Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Straight up, with a twist.

If you have a big enough martini, the universe will eventually speak to you.

Or so it seemed, anyway, when I whisked Sweetie and me to a very lovely Caribbean resort last week to celebrate the end of a careening year of changes for us both. You see, you can’t keep a good cowboy down, especially the brand kind. A gin-addled escapist I may have been, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention. Our little sojourn under the swaying palms was not without its anthropological treats.

For one thing, iPads were everywhere. At one point, it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that every other poolside lounge chair featured one right where the latest edition of InStyle would have perched were we in a different century. Granted, the resort made this kind of thing easy by providing wi-fi everywhere on the property. But it was still notable that it wasn’t laptop computers or netbooks we were seeing, or even iPhones. And what was really striking was the naturalness of it. Unlike a lot of mobile devices, an iPad user isn’t declaring to the world what she’s doing just by firing it up. She might be reading emails, or a magazine. She might be writing a book, or she might be assembling a puzzle picture of the girl with the pearl earring. That’s a sea change. ‘Connectedness’, the grail for which little computers and big smart phones have quested since the 1990s, is finally won. Carrying a mobile device is no longer like having a pinless grenade hanging from your belt. Everybody gets to decide what it means now, mediated only a little – relatively speaking - by Apple.

Logos, by contrast, were hardly anywhere. The particular resort where we stayed works hard at cloistering you from the real world, and a collateral effect of this is that the only brands they display (besides their own now and then) are on liquor bottles. Otherwise, all the brands you see are on the golf bags and t-shirts of the guests. That was pretty interesting to me. For one thing, these displays were voluntary. We weren’t talking, here, about discreet little lizards embroidered on the breasts of shirts. We were talking about big, honkin’ logozillas, entirely avoidable by the buyers of the products that wore them, and entirely brazen. And for another, they were deliberate declarations. I refrained from conducting a focus group on this, and the respondents would probably have lied through their teeth anyway if I had. But in the absence of any ambient branding, it was almost always obvious what drove a consumer’s choice to display one of his own: “I belong here.” “I don’t belong here.” I take my golf seriously.” “This isn’t the only fancy resort I’ve been to.” “I’m a lot more interesting than you think.” “I have my own airplane.” (Ironically, the phalanxes of iPads didn’t make this kind of statement. The fact that there were so many, combined with their dour little black cases, gave an impression not unlike the one you get driving through a Mennonite town). It turns out that an assertion I make in Consumer Republic might be true: Brands carry social meaning, and that social meaning is useful to people.

And then there was the kindness. I can’t say what alloy of local culture and brilliant leadership caused it, but the people who worked at this resort were unfailingly, warmly, genuinely kind all the time about everything. I hadn’t said ‘thank you’ so often in the course of a day since our wedding (I married up). I bet nobody else had, either. And that’s really what got my attention. It wasn’t just that the people were kind to the customers, but that the relentlessness of this kindness eventually ended up making the customers behave the same way. A brilliant young professor I interviewed for Consumer Republic argues that social consensus is arrived at through the application of pride and shame. Here, all the pride was attached not to power or advantage, but to being sweet. It almost became a competitive sport. And it started with, of all things, somebody’s corporate culture.

Looking at my notes this week, once again pale, sober and dressed in layers, the observations seemed to stand: Connectedness has come of age. Consumers give brands their meaning. And brands have the power to make positive change. The words of the prophets may indeed be written on subway walls but, like all good content, they’ve apparently been syndicated. I got mine at the beach.