Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sons of Anarchy

This post isn’t about a grand theme. It’s not a cri de coeur, or a polemic, or a rant. It’s just a simple love letter to the magic that happens when sound strategy and sensitive art direction come together. You have to call this stuff out when you see it, however you may think it should be taken for granted. You have to let smart marketers know someone is paying attention, if only so that they keep doing it. Here’s the story:

The near and dear will recall that my beloved horse passed away earlier this year. It was a tough loss and he was sort of one of a kind, so I wasn’t ready to think about replacing him right away. Instead, guessing it might make for a less demanding relationship, I did the only thing stupider than owning a horse. I bought a motorcycle.

Well. The motorcycling world, it turns out, is a branding theme park. It’s an intensely tribal culture, and each tribe has its own set of approved brands, its own mode of dress, its own acceptable makes and styles of bike, and in some cases even its own prescribed pop culture regime. The language of the sport is rich and deep, and profoundly consensual. This is, without a doubt, part of what makes it so infectious.

Over the last few years, a new tribe has joined the motorcycling world, one that – believe it or not – owes something to hipster culture. Firmly retro in its agenda, it’s seen the ‘standard’ motorcycle make a comeback, reviving once obscure British and Italian marques, along with 70s-era Japanese bikes. Even the fashion world has joined the fun, with brands like Britain’s Belstaff catching such a tailwind that they’ve crossed over to the mainstream (Harry Rosen’s fall magazine even featured an entire collection of motorcycle-inspired couture). Around the world, bike manufacturers are rushing dainty retro-styled machines to market to feed the nostalgia-tinted false modesty of the urban hipster.

So imagine Harley’s dilemma.

Harley Davidson makes, I’m sure, a fine motorcycle. But dainty and urban it is not. It would seem no more reasonable to have ZZ Top modeling Tom Ford suits than to market a Harley to the hipster biker market, right? I mean, what could they possibly say that would win them a spot in the hearts of all those sensitive, The National-listening kids who probably fell into motorcycling because their Vespas were too slow?

And the smart answer turns out to be, nothing. Say nothing. Just show them you get it. That’s what caught my eye in the picture at the top of this post, clipped from Harley’s web site. Yes, they’re now building bikes for this market, but that was the easy part. The hard part was connecting with it, and they chose to do that using motorcycling’s essentially native language. Look again at the photo: the stylish desaturation, the vaguely Brooklynesque setting, the rider’s ambiguous ethnicity, his open face helmet, Warby Parker-ish glasses, rolled jeans, and vintage-y lace-up boots. This thing is a festival of semiotics, which is exactly how motorcycle culture communicates.

If Harley had even hinted out loud that they were trying to penetrate this new segment of the market, if they had called out any of the symbols and myth that define it, they would have fallen flat. Even flatter if they’d made too much of a point of BEING Harley, or for that matter too little. Instead, the writers just got out of the way and let the art director demonstrate Harley’s fluency. The result - a credible alloy of hipster sensibility and Harley’s trademark loner aggression - gives new life to a brand that, in different hands, could easily have perished under the weight of its own history.

You have to be a branding nerd to appreciate this kind of stuff, I guess. But I love it when someone in this game cares enough to consider who’s doing the talking, and to whom. And I love audacity. That’s the best kind of branding there is.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Kids Are Alright.

When I speak to a business school audience, I expect ambivalence. It’s not that I think they won’t be engaged; you’ll rarely find an audience more so. Nor is it that I think they’ll resist what they’re hearing; they want to hear everything, perhaps more than they ever will again. No, the ambivalence is more fundamental than that. Today’s student of marketing wonders what she’s got herself into, wonders if it’s even going to be a legitimate way to make a living (at one school I visited, a faculty member estimated that half his students thought it was not, if you can imagine). I enjoy trying to change their minds. I love the raised eyebrows when I tell them that a world without branded marketing is a world without choice, and in a world without choice, a consumer would be powerless. The transformative quality of that little piece of logic tends to elevate everybody’s mood long enough, at least, to survive the post-presentation networking session.

And that’s kind of how it went this week when I was invited to speak to the marketing society at a university just outside Toronto. In fact, I’d almost got away clean when a young man intercepted me with a nagging worry about his chosen path. “How,” he said (paraphrasing here), “can I be a marketer without having to resort to invented needs to sell my product?” Axe was the brand he used as an example to make his point, but they are legion. From smelly armpits to clumpy mascara to a patchy lawn, there’s no doubt that a certain sort of marketer depends on making us feel self-conscious in order to make the cash register ring. He didn’t want to do that.

This question was a first for me, so I don’t think I gave him the most reassuringly polished answer. I ended up thinking about it all the way back to the city before clarity finally came. Hopefully you’re out there somewhere, dude… because here is the answer you deserved:

First, don’t. Don’t work for someone who makes you feel ethically uncomfortable. Trust me when I tell you that the more energy you have to spend in your career overcoming cognitive dissonance, the faster that career is going to eat you alive. There is no standard playbook for this, either. Deciding what you stand for is your lonely task, and the price of living by it will be yours alone to pay.

Second, don’t make the arrogant mistake of thinking that consumers are stupid. They are not. Provided that its product is legal, safe and truthfully presented, a prospering business means that someone sees value in it. Never put yourself above that.

Finally, remember that the way people spend their money creates the kind of world we all have to live in. The choice of a brand can – should – be about more than getting the ‘best’ product, or even whether you really need it. It should also be a vote for a certain kind of corporate behavior. Marketing today is far more about who made a thing than about the thing itself. There’s great power in that, because it makes consumers the conscience of the system rather than just being seekers of value. And it makes trust the only capital that really counts. That’s why marketing is important work, no matter what all those No Logoists with their humanities undergrads might be telling you.

Anyway, that’s what I would have said, if I’d been quicker on the draw. Thanks for asking. And thanks for being so worried about it… that means you’re going to be great at this job, and any marketer you choose to work for will be lucky to have you.

Image used under license from The Cartoon Bank