Last week I wrote about the balance between style and substance and how easily the former can undermine or overpower the latter. A fascinating and limitless topic, which easily sustains another week. So, here we go again, a bit deeper, en route to the core so to speak, and perfect for this season of big feelings and even bigger commerce …
Someone (was it Susan Sonntag?) once said that kitsch is art without tears, a hollow something lathered in sentimentality rather than rooted in originality and emotionality. Something that can be fun and entertaining, at least for a while, but that will never stand the test of time – or truth – because it lacks depth as well as transcendence. It’s not charged with the pain of creation and will thus never be truly radiant.
And that’s where I see the parallel and the problem with today’s marketing. Of course, marketing – or advertising – is not art. But does that mean it has to be kitsch? A soulless, uninspired and uninspiring confection of cheap sentiments and effects?
Some would probably say invariably so, seeing commerce as the antidote to art, revolving around greed and speed. But it’s more than 50 years ago that Warhol showed us, how art can re-conquer the commercial sphere, or that conversely, art doesn’t necessarily need tobe killed in a liaison with money and power. A point that was actually proven long before by the Renaissance masters and is to more or less success still visible in today’s art market. But in our supermarkets? Not so much.
I am a firm believer that brands and branding while not being works of art, can certain learn a lot from them. They need to shed more tears, proverbial ones at least. Particularly brands aiming to achieve a higher status need to go a bit deeper, unearth and listen to their heart. That’s why our third principle of super premium brand building is subtitled “the best way up is to go deep”. You need to invest if you want to build a lasting relationship, and not (just) money, but time and effort. Because love is an art – and hard work – in life as well as in business. And in neither are shortcuts long lived.
How should your customers or any other stakeholder treat your brand with love and respect if you don’t? Why should they care about you, if you seemingly don’t even care enough about them to ensure that what you put out is a product of sincerity and integrity? And by this I don’t mean the actual products. Those are usually well done with a lot of R&D heart blood pumping through their veins. And for the rest there’s regulation. No, I’m talking about the going-to-market. The naming, the packaging, the design, the advertising, the merchandising, the staging – the brand. This is where it’s lacking in my experience. Brands are still very often treated as a mere wrapping, calculated for added value vs. being respected and lived as the true hero. Their heart, if they even have or had one, neglected or sacrificed for short-term effects and gains.
Which gets us to the point: Brands need meaning. Now more than ever. Not because we people or consumers are so much smarter these days, but because it’s human nature. We look for meaning in things, we try to construct our realities and make sense out of what’s around us. And in today’s commercially driven societies and cultures these are mostly if not all brands. They are the building blocks not just of our identities but of our lives, if we want to or not. Our only choice is to un-want those that aren’t help- or meaningful. And this we do more than ever.
That’s why there’s been a quite some talk about purposeful brand building in the last years. And that’s why it’s so dangerous for brands to meander around without a strong true north, or disrespect and undermine it willingly or unwillingly time and again. If you don’t start with a clear reason for being and make sure that it is reflected in everything, and I mean absolutely everything, you do, you are doomed to fail. You may have moments of success by being at the right place at the right time for the right price. But interactions with you will leave a shallow and bitter after-taste and certainly not lead to loyalty. Because the opposite of true love is love for sale. Or kitsch.
Brand’s need to believe in something for the rest of us to be able to believe in them. A certain level of spirituality and the willingness to suffer for one’s convictions aren’t lofty ideals for Sunday speeches or NGOs anymore, they have become prerequisites in today’s over-branded world. Even when the ultimate goal is to make money you need to have a mission and a firm set of values beyond formal success or pleasing (and selling to) as many people as possible. If brands continue to be treated as mere concoctions to dress-up the functional benefit or contraptions for commercial gain and flip-flop around, following every trend or focus group or competitive move, they will be extinct in no time. And we will all resort to hand-crafted, personalized or personally provided items again – as we are more and more doing in many categories already anyway. Because what’s personally made is usually at least imbued with soul and often also made with tears.
I believe that true art can appear anywhere and everywhere. I have seen and felt it coming to life in the form of a strategic marketing plan by the innovative Tracey Maguire. There’s no real form to it, there’s no meetings, there’s no planning as such, she just feels her way through the labyrinth both online and offline, not to mention ‘out of line’. You see that’s the character of her book The Worker in Me. It’s about what you’re prepared to do, and how far you’re prepared to go for something you feel truly passionate about. I believe in the genius of Tracey Maguire, but she appears to have just found herself. Where does your own spirit transport you, when you get carried away with something? It’s now beyond her control anyway.
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LVMH, the premier luxury brand group of Bernard Arnaud is publishing an art, design and lifestyle blog that is very popular among global tastemakers – “Nowness”. But you need to dig a bit to find out who the backers of this blog are, for it is devoid of any adverising or, in fact, of any overt reference to LVMH or its brands. Folly or genius? We think genius, as it gives LVMH not only a subliminal and WoM-powered reputation of being a self-less sponsor of the arts (what could be stronger?). It also gives the group early, privileged access to emerging artists and others who can help them lift their brands above the mass marketed crowd. Another great example of the principle of “Unselling” and very smart networking.
Link to Nowness: http://www.nowness.com/
Read a piece bt Vanessa Friedmann in the FT on the subject here: http://blogs.ft.com/material-world/2012/12/11/luxury-marketing-without-product-pushing-oh-my/?
More about Unselling here: https://masstoclass.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/betones-un-selling-underwear/
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Not only is Nowness void of any overt self-promotion, it’s actually completely open to even competitive news and posts from the likes of Chanel or Hermes. A great example how brands – or in this case a corporation – successfully take on their new role as medium. Driven by an innate logic and purpose, but continually evolving by generating and disseminating cultural ideas, thus creating meaningful connections and interactions with their communities. Even more so, when they accept, as in this case, that it’s not about control and manipulation but engagement and inspiration.
Damien Hirst is another artist who plays around at the border between art and commercial kitsch. In fact, Jason Farago argues that Hirst is firmly on the side of being a luxury marketer, rather than an artist by now. In his words: “When he was promoting his spot painting exhibition this year, Hirst showed a camera crew around his massive production facility in Gloucestershire, where he pays his fabricators by the hour. He insisted: “People forget that, you know, factories don’t only make dog food. They make Ferraris as well.” Which is true—but then again, Ferraris and dog food are both not art, and Hirst, not just critically but economically, is no longer an actor in anything recognizable as artistic practice. He is much closer to the luxury fashion houses or jewelry companies that glom onto the art world in search of collectors’ remaining millions, and he probably doesn’t need a gallery any more than Louis Vuitton does.” Read the full article In The New Republic here: http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/111155/hirsts-transition-artist-luxury-brand-complete#
Can’t you just smell when employee flashmobs are staged? An employer pushing to look spontaneous and hip? Look at this Delta Airlines video. Is this authentic, employee-initiated holiday joy? The the faces definitely look merrier and the uniforms nicer than on Delta flights… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aYK63SGdYs&noredirect=1