Friday, November 28, 2008

The Dearth of the Cool.

It felt like getting picked first for basketball: My co-author and I were invited to speak at Google this past week as part of their Authors@Google series (YouTube link to come). The coolest cool kids in the universe wanted to hear about our little book and what we think makes it important. This would mightily reduce my degrees of separation from Nobel winners and recently elected Presidents. So, needless to say, I packed my pundit pants, grabbed Sweetie and was New York-bound before you could say, “Hendrick's martini, dry, straight up with a twist.”

It was going to be cool.

This trip, though, instead of staying at our preferred underlit, sullen and contemptuous boutique hostelry, we decided to give the recently renovated W on Lexington a go. It’s a brand that’s always interested me because of its improbable triumph over modest Starwood roots. W Hotels are, I had been assured, also pretty cool. Cool enough for the likes of me, anyway.

And that’s how it seemed, at first. They almost had me with the buzzy lobby bar and the Wallpaper-esque d├ęcor. Enough so that I nearly overlooked the promotional ‘Acura Experience’ desk outside the elevator, hawking free rides to anybody who might like to buy a sporty sedan while they’re in town for the econolypse. The illusion remained more or less intact until I got to the bathroom in our cloyingly hip little suite...

Remember ‘jump the shark’? It was one of my favourite turn-of-the-century colloquialisms. I didn’t only like it for its pop culture savvyness, either, efficiently encapsulating as it did the notion of a popular entertainment property self-destructing by trying too hard. I also liked it for the cringe-inducing reference film itself: It wasn’t just that someone jumped a shark. It was that Fonzie jumped a shark. In his leather jacket. Rather than fade away, the character of Fonzie flamed out in a spectacle of self-debasement that, once and for all, atomized his moral authority as an arbiter of cool.

That’s kind of the effect this sticker on the mirror of our bathroom at the W had. Fonzie in his swim trunks and leather jacket. A reminder for those who need it that the minute you say you’re cool, you’re not.

Google was. Cool. The W Hotel, not so much. Checking out the next day, I felt like I was getting off the Hipster Doofus ride at Disney World. If I’d wanted to see what not-really-all-that-cool looks like, the mirror would have done the job quite nicely without the sticker.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The iPres.

I wasn’t going to talk about the election. I really wasn’t.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of punditry about what marketers can learn from this bit of history. And I think that part of my reluctance to add to the din has been the enervating familiarity of it all. The glib pronouncements about what Brand Obama got tactically right sound like the same sort of analytical chaff that followed, say, the introduction of the iPhone. Humans who wear suits insist on trying to reduce the behavior of their species to some kind of mechanical stimulus/response model, and fiercely deny the thing that most makes us human: We have souls. We are gloriously flawed, emotional creatures who exist in a perpetual zero-sum game of hope versus fear.

So here’s your answer: At the heart of Obama’s victory was not his brand, but America’s. What he did so brilliantly was not to say, “America is broken and I will fix it.” He said, “The idea of America is great, and we must return to it.” He didn’t only dazzle with clever marketing and deft tactics; he went back to the fundamentals and to the 232-year-old rhetoric of Brand America, and used it to remind the nation of its awesomeness.

H.L. Mencken, a notorious cynic about democracy, once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” He has never been more satisfyingly wrong, in my opinion, and regardless of one’s politics. Certainly that thumbs-up fella and his moose-hunting sidekick did. No, I think the truth is that, from 1776 until last Tuesday night at least, nobody has ever gone broke overestimating the human appetite for self-respect and a sense of possibility.

Can marketers learn something from that?

Yes we can.