Tag Archives: Sam Ford

How to save luxury brands (and American capitalism)

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amElizabeth Segran has a nice essay in Fast Company: The Decline Of Premium American Fashion Brands. What Happened, Ralph And Tommy?

As a teen, Segran admired ads by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. That’s over.

Today, at 33, none of these brands interest me. They conjure up images of outlet malls.

The problem is widespread

I’m not the only one who feels that these iconic American brands have lost their luster. Many are on a downward spiral, hit by sluggish sales. Ralph Lauren is facing plunging profits resulting in the shuttering of retail stores. Coach is in a similar boat, having lost significant market share. Michael Kors recently devised a strategy of cutting back on discounts, since markdowns appear to have killed the company’s cachet. Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, which are owned by the same parent company, have seen decreasing sales in the U.S. market.

Luxury brands are, in short, a mess.

Segran consults several experts and they roll out the probable causes:

Luxury brands:

■ were pushed by Wall Street to grow
■ growth forced offshore manufacture and this created diminished quality
■ searching for larger markets lead to production overruns
■ overruns forced brands into the bargain and outlet channels.
■ finding Ralph Lauren in a discount bin at T.J. Maxx made it seem a little less luxurious

Other factors

■ new brands rose with a new, more social, sensibility, Everlane or Warby Parker

But something is missing here from this account. We are looking at a fundamental change in sensibility.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-11-10-57-amConsider the Ralph Lauren ad that Fast Company used to illustrate this essay.

Almost everything is now wrong with this image. But not one of these errors in the image is remarked upon.

Errors in the image: 

That this picture has a center to it.
(Younger consumers are social animals. They are networked creatures. They are distributed souls. Practically, for content creators, that means dump the “focus” and go for “foci.” See recent work by Fitbit and Android for the social “foci” view, and my thoughts here.)

That the center of the picture is a white male, apparently WASP and privileged.
(Do I really need to explain the rise of diversity and what it means to the models we want to see in our ads?)

That the male in question has a woman wrapped around his arm.
(This too should be unnecessary, but everyone is now a feminist. And this posture is absurdly subordinate and subordinating.)

That this woman has the strangest look on her face.
(It’s an expressive that appears to say, “This is all I want from life, to be by my man.” I mean, really.)

That there is a steely eyed friend.
(what is this guy dressed for? A trip to his place in the country, the ancestral home, all brick, beam and ‘old money made material’?)

That the surrounding group glows with youth, ethnic specificity, and privilege
(the first motive for luxury consumption used to be upward aspiration. A consumer culture fanned the hope that we too could rise in the world, into exalted social realms, away from the ordinary, “common,” “coarse,” “little” people. But this idea is now openly ridiculed.)

Attention, sellers! The single most important idea driving your market place is dying. This idea of status is dying. It is now a recipe for ridicule.

So let’s be clear. Yes, there are plenty of “internal” reasons why luxury brands are struggling. And thank you, Elizabeth, for discovering them. But there are external, cultural ones, as well.

These cultural changes are not recent. These have been in the works for several decades. And it is a perfect storm as we rethink our ideas of privilege, status admiration, upward aspiration, sexism, and the adoration of the wealth and privilege.

imagesWhat to do? How could luxury brands have prepared themselves for this cultural disruption? At the risk of repeating myself, the single simplest strategy is to hire a Chief Culture Officer. For instructions, read this book ➼.

There’s a ton of talent out there. A few names come to mind. Tom LaForge, Barbara Lippert, Steffon Davis, Ana Domb, Philip McKenzie, Sam Ford, Joyce King Thomas, Michael Brooks, Jamie Gordon, Monica Ruffo, Rochelle Grayson, Kate Hammer, Drew Smith, Rob Fields, Parmesh Shashani, Shara Karasic, Ujwal Arkalgud, Tracey Follows, Eric Nehrlich, Bud Caddell, Barb Stark, Mark Boles, Mark Miller, Helen Walters.

(For a longer list, see this Pinterest page filled with candidates.}

If only Ralph Lauren had had anyone noted above as their Chief Culture Officer. How much share holder value would have been protected? How many careers saved? How much more fun would it have been to work at Ralph Lauren?

American capitalism has become a bit of a punching bag. There are so many cultural disruptions in play. A crisis now haunts CPG and Hollywood. So that’s three of the great workhorses of the American economy. And it’s at this point when we can see a crisis running right through our economy, touching things as diverse as luxury brands, CPG brands and Hollywood pictures, that’s it is time to rethink what we’re doing.

Take a smart person with good credentials, give them resources and give them power. It’s time to make our marketing, design thinking, branding, and innovation intelligence responsive to the simple truth that’s visible to most cultural creatives and virtually every Millennial. It’s time to make the organization as responsive to culture as it is to everything else in the near environment. All other options are stupid and embarrassing.

 

The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

Tweeting television (now locked in a box)

spreadable-media-libro-71784I have a friend who believes  every article, post, tweet he needs to read will come to him every day by new media.

And he’s right.  We  act as editors for one another.  We see something, we say something…on Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, LinkedIn and elsewhere.

But he’s  wrong.  I bet he misses things.  I know I do.  Plus, some things can’t get into new media.  They just don’t.

Take TV.  We watch a lot of TV.  And my Netflix research winter tells me that we watch this TV with new attention to detail and a deep inclination to talk about it.  We find favorite scenes, brilliant bits of acting, very special effects, but all of this remains locked in the box.  It just isn’t  “spreadable,” to use the language of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Josh Green.  (That’s their book cover above.  Highly recommended. Forgive the Italian subtitle.  Buy the book here.)

This is a classic case of the old media failing to seize the opportunities opened up by new media.  Imagine how many of the shows that failed this fall season might have made it if their early fans could have got the word out.

What we need is some tech overlay that makes clipping and sharing easy and possible.  Build it into the remote control.  Put on an IN button and an OUT button and a CLIP button and a SHARE button.

I am sure there are legal issues here, but I am equally certain Lawrence Lessig  or Jonathan Zittrain could sort them out over lunch time.  The copy right holders are, after all, deeply incented to permit the passage of small clips.  Permit?  What Jenkins, Ford and Green say about spreadable media, applies especially to every new season of television.  If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.

In the meantime, we can resort to efforts of our own.  Here’s a clip from one of my favorite shows, Being Human.  This is Sally, a ghost, explaining how she intends to protect the house from sale.  (Remember, she’s a ghost and therefore invisible to  mortals.)

I shot this with my iPhone.  Something less that stellar quality.  But good enough for the  internet, as they say.   Some people are put off by Being Human because it’s on SyFy (they don’t like science fiction) or because the show has such a weird premise (the creatures “being human” are a ghost, a vampire, and a ghost).  But I think this scene takes us beyond odd premises into the heart of the show.  Several “barriers to entry” fall.  SyFy wants this clip to click.

God knows, we have quite a lot of content circulating on line.  The numbers are simply breathtaking.  But the fact of the matter is that TV preoccupies us.  And it’s getting better.  As it stands, this part of our culture is excluded from the conversation.  This should change.

Kickstarting kickerstarter (new models of meaning and value)

My remarks at the recent Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT are now up.  Click here to see it. 

It starts slowly.  And I now look at the hand surfing with a little embarrassment.  In this photo, I am captured trying to demonstrate the mutuality of meaning and value.  (My idea of a special effect.)  

I was opening up the second day, and Sam Ford has asked me to contemplate what we had heard in the first day.  

FoE is always an exercise in severely compromised air traffic control.  The moment you think you have a fix on the array, a new idea, fashioned according to unprecedented aerodynamic properties appears in the heavens, and you have to factor this in.  

As you will hear, I fix upon the distinction between value and meaning.

We are inclined to think of these as mutually exclusive categories.  Value belongs to markets, to pragmatism, to self interest.  Meaning belongs to creativity, to exploration, and self expression.

But I think it’s a false distinction.  It keeps us from creating two things:

1. a model that would show us how value and meaning interact in our world.

2. a market that would allow us to source new value to fund new meaning.  

Have a look at the video to the full argument and please let me know what you think.  

I am especially interested to hear from people in the capital markets on the question of whether we could indeed create venture funding and investment markets for cultural projects. (Whether and how we could kickstart kickstarter, so to speak.)  

Cracking the Pomplamoose – Hyundai case

We all watched heroic amounts of TV over the holidays.

All of us saw the Hyundai ad that features Pomplamoose, the American music indie duo.

The Hyundai-Pomplamoose campaign looped the loop. It went from odd to charming to familiar to contemptible to irritating in about 3 weeks.

We can guess what happened.  Hyundai discovered they had a hit on their hands.  The campaign was doing good things for the brand and more to the point it was moving cars.  So they sold the heck out of it.

Poor Pomplamoose!  In a daring strategy for which I applaud them, they took this campaign as an opportunity to play pilot fish, to travel with the Hyundai shark for a short while in the hopes of sharing small bits of its dinner.  And they got consumed in the process.

Now, some people will say, "Look, no band should do a deal with the devil.  Pomplamoose got what they asked for."

Maybe.  Certain kinds of indie "cred" do depend precisely on keeping one’s distance form a project of this kind.  But for everyone who isn’t a culture-never-commerce separatist, the Hyundai-Pomplamoose case is an opportunity for illumination.  I mean, Honda used "Holiday" as their sound track for the holidays, and I bet it was great for Vampire Weekend’s iTunes sales.  Refusing all truck or barter because it sometimes goes wrong is shortsighted.

The question: what’s the best way for a small cultural enterprise like a comic, a playwright, or, in this case, a band, to maximize this opportunity and minimize this risk.

First things first.

1) Did this campaign loop the loop?  (For all I know everyone hated it from beginning.  Or, everyone loved it from the beginning and they still love it.)  What we need is data.  I am no master of the methodology but I bet someone could run the numbers for the twitter and blogging world and tell us what the "shape" of adoption was.  Did it loop the loop?  What was the loop?  How fast did this happen?  Where is sentiment now?

2) Why did this campaign loop the loop?  Is it the fact that Pomplamoose created the campaign?  I guess "creative control" was one of the reasons Pomplamoose was interested in making it.  And I guess that the handmade aspect of the spots was what interested Hyundai. Now they had "artisanal advertising."  How very fashionable, how very effective.

3)  Hey, presto, the bargain worked.  Both parties were happy.  And the campaign in the early days tumbled obliging down the Kauffman continuum, from weird, to odd, to charming. Job well done.  Culture and commerce had found a way to work together.  Let’s all join arms and sing the hymn to "win-win."

4)  Then things went wrong, badly wrong.  By sometime in the second week I was hearing people (and by "people," I mean, my wife, Pam) say, "Oh, god, not them again."

I think the problem has to be repetition.  We were obliged to watch the campaign so many times, charming turned coy.  Coy got irritating.  The campaign was pushed down the Kauffman continuum and became unendurable.

5)  One take-away: Pomplamoose should have restricted how many times the ads could be played.  And now they question, assuming this is possible, what number?  Half the number of times the campaign did play?  (Would Hyundai still have been interested?)  A quarter?

6)  But this is not just a Pomplamoose problem.  When people started to react against the campaign, they were now repudiating Hyundai as well.   It was actually in the Hyundai interest to restrict circulation.  What was Hyundai’s magic number?

7) Not all ads are created equal.  Not all "content" is the same.  I think part of the problem here comes from the fact that this was an artisanal campaign and these are delicate things. They take much of their power from whimsy.  And whimsy is perishable.  It’s natural enemy is repetition.  There are several "magic numbers."

8) The cultural, creative take away: when the campaign uses meanings of this kind, care must be taken.  What makes a "hand-made" ad powerful is the very thing that makes it vulnerable.

I can hear a couple of protests:

9) I can hear people insist I’ve found a new way to state the obvious.  They will say "repetition killed this ad.  Because, duh, repetition kills every ad."  In point of fact, there are ads I love despite the fact that I have seen them hundreds of times. So there is no simple rule of thumb.  Hyundai, with or without Pomplamoose, could have made a campaign that would have stood up to this constant repetition.

10)  From the brand manager, I hear another protest altogether, one that says, "look, I took a big risk running this campaign.  The huge response was my reward.  I hit a gusher. My job was to work the gusher."  To which the answer is, "you are not actually engaged in oil discovery here.  You are drawing on and giving to a culture.  It will give you opportunities and snatch them away the moment you overplay your hand."  The Cluetrain manifesto chaps like to say that marketing is a conversation but they are wrong.  Marketing is more difficult and less durable than a conversation. It is much more like a performance on any big city stage (Carnegie or Apollo). The audience is filled with people who are very good at listening.  Some of them are very good at producing.  Hyundai Xmas performance was a little like someone producing one successful performance of Mozart or Michael, and then to everyone’s astonishment playing it over and over and over again.

11)  Repetition is one way we master culture.  It is what moves new things down the Kauffman continuum from the "too new" to the "just right."  (See my book Flock and Flow for more on the continuum.)  It is also the way, we taken novelty and stuff it into the air extracting, shrink wrapping compactor to which we consign almost everything we love.  And this is why advertising and other kinds of marketing are NOT like a performance.  Repetition is not only OK, it’s obligatory.  But we must use it in a most precisely measured way. Because once something is done, it’s entirely done.  Happily, artifacts can be managed on the continuum and they can refreshed.  We can slow the trip to the compactor.

12)  Last thoughts.  I admire the courage exercised by Hyundai and Pomplamoose in giving this campaign go.  I think it’s up to the rest of us to figure out what went wrong and why.

13)  The bigger picture, it seems to me, is this.  We have a world of advertising that is desperate for innovation and creative partnerships.  Some of the meanings that brands need cannot be produced by the conventional agency.  We have a world of cultural producers, millions of people at this point, who are very good at producing meanings, and they would be glad of the exposure and the revenue that partnership makes possible.

14)  It’s up to the likes us, people who loiter at this intersection and others like it, to figure out how to smooth the connection and build the relationship.  And by "people" in this case I mean, yes, Pam, but also Robert Barocci and Todd Powers at the Advertising Research Foundation, Geoffrey Precourt at WARC, Sam Ford at Peppercom, Ben Malbon at Google Creative Labs, Bud Caddell at Victors and Spoils.  That’s just to name a few.

15) The immediate question, to put it in the language of a Harvard Business School case study, is this:

You are Pomplamoose or Hyundai.  What would you do?

16) The larger question:

How do we solve questions of this kind?

17) The still larger question:

How do we put culture and commerce at one another’s disposal?

References

Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Jake McKee. 2009. The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition. Anniversary Edition. Basic Books.

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. Indiana University Press.

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.

References

Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  NYU 

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.