Friday, January 28, 2011

Cotton ninny.

I’m not showing you the rest of this ad. What I want you to look at is this girl’s face. She is, if she’s real, a child. Or is meant to look like one. The company that commissioned this illustration and the ad in which it appears would like you to buy cotton underpants from them.

American Apparel was always a pretty interesting brand. Underpinned by a comparatively ethical business model, they neatly assumed the position pioneered – and then abandoned – by Gap in the early 1990s. Virtually unbranded, willing to put some money where their mouths are on garment industry labour practices, they became a campus darling brand around the world. In my own classroom, American Apparel often came up as an exemplary post-modern brand, a way to declare that the wearer was above marketing. Nobody discussed the naughty pictures. They were, I think people concluded, ironic. An edgy send-up of fashion advertising. Pop art. Like a lot of people, this Newsweek blogger, for example, I was on the fence. It didn’t seem to be more than people could handle. And there seemed to be a lot of goodness in their value proposition.

Then this.

Sex doesn’t really sell. Everybody likes to say it does, but mostly that’s because they don’t want to discourage marketers from decorating their ads with attractive, underdressed people. The truth is that sex makes people like ads. Personally, I’ve never seen much evidence that it actually sells anything other than itself and perhaps the odd condom. So marketers and consumers kind of wink at each other and accept a little borrowed carnal interest as all in fun, but neither side generally loses sight of the fact that an ad is still an ad, and something in it is actually for sale.

American Apparel is well outside that arrangement now. Watching Dov Charney cathart his high school dating issues, I waver between being insulted that he thinks this will work, and worried that he thinks this is okay. Neither accrues any particular value to the brand, and more’s the pity given that the company itself has an interesting story to tell. Or did. American Apparel has become kind of like a weird old uncle who plays a great game of golf. At a certain point, no matter how impressive his swing, we’ll do anything to avoid being stuck in the cart with him.

As a citizen consumer, you can formulate your own moral take on these latest ads. But if brands are your thing, trust me. This was a mistake. Playing some kind of arrogant game to see what they can get away with, American Apparel seems to be telling us that its value proposition never actually meant that much to them. In the process, they’ll risk becoming an embarrassment to their customers rather than a choice they feel ethically good about.

Such a waste.

P.S. American Apparel invites comment on their ads at their web site, which is laudable. I just couldn't bring myself to encourage them, but you may be a better person than I, in which case feel free.

PPS. I'm delighted to see that, whether it's cause or effect, American Apparel is not enjoying the approval of the marketplace right now. Interesting read here.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Garbage day.

One snowy night over the holidays, Sweetie and I decided to curl up in front of the television and lose ourselves in a big, long movie. Somehow, that movie ended up being Australia . At 165 minutes, it certainly had girth going for it, and with growing ties to the antipodes both in my family and as a writer, I thought at the very least I might learn something. Well. The film is gorgeously shot, the kind of thing that makes you feel good about buying that big-screen TV. The cast has some bona fide stars in it, for sure, and a solid performance or two. The costumes and sets are beyond excellent. In fact, at a craft level, there is a lot of brilliant work here. And it is one of the most egregious steaming piles of cinematic compost I have ever endured. So bloated and predictable was it, so unable to get out of its own clich├ęd way, we gave up before the 2-hour mark.

While I nursed my bleeding eyes, Sweetie – a film buff – explained to me how a well-resourced project like this, populated with very competent people, could end up in such ruins. Film, she said, is the most collaborative art form there is. Every project temporarily gathers disparate independent talents who will work together for a few months and then scatter to the winds in search of their next gig. And the ability to collaborate effectively, it turns out, has nearly nothing to do with the talents or skills of the people involved. Sometimes, everyone gets the director’s vision instantly, shares it, follows his or her charismatic light, and makes it brighter. Then you get art. And sometimes, everybody just shows up for the paycheque and a chance to show off and burnish the ol’ resume. Then you get Australia.

Reflecting on this later, it occurred to me that the same dangerous turning point exists in the life of a brand. Brands aren’t movies, of course, but the risks are strikingly similar.

In the branding world, the potential for greatness is usually born in a hurricane of resistance. Someone has an idea and a vision, and they gamely fight to keep the thing alive until it can breathe on its own. From there, whether we’re talking about a brilliant brand or merely a brilliant ad campaign, it then seems to pass through three ages: a first, in which the leaders and creators are its stewards and protectors; a second, in which disciples of those people are handed the torch; and a third, when the journeymen show up. And it’s here, not at its glorious genesis, that its fate is determined. Sometimes, the journeymen want to use their skill to serve the idea that’s feeding them. And sometimes, like raccoons on garbage day, they just root around in it to see what they can use, and move on when they’re either sated or trapped, oblivious to the mess they’ve left behind.

Conjuring up examples proved distressingly easy. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and experienced it more times than I care to. I’ve even hired the occasional raccoon myself (they always seem adorable at first, with their little masks and their prehensile paws). It’s the most innocuous-looking peril a brand will face, and the most dangerous. And where it hasn’t happened – where a great idea has had a chance to grow and thrive and make a difference – ultimate credit almost always goes to leadership. A brand’s story might have a great script, but it’s the director who makes it into a great experience. When it comes to a corporation’s brand, the CEO really is where the buck stops, and if they phone in their performance, so will everybody else. Just ask Tony Hayward.

If your brand is lucky enough to be led by its own Griffith, Coppola, Hitchcock or Allen, you might want to stop by and say thanks and maybe bring them a nice muffin. But if it isn’t, let me know. We can have them over for movie night. I’m almost positive that Australia DVD will be there if we need to rent it again.