Friday, September 19, 2008

Karmic Tuesday.

There’s a bar in my neighborhood that’s an interesting little cultural mashup. At first glance, it seems to be an Irish pub. Confusingly, though, it’s run by dour Eastern Europeans. And most perversely of all, it serves just one kind of food: Hamburgers. 35 kinds of them. Times 7 kinds of meat. And 3 kinds of fries (I recommend the yam fries). It’s a simple menu with mind-boggling choice. There is no cheap option, and there is no bottom-of-the-page $35 surf-and-turf selection to impress your date with. Everyone there can afford a hamburger, everyone pays within a buck or two of the same price, and everyone there is having the one they like the best. It was there, last week, that I sat munching my Papa Giorgio burger on bison (with the aforementioned yam fries), watching the financial world implode on cable television.

When you get right down to it, this whole economic mess we’re in right now was caused by people feeling entitled to more and better stuff than they had yet to earn. A toxic stew of entitlement, optimism and selective blindness has driven the world’s economies straight over a cliff. Now we find ourselves watching CNN in horror as capitalism’s sacred shrines fall one after the other, and dazed looking investment bankers stumble up Wall Street carrying cardboard boxes full of their World’s Worst Golfer mugs and photos of the family basset hound. We borrowed and borrowed, and Tuesday finally came.

I blame hip hop.

Okay, not really. But kind of. You see, no cultural force has more potently expressed the American urge to flatten status hierarchies than that one has. Its chosen battleground: Consumption. You can take what you want, the movement seems to argue to those of us who probably don’t really understand it; in fact, you have a social duty to crush elitism by wearing its totems with the maximum possible insouciance. The media directs its digital fire hose at us, spewing images of putative street kids guzzling cognac, wearing couture and driving Bentleys. Serve those highly branded pictures to a society where roughly a third of the population believes they will be rich in their lifetimes anyway, season to taste with the indelible 2001 image of George Bush telling us that shopping is patriotic, et voila: the end of days.

Are brands somehow complicit in any of this? By their existence, I don’t think so. But I do think the people who manage them sometimes are. The paucity of marketing imagination has turned a lot of branded marketing into a process of exploitation dressed up as ‘selling the consumer what he wants’, when in fact the whole idea behind modern branding was supposed to be personal affinity. Offering the consumer what fits. When the discipline of positioning withered with the 1980s, what was left for branding in a lot of categories was a heartlessly binary schema: you, Mr. Consumer, can have the best, or you can settle. Well, that’s an easy choice. Especially when there is no end of easy credit available to fund it. They’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for an Escalade today.

I miss positioning. I miss when a guy could feel pretty good about driving a Buick after graduating from his Chevy, while he waited until he could manage the Caddy. I miss the middle. I miss all the middles that made being Main Street okay instead of a penance. I think the world will be a lot better off when consumers can choose what they like from 35 kinds of good instead of having to publicly declare where they are on the food chain.

And pay for it today.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ich bin ein commodity.

Well, they tell me that our book – the one I’m shamelessly promoting just to the right of this column – has shipped to the printer. No more changes or revisions or additions or whatever other urges might awaken my co-author or me from a sound sleep with a night terror-inducing realization about the permanence of ink on paper. The missiles have left the silos.

And it’s a real book, too. This wasn’t some bootstrap vanity project we financed with our retirement money, or from the tills of our respective employers, or with the generosity of some charitable foundation for wayward bankers and branding consultants with literary pretensions. “The Orange Code” was bid upon by big, fancy publishers who publish famous books by famous people and make money at it. It is a product, already for sale at places like and Wal-Mart and Target, right there alongside the kitty litter, shower massages and bestselling novels. Me, a guy who has made a career out of helping companies market things is now, himself, being marketed.

Except that I – tragically - am not famous. And this, in a supreme twist of irony worthy of an Aesop fable, makes me a product without a brand.

So let me just say this about that: If you ever find yourself questioning the real value of a brand in the noble cause of marketing, just walk a mile in these generic shoes. In the publishing world, if your name isn’t Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling, the product (that would be you and your tome) is doomed to assert, defend and explain itself all the way from the publisher’s swishy lobby to the airport bookstore where it will vie with “Who Moved My Cheese?” to redeem some poor bastard’s unplanned layover in Pittsburg. For a writer, life without a brand is a Sisyphean struggle for credibility that ends only when Oprah says it does.

Harsh. And it’s no different for real products, either. Take that last sentence and replace “writer” with, oh, say, “boxer shorts” and “Oprah” with “Wal-Mart”, and you have every brand manager’s worst nightmare.

Anyway, with editing and the summer now fading memories, it’s good to be back in the groove. And my evangelical fire is lit anew. For I have been brandless. And it’s even worse than I thought.