Tag Archives: Nike

Creator brands: Brands that make culture


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.


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:

bank_montreal_detail2_lge.jpg (450×301)

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.

CCO cover 1 breathing



Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

LeBron James redux

A couple of days ago, I speculated on why LeBron is so hated by some sports fans.  

I suggested that he’s become a target for our animosity for athletes who sell their talents to the highest bidder.  

Here is James’ answer to the animosity. With the help of Nike, and Wieden and Kennedy, he gives us a brilliant video and asks,

"What should I do?"

Some of the answer he contemplates: admit that he’s made mistakes, give us a history lesson, tell us how much fun we’ve had, and "have my tattoos removed" (image).  

Poignantly, we see James in an empty room for his Hall of Fame induction and he asks, "should I really believe that I’ve ruined my legacy?"  

It’s an effective piece of advertising.  It makes you feel his pain.  At the penultimate moment of the ad, James looks into the camera and you can feel his sincerity.

What’s clever about the spot is that it drives us towards an answer for this question. We end up thinking, "Well, James has the right to do whatever he wants to do. Fans have the right to be unhappy.  But finally, we don’t have the right to say where he plays or finally who he is."

And this means the ad turns, almost inaudibly, on the cry of individualism.  This is one of the bedrock convictions of our culture: that the individual has the right of self-determination, of self definition.  It’s not for elites to tell us who we are.  It’s not for ethnic groups, local communities or corporations.  It’s not for parents.  Nor for teachers.  And it’s not, James is pointing out, for fans. 

We honor this individualism much more in fact than in theory.  But once you see it as a cultural value, you see it everywhere.  Just the other day I found it in Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive.

Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. It is your responsibility to protect this personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.

This is a compelling spot because it resorts to one of our foundational ideas.  In the face of this value, we defer.  Yes, we may resent James for having betrayed Cleveland.  But we find this truth to be self-evident: the individual has the right of self determination. 

Does Nike intend this message?  I think they did.  Davide Grasso, the VP of Global Brand Marketing, says the ad is meant to "amplify LeBron’s voice.  We’re celebrating his courage to forge his own journey even when others may have disagreed with his decision.  It’s this Just Do It spirt that defines LeBron and Nike as we strive to inspire all young athletes."

This is the hymn of individualism, note by note. 


See the Rise video here http://bit.ly/cIlbuE

See the Nike Press Release (source of the Grasso quote) here http://counterkicks.com/2010/10/25/nike-lebron-rise-campaign-press-release/

Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business.  Location in Kindle text, 201.


Henri Weijo for remembering the post and sending me the clip.  

Nike vs. Skechers: How to battle a brand titan

What does the Marketing 101 tell us about fighting titantic brands?

We have several options.

One is to to play the "size" card.  We use our smallness to be more nimble.  As trends in consumer taste and preference change, we change too…faster than the titan can. If we’re really lucky, we will catch one big trend, early, and ride it to market shared.  (Think Snapple.) 

Another option is to play the "intensive" card.  The titan is trying to be all things to all people.  We try to be one very particular thing for one particular niche.  

The last is to create a competitor so unprepossessing, unattractive, and dubious that no us takes you seriously…until it’s too late.

This appears to be the Skechers strategy.  I haven’t done a thorough search, but it looks like Skechers took the low road.  Product design, the advertising, naming, the product proposition, they all scream awkward and untutored.

Now, of course, this could be an expression of the limits of the Skecher team.  But it could be something craftier.  I mean, it’s almost as if Skechers is being deliberately gauche. 

What a good strategy.  This is the only way to take Nike on.  Talk about a formidable marketing team.  Yikes.  The chances of competing face to face, well, you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning.  Actually, you wouldn’t be allowed ever to go to bed.  No sleep ever.  And you’d still lose.

Not to get too "little grasshopper" about it, but the only way to take on Nike is to use their strength against them.  They expect the competition to look like them, to hold to the same standards, to exhibit the same formidable professionalism.  So when Skechers comes shambling into the arena in sweat pants and throwing around dubious fitness claims, the Nike people must have said, "Please."  It was like a Double A baseball team wandering into Wrigley Field.  Clueless was the perfect Trojan horse, the way to sneak into the market without setting off alarms.  

This is always the weakness of a formidable enemy.  Their self love prevents them from taking certain enemies seriously.  It’s said that one of the reasons the German mercenaries fighting the American revolutionaries lost the first few engagements was that they had a hard time taking seriously farmers wielding ancient weapons and pitch forks.  By the time they summoned their professionalism, the Americans had won just enough engagements to create the impression that they could take the whole thing.  (Which I believe they did. Check your own particulars.  I’m a Canadian.)

Again, I haven’t done the research.  I am just judging things from the externals only.  I mean Skechers stealing a market from Nike.  It’s like learning the Bridgeport Bluefish just gave the Yankees a whipping.  It seems not just unlikely.  I would have said it was statistically impossible.  But it is precisely when things are impossible that hidden assumptions give the cunning competitor a way in.


Townsend, Mike. 2010. “’Toning’ shoes gain traction.” MSNBC. September 6. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37510162/ (Accessed September 30, 2010).

Five things to say about Shanghai

communist_star_and_buildings_reaching_sh copyThis is a Communist star now tucked between monuments to capital.

It was taken from a speeding taxi and I was pleased that I lined it up.  The chances of persuading the driver to go back around for another photo, well, these were not strong.   The Chinese will suffer many things.  Idiots are not one of them.

Five things struck me yesterday.

First, an ad for Nike that stands at least 35 stories high.  I didn’t recognize the basketball player featured, but he is fearsome, and, um, really tall.  The future of marketing has already created an outpost, a staging area, here.  (Yes, I know that this is probably the work of Weiden Kennedy.  But they created this ad in Shanghai.)

Second, innovative architecture of which these examples are not by any means the most remarkable.  The future of architecture has created an outpost here too.  Some of the stuff here made me goggle with admiration.  (I guess if I were better informed, I would have understood that Shanghai has become a show case, but I am not sure this is widely known.  This is one of the ways the future can sneak up on you.)

Third, Shanghai is a capital of capital.  It’s China’s capital of capital.  It can’t be very long before it is the capital of capital, eclipsing even New York and London.

Fourth, I am wondering when China will so establish itself as a culture center that we will quite like the idea of buying brands that include or consist of Chinese characters.   (I am there already.)  When will Chineseness becomes a mark of sophistication, power, connection, or all three?  Certainly in my lifetime, unless I am struck and killed by a Shanghai motorist.   When does Shanghai become the new  Rome?  When do I return as a bumpkin from the provinces?

Five, none of this comes to pass unless China masters openness.  And this week, there were troubling developments on this front.  The state declared that it would make itself sole source for information about China, that it would be Reuters with a monopoly on news, that foreign journalists would no longer be able to collect data.

Observers, Western and Chinese, rubbed their eyes with astonishment and declared that, among other things, the capital markets would up and leave.  Cooler heads prevailed, and Premier Wen Jiabao insisted yesterday that China’s open policy would remain unchanged.  Still, this little misadventure in communications tells us that there some do not fully grasp the nature of the enterprise and the secret of dynamism.

Talk about a critical path.  If dynamism is allowed to flourish, one future, a Chinese future, awaits the species.   Another, nonChinese future emerges if that long standing Chinese feeling for control asserts itself.  It is one of those “power comes to those who let go” paradoxes.  My guess is that the instinct for control is largely in remission.  You don’t get this far down the road unless you are deeply committed to letting things rip.