Listening for the future is a tricky thing.
If we listen far enough out into the future, we are dealing with very weak signals. Or, better, we are dealing with noise that may or may not be signal.
One way to solve this problem is to enlist the aid of others. To let them listen for us. We need listening stations. Where ever they present themselves. (And they are likely to present themselves in the most unlikely places.)
One example caught my attention recently.
The first came from an essay by Lauren Sherman. Sherman is an impressive journalist. She examines the fashion world broadly defined and has a gift for seeing the pattern in the whirlwind of data that comes spinning up out of this world almost daily. (She writes for Fashion of Business.)
Recently, Sherman wrote about t-shirts.
Traditionally, the t-shirt is a perfect example of a commodity market. It may begin with robust margins but it’s not very long before people are slugging it out for tiny increments barely above cost.
But Sherman noticed a company called Everybody.World was doing very nicely indeed. Everybody.World had discovered that it can sell wholesale in the very teeth of the commodity market.
There was margin here. And lots of customers. The Trash Tee was a hit with streetwear brands including Noah NYC and No Vacancy Inn. It sold to to Shake Shack, Standard Hotel, Google, Airbnb and Dropbox. It was a feature of music festivals like Coachella.
This is a god send for someone who cares about the future. The t-shirt is a message from the future, a glimpse of the world in the works.
Case study learnings (from the ground up)
1. We can’t monitor everything.
2. We enlist the help of others, listening to the listeners, so to speak.
3. In this case, the journalist Lauren Sherman surveys the fashion business and spots something.
4. Everybody.world is making a success of t-shirts (of all things).
5. This is a big and unlikely change: The lowly t-shirt, once the unloved and unlovely child of the clothing biz, and almost the classic case of a commodity market, is undergoing its own little apotheosis. It has escaped the status of an undergarment, night shirt, softball team uniform and college wear. It is now punching above it’s weight and is now the medium for some very interesting messages. There is something to learn here.
This is where the culture watching really begins.
For starters we are looking at the expression of a couple of new sensitivities. These are, or should be, familiar territory, specifically:
6. People prefer things that are recycled.
7. And they prefer things that are manufactured in America.
Let’s treat these as “so noted.”
But the rest is new to me. How about you?
8. These t-shirts reveal something astounding about music festivals. They work there because they help festival organizers speak to 20 different segments. 20! (And the t-shirts work here because these groups are not going to signify their difference with a cheap and flimsy piece of polyester.) We are put on notice that festivals, once monolithic and a little repetitive, are now various. Very various. Certainly we have absorbed the “diversity” lesson from other sources…but this kind of cultural diversity tells us something about consumer taste and preference that our economic models were never designed to content with. Are we ready?
9. These t-shirts sell as street ware. The world of fashion is changing. Design and branding comes not just from on high from the great fashion houses and god-like designers. It comes also from the fearless, endlessly provocative efforts of people who routinely break the rules of the fashion moment. (In the current world of fashion, the insurgent designer, as Scott Miller would call him, is powerful and rising.) Let’s contemplate what this means for branding and PR. If we think we can speak to the world in the big booming voice of corporate self assurance…well maybe it’s time to think again. Everyone in the marketing and innovation biz is taking a risk on new voices. (Consider Nike as a recent case in point.)
10. These t-shirts work for companies like AirBnb and Google precisely because these companies are working hard to get away from that big booming voice of corporate assurance. Nothing says playful and propositional like a t-shirt. Especially when compared to the official bumpf issued by PR at HQ.
11. The t-shirt are also a calculated effort, as expert Sophie Wade tells us, to send a message to the Millennial employee for whom all companies must now compete. A t-shirt says, “look how much fun it must be to work here! We’re, like, super casual! And also totally awesome.”
12. Perhaps the biggest take-away is the evidence these observations give us of a world in which the basic rules and regs are changing. Three worlds, to be specific. That of the Music Festival. That of the street. And that of the organization. All of them have embraced the t-shirt for their own, revealing, reasons. All of them are primed for change. Are we monitoring these changes? Have we read the t-shirt? Have we grasped its message?