Betabrand Gets It

This piece originally appeared on the Advertising Week Social Club website.

I want to tell you about a brand I love. Not a product – though I do like those as well – but a brand. Betabrand. I love them because they get it. They understand their customer, they understand culture and they understand how those two things connect.

Betabrand is a clothing company, but sometimes it feels more like they are a content company that also makes clothes. But not your usual clothes. They make clothes with names like the Vagisoft Harka, the DARPA hoodie, Sons of Britches and Japants. Pretty much everything they make looks, feels, sounds or tastes like nothing you are familiar with. Tastes? Ok, so you wouldn’t want to eat their reversible disco hoodie, but if somebody is going to make clothes that taste as good as they look, it will be Betabrand.

In a world where collaboration is an increasingly critical element, and crowdsourcing is a viable option, Betabrand really walk the walk. They have something called the Think Tank, their “community idea factory.” They get ideas for all kinds of items, but as a small company that keeps production in the States, they simply can’t produce things on a whim. So ideas go into the Think Tank and if enough people like the idea, they’ll make a small batch run of it.

In another truly inspired move, they’ve created the Disco Open-Source Project. What started as a hoodie that utilized material replicating the look of a disco ball has evolved into an entire line, including pants, skirts, vests, even a tuxedo jacket. Betabrand’s audience seemingly couldn’t get enough of the disco look, so they created the Open-Source Project. The details:

Every day, Betabrand receives requests for specialty Disco apparel, everything from sombreros to luge suits. Unfortunately, our production facilities are simply too small to make all the fantastic items that fans demand.

That’s why we’re now letting would-be inventors descend into our top-secret disconium mine and haul away as much of this magically shiny substance as they can carry.

We call it the Disco Open-Source (DOS) Project. For a very limited time, you can purchase two-yard swatches of pure, shimmering disconium and transform them into something spectacular — like that Disco Dog Coat, Parachute, or Lingerie you’ve been dreaming of.

Not only will we feature your creations on our site, we might even make some of them permanent members of the DiscoLab!

Brilliant. And notice the language they use. “top-secret disconium mine.” Well, where did you think disco ball fabric comes from? This whimsical tone is evident in much of their copy. Here’s the intro copy for their Bawaiian Wedding Shirt:

Ever heard of the island of Bawaii?

No? That’s not surprising. This poor little chunk of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is, quite possibly, the most woebegone nation on Earth. What else can you say about an island whose chief export is molten lava? An island known to other Polynesian cultures as “Isle of Infinite Sorrows” and also “Place Where the Poisonous, Bloodthirsty Monkeys Dwell.”

Their email newsletters are equally wacky. As are their user-generated content plays. The ‘Model Citizen’ promotion asks customers to snap a photo of themselves wearing Betabrand clothing. The results are often hilarious. And look how they’ve cleverly integrated their logo into the offer.

I love Betabrand because they continue to double-down on the crazy.  A giant Zeppelinthat will act as their HQ? Absolutely.

The Executive Hoodie.

Sock insurance? You bet. A mobile app that inserts Sasquatch into your pics? Why not? Sure these are tongue in cheek, but in a world where most brands take themselves so seriously, what a refreshing stance to take.  We hear the word ‘authenticity’ thrown around so much, and usually it translates to Facebook status updates from brands like this: “Hey, what’s on tap for this weekend, going to the movies?” That’s why there is a Condescending Corporate Brand Page on Facebook.

I could give you several more examples, but you get the point. Betabrand does all this without the aid of an advertising agency. It’s just a small group of people in San Francisco, having fun. They could teach a lot of us in the advertising industry a lesson or two.

HP’s Rebrand Efforts: An Inside Look

A New Look For HP

Rebranding is tough. Ask Tropicana, Pepsi or The Gap. It’s usually a no-win situation in which you alienate the fans who didn’t want a change, and you rarely please anyone with the new offering.  Yet, there are times and situations where a new brand identity is called for.

Hewlett-Packard finds itself in a position where they need a new brand positioning. As Amazon, Google, Apple and others lead the conversations on the future of technology, HP is seen as an old brand. Back in 2008 they enlisted Moving Brands to do the rebranding and recently the agency revealed the behind-the-scenes work, which TechCrunch points out is unlikely to be used. It’s laid out brilliantly here on the Moving Brands site. You can find additional commentary here, on the Brand New blog.

The post provides tons of images and videos showing Moving Brand’s ideas and process. There is clearly an incredible amount of thinking, legwork, artistry and strategic vision infused in the effort. Check out this video entitled HP Magnetic North [UPDATE: The video has been removed from video, sorry.]


Of course things like this are always subjective, and you can argue the merits of the final results if you like, but that’s not the point here.  The real issue here is the thinking and how this contrasts with what happens in those $500 ‘design my logo’ crowdsourcing efforts. From Moving Brands:

We wanted to ensure that HP maximized its opportunities to connect with people, to tell great stories and inspire great stories, to listen and respond, and to adapt to its environment. A multi-sensorial Identity and Design System was created to allow the brand to spring to life in print and in pixels, on screen and across all devices.

The Identity and Design System was structured to deliver familiarity and recognition through the use of a tight set of core brand assets — logo, colour and typeface. The contextual brand assets, such as identifiers and photography, add flexibility and relevance for specific target audiences. Expression Principles guide the creation of ownable HP signature experiences across spoken and written language, static layouts, information graphics, motion, sound, interaction, form factors and materials and physical spaces.

The defining signature of the system is the 13º angle. 13° represents HP’s spirit as a company, driven forward by ingenuity and optimism about the future and a belief in human progress. It also refers to the world of computing by recalling the forward slash used in programming. 13° exists within the brand identity, in the graphic language, product design and UI.

Yes, HP has plenty of money to spend on this sort of thing, most companies don’t. I understand that, and small businesses don’t have to take it to this level. But you can hire one designer and work with that person directly. Let them understand the culture of the company, the trends in the industry and the behaviors of your customers.

Are You a Guru, Ninja or Rock Star? Then Act Like One

One of the issues I had to deal with in taking my new job at Y&R was that of title. This was going to be a new role for the agency, so there was no precedent, no legacy to step into. As an acknowledged disciple of Grant McCracken, Chief Culture Officer was certainly appealing, but not appropriate as I’m certainly not a member of the C-Suite.  We finally settled on Creative Culturalist, though there was a moment when I balked at that title. This recent Ad Age piece by Lars Bastholm titled (no pun intended) The Trouble With Titles makes my hesitancy understandable. Here’s another interesting piece by Daniel Banks, whom I stole this image from.

But maybe the problem isn’t with the titles themselves, but with the way people are, or rather aren’t, embodying those titles. A few years back I did a little search on Twellow looking for some key words relating to popular titles or self-descriptions:

  • Guru – 6,630 results
  • Diva – 3,555
  • Rock Star – 968

That’s a lot of awesome out there. And there was, and is, some (a lot?) of push back and ridicule for these titles. Here’s my issue: If you’re going to call yourself a Rock Star, then act like a Rock Star. So many of the people using that honorific have sensible hair cuts and wear mom jeans, or are sporting suits you might pick up at The Men’s Warehouse.

Why not fully embody the term, really own it. If you want to be a Rock Star, then dress like Lady Gaga or act like Keith Richards. Make a dramatic entrance, give wild proclamations, do theatrical presentations. Are you calling yourself a Guru? Then read the definition and devote yourself to bringing that to life (hint, tweeting a lot ain’t it). If you are a ninja, then you better be decimating your competition in full stealth mode.

I think we resent people with these titles not because they’ve gone too far, but because they haven’t gone far enough. They’ve broken the unspoken contract by not living up to our expectations of those terms. Would truly behaving like a Rock Star turn some people off? Yes, but others would appreciate your commitment. Right now people just think you’re a douchebag.

So, for me being the Creative Culturalist at Y&R has to be more than handing out a business card and having a nice conversation starter. I have to embody the title, at least in effort even if the execution may fail. That’s why I wanted to do an infographic about being a Creative Culturalist. It’s a bit different, and in a culturally relevant way. It’s now my job to continue to find creative ways for me to engage with culture not just as an output of my job, but as an integral part of the raison d’etre for the job itself.

Brands Need A Little More Flog Gnaw

Reinvention, 21st Century Style

One of the over-riding themes in marketing communications for the past few years has been the imperative for brands to become more nimble. Move quick, innovate, or die. I think no other industry in this country has done this as successfully, or for as long, as Hip Hop.

In fact, the world of Hip Hop, because of this ability to adapt and change, has become the predominant mode of culture in our country, if not the world, today.  For more on my thoughts on the impact of Hip Hop on modern culture, check out my post, The Cultural Singularity Paradox.

Hip Hop is constantly re-inventing itself, borrowing elements from other parts of culture, and producing wildly diverse product on an ongoing basis. East Coast, West Coast, Gangsta, Back Pack, Pop, Southern… all different flavors. Each one building off the others, yet producing something entirely new and fresh. Where other musical forms seem very much of a certain time, Hip Hop continues to sound alive.

I find Hip Hop’s relationship with persona and identity quite intriguing, especially when contrasted with the conventional wisdom associated with brands.  Brands are often very protective of their identity. Logos and marques, names and colors all must be protected. Now contrast that to the world of Hip Hop. Quick, name a rapper who goes by his real, full name? That’s a tough one, right? But even one nom de rap isn’t enough for many. Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, added the additional fictional layer of Slim Shady. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA created the alter-alter ego Bobby Digital. There are other examples.

Sure, people call Chevrolet “Chevy,” and BMWs are Beemers (and Volkswagon Beetles are Bugs. Hmmm, perhaps there is something to cars and nicknames…). But in general, brand nicknames are derived directly from the traditional name.  But nowhere in corporate American do you find the kind of “name flexibility” that you do with the Hip Hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.

Let’s put aside their music, which is not for everyone. I’m fascinated by their branding strategy. I’ve seen them referred to by the following monikers:

  • Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All
  • Odd Future
Now, if we stopped there, I think we’d all be pretty comfortable. Long name, acronym, shorter version. Pretty standard. But then something strange happened. I’ve also seen them as:
  • Wolf Gang
  • Golf Wang
  • Flog Gnaw
Wolf Gang is easy to understand, and in fact probably best describes the group of wild, feral, raw characters created by this group. But then Golf Wang came along. A quick transposing of the first letters in Wolf Gang. But Golf Wang doesn’t seem to make any sense. Surely, this isn’t something the group itself would promote. Oh, wait, the name of their 2011 tour? Golf Wang.  They’ve even created an art book called Golf Wang. Here’s the Golf Wang tumblr.
But why stop there? We’ve switched the letters, now let’s flip them: Flog Gnaw. Check out the Twitter account for Tyler the Creator, the leader of Odd Future. Yep, right there in the bio – Flog Gnaw.
Odd Future seem totally committed to piling on more layers of meaning. Name tweaks, side projects, splinter groups. They continue to reinvent themselves in ways large corporations are struggling to understand and on some level emulate. The best brands, the ones that understand culture have figured out ways to play in this space. At one time, young recruits at Nike were known as Ekins and the Nike Flagship store in Manhattan with the New York school gymnasium theme features detailing in the architecture labelling the store as P.S 6453. P.S. for public school; 6453 is code for Nike (look at your telephone); and the “school’s” nickname is The Knights (after Nike founds Phil Knight).
I’m sure there are other examples from corporate America of this sort of coding and playfulness, please share below.  But in general, I think brands can learn from the innovation and adaptability of Hip Hop culture, and not just brands associated with Hip Hop culture.

Steve Jobs is Dead, I Hope What He Stood For Lives On


More than just a Tech Titan

Steve Jobs died today. You can read all about his business life, and what the public is saying, but here’s my hope:  Not that Apple will continue to make great products, although that would be great. Not even that he inspired others to create great tech companies, though he surely did. What I hope is that the man who perhaps better than anyone else over the last 30 years exemplified what America can and should be, will have inspired this country to follow in his footsteps. To create nothing less that the best products, and to do so with style. To run a business not just by the numbers, but by intuition and a desire to make the products not only that people need; not only products people want; but products people didn’t even know they wanted.

To, in short, be insanely great.

That’s Jobs’ legacy, not the iPod or an amazing commercial; not even the personal computer revolution. Those were just the tools he used. Jobs legacy was his enactment of American Exceptionalism. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that and strive to emulate him.

Work as a Lifestyle

Even politicians are stylish in Monocle's World.

It’s long been said that the line between personal and professional life has blurred. Telecommuting, mobile technology, laptops and the global economy have all helped to create an environment where traditional 9-5 hours are a thing of the past. Gyro, a global, independent ad agency, has taken this notion to heart, creating the notion of the @work state of mind. Check out the pdf here and watch this video:

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

I whole-heartedly agree with this approach, but wonder if we aren’t transitioning to something else: work as a lifestyle. I don’t mean that in the Gordon Gekko Wall Street-sense, or the American Psycho business card scene-sense, but something more natural. Sure, The Economist publishes a Culture section, but those are about diversions. If we’ve entered the @work state of mind era, then one publication brilliantly captures the now seamless melding of work and play: Monocle. I’ve shared my love of Monocle in the past and have always found it a worthwhile read. But now I’m seeing it in a different light. Their editorial isn’t merely global reportage of business and cultural trends, it’s a guidebook on how to live in an @work state of mind age. I’ve been reading the October Issue and was struck by two, possibly subliminally connected, notions: most of the ads are for fashion houses – Ralph Lauren, Fendi, Dunhill, Ermenegildo Zegna (that’s just in the first 17 pages); and with no more than one or two exceptions, literally every person profiled or even featured in an editorial photograph, could have been a model for those fashion house ads. No, they didn’t look like the guy in the Hermes ad, but they were all slim and wearing great clothes. Take a look at Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign affairs minister.  Was he styled by Monocle for the shoot?

Does Monocle cover the style of business, or the business of style? It’s impossible to tell because the people they profile seem to live in both worlds, and that, I believe, is the point. Monocle understands that the distinctions between business and culture, between professional and personal, no longer have meaning.  The people profiled are committed to what they do, and therefore they see no distinctions between who they are and what they do.

In some ways I see the books of William Gibson, especially his most recent Blue Ant Trilogy, as also showcasing this “work as lifestyle” movement. The lead character in Patter Recognition is Cayce Pollard, a “freelance marketing consultant, a coolhunter with an unusual intuitive sensitivity for branding…” Her relationship with clothing is described thusly:

“CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That’s what Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention. What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.”

Where does the job end and the person begin? It’s often difficult to say in the works of Gibson.

Monocle further blurs the lines itself by not only being a publication, but also having online and physical retail outlets in New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing and Osaka. With exquisitely curated offerings they aren’t merely selling clothes, they are purveyors of the Monocle lifestyle. This is why Monocle is such a powerful brand in my opinion. They understood the “work as lifestyle” trend and created a brand that feeds into it.