Brand As A Personal Adjective

In the minds of many running businesses, particularly those related to luxury and fashion goods, brand choices are driven by what we make.  Wealth equates to capital. And there is some truth in that, but there is more to capital than Dollars, Euros and Yen.  There is social capital, cultural capital, psychic capital. The general presumption is that the increasing shift towards brands, as opposed to a focus purely on goods, reflects our culture’s assumed obsession with displays of wealth and status.  The bigger the name brand, the more you can afford and the more you want to show that wealth off.  Indeed, there is some truth to that notion, but it’s not a simple as it seems.  First, a little history.

The rapid rise in importance of brands in the 80’s coincided with a social and political landscape at odds with the counter-culture movements defined, in large part, by a questioning of wealth for its own sake.  Punks carried this over starting in the 1970s.  Antiestablishment rhetoric and symbolism became ingrained in pop culture, but there was a response to it.  Amongst what would come to be termed “Yuppies” brands had the capacity to signal power and economic clout.  So began a reversal of the previous two decades.

The catch was that in a postmodern world where brands could be used to signal identity and affiliation with a host of cultural sub-groups, brands began to be associated with lifestyles as much as wealth.  Doc Marten’s were symbolically repurposed by punks and took on a meaning unrelated to the display of wealth. As another example, Benetton began a series of advertising campaign that demonstrated an understanding a growing number of their consumers were gravitating toward brands which aligned with their social and political beliefs.  While Doc Martens were appropriated by several subcultures, Benetton redirected their brand image and message to reflect a specific worldview.

The rise of the lifestyle parallels the rise of social fragmentation and communication breakdown which lies at the heart of our postmodern condition. While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, undefined and unstructured mass where identity is more problematic. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do.

What brand today do is signal systems that reflect personal values and objectives. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature.  It provides a messaging tactic for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes.  He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs.

That means thinking beyond economic clusters and age cohorts.  It means learning what a brand says in a range of contexts and thinking about its value to the consumer on a cultural and social level that is often fluid. It means thinking about what current and potential consumers wish to say about themselves in a given cultural context, rather than reducing them to a pile of statistics.

Stats Are B.S. 9 out of 10 Times.

Nowadays, every company and organization within a company has an agenda of some sort and has taken to throwing out statistics, all in an effort to convince naive people into embracing that agenda. Rarely are the statistics meaningful in a holistic sense. Rather they are meant to bolster an opinion that has no real depth or substance.  Indeed, it more dangerous than the “gut feel” information ethnographers are accused of practicing (by people lacking real knowledge of ethnography).  Why? Because they are absolutes grounded in a singular worldview – they lack any collaborative checks and balances.

The truth be told, statistics are absolutely worthless when it comes to proving anything at all. Statistics are only as good as the method used to come by them, and the way they are presented.  And they are only as good as the minds that construct and apply them.  When numbers are involved, arrogance becomes more dangerous because it holds a weapon the uninformed tend to fear.  In other words, stats are often more about the person talking than anything meaningful.

So the next time someone throws statistics at you, keep an open mind. You do not want to become a victim of misinformation by statistics.

The Meaning of Style

Human beings have always used their appearance as personal advertising – from the advent of the first tattoo to hairstyles used to designate tribal affiliation to “that little black dress,” visual style and fashion have been used as a sort of personal branding mechanism, a calling card signaling who we are and where we are at.  What has become perhaps most interesting in a postmodern world defined by mass media, the web and global “tribes” is the extent to which appearance has become a focal point for identity.

Rather than globalization fostering a one-sided, homogeneous construction of culture, however, the ever-shrinking world has allowed us to experiment and redefine ourselves in ever more creative ways.  As our world grows ever more complex and fragmented, the importance of appearance grows ever greater.  The Goth kid in London has as much in common with her counterpart in Argentina as she does with her accountant father – what it means to be from culture X is less important in many ways than what it means to belong to subculture Y.

So why does it matter to marketers, designers and retailers?  It matters because it means the traditional methods of segmentation used by men in khaki pants and pastel golf shirts don’t add up anymore.  Yes, we can break people out by zip code, income and age, but it is just as likely that you will find a tattooed, rockabilly mom living in the suburbs as you will the stereotypical mom.  And it is in those subtle reflections on and responses to the culture at large that the real insights lie.  If you want to develop real breakthrough retail experiences and modes of design, you are better off learning about what happens at the bus station, the museum or the food truck than you are analyzing mounds of statistical variables by zip code.

Fashion tells us more than what is trendy, what is “weird” and what is appropriate to wear.  It tells us what matters in a larger cultural sense and reflects on the world at large.  It tells us about possibilities.

Brand Considerations for Emerging Markets

Over the last decade, many multinational brands have rushed in to emerging markets, agog at the potential of billions of new consumers who had been liberated from planned economies and protectionist barriers. Their wealth has generally grown much more impressively than in the US or Europe.  They are the next goldmine.  But it’s not as simple as we had assumed it would be. There have been as many disappointments as success stories.  As the initial euphoria wanes, there is a growing realization that the billions of consumers have not embraced the brands, the products or the modes of messaging these companies have employed.  Local competitors are stronger than expected, having the funds and the name recognition to maintain or grow their influence.  National pride and cheaply made local goods often supersede the brand equity of a western brand.  Competition for the top tier of the market is fierce.  And unfortunately, companies have dismissed the roles of history and culture in their strategies for growing their brands in emerging markets.

Most multinationals have traditionally long resisted targeting the local consumer, preferring instead to transplant offerings that were developed for their traditional developed markets. The assumption has been that if we think a certain way about the world, then so goes the rest of the planet. But context and culture have a funny way of changing meaning and purpose.  That being said, Three reasons are often cited for the reticence to localizing strategies and messaging. The first is that the mass market for any single emerging economy is not large enough to justify the effort and cost of localization. In other words, there may be a billion potential customers down the road, but there is risk in jumping in at the deep end.  Second, multinational managers rationalize, emerging market consumers are growing more affluent by the day and are becoming more like their affluent-market counterparts both in behavior and in purchasing power.  Again, if we act and behave a certain way in Cleveland, so do the good people in Bangalore.  As such, the belief is that the company is better off offering globally standardized products and waiting for the consumers to evolve towards these. Luckily, with the success of brands like Pizza Hut and Nike overseas, the view is beginning to change.  Finally, it is argued that to adapt to local market conditions in every emerging economy will undermine core assumptions about standardization that are fundamental to the success of multinationals. The catch in all this is that these assumptions just don’t hold water.

First, products and brands transplanted from existing, economically powerful markets typically appeal to the affluent or those aspiring to the upper socio-economic echelons.  Delving deeper into the consumer base to establish mass-market positions would create the economies of scale necessary to justify localization. And localization along characteristics that are common across emerging markets, allows the costs to be spread over much larger volumes. In other words, while size matters, we need to fundamentally rethink how we structure our cost assumptions.

The argument that emerging market consumers are rapidly becoming more like their Western markets is true, but only to a point. The rate of change is not as rapid as contended. We need to remember that change is not a one-way street – emerging markets influence us, changing the nature of what a brand means on a global scale.  Also, we have to bear in mind that what we see as becoming “like us” is derived from our worldview, not theirs.  That means it is an interpretation that is filtered through existing cultural norms.  Americans and Chinese may both embrace the cowboy image of Coors, but the cowboy image means radically different things in each culture. It is far from certain to what degree Chinese and

Indian preferences will converge with those of Europeans or Americans. It is as most reasonable to assume that they will be driven by cultural norms. That means that to be successful, brands should focus on current needs and cultural patterns, evolving with them as they grow and change.

Consumers in emerging markets tend to shop daily and have 365 opportunities a year to switch brands. That provides more opportunities to message, yes, but those messages have more competition, more distractions and shorter periods to make an impact. Consequently, thinking about how we reach people in emerging markets requires a significant reorientation of how we use media.

The billions of consumers we seek in emerging economies will remain elusive targets unless we are able to rethink how we approach these populations. It isn’t enough to jump into a market and assume people will buy, we need to understand who they are and how they understand make sense of the world.

Chinese Beer, Context and Branding

The beer market is a fickle place. Tastes change with the season and fashion is as much a part of the selection process as flavor.  Even so, experimentation can be limited and people fall back on standards. Beer behavior is hooked on tradition, likes its regular place at the bar and distrusts strangers.

Admittedly, with the exception of regional favorites, this is partly thanks to the small number of global brewers who control virtually every brand we drink.  It is also due to the fact that beer buyers are creatures of habit. So, while there are a host of beers coming out of China, they have trouble gaining traction in the West.

When it comes to Chinese beer, the biggest hurdle by far is a cultural one. In the liquor store we may be more clear headed and open minded.  We may experiment a little, at least if the consumption is purely for ourselves.  But get into a bar, or even a party, and the game changes. There’s nothing a beer drinker hates more than to walk up to the bar and spend five minutes deciding what to drink. When you order a beer, it must be ordered with confidence. What the drinker doesn’t want  is to belly up to the bar and be confused by spelling they don’t understand and brands they find unfamiliar.  To be sure there is a segment that loves to experiment, but most will not, at least not in this setting.  Yes, context raises its ugly head again.

That is sadly one reason why westerners still labor under the misconception that Chinese beers are only to be consumed with a Chinese meal (the same holds true for Indian and Thai beers). Visit any Chinese restaurant in the west, and when you ask your waiter what beers they have, you’ll probably get the condescending choice of either Bud Light, Heineken or one of two Chinese brands. So while Tsingtao is available around the world, it is rarely found anywhere but in Chinese restaurants – only a handful of people stock it in their refrigerators. Search the Web for mentions of Tsingtao and you’ll find thousands of pages describing how well it goes with kung pao chicken, dumplings or crab rangoon. Rarely do you find more.

If the statistics are anything to go by, foreign restaurants must account for a tiny share of the mainland’s beer sales. The country’s 513 breweries produced over seven billion gallons of beer in 2004, making it the world’s biggest brewer for the third year running.  Snow is now the biggest selling brand in the world by consumption, but it is unknown outside China.  So what?  Here’s what.  That breaks down to 5.5 gallons a person for the entire country annually. That’s a lot of beer

So why aren’t we drinking more of it?  Often, people talk about a rice flavor to Chinese beers, though they struggle to define what exactly that flavor is – rice, after all, is not the only grain used by Chinese brewers. And it’s used in the west as well.  The truth is that the typical Chinese beer is mild-tasting, slightly hoppy and light. These beers possess the same qualities as any lager from any place on the planet.  It has been brewed to ensure that even after several bottles and an eight course meal, you still have a bit of space left.

More likely than flavor being a deterrent are cultural biases.  We still question the quality of Chinese brands (even though half of any consumer goods we purchase are made in China). There are cultural and racial biases we are loathe to discuss, though truth be told they influence our interpretations. Equally, we view Germany, Belgium and the UK as the true masters of the craft and have a hard time looking to China for new brews.  It isn’t flavor so much as it is cultural barriers to brand and product interpretation. And then there are the unfamiliar names and spelling conventions.  It all adds up to pose a serious challenge for Chinese brands.

Now, if you aren’t a beer drinker or if your in another line of business than brewing, why should any of this matter.  It matters because it helps illustrate the difficulty in global marketing.  If you plan to launch a brand in China, it serves you well to think about not only the people over there, but also the people over here – it serves you to think about how cultural bias and worldview can influence our use and interpretations of a brand.  Products and brands have a wide range of meanings and uses – social media proves the point every day.  Now expand that into a global market and the challenge becomes all the greater.  Remember that with beer this cheap. If your first choice turns out to be bad, you can always buy another.  Not so when selling a car or a TV.  Get it wrong and you stand to blow millions. Context is king, even with something as fundamental to life as beer.

Act Today

We have far-right lunatics running our government. The proposals the Republicans have put forward are cynical ploys and misrepresentations geared to swindle the average American out of everything. The goal is to create a majority population defined by fear, cowardice and exploitation. Take 5 to write these demagogs and raise holy hell about their inability to compromise. http://www.house.gov/

Retail Spatial Design

Spatial design is a relatively new term that emerged about a decade ago and expresses the idea that people, design and environments all connect together is the primary idea behind spatial design. The concept defines the relationship of people to environments through the use and application of design principles and is specifically oriented toward space-location, denoting an active response toward the creation of efficiently operating environments that serve the purposes and needs of people.  Quite a mouth full to be sure, but the underlying idea is relatively simple – environments are complex and elements are interconnected, from furniture, to fixtures, to cultural understandings of space. If you have a retail space, every element works as part of a complex system of meaning.  Design well and you increase loyalty and sales.  Design poorly and people shy away.

Spatial design focuses on the flow of space between interior and exterior environments both in the private and public realm. It also looks at spaces within a larger context (e.g. “safe zones” within a store). The emphasis of the discipline is on the interrelationship between people and space, particularly looking at the notion of place and place identity.

Whereas space refers to the structural, geometrical qualities of a physical environment, place is the notion that includes the dimensions of lived experience, interaction and use of a space by its inhabitants or visitors. We cannot escape spatiality: as spatial beings, we live and meet each other in space. That means we do more than fill a space.  It means all space is defined by social interaction and the cultural interpretations we bring to the environment before we even enter it.  Space never is meaningless.  Our body is the central reference point for perception and culture is the filter through with interpret a space. Movement and perception are tightly coupled and we interpret spatial qualities (or positioning of other objects) in relation to our own body. Spatial qualities therefore have cultural and psychological meaning – space can feel protectively enclosing or claustrophobic, objects and people are near or far, large objects tower over smaller ones. Spatial qualities inform interactions, creating or reinforcing how we interact with others, including sales staff.

So why does any of this matter?  Because a retails space, like any space, is less likely to engage if it is difficult for customers to assign meaning to it.  Creating a sense of place – memory, cultural cues, mythology, meaning – transforms the location into a destination.  That means increased visits over time, greater loyalty, advocacy, and more sales.  Retailers need to consider their environment in broader, strategic ways. How can different notions of place help us to understand collaborative practices within existing environments?  How do we design for supporting collaboration and social interaction within retail spaces?   What meaning does and can the retail brand hold for customers?   That requires thinking, planning and a commitment to research that goes beyond the numbers.

What Subcultures and Fashion Teach Businesses

Fashion and style are things that we often dismiss as frivolous, but in truth they are foundational to the structure of a society and tell us volumes about the underlying culture, or subculture, of a population.  We often forget that appearances are outward expressions of deeper internal truths.  This is particularly true of subcultures.  Interestingly, subcultures and their expressions of identity through fashion are often dismissed by marketers and management precisely because they represent something counter to the mainstream.  Our own cultural baggage gets in the way of identifying important elements of physical identity.  Even so, businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of what is cool or trendy, which remains valuable in the selling of any product.   This process of cultural appropriation may result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society. This process provides a constant stream of styles which may be commercially adopted.  It also means that there is a constant struggle between the creative-minded and those disinclined to see potential value in the inventiveness of subcultural fashion patterns.

But recent history is proof that past youth subcultures have influenced mainstream fashion, and youth subcultures are on the forefront of fashion change and experimentation.  Middle-class moms wearing Doc Marten’s boots, CMOs with elaborate tattoos.  High-end designer clothing and the outfits of celebrities will most certainly be remembered and preserved for the future (hence the “red carpet” moments at the Oscars), but these are not fully accurate representations of current society and youth culture, nor are they a full representation of the sources of fashion invention.  The collection and preservation of the actual garments and accessories belonging to youth subcultures, as opposed to the later knock-offs of these styles provide a substantial and meaningful documentation of society and its effect on mass fashion. They signal what is to be in the greater cultural dialog, not what is.

A subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.  A subculture is a subversion to normalcy. Subculture has been described as a word which means liberty of appearance, liberty of creativeness, liberty and ease of the chosen model for getting pleasure. The subculture is a sacred action, in which the only arbiter of values and belief, taste and preferences is the person or the tight, often small, group. The person with the autonomy of his own choice.  Between subculture and fashion there is a connection and it is very important. The subculture, the clothes that the young wear in the street, the ideas of the rock bands, the clothes in the clubs, etc., influence and transform fashion design. In turn, those influences reshape culture at large.  Store layouts are reinvented and behavior at home and elsewhere subtly shifts the definition of what is acceptable, meaningful and of value. And that kind of steeping in certain spirit from a given youth circle is important for the creative searches and findings of fashion designers. This spirit is especially precious with its freshness and roughness. The fashion invention is born and the progress of style is completed.

There is value in getting to know subcultures intimately.  They represent an  unlimited reservoir for ideas and motives in the art of designers of all stripes, be it in art, advertising or fashion.  The subculture attracts and charms with its spontaneity and incredible imagination. It may also repel, but in the process it leaves an impression. Censorship and standard do not exist for it, because the marks and symbols that it uses are born from the energy of the rebellion and disagreement with the already existing rules and restrictions. For fashion and indeed the retail spaces in which fashion is displayed, subcultures represent the need to experiment and to find personal meaning in a postmodern world that elevates the concept of the individual to an almost religious duty.

So where does this lead us?  Simply, it is a reminder that when we watch trends or fixate on the statistics that convey existing mainstream patterns of behavior, we miss the next opportunity.  That’s fine if your goal is to find a better way to push more of the existing products you have, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what COULD be.  It turns insights into simple regurgitations rather than identifying anything that will lead to breakthrough design, be it in fashion, retail or anything else. Similar to other misunderstood things, subcultural patterns are held anathema.  And yet they are the source of inspiration. It is not right to aggrandize unreserved the youth subcultures and to accredit to them with virtues, but it is equally not right to deny, repress or ignore them.  A company that does so is self-limiting and will be taken by surprise when the market changes.

Innovation and the Creative Mind

For years businesses have been calling for more and more innovation, creativity and/or enterprise. Particularly in a weak economy where innovation can mean the difference between life and death, the call for creative thinking has grown increasingly strong.  Unfortunately, budgets and a stomach for risk have not followed suit.  But before we even attempt to tackle those issues we need to think about what innovation and creativity mean. Why? Because these things mean very different things to different people. we are faced with a need for something, something seen as important, but which is either undefined or is defined with a wide range of interpretations.

Creativity is, in its broadest sense, the ability to think a new idea. This may be a new design, a new way of understanding the world, a new way of approaching a problem, a new melody, etc. It may be rethinking an old idea or a use for something we had forgotten.  Out of the creative act is born symbols and myths.

Innovation is the process by which the new idea is put into practice.  It challenges the existing ways of doing things and is a means of tangible change. Because it is a form of change, people will react as they do to any change. The more surprising the innovation, the more extreme the reaction will tend to be positive or negative. As with creativity, innovation can provoke, inspire or simply be lost in translation.

Creativity and innovation are inexorably linked, two sides of the same coin. Both are characterized by the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Both involve thinking, then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but neither creative nor innovative.

Unfortunately, language can get in the way of action.  It does not help that “creativity” has strong associations with the special artistic talents of a small number of exceptional people: creative geniuses like Mozart or Shakespeare. People in business often claim to be uncreative for this reason. Equally, “innovation” has connotations of logic and technical expertise.  Think Bill Gates or Einstein.  Consequently, innovation often falls to people other than the creative class.

We often forget or ignore our creativity and potential to innovate because we get too wrapped up in the roles we assume in our professions. And yet, as a species we are hardwired to embrace both. That means taking risks and relearning how to reject the mundane, assume risk and be willing to experiment.  Especially during a time of economic uncertainty.

 

 

 

 

 

4 More Years?

As we prepare for another kick to America’s economic cajones, I thought I’d post a few interesting stats.  No, this has nothing directly to do with anthropology, business-focused ethnography, design, etc.  It does, however, deal with business and where we want to be in the next decade.

Following years of declining wages and rising poverty, the Republicans finally crashed the American economy in 2008.  67% of voters say that an agreement to raise the debt ceiling should include tax modifications (either as increases or in the form of closing loopholes) for the wealthy and corporations, not just spending cuts.

The Dow Jones industrial average increased by 29.5% in the one-year period following Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009—the third best showing, going back 110 years, for the U.S. stock market in the 12 months following the inauguration of a new President. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first year, which began on March 4, 1933, tops the list with the Dow increasing by 96.5% over the next 12 months. On average, Presidents in the Democrat party saw an average one-year gain of 24%, while Republicans averaged 1%.

What does all of this tell us?  Well, it tells me that the people clamoring for zero regulation, perpetual tax cuts and no government involvement in anything are simply inept when it comes to managing an economy.  It also speaks to the power of the party’s myth — tell someone you’re an expert long enough and people will buy into it.  Preach free enterprise even as you attack the products that your moral extremists find objectionable (alcohol, non-religious media programming, violent video games, etc.) and people with small minds will rally to the cause.  Contradictions and dogma are easy enough to sell when you have the right spin doctors.