Friday, July 13, 2007

The Glory of O.


Somebody said once that when information is free, the only thing that will have any value will be a point of view. Though the fact that nobody seems to want to claim authorship of this quote may ironically suggest otherwise, I think there is real truth in it. And Exhibit A must surely be Oprah Winfrey. This woman’s success has got to be the most encouraging proof that brands have a future since the swoosh hat Tiger Woods wore at last year’s Masters. With no pedigree, no credential, no tangible product or service to offer, Oprah was the answer to a question nobody had yet asked, and that answer built her a personal fortune estimated by Forbes to be $1.3 billion dollars. She has elevated her brand to pure essence. An adjective free of any noun. A trademarked existential state. It has made people happy, apparently, and her rich.

And now she’s opening a store.

Construction started last month in Chicago, not far from her studio.

On the face of it, this is a big yawn. You could look at this little enterprise, fairly conclude that it’s nothing more than a souvenir shop, and flip to the next blog (which, last time I checked, is a site debunking online degrees. There goes that dream). But what I think is so fascinating is that it could just as easily be the seed of a national chain, spreading like a virus across the land until it’s become the Starbucks of self-actualization. And what could it sell? Well, her online boutique gives us clues. Coffee mugs, beach totes, stretchy pants and lounge socks. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t you think she could sell pretty much anything she wants? Radishes? Deodorant? Hedge clippers? It’s easier, in fact, and more telling to come up with a list of what she couldn’t sell.

Automatic weapons, for example. Probably not those.

Domesticated ferrets, hard liquor, Tom Cruise posters. There would be limits. But they would be authenticating limits, because those things would so obviously clash with what we understand to be her values. Otherwise, if those values can make any sense out of a product, I reckon she could flog it.

This makes me happy. You see, I think that to represent a point of view is a brand’s highest calling, and that there are lots of them out there prospering as such. You can’t tell me that Nike ever just sold shoes, or that McDonald’s ever just sold burgers or that Disneyland was ever just a theme park. Platoons of MBAs, mind you, in their unending quest for tangibility, will argue that those brands are constructed value propositions. But we know better. And Oprah has proven it for us. Because all she makes is people to see life her way.

As for the store itself, I can really only see one flaw in the business model: I’m hardly going to drive all the way to the mall if I can get that Zulu Telephone Wire Basket just by thinking positively. I mean, gas alone is going to be, like, five bucks. And they’ll probably be out of stock anyway.

Wait, that’s not very positive. Maybe I do need to go to the mall…