Tag Archives: cocktail culture

Square Inch Anthropology

I just had lunch with a young professional called Gloria who wanted to talk about what might be involved if she were to prepare herself for a career as a Chief Culture Officer.

We had a good conversation and at some point in the proceedings, I found myself encouraging her to work on her "square inch anthropology."

I had never actually heard of square inch anthropology before.  It just sort of thing you find yourself saying.  

Here’s what I think I meant.  To do the study of contemporary American culture, we are obliged to break it down into square inches.

A case in point.  I was telling the young professional about a project Mark Earls, Andrew Barnett, Ana Domb, and I did last year when we were commissioned to study "cocktail culture" in the Northeast.  "Cocktail culture" makes up one square inch of my map of American culture.

We interviewed hundreds of people by the end of the Cocktail Culture project, and Gloria and I ended up talking, for some reason, about two of them, a couple of women in a bar in Brooklyn who were "dolled up" and entirely glamorous in a not too assuming way.  Gloria has some interesting thoughts on these women and we christened their style "Betty Page."  This is a square inch too.

Square inch anthropology says, in effect, "look, we don’t claim to know everything about this culture, but we do have relative confidence in one or two things within it.  In this case: Cocktail culture and the Betty Page style."  We may now make claims to knowledge without pretending any overarching knowledge or competence.

Why proceed by square inches?  Here are 5 reasons.

1) American culture is vast, endlessly various and changing all the time.  We can’t know it top to bottom.  We can’t map it end to end.  The best we can hope for is to establish small pieces or pockets of clarity.

2) We can’t be entirely certain we have something.  We are always on the look out for more data and we are perfectly happy to discover that "cocktail culture" or "Betty Page" femaleness actually isn’t anything after all, or that it isn’t the something we thought it was. Our square inches are posted as possibilities.

3) As we begin to accumulate square inches we are in a position to begin to assemble them into patterns.  If the squares are provisional, so are the patterns.  We are constantly reassembling, looking for a better configuration.  And the good thing about the squares is that they prove to be ever so slightly magnetized, which means that they will often "suggest" connections, and when we made them proximate they will come together with that wonderful magnety "snap."  

4) Square are an excellent way of getting starting, of baby-stepping your way to an understanding of American culture.  We are not claiming to know everything about this culture.  We are merely claiming to know, if a tentative, provisional way, about this square inch.

5) Square inches are an excellent medium of exchange.  As it turned out, I had a clue about cocktail culture.  Gloria in turn had some useful things to say about the Betty Page thing. Swapping square inches in this way is really fun.  And it’s generative, very gift economy. Gifting Gloria with my square inch did not diminish it.  Taking possession of her Betty Page square inch left her none the poorer.

In a perfect world, we would turn www.squareinchanthropology.com into a place to post things we think we know about American culture.  (Perhaps not surprising it’s available. I checked.)  Please will someone give this a go!

Acknowledgments (and thanks)

To James Michael Starr, the artist responsible for the image used in this blog.  John Wong created the image.  For more details, click here.

Tito’s versus Sailor Jerry (new cliches in the world of marketing)

A few years from now I think we will look back on the artisanal trend and spot a cliche.

Artisanal products believe themselves to be intrinsically interesting. They are in fact massively self absorbed. They do not tend to carry culture meanings except about themselves. Artisanal products, it’s all about them.

Exhibit A

Tito’s is a small run vodka now being made in Austin, Texas. It was recently written up in Wall Street Journal Magazine. The first thing that Tito’s wants you to know about itself is that its hand-made. I am never sure what this means when it comes to certain products. It sounds more laborious than crafted. What does it matter how the grain was stirred? A machine or by hand, it can’t matter to the vodka. Right?

The WSJ Magazine article is a marketer’s dream. This kind of coverage for this kind of audience!  Who could ask for anything more? This is hand made marketing!

But the story reads as all the artisanal stories do.  It recites the new cliches:

1. This brand is made in tiny batches in an obscure place. Check.

2. It is made by some guy who used to work for a giant corporation. Check.

In the Tito’s case, the guy is Tito Beveridge, a geophysicist worked for an oil company. Every time someone tells me about an artisanal chocolate, the maker seems to be a former NASA  or airline pilot.  And I think we are supposed to marvel on how this individual is found his or her artisanal salvation.They have followed their bliss out of the big bad corporation into something kinder and gentler. I’m not sure but I think we prefer to think of our artisanal producers as large and ambling, if men, and little and pretty, if women.  Look, not a threat to anyone!  Nit wit, please. 

3.  It is always premium priced and incredibly high end, because well someone seeking their artisanal salvation is not going to look for it in price cutting or any thing so vulgar as market competition.  The artisan is, it turns out, too good for capitalism of any conventional kind. Check.

4.  There is always a long period in the wilderness when the artisan struggles to keep his or her dream alive.  What a brave, devoted soul!  And finally of course there is triumph. Because the Romance playbook tell us that all acts of self sacrifice result in an apotheosis. Virtue becomes celebrity.  (Pursue the intrinsic and the world will reward you with the extrinsic.)  Check.

5. There is an odor of vanity and self importance about the brand and it’s maker…and, sorry, it’s consumer.  We are all so very special.  (Bitter?  A little.  Being a month without a blog hurt me, clearly.)  Check.

Traditionally, marketing has been about meaning making.  And recently we have seen marketers define brands with meanings ever more subtle and interesting.  But the artisanal trend seems to run against the flow.  There is only one meaning contained in an artisanal brand, the artisanal one.

There’s no question that this myth is a potent meaning and it adds to our story telling at the bar at a time when we like to be telling stories at the bar.  But damn it if it isn’t always the same story.  For some reason, the artisanal trend gives us license to make the back story the front story, even when it isn’t very interesting and even when we have heard it before. I guess it’s better than connoisseurship ("so very peaty!") but for how long?   

Which brings me to Sailor Jerry’s.  I got to hear its creator at the recent Piers Fawkes’ PSFK recent conference in New York City, and it was pretty interesting.  Steven Grasse struck me as being a bit of a mad scientist, my highest compliment these days.  But the brand isn’t about him.  It’s about Norman Collins, the man they call the master of the old school tattooing. Here’s what the Sailor Jerry website says about him

If you really want a true classic tattoo, you’ll have to go back in time and cross the Pacific. When your tramp steamer hits the port of Honolulu, jump ashore and head set straight to Chinatown. Soon, you’ll hit Hotel Street. You’ll know this by the sudden progression of wide-eyed sailors, foul-mouthed roughnecks, and general sanctioned mayhem. And there, tucked away on a steamy side street, you’ll see the bright red neon glow of “Sailor Jerry’s”- the tattoo shop that marked the fighting men of the Pacific for nearly 40 years.

Now that’s what I call a story.  Not some NASA engineer looking for redemption but a rough neck who lived surrounded by mayhem and the low life. Not a brand but a brander. Please start your story engines now.  

References

Carrigan, Janelle.  2010.  Proof of life.  Wall Street Journal Magazine.  March.  pp. 30-31.  

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 things that define it.  This Blog. November 9.  here.

The source for the Sailor Jerry passage here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Michael Margolis, I am thinking more about story telling these days.  See his website here.