In the Elizabethan best seller, The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione recommended that gentlemen fashion the public self with care, and then conceal this care with the appearance of carelessness. He called this "sprezzatura," the art of concealing art with art.
Castiglione’s Italian countrymen accepted the idea, but it was the English who embraced it with passion (well concealed, of course). They embraced it, and, as I discovered sleeplessly last night, built upon it. (For God sake, whatever you do, avoid the Safi Luxury Hotel in Monterrey. Whew!)
Beau Brummell was the arbiter of 18h century style, and the man usually credited with inventing the suit and tie.
What the wearer is after is a "curious mean" (as Virginia Woolf wrote of Brummell’s jokes) between skill and pure chance. The tying of a cravat involves the rigorous removal of human agency from the final appearance of the fabric: the knot is intentional, but the folds are entirely fortuitous. As Giorgio Agamben has put it, Brummell, "whom some of the greatest poets of modernity have not disdained to consider their teacher, can, from this point of view, claim as his own discovery the introduction of chance into the artwork so widely practiced in contemporary art."
Brummell’s debt to sprezzatura is evident but his approach is new. This is not art perfected and then concealed. This is a deliberate stepping off, a search for perfection in what cannot be controlled, a betrayal of perfection to consort with its enemy, accident.
There is of course a great tradition of using chance to create art. But have we ever used chance to create brands? Certainly as we embrace new and less controllable kinds of marketing devices (experiential marketing, networking, buzz management, guerrilla marketing, and so on) we embrace chance whether we want to or not.
Indeed, there has always been something accidental (or accidentful) about marketing. This must be the reason we used to say things like "I know half of advertising is effective, I just can’t tell which half." It may also be the reason we used to say things like "release the condor" before the beginning of an ad shoot. (This comes from an infamous moment when an great bird of flight that was supposed to circle gracefully around a new GM product plummeted to its death. The production team had managed to engage the only species of condor incapable of flight.)
What I mean is that we consider creating brands through the "rigorous removal of human agency" We must choose the elements with care, but the "folds," the outcome, should be fortuitous.
In this event, the brand message would have to unfold in the moment, and each time a little differently, until, hey presto, perfection for this fleeting moment is achieved. If this where an ad with several elements, an ad that was constructed more like noir, with complexity and ambivalence. Sometimes we would see the ad one way, sometimes another.
The work that Arnold did for Volkswagen in the 1990s, the car traveling through a summer evening. with kids who decide not to get out and go to the party. The work that Wieden + Kennedy does for Nike also qualifies. The spot that shows a girl who walks to work without ever touching the ground. I would watch it a little differently every time, sometimes it was simply odd. But sometimes it was close to sublime.
But the elements that come together could be the bits and pieces of a coodinated marketing compaign. Let’s say I own a Mini. (I don’t but let’s say.) Sometimes the social part of the brand experience annoys me, a forced sociality. Sometimes I kind of like. Recently, I saw the Hammer and Coop ad and I liked its homage to those deeply stupid Starsky and Hutch productions. These notions are tumbling about in my head when I take my Cooper S out for a spin and suddenly i get it. Suddenly, the brand promise if fulfilled.
The trick here is to mix lots more elements into the ad or the campaign than we normally do. And this means mustering our courage and hewing to a course that will test the mettle of every marketing manager. The old rule of marketing was of course sell that unique selling proposition often and loudly. Mixing lots of interpretive options into the signal, this is a departure for which some of us are intellectual and emotionally unprepared.
What we want are brands that invite our involvement and then reward it. Involvement takes complexity and the willingness to open the brand to a variety of interpretations and the possibility that some of these interpretations will prove a little insipid. What we are doing here is buying sublime brand moments at the cost of some that are ill formed and unsuccessful. Let us try out Castiglione’s and Brummel’s advice. I mean, we keep saying that marketing is a conversation. Perhaps its time to make brands creatures worthy of talking to.
Dillon, Brian. 2006. A Poet of Cloth. Cabinet. Issue 21 (Spring). here.
The Wikipedia entry on sprezzatura, here.
The photo above was taken last week in Mexico City. It kind of works for this post, but what I was thinking when I saw this and other cues for the bus is that this is a photographic project waiting to happen. Someone should travel the world and take photos of people waiting for public transit. It’s a great opportunity to observe cultural difference and human sameness, and as we begin to see the importance of diminishing the effects of gas burning engines, it’s germane to one of our most pressing global problems. Just a thought.