Friday, January 26, 2007

Dead can dance.

There is no more anguished proof that a brand is out of ideas than the plundering of its past. From “Hilltop” redux to Burger King’s creepy disinterring of The King to the zombified Orville Redenbacher (which is, like, mega-creepy), every time I see one of these acts of creative despair I think that the perpetrators should be banished to writing Johnson Boxes at the nearest junk mail sweatshop.

(Seriously, this Orville Redenbacher thing is macabre. Take a look. Then come back here.)

So the other day, I’m out for a stroll and a billboard for another brand resurrection catches my eye. As in, I literally did a double-take and reread it to see if I could find the inevitable stupidity. Nothing. The needle on my stupidity meter was almost motionless.

TaB is back. And might possibly be cool.

To be exact, it’s a newish product called TaB Energy, and its proposition is, “Fuel to be Fabulous.” And the Coke folks have pulled off a pretty neat positioning trick with it. To start with, they’ve actually found some white space in the insanely cluttered beverage category: an energy drink for women. And I don’t mean the “hear me roar” variety. This is aimed at the modern sort who, besides being emancipated and empowered corporate executives and rock-climbing marathon runners, also like to read trashy magazines, collect cheap sunglasses and look cute when the mood suits them. It's Red Bull for for the girl power crowd.

But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t TaB die ignominiously in the last century, a victim of its own obsolete pre-feminist positioning and possibly evil saccharine? In its final days, wasn’t it shorthand for antediluvian feminine vanity? Well, yeah. But, see, they’ve actually made that work for them. There’s an inviting sense of playful, pink irony about the whole thing that somehow seems to acknowledge that maybe, finally, we have come a long way, baby.

(TaB is, of course, no stranger to irony, or the subject of fabulousness for that matter. Consider this, taken with ruthless disregard for context, from Andy Warhol’s 'America': “You can see a billboard for TaB and think: Nancy Reagan drinks TaB , Gloria Vanderbilt drinks TaB . Jackie Onassis drinks TaB, and just think, you can drink TaB too. TaB is TaB and no matter how rich you are, you can’t get a better one than the homeless woman on the corner is drinking. All the TaBs are the same. And all the TaBs are good. Nancy Reagan knows it, Gloria Vanderbilt knows it, Jackie Onassis knows it, Katharine Hepburn knows it, the bag lady knows it, and you know it.” And it doesn’t get any cooler than Andy Warhol, right?)

If you snoop around their web site a bit, you’ll see that things kind of fall apart with the rather-too-perfect models in the photographs and the “Fabulous is…” philosophical stuff. Fabulousness needs neither explanation nor apologia, nor does it need some kind of presumptuous role model lecturing us on confidence to sanction it. Dove has that covered, thanks.

Even I, a mere oafish man, know that fabulousness is a state of mind and that earnestness is its kryptonite.

But out there in ad land, TaB Energy has got the thing just about dialed. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching this reincarnation.

And I guarantee you I won’t be eating popcorn while I’m doing it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A New York minute.

For no particular reason other than to breathe the fetid air of possibility, Sweetie and I went to New York a few weeks back. While she shopped for shoes (and against all imaginable odds found none), I wandered the streets of SoHo clutching a Starbucks cup and trying to look like I belonged, the Elmer Fudd of cool hunters. And believe it or not, the most interesting thing I discovered on this little safari was not an obscure micro-genre of lounge music or some new level of opacity for Helmut Lang ads. It was a hole in the wall on Wooster Street called the Wired Store.

Now, on the face of it, this place wasn’t as mind blowing as, say, the new Apple store on 5th Avenue. Imagine a Sharper Image, but without most of the strange massage appliances. It was populated sparsely on this December afternoon with glassy-eyed geeks passing time until their round-two financing came through, and the occasional startled looking tourist, alternately poking and caressing the latest shiny totems of modernity.

Yawn. And so?

So this: Wired is a magazine. It’s not supposed to be a store.

Yet there it was, and it seemed to make all the sense in the world. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn inside, and as I tried on the solar-powered laptop-charging backpack, I meditated on what seem to be some emerging truths about what brands are about here in the 21st century.

Here’s one. A brand is an advocate. Some clever duck once said, “When information is free, the only thing that will have any value is a point of view.” Wired is a brand more than it’s just the name of a magazine because it has a coherent way of seeing the world. Its reason for being is not its ability to staple piles of colourful paper together and sell them, it’s its unbridled enthusiasm for the digital age. In my head, I knew all these toys they were selling were probably products of the magazine’s advertisers; in my heart, I felt like maybe all these products had passed a test to be there.

Or how about, a brand is understood through experience. And, in a sense, the capacity for experience is kind of how you know you have a brand. The Wired Store, to me, was impressive precisely because it wasn’t surprising. Of course this is what Wired would look like if it was a store. Of course this is who would be lurking therein. Of course this is where it would be. Of course.

And this: A brand’s consumers are a tribe of shared values, not shared demographics, and certainly not, heaven help us, a ‘target’. What’s more, the beautiful thing about a brand like this is that it can be for some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. It didn’t care who came through its doors. Although I thought it fell short in the execution, you could see the potential, here, for this place to be like a church of Wired-ness. Niketown, taken to the next level.

Yeah, so, I was pretty chuffed about all that. Madly making notes and congratulating myself later over a martini for observing this evolutionary moment, this brand ascendant. You can imagine how sulky I was, then, on learning that they’d packed up and left like gypsies in the night shortly after Christmas, leaving nothing but a ‘for rent’ sign in the window. I’d stumbled on a new trend, alright. It’s called a “pop-up store”, and they’re all the buzz-making rage in Manhattan right now. Nike had just done one, too, in fact. It was open for four days.

Wascally wabbits.

But I still kind of want that backpack.