I had drinks with Ed Cotton last week. He’s at Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, the firm that asked consumers to make ads for a Converse campaign. It’s one thing to talk co-creation, another actually to do it, and yet another to make it work. Converse web traffic went up 40% to 400,000 unique visitors a month. Converse sales went up 12% for the quarter. (400,000 unique visitors a week, now that’s language a blogger can understand…and scarce imagine.)
By this reckoning, marketing works as culture to work as commerce. Erick Soderstrom, Converse’s global marketing chief:
Our customers tend to be creative and we’ve given them the biggest canvas we have to express themselves–our advertising.
Converse becomes the medium for someone else’s message. Bully!
But here’s what caught my eye. When Ed was doing research in Santa Monica, he talked to a kid who was wearing mismatched shoes. Both were, I think, Chuck Taylors, different models thereof.
Here is customization and co-creation that doesn’t actually require that Punk stand-by, the felt tip pen, or the scissoring so beloved of the Japanese teenager. Combining pre-fab elements from the world of goods is both the simplest act of creativity and the biggest. It creates new meanings, and appropriates old ones, without executional compromise. The empowered consumer does not end up looking like a rank amateur ("Look, I drew on my t-shirt!").
Mismatched shoes are also nicely subversive. There is somewhere in the clothing code a notion that holds over from the Elizabethan era that says a person’s shoes must show that they are in the Elizabethan lingo, unconcussable. Shoes, especially the shoes of the male and the young, are meant to show that the wearer is, all apologies, grounded. (High heel shoes take their semotic precisely from the way they break this rule. The wearer, a female, demonstrates her vulnerability, her fragility, her elegeance, her powers of evocation by showing herself not at all grounded.)
Plus, let’s face it: symmetry is to clothing as exhausted a genre as addled exposition is to a movie. It’s like enough already. You don’t really have to repeat yourself. We got it the first time, carry on.
We know that the world of goods is governed by rules of combination. There are some things that always appear in a hipster’s apartment in Park Slope and other things that never do. (Connecticut has rules of its own, believe me, and they are stupifying.) These rules open up a great modularity for the cunning, the creative consumer. (We got a not very interesting glimpse of this from the Ashley twins this summer, as they combined a variety of clothing inspirations.)
One of the questions here is whether brands will set their products free. Will they encourage consumers to mix and match the product with unexpected choice mates and a new combinatorial freedom. This is a path out of the ordinary and the predictable. It is one of the ways to keep the brand from overforming and losing its dynamism. (It is of course, also the very strategy with which Hollywood stars seek to keep their career alive: casting themselves against type.) Perhaps once we have got over the present preoccupation, and somewhat embarrassing preoccupation with buzz management, we will take modularity as a new way to manage the meanings of the brand.
Kiley, David. 2005. Advertising of, by, and for the people. BusinessWeek. July 25, 2005, pp. 63-64.