Tag Archives: Fast Company

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.


Low Fidelity culture

A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?

Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome.  Very low fi indeed.   It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun.  The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.  It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.”  This is the kind of lab where you really only feel  comfortable in full body armor. 

Addy’s right.  The paradox is palpable.  On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision.  On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does. 

We have seen this paradox before.  Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand.  There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful.  (I hadn’t seen it before.)

The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

I think there are three drivers of this paradox. 

The first is a simple nostalgia.  That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency.  Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well.   The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident.  Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well.  And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost. 

The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness.  As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s.  There almost no moving parts on my iPad.  It operates with silent precision.  So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts. 

Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory.  They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow.  Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it.  This is candor we can believe in.

Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka  KiddieCorder.  Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision.  (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.)  Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth.  In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical.  It grounds us.  It lets us back in.  Most important, it flatters us.  (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)

Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now.  The new tech world may be  rational, exact, dependable, reproducible.  But the cultural effects are entirely opposite.  They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle.  Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over.  It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control.  We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control.  We have many players and an immense number of plays.  Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once. 

In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories.  We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics.  And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants.  I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable.  I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?” 

This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory.  This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.  


Dugdale, Addy.  2010.  Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech.  Fast Company.  June 10. here.

Frauenfelder, Mark.  2010.  Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.  New York: Portfolio. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it.  This Blog.  November 6.  here.