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.

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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.

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.