Don’t make something beautiful and then think about what makes it culturally effective and evocative. Think about what is culturally effective and evocative and then make it beautiful.
A lot of brands at the moment are facing exactly the same problem as each other: they have a very loyal, interested, listening and active core market.
This is supposed to be a good thing. They have surged to initial success because of their popularity in their respective cultures. They seem to do all the right things. They tell the right stories. They are switched on. They are social. They are also completely and utterly stumped as to why they their businesses aren’t growing.
I’ve written in the past about Culture Gaps, and in the last couple months have been trying to unpack this idea a bit more. I’ve described Culture Gaps essentially as cultural opportunities for a brand, something bigger than a brand - something that drives the way people think and feel about the world around them - and this is then something the brand and its offering becomes a residual champion for - an expression of.
Following this line of thinking, what so many of these successful niche brands are failing to do is understand how to translate their success in a very focused narrow market into success with a mass market.
I cannot emphasise how important it is to recognise that your brand - as it is right now - might be really off-putting to most people. It’s not that they don’t want to be a part of your brand’s culture. In fact, they probably are already a part of your culture, but what you haven’t realised is that your culture is much bigger than your very specific version and vision of that culture. Success requires humility.
People don’t buy a brand because they buy into a brand’s story. They’re buying a brand because they’re buying into the culture the brand is doing a good job expressing.
Niche appeal to a mass market seems non-sensicle… except we see it all the time. Starbucks, Patagonia, Innocent…. They all did it. And most continue to do it. They set out with specific, niche focus, but somehow translated into having much wider appeal.
1. Humility: recognise your brand is lucky to be a part of something bigger
2. Get better at championing that culture. No, be the best at championing that culture.
3. Know the people who populate your culture (this means accepting that not all of them are part of your obvious niche market… most of them will look and feel a lot more “mass”. That’s okay. Love them too.)
4. Use that knowledge about your people not to design explicitly to their “mass” tastes, but rather to have enough confidence to have a unique vision and way of doing things that cuts through the crap but doesn’t put them off while you do it.
In a nutshell, putting culture at the heart of your brand allows you then to grow the culture in the vision of your brand. It’s not about being user-centred, it’s about be culture-minded.
… just a thought.
A map of unreals. This is one of several tools I’ve been putting together as a part of a project for designing a sense of wonder into every day life. Depending on cultural context and scientific knowledge exposure, topics on this map change position.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter… and perhaps do some exercises where we place different ideas on here and watch how and why they might move…
Utopia is not a distant thing but an attitude with which you try to transform the world.
Our job is to create this attitude. Optimise utopia.
Effective lateral thinking is only possible by those people who can imagine and are excited by possibilities, not by those who fear change.
We call the space, between not knowing and wanting to know more, the magical gap. Beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our need for a sense of wonder rises above self-image and authenticity, through a threshold of referentiality to a higher latitude of possibility.
Lucky Charms, Jif peanut butter, Betty Crocker cake mix, Aunt Jemima, Shake n’ Bake, Crisco, Pop Tarts, Goober jam, microwave popcorn. These are among the products apparently most-missed by American ex-pats living in London; or at least this is what Selfridges’ “American” Food Hall selection tells us.
To those who aren’t familiar with Selfridges, it’s London’s rather grander department store version of Barney’s, and of its many departments, its food hall is probably the best. Food from all over the world, the best place in London to buy fresh fish for sushi, cheese, deli foods like no where else, perhaps a bit like a larger, more comprehensive version of Dean & Deluca. And they sell Lucky Charms. (Note, Lucky Charms is the only cereal on offer in this section).
But I do wonder who had the interesting job of choosing 20 SKUs of American products to meet demand. When people leave America, are these really the 20 products they miss the most? All highly-processed, relics of a 1960s America defined - it seems - by foods most of us longed for as children.
There are dozens of other foods I’d love to see on these shelves, but yeah, on some infantile level, this selection of brands has homed in on our desire to buy all the stuff we probably couldn’t (read: weren’t allowed) when we actually lived in the states.
Infantile urges for pink, sugary, artificially-flavoured food seem to have defined this particular “ethnic” food selection. But I also wonder about Selfridges’ cultural role as a permissive parent. It fits with its store-wide indulgence positioning. I can’t speak on other “ethnic” food sections, but I wonder if the selections are equally indulgent, submitting to the infantile urges of …wherever… somehow, I doubt it. I’m probably reading too much into this, but if they’re stocking it, it’s because it sells. And knowing the buying prowess of Selfridges, they probably buy these products specifically because they’ll sell better than any thing else. hmmm…
One of the differences between the US and the UK is precisely on this [US] side of the ocean we own our emotions, even the ones of which we are not especially proud.
I’ve made a habit over the past few years of following textile trends, not because I want to know what people will be wearing or how they’ll be decorating their houses, but because anyone with half a brain can decipher shifting cultural codes from the stuff we cover our bodies in. It doesn’t require a degree in textiles or fashion to realise that how people dress themselves and their homes is directly correlated to how they feel about the world around them.
Instead of laboriously scavenging through various textiles books, fabric shops, trend books, Style.com or religious reading of the Sartorialist (most of which I do, anyway when I have time), I also attend a twice-a-year go-to trends presentation by the incredible Li Edelkoort.
The former president of the design programme at Eindhoven, former Creative Director for Jil Sander, and venerable consultant to most major brands (most of whom deny following her advice as closely as they do), Li is pretty much as close as it comes to being a cultural dowsing rod.
While I’m as cynical as most when it comes to trend forecasting, believing that with enough influence, the industry leaders might be capable of producing virtually perfect self-fulfilling prophesies, Li continues to out-pace these assumptions. And I’m not just saying this because I also write for her magazine, Bloom, but because she has an incredible knack for pattern recognition and sensing the way people feel long before anyone has the nerve to express it.
Some call her a guru, which doesn’t really do her justice. If our job as strategists and culture makers is understand where cultural gaps are about to appear, Li’s job seems to be to clarify what might otherwise be a cluttered set of thoughts and random notions. She identifies, in the words of Shopenhauer, what everyone has seen but not yet noticed.
Your job, while sitting in her audience and afterward, is to think laterally. Let your imagination wander. What does it mean for the cultures of washing/driving/eating/love-making/communicating/drinking when we are obsessed with fossils? Or water? Or birds? It is not as simple as this, but when Li expands each topic by variations on a theme, suddenly the patterns will appear. You will notice influences, you will notice culture gaps, you will notice icebergs before the ship needs to turn. If nothing else, you will spend a few hours being inspired to think visually - a skill most strategists and planners could improve.
Most of Li’s presentations cost about £300, but on 25th of May she will present her 2011 work called ‘In Flight’ for £36, organised by the lovely folks at KMAUK. I highly recommend any students of planning, planners, strategists and creative directors-in-training to check it out…. TICKETS HERE
This stunning collection of art photographs by Jonathan Hobin appeared on @designboom a couple days ago, but I thought it would be worth re-posting. They’re exploring what (if) news topics are culturally “out of bounds” for children.
Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is that we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long have we had them? […] Only when agriculture came into practice - and that’s not very long ago in terms of the whole history - did a place achieve meaning and value and permanence. But land is tangible, and tangibles have a way of getting into few hands. Thus it was that one man wanted ownership of land and at the same time wanted servitude because someone had to work it. Roots were in ownership of land, in tangible and immovable possessions. In this view we are a restless species with a very short history of roots, and those not widely distributed. Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, to be somewhere else.
Please excuse the long-winded quote. It’s from John Steinbeck’s non-fiction about America, Travels With Charley, first published in 1962, and possibly one of the most eloquently articulated passages about roots and mobility in American culture - as it was at the time.
Mobility has been a dominant cultural paradigm in American culture for a very long time. It still dominates, to a certain extent. But the pendulum swings the other way, too. The story of mobility, movement and restlessness is instrumental in and perpetuated by some sort of existing power system. Essentially, mobility is a myth. I like myths, they’re fun to pick apart. Steinbeck’s brief but succinct evaluation of mobility and rootedness takes mobility as self-evident. “But OF COURSE we’re a mobile people! And here’s why…” The historical evidence may go a ways to explain why we’re mobile, and why the story of mobility resonates so powerfully with Americans, but why do we keep telling this story, over and over again?
Yeah, it sells cars; and “progress,” the close sibling of “mobility,” promotes status anxiety … but let’s be more intelligent than that.
Americans are obsessed with mobility, but more and more, they’re (we’re) also obsessed with rootedness, origins, heritage and permanence. Genealogy and family tree services have boomed in the last couple decades. The question “Who do you think you are?” now refers to a question of the past rather than one of potential. For the Great Meritocracy that is the United States, this is quite a development.
The questions this change throws up are quite significant. Dominant myths usually play some sort of important role, having some purpose in our minds beyond being a nice story to tell. So, if mobility was a dominant myth, what role was it playing? What, in effect, was it covering up, or disavowal was it facilitating? And if mobility was a story that allowed us to ignore some other unconscious component of our national composition, what does a change like this imply?
First off, I’d argue mobility, or a lack of roots or rootedness, helps Americans unconsciously both create and control a lack of race. There are many, many races populating American soil. But many multiples does not equate a negative singular. Ask anyone what the American “race” is, and you’ll just find blank faces, or perhaps some PC regurgitated muttering about “melting pots” and “multiculturalism”. I’d argue the culturally dominant “race” in America is still caucasian. Or let’s just call it “white”, for now. “White” is a total misnomer, and of course, there are a lot of other contributing influences over the American contemporary gene pool than North-Western, Anglo-Saxon Europe. But most of the “America” portrayed within and outside of the nation’s borders, happens to be played out by “white” people.
So, simultaneously, we play out our culture as “white” people, but continue to say, “we have no origins, we have no roots, we have no race… we are, in all this hubris, claiming “we’re above race.” “Look at us with our token Black guy in the White House!” Is America a so-called “post-race” nation? Americans are more obsessed with race than virtually any other nation of people. This isn’t to say Americans are racist, but race, in all its dimensions, is almost constantly on the American mind.
—- With every paragraph, I’m infuriatingly aware I can’t do this topic justice in a single blog post… but I’ll press on. —-
In a quick leap of the unconscious mind, “mobility” connotes “lack of roots.” And if roots imply a sort of racial heritage and origin, mobility essentially facilitates the myth of the post-race nation. We come from no-where and everywhere at the same time.
But what of rootedness? We suddenly find ourselves wanting to come from somewhere! Mobility has slowed to a near stand-still… both social mobility and physical mobility. Americans have stopped going places (both meanings). Forget travel; this isn’t about travel, this is about where we call “home.” And it seems American culture has cast its collective gaze backward, inward, indeed to its roots. This seems severely at odds with the myth of mobility. Americans have been predominantly united not by where they came from, but the idea of where they’re going. We might have all come from somewhere different, but the journey has brought us together.
So what happens when “journeys” just stop making sense? We’re just not going any where as a nation, or as a culture. Yes, individuals may still go places, but as a whole we’re collectively slowing to a halt. We’re more grounded, more obsessed than ever with land and property and permanence. We’re more rooted. Social mobility is almost non-existant in reality (though - as a myth - is still pumped out through our media and popular culture). Perhaps we’ve land-grabbed all we could, now we’re just obsessed with hanging onto it.
What happens now is we start looking for other ways to connect with each other.No longer united by the journey, roots start making a lot more sense. Race, heritage, genealogy, family trees start getting emotionally profitable.
But as a nation of people relatively ill-equipped to talk about race (for centuries dominated by either overt or latent racism, an un-intended consequence of our surrounding cultures), this throws up all sorts of interesting new artefacts about cultural identity. We’ve been disavowing race (and racism) for generations… it’s not going to be an easy transition. Our roots have always been there, but we’ve tried our best to ignore them. Now, we’re doing our best to ignore the fact mobility just isn’t what it used to be.
We’ve been going through a period of transition for a couple decades now, we’re much less finding our collective identities through wild-west cowboys and road trips (what remain are of the world of parody and absurd comedy); and far more looking for America in our heritage. As we become less-connected to some imagined genetic “purity” the more important that imagined lineage becomes in our collective unconscious.
I fear some Americans will (and do) take this cultural shift as an excuse for latent racism to become overt.
Humans, as social animals, will always look for connection, even if connection comes at the expense of division - because we’re also tribal.
At the risk of this becoming a book… and because I can’t do this topic justice, I’m going to stop.
Image via i.klee
Something interesting has been going on in the world of car colours. I’ve noticed several cars in the last few weeks with matte black paint jobs. The kind of black that disappears in the dark. Light doesn’t reflect off it. Nothing shines. It looks a bit fuzzy; soft, even. It’s a bit like chalk-board black.
This matte look has extreme militaristic connotations. Its indefinability is like that of a warship’s grey, or a stealth bomber’s black. The relationship between auto design and jets is nothing new, with many car designs throughout the last 60 years directly referencing the aerodynamic, flight-specific shapes of air and space-travel.
I’m not exactly well-versed in the world of auto trends, but this matte black seems like quite a departure from car paint trends of recent years. It’s not just a colour change, it’s a textural, material change. Cars have typically been on a mission to look more aerodynamic, more sleek. Every curve designed to reflect light in a way to look like it’s “in motion”. But here, now, is a car that has rock-like qualities. Designed to both absorb and blend into its urban surroundings (specifically urban because I’ve only seen this on a handful of BMWs, one sport utility BMW and a 3 Series sedan, and a GT sedan), less a beacon of motion, more so a moment of dissolve, blur and invisibility.
This is probably a dramatic next stage manifestation of the trend for grey cars… utilizing texture and what are likely new paint technologies to achieve a visual quality desired but unattained by conventional grey. Grey signaled invisibility in an urban environment. It was subtle. It was austere.
Matte black makes cars almost invisible. Invisibility is a shield, both physically and emotionally - in this case, more emotionally. Signaling an implicit need for emotional security over physical security. Though counter-intuitively, this matte black is much harder to see in traffic. Are cars so safe now they don’t need to look safe? Is emotional safety derived from not-being-seen more important than the physical safety of being-seen?
It also signals an extreme masculine subjectivity in the form of optic control. The driver of the matte black vehicle is in a position of visual power compared to his surrounding (non-matte driving) people. He can see, but isn’t seen.
Oddly, this isn’t just a trend in cars. It’s also cropping up in bicycle paint jobs too. Somehow, the stillness, silence and fuzz of matte has replaced the false motion of shiny paint. It’s more masculine, harder-looking, safer-feeling, and exactly the opposite of almost everything else on the road.
Update: I wonder how much this has to do with comic book illustration style?
Don’t look for gaps in the market. They don’t exist, never really have. (Yeah, that old thing about markets sometimes not existing in gaps…) Look instead for gaps in the culture. But this means you have to first find the culture.
I spend most of my working days finding and articulating cultures. Little cultures. Behaviours and ideas that stick and spread, ever-evolving and shifting and morphing at indecipherably small increments.
Product design should definitely look to find a gap in the culture. But so too should marketing and comms and even retail for that matter. We should be fostering and building cultures not markets. Clearly we *all know this*, but I still find this language is greeted with novelty every time I explain it.
Each time a brand goes out to say something or do something or make something, they should know exactly what kind of cultural legacy they’re leaving behind; something future archaeologists can look back on and puzzle over. What culture did you create? You didn’t make pies. You didn’t make shoes. You didn’t fly planes or sell cars… you either invented or fostered a culture. Chances are, it was a culture that already existed, but there was something missing. Some galvanising piece that articulated exactly what that culture could be… or better yet, could stand for.
The problem with cultures is even the smallest thing that is slightly off-culture (and hell, we’re talking about a moving target here), won’t appeal. The trick seems to be anticipating where the culture is going and be there right on time. Not before, not after… the culture will have moved.
So please stop talking about gaps in markets and behaviour being off-brand. If it’s a gap in the culture, sure. If it’s off-culture, will it be on-culture soon? Or has the moment passed? Is there a cultural legacy you’re planning to leave behind… or is it just stuff?
Image via Trendtablet