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