (using ethnography)

2.2  how to track and analyze culture (using anthropology)

2.3  how to hack culture (making memes)

2.4  how to build a brand

2.5 how to make ourselves indispensable to the corporation

Culture Camp is being sponsored by Design Management Institute and coincides with their London meetings.  It is also being sponsored by Truth.  (Special thanks to Leanne Tomasevic.)

The image is from Yanko Tsvetkov’s Atlas of Prejudice 2.   I am keen to stage the culture camp in Tomato Europe, Wine and Vodka Europe, Olive Oil Europe, and of course Coffee Europe.  Please let me know if you are interested in participating or sponsoring.

Culture Camp will be held 9:00 to 5:00 on June 13 at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, as below.  (Register for the Culture Camp here.  You don’t have to be a DMI or RIBA member to do so.

Ember

Brands Being Human

Subaru is doing great work for the SyFy’s  Being Human.  Here’s one example:

This is an insider ad.  You have to know the show to get what’s happening.  These are werewolves.  They’ve gone into the woods to “turn.”  The brand has found the spirit of the show and “had a little fun with it.”  Romantic feeling is imposed on something that will shortly turn nasty and violent.  Clever.  And this is absolutely in the spirit of Being Human which plays with genre expectation constantly and well.

Here is Being Human in action.  In this scene, Sally, the ghost, discovers that her house is up for sale and she decides to discourage home buyers with a ghostly trick.  Ooooooooooo!  In this scene, remember, she is invisible.

Generally speaking, Subaru has done a great job claiming a nest of companionable, cozy, domestic meanings for the brand.  It has attached itself to “family” as well as any brand in the biz.  (And that’s saying something, considering that so many brands are trying to make this connection.) Recall the Subaru ads that feature dogs aging and kids practicing for their driver’s license.  This is great work but it may leave the Subaru brand defined as something perhaps a little too domestic and of-this-world.

The Being Human work manages this problem beautifully.  A brand that verges on the humble and everyday becomes suddenly exotic and even daring.  The Subaru meanings expand wonderfully.

Notice how elegantly this is accomplished.  The Being Human work is site-specific and exists, in effect, only for the Being Human audience.  There is no danger  that the broader Subaru market will see this work and no danger that it will transform their “cosy” associations with the brand.  This is brand surgery.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is the opposite of product placement.  Instead of jamming the product into the show, the show is allowed to find its way into the “brandscape,” to use John Sherry’s term.  And both the show and the brand profit.

Product placement is often an absolute tax on a show.  You know that moment when the appearance of the product suspends your suspension of disbelief.  You might as well stop watching and thousands no doubt do.  I don’t care how much the show makes from product placement.  In many cases, the artistic price is too high.  Plus, as a strategy, this is just plain dumb.  It says in effect, “People aren’t watching our ads! Ok, so let’s force them to look at the product!  We’ll make them watch us!”  You’ll make them watch you?  This is your idea of persuasion.  This is your idea of managing meanings? Really?

There’s another Subaru ad for Being Human that feels, to me, less successful.  It shows three actors acting like characters from the show.  See it here:

This execution feels wrong to me and it serves I think as a useful test of where this strategy can work and where it fails.  When the ad is merely leveraging the creative original, it feels like a pale imitation and it provokes, I think, a relative loss of value.  By which I mean, more is taken from the show than is returned to it.  The brand is merely exploiting the dramatic riches of Being Human and not taking possession of them for larger creative play.  In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” This spot borrows where the first one steals.  This is not as bad as product placement but it isn’t a lot better.

Carmichael Lynch, the agency in question, has done great things for Subaru.  There is a cultural sensitivity at work here that really is exceptional.  And our opening “werewolf” ad breaks new ground.  Letting the brand out to play in an ad, in this way, is to let the brand out to play in the world.  And this is one of those cases, where brand and ad are working together, borrowing meanings from one another, to their mutual benefit.   Both brand and show get bigger, richer, and more interesting.

But what might be more remarkable is the fact that the Carmichael Lynch work takes Subaru almost no other automotive brand is prepared to go.  This is daring.  It is clever.  It participates in popular culture.  It makes the brand a living, breathing presence in the life of the consumer and our culture.  It takes the brand a little closer to being human.

Acknowledgments

Dean Evans, CMO, Subaru

I am hoping Carmichael Lynch will send me names of the creative team so that I can give them a mention for this really exemplary work.  Watch this space.

Should Portlandia satirize Subaru?

Portlandia (Fridays, 10:00, IFC) has started its third season. Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) continue to search the city for satiric targets. And because satiric targets are one of Portland’s chief exports, the comedic opportunities are many: Bed and Breakfasts, knitting, pickling — and organic deodorant:

See the full post here.  

The Evolution of the Brand Creature

Please have a look at my recent Harvard Business Review post.

It looks at the evolution of the brand creature.  This image is Sparah, the brand creature created by Virgin Mobile.  There is something brewing here.  

Click here.  

Pizza boxes: the new trojan horse?

Have a look at this “Food for thought” card, please. There it is at the bottom of the screen. It appeared recently with my store-bought pizza.

Optimism, action, imagination and conversation, all of these are good things.  And I agree that food is an important link with the world.  

But I was a little surprised to hear about them from my pizza box.  Yes, I get it.  Food, planet, environment, this is a new trinity.  Respecting this trinity through an overhaul of lifestyle is the new desideratum.  Check.  Caring about this thing and encouraging other people to care about it too, this is the new orthodoxy.  I not only get this.  I subscribe to it.

But there is something unseemly about being instructed in this sort of thing by a brand. There is presumption of familiarity.  For the brand to speak to me in this tone means that the brand must know me.  There is also a presumption of asymmetry.  In our relationship, the brand knows better.  Finally, there is that recitation of the new cosmology: that stuff about food connecting us to the world.  

I agree with everything being said (give or take).  But I am a little uncomfortable when these things are being said to me…by a brand.  

Unless of course there really is a new orthodoxy and certain powers are entitled to recite this orthodoxy and the rest of us are obliged to listen to it.  And if that’s the case, someone forgot to tell me.

Apparently, I missed that box.  

Tongues untied (tech to the rescue)

I am not a gifted conversationalist.

I carry on every conversation as if it were bomb disposal.

One false move.  One stray remark.  And it’s all going to end in free fall.

This must be why I’ve always thought that social actors should have a "prompter" the way actor actors do.

You know, for those awful moments when we don’t know what to say.

The prompter would, er, prompt us.

"Say ‘I love your dress.’  No, dress!"

You often see people who have run out of things to say.  Or you see people who have been driven back on the cliches.

Yesterday, thanks to fresh ethnographic wedding data from Tim Sullivan, I was tweeting about "Woo girls."  These people are really running on empty.  They are defined (perhaps unfairly) be the predictability of the things they say and the sounds they make.  Indeed, these women are now the targets of TV satire.  These women really need prompting.

Bar tenders are astoundingly good at creating and managing conversation.  It is an unofficial part of their job description.  I have sat with lots of them as they told me how they can see a twosome or a party of 4 coming undone.  Their job is to intervene and reanimate the conversation.  They supply this service so routinely we might as well call them emergency personnel standing by.

I’ve always felt that brands could and should get in on the act.  After all, they are often keenly interested in the outcome of the event in question.  Carbonated soft drinks are largely about making the effervescence of the product the effervescence of the event.  Successful social events are good for the brand.  The Coke brand is well served when things go better with Coke.  

I have pitched more than one client on the idea that we could use cell phones to drop conversational prompts into social situations.  If people wanted to, they could sign up for text messages and they could then speak the message that appeared on their phone.  It would by funny and fun, and it would remove chuckleheads from harm’s way.  

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear about the Conversacube.  This is invented by Lauren McCarthy.  This is how McCarthy describes her invention

The Conversacube is a small box meant to form the centerpiece of any conversation situation. The box sits in the middle of all conversants, with one face facing each person. Each outward face of the box has a small screen and a microphone embedded just inside. As the conversation progresses, each person is personally prompted with directions or lines to keep the conversation running seamlessly with minimal awkward or uncomfortable moments. The microphones monitor audio levels of each participant and the cube responds accordingly, adjusting prompts to enliven, mediate conflict, or balance conversation as necessary.

Brilliant or what?  Marketers, start your engines.  

References

Anonymous.  n.d. "Woo girl" defined.  Urban Dictionary.  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=woo+girl

A clip from How I Met Your Mother "Woo girls at the bar" http://fliiby.com/file/124875/35932da1l8.html

More details on the Conversacube and Ms. McCarthy here http://conversacube.com/