Monday, August 29, 2005

The devil wears fleece.

Let’s play a game: Guess what Old Navy’s ‘demographic’ is. Old Navy, as in fun disposable clothes made in distant, exotic lands for very little money and sold in shopping malls everywhere for something-9.99. T-shirts, hats, fad of the moment accessories conveniently designed to last only as long as the fads themselves. This is the fashion business, right? They must have had someone in mind when they made all that stuff.

Let’s look for clues in their advertising. Hmm… energetic, retro-ironic, exhuberantly faddish. Aha! It’s for young people. Old Navy is for the youth market, right?

Nope. I just saw a corpulent middle-aged man herding his kids in the direction of a streetcar, wearing an Old Navy cap. If he’d been wearing a FUBU hat or a Volcom hat, they wouldn’t have been caught dead with him. But Dad was okay in that Old Navy number as far as they were concerned. Strike one.

Okay, maybe it’s a ‘value brand’. Maybe it’s for people whose aspirations exceed their means, and Old Navy was invented to make them feel better about the whole thing. Well, then, explain this guy who just parked his BMW across two spots and is right now insouciantly beeping his alarm remote over the shoulder of his Old Navy t-shirt as he walks away. He didn’t choose that shade of blue cotton to match his Rolex. Strike two.

And don’t bother trying to cheat by looking at their web site. It’s closed. If they know who they’re for, they aren’t saying. Give up? It was a trick question. Old Navy doesn’t have a demographic. It’s not even a real brand. They just made it up. It’s a non-brand. An unbrand. Old Navy exists to occupy the place where a brand would ordinarily go.

Which, if you ask me, makes it the work of the devil.

I mean, geez. A brand with no redeeming cultural value, no personal statement to offer its wearers, and 38,300 Google hits when combined with the word “sweatshops”. It’s, like, the trifecta of brand nihilism.

Don't believe me? Turn 9.99 upside down and tell me what you see. Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

All I know is, when the end comes, I'll be wearing one of those Ashlee Simpson t-shirts. Just to be safe.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The real thing.

I'm stealing a contemplative moment at my desk. To be specific, I'm looking for some relief from the ennui of trying not to screw up (what passes for 'marketing'’ in the modern age), and I'm flipping through the August issue of Business Week. This is their annual 'Best Global Brands'’ issue, and there, right at the top of the list yet again, is Coca-Cola. They say the brand - not the business or the market cap, the brand - is worth sixty-seven and a half billion dollars. That's roughly eight Googles, in brand valuation terms.

Coke really is the proto-brand. Look at its recent history: There's the whole New Coke thing. The whole CAA thing. The whole Sergio Zyman '‘End of Advertising As We Know It'’ thing. It goes on. A parade of geniuses who are like nothing so much as an airline pilot that sings Barry Manilow tunes in the cockpit and, observing that the plane is still in the air, concludes that '“Copacabana'” is keeping it there.

I have another theory. I think that the triumph of Coke has been in spite of all this heavyweight marketing and advertising brilliance. Its value might really lie in its sheer tenacity. In an age when we look for authenticity wherever we can find it, Coke sells it for a buck a bottle. I wonder sometimes if '‘Hilltop'’ was the last great thing Coke ever did because it was the last unselfconscious thing it ever did. From that day on, the brand went one way and the advertising went another. And the consumer followed the brand.

Now there's something to aim for. A brand so well loved that people forgive it for its marketing. I could screw up all day long and look like a genius.

Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Can't touch this.

I’m standing at an intersection, waiting for the light to turn green. Stopped beside me is a throbbing Range Rover, all chrome and tinted glass and gleaming menace. Despite the proximity of this fabled brand, this iconic bearer of rice and powdered milk and soldiers in blue berets to the third world’s hungry, this carriage of sporting royalty and tweedy gentry, the Kalahari doesn’t cross my mind for one second. Nor am I transported to the sodden English countryside. What I am is nervous.

This moment of urban terror reminded me of a piece I read in the paper a few weeks ago, in which it was reported that Cadillac was the brand most mentioned in songs on the Billboard Top 20 singles chart last year. It was followed by Hennessy, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Gucci, and Jaguar. For the most part, it was the hip hop scene that gave these brands so much free advertising, and some pundit opined – get this – that the people who live in that socio-cultural demimonde aspire to these brands so that they can proclaim their membership in the success club. In other words, the gentlemen in the Range Rover were letting me know that they, too, can prosper and enjoy the concomitant luxury.

Uh, yeah.

I’ve got news for that pundit guy. Those people driving around in Cadillac Escalades and wearing Burberry and sipping ‘yak are not here to join the success club. They’re here to trash it. The point of dragging status brands kicking and screaming into the street isn’t to celebrate them, it’s to deprive them of their meaning. There’s a class war going on out there, and the insurgents have obviously decided that the enemy’s brands are a strategic target.

It’s kind of too bad they didn’t go after the middle class’ brands instead, though. Somehow, a minivan wouldn’t have made me half as nervous. Even a throbbing one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The medium is the masses.

Apple, the quintessential post-modern brand, is doing it again. Look, I know it’s not cool to love the iPod now that everybody has one. But they really are marvelous, and so is the advertising. I’m sitting here in my office looking out the window at a lush forest of iPod outdoor ads, once again showing the proto-consumer as nothing more than a silhouette with the only recognizable item the distinctive white box and headphone cord. Marketing nerds everywhere nod in approval because the product is king. Hah… fooled you. The user is king! In fact, the user is the advertising. These billboards are doing nothing more or less than directing our attention to the people around us who already have an iPod. It’s they who actually do the selling. Genius.

Twenty one years ago, Apple introduced not so much a product as a manifesto: Computers should serve people, not the other way around. A radical thought, more relevant today than then. Now, I look at the teeming masses of free thinking humans, all clutching identical little tabula rasa-white icons, broadcasting custom media experiences to their audiences of one, and I wonder who is serving whom. Or if maybe this is the first time a brand has succeeded in having itself and its consumers serve each other. It’s such a drag that the Village Voice already burned the phrase, ‘the new Maoism’ to describe the Gap a decade or so back; it would have been a very clever thing for me to say right about here.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Through a glass darkly.

Here’s the problem: Brands aren’t bad. Marketers are. Marketers and their advertising agencies. I sometimes think that there needs to be a movement to liberate brands from their captors and release them into the wild where nature meant them to be. They would flourish. We would know what brands were good, because they would be the ones we saw the most. We would know what brands were coolest because they’d be the ones that the cool people bought. We’d know which ones were best for people like us, because we could just ask people like us what they buy. And brands would get better, because it would be the principles of Darwin and not the likes of Sergio Zyman that determined which would survive and which would not.

Oh, what a halcyon day.

This occurs to me as I’m sitting in a dark room behind a one-way glass, watching a focus group, the crack cocaine of advertising research methodologies. Here we are again, asking the consumer to do our jobs for us. There are vast branches of science dedicated to the idea that people are not always conscious of what motivates them. Nobel prizes are awarded to economists who discover that marketplaces aren’t rational. And yet we believe that for fifty bucks and all the Chunks Ahoys they can eat, we can get consumers to accurately predict their own behavior, and do it in front of a half dozen perfect strangers in under an hour. All this on the arrogant and ludicrous assumption that the simpler and more uncontentious the answer, the more likely it is to succeed in the marketplace.

Consensus may have prevented all kinds of mistakes in the course of history, but it’s never created a damned thing.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fiat lux.

I think almost everybody is a hypocrite. At least they are when it comes to brands. The official consensus is that we don't like them and we think they're instruments of corporate manipulation. They are putatively so evil and such effective weapons of control that it's not hard to imagine the United States Army might have its own branding corps, a top secret special forces unit that parachutes into innocent third world villages and Nikes them. You'd think we became stupid in the presence of a logo. Stupid, or weak, as if brands were some kind of moral kryptonite. We would sooner be busted socially for being an Ashlee Simpson fan than somebody who cared about what kind of toothpaste they used.

Well, sorry Naomi. Everybody might be nodding solemnly, but they're still buying. (Nice logo, by the way). They may be just this side of porn as a guilty pleasure, but brands are fun. They're pop culture, at least as much as Ashlee Simpson is (though it should be noted that the number of Nike t-shirts one sees on the street exceeds the number of Ashlee Simpson t-shirts by an estimable margin). I can prove they're pop culture, too, with a simple test of my own devising:

1. Is it fundamentally irrelevant?

2. Can you see it on television?

3. Can you buy its t-shirt?

4. Is someone getting rich from it?

5. Have the really cool people already moved on to something else?

Answer yes to all five questions, and you've got a bona fide piece of pop culture right there. The Rolling Stones? Five out of five. The Mini Cooper? Five out of five. Try it on your own favourite brands, and you'll see. Your beer brand has a lot more in common with the whole Jennifer and Brad thing or the inexplicable staying power of hip-hugger jeans than it does with anything 'corporate'.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me, then, to treat them the same way. Laugh at them, admire them, deconstruct them, gossip about them and generally amuse ourselves at their expense. A great brand is like a hip hop star. You might not always like the music, but it's always fun when one shoots up a night club, and they love the attention.

So that's my plan.