The Artisanal – Between Fads and Truth

In our book ‘Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands’ (Schaefer / Kuehlwein, 2015) we discuss the omnipresent trend towards ‘Artisanalization’, reviewing quite a number of examples like Smith & Norbu, maker of bespoke optical frames, Yuan, hand-crafter of soaps, Lakrids, inventor of small-batch licorice, or Hermes’ offspring petit h and Freitag, which re-imagine or upcycle materials in their own, craft- and labor-intensive ways.


There’s hardly a category these days that hasn’t been up-traded and re-crafted in a small-batch, manufactured, ‘source-to-savor’ kind of way. And there’s hardly a big FMCG player, who is not jumping on the wagon with artisanal crisps, beers, yoghurts or whatever. Many of these brands have risen meteorically and some are en route to becoming stellar Ueber-Brands.

Some founders from our book who are embracing the trend towards the artisanal Johan Buelow (Lakrids), Lindsey Boyd/Gwen Whiting (The Laundress), Benoit Ams (Smith & Norbu)


No wonder, that hilarious spoofs are making the round, like the video by comedian Paul Riccio on the ‘Timmy Brothers’ (see below), that the number of scandals is rising, like the one around Mast Brothers chocolate (see discussion and films at end) and that there’s somewhat of an ‘artisanal/hipster backlash’ as Abe Sauer concluded in his recent post.  But, is all this lampooning and lamenting truly a sign of a trend-reversal? Is this a trend ready for descent together with hipster beards and buns? Are we really getting ready to resort to the ‘honestly’ mass-fabricated just because some ‘artisans’ have gone over the top in their storytelling and fallen below expectations or self-set quality standards? We don’t think so.

The Timmy Brothers – a funny spoof on ‘artisanalization’, showcasing two fictional artisanal water-makers from Brooklyn. (Click image to open film in Youtube)


The trend towards the artisanal is rooted in three strong mega-trends – socio-ecological, psycho-emotional and economic-technical. And they don’t go away. They actually compound each other and create a strong tide for the artisanal to ride on. Let’s look at them one by one:

  1. Conscious Consumption
    Our consumption has gotten a bit more conscious, some even say conceptual in the past decades. We still want it all and now, but the ‘all’ has become more all-encompassing, more holistic, more circumspect. These days, we like our brands and their benefits not just full on satisfaction-ready but ideally also guilt-free, cruelty-free with an acceptable carbon footprint and as little slave labor involved as possible. The artisanal or handmade comes in handy here. It’s harking back to the days when production was still in the neighborhood, by people we knew or at least could see, smell, hear, giving us a sense of transparency, where we think to know what went into that lovely purse or chocolate bar we’re ogling, who made it when and where and how. Which gets us to the second point …
  1. Searching for Truths
    Beyond being more mindful in our consumption we’re also trying to please or placate our souls and spirits. We are searching for truths – now that we’ve dismantled religious beliefs and other reassuring values and certainties. In general, but also when shopping. ‘Things have lost their materiality, their dignity’ says Konrad Liesmann, a professor of philosophy in Vienna.  And we 21st century consumers of plenty like to regain a bit of that paradise lost. In a world reigned by ‘likes’ that fetishizes the smooth like a Jeff Koons’ sculpture (see also Byung-Chul Han) we’re longing to give our things back a sense of gravitas, some roots and soul so they feel less arbitrary, less innocuous, more substantial. Which is why we’ve been in love with anything ‘authentic’ for a while, from greenmarkets with their seasonal and regional produce to craft beers and artisanal cheeses and chocolates. Anything that promises us something raw and unadulterated in an age of virtual perfection and a sense of grounding in an ever more volatile world is going strong – may it be an SUV or some artisanal bread.
  1. Marketing with Meaning
    Lastly, marketing has evolved dramatically in the past years and started to look for meaning. Not because manipulation doesn’t matter anymore. But because brands need meaning in an age where they must become their own media. It is much easier to create meaningful content and make meaningful connections if you, well, mean it; If you have a purpose or at least a clear POV, a standpoint and idea or ideal to wrap your narrative around. Because then your story has more substance and truth (see above) and that will increase its chances to be embraced and shared on social media. Artisanal brands have those stories – that’s what they’re built on. And they usually come ready with founder-storytellers as the Timmy Brothers spoof so hilariously shows. Matchless in driving owned and earned media.


All three megatrends are here to stay, intertwined as they are, reinforcing each other and sending the artisanal on an upward spiral. And that’s why many of the most modern prestige brands are built on this concept, taking us back to the good old days of fully ‘controlled’, handcrafted or even better yet, personalized quality production. Prestige is always that, which is not ubiquitous and readily available, that, which all others can’t have or don’t want yet. And so it is natural that the tried and true, nature and heritage, are the big prestige tickets in a world that’s fickle, vertiginous, over-processed, always rushing towards tomorrow; Apart from the fact that they appear more healthy and secure and allow for much better and romantic stories.

But: As integrity is at the core of all this, any sign of duplicity or just in-transparancy can and will always create an uproar, much, much bigger than in the case of ‘normal’ products or brands. It’s never only about the perceivable quality – say the taste of the chocolate or the feel of a fabric. It’s about the ideal and values that you upheld – or not – in making it. The proof is never just in the product, it cannot be. The proof is and will always be in the production (see also this post). Because that’s what you’re marketing on.

There is a range of videos giving a peek inside the workshops of ‘petit h’ by Hermès to show the artisanal nature of their manufacturing. (Click image to open film in Youtube)


This is why we make the ‘Need for Truth’ one of the three core dimensions of modern prestige or Ueber-Brands. Part of their appeal is built exactly on the fact that they shun or evolve traditional marketing gimmicks. So if they’re cheating, well … it’s like the priest caught with his pants down: If you’re putting yourself up to higher standards you will be held to them – and the fall is that much deeper and harder (think Chipotle and the E-coli outbreak). Ueber-Brands must radiate their story inside out and live up to it in everything they do – from HR to ingredients, from production to distribution. Only then will their mission and their myth outshine their competition and will their considerate and choiceful targeting and marketing attract – and retain – those design targets they need in order to keep on shining and rising.

It’s not key that they are 100% natural and handmade. Neither is it important that they have a 100 year old history. But it’s conditio sine qua non that they are genuine and committed. Because that’s what’s at the heart of our intrigue with the artisanal. We want the honest, the slow and simple as a counterpoint in a life full of fake, fast and furious. We want to trust and believe and reduce complexities, not increase them with long ingredient lists, doubtful origins and other intransparencies. We want a real, ‘analog’ human connection in a world of dubious digital interaction. That’s why those that promise this but don’t deliver are beaten harder than all the ones that ‘fake’ openly. And why conglomerates trying to get their slice of this cake will always have a harder time – because they have stocks where we’re looking for a soul.


So, in a nutshell: We truly believe in the artisanal as one of the key ways to sustainable Ueber-Brand status. Yes, some of the accoutrements like Brooklyn, brotherhood and beards, just to name those with B, will fall by the way side. After all cliché and truth are not the best of friends. But the love for the authentic and the artisanal as its most beautiful manifestation is here to stay. We just must never forget that artisanal comes from art. And art needs tears – else its just kitsch.


Sources, Further Reading and Discussion:

To read more about how brands become an enduring truth rather than a fad, read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands“.

What is the ‘Madewell Heritage’?

We often have a romantic view of heritage and craft. – But ‘heritage’ does not have to mean ‘good’.  In his piece Dan Nosowitz documents his surprise discovery that J.Crew bought his family’s defunct ‘Madewell’ business to revive the brand as a ‘heritage brand’. He also finds out that his ancestors were not really ‘honest artisans’ but rather sold knock-off products. Whis is wrong and who should feel cheated in this case? Anyone?

The Mast Brothers Case:

Below are a 2013 film on the Mast Brothers (see the parallels with the Timmy Brothers?) followed by a film that documents the current controversy surrounding their methods:

More reporting on the re-melting of industrial chocolate in QuartzGrub Street or the gothamist  online magazine

This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 3 - From Myth to Meaning - The best way up is to go deep, 5 - Living the Dream - The bubble shall never burst and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Artisanal – Between Fads and Truth

  1. Pingback: Profit and/or Purpose? – Interview with Venture Capitalist and Social Activist David Batstone | Ueber-Brands

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