Wednesday, May 10, 2006
The blind leading the brand.
Get comfortable. This is a long one. Because I am steamed.
Every day, I walk past this anodyne looking fashion billboard on my way back from having smart lunches with the cool kids. For weeks, I ignored the vapid, sunglass-adorned face thereon because, a) I am not an aspiring supermodel, and b) I take my sunglasses seriously, as all the cool kids do. Then, one day, desperate to find something else to look at besides my colleague's new orange velvet trousers, I actually studied it for a second and realized…
Great thundering Paris Hilton, it’s an OAKLEY billboard!
I felt ill. Betrayed. Crushed. As if I’d just caught my wife shopping for a Lincoln Navigator.
The Oakley story is just a perfect parable for how we’re all going to be building brands one day soon. Advertising didn’t play a huge role, and not until it was an established brand. Oakley began with technically superior eye protection for sports. And from the start, they understood the power of designing that stuff to make a statement. Their products came off the drawing board screaming menace, courage, aggression, predatory focus. They cost insane amounts of money, which somehow authenticated the claim of superiority. And they made sure that their products were seen on the right faces in the right places, in the beginning by simply giving them away at sporting events to people who seemed to matter, and seemed to win. And if you showed up at the Oakley trailer with a broken frame, they’d just replace it for you on the spot. Nobody in the Oakley tribe was going to be caught dead with duct tape on their M-Frames.
(It’s a wonder they never forcibly remove their products from losers and posers, in fact, but I am eternally grateful for that).
Oakley eyewear had a way of turning a person into a machine. A nice bit of intimidation for bike racers and downhill skiers. And cops. And soldiers. And Arnold Schwartzenegger in The Terminator. And don’t think for one minute that those news photos of some special ops thug wearing his Eyejackets and toting a machine gun didn’t add to the emotional punch of seeing the same glasses on the person next to you at the starting line of your local mountain bike free-for-all. Not since ‘The Man With No Eyes’ created a hostile workplace for Cool Hand Luke has eyewear had such semiotic potency. Oakley says, ‘don’t mess with me.’
And this, of course, inevitably made it fashionable. Even the slightest excuse to own Oakleys has always been enough – “I have to run to grab the phone before the third ring,” for example - and the company has regularly supplied this market with products that were a bit more fashionable than technical. All the while never dropping its guard. They never, NEVER said, ‘don’t these look cool?’. They said stuff about UV protection and the ability of their lenses to stop shotgun pellets, should that be a risk to which your pastimes might expose you. They officially ignored the fashion market, and sold to it hand over fist.
So now, some brand manager, freshly extruded from Wharton or some such, has decided to ‘leverage’ the fact. It’s called ‘Oakley Script’. A whole line of fashionably designed eyewear for, um, I dunno, girls, I guess. The assumption seems to be that the Oakley power thing excludes women somehow (ludicrous) and that the world needed another fashion eyewear brand (it didn’t). Then, in a masterstroke, they camouflaged the whole enterprise by designing a special girly Oakley logo so the cool kids wouldn’t notice.
Now, instead of saying, ‘don’t mess with me’, my Oakleys are going to say, ‘don’t mess up my hair’.
It’s a disaster. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Ray Bans are out. I still haven’t forgiven them for Tom Cruise. And I can’t even think of another brand.
They just don’t seem to advertise.