MOOCs and Brands

I’m currently taking two online courses via Coursera. One seems to have generated a lot of traction – Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior has registered more than 135,000 students. In fact, Coursera has, in less than a year, enrolled more than 3 million ‘students’ in more than 10 million courses, proving than MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have the potential to be a truly disruptive technology for the education system. Coincidentally, the other course I’m taking is entitled, Surviving Disruptive Technologies and that’s what I want to focus on this week.

Over the last year we’ve seen the rise of the 3D printer. Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, the leading consumer 3D printer maker, gave a keynote address at SxSW this year. 3D printing has raised discussions around such diverse subjects as guns,food and clothes, but it’s perhaps a more conventional use of 3D printing that has led one beloved brand to get in front of what it sees as a potential future. According toSociable, LEGO will be unveiling their own 3D printer by the end of the year. In an article titled, Is Lego about to embrace the Dark Side by releasing an official 3D printer? (complete with image of LEGO Star Wars figure), the Danish company “says that along with the printer they will also release a selection of their 2013 range of Lego sets as downloadable files.  All official sets produced from 2014 will be available for download from the Lego Web Store. Once downloaded, the plans will let users print all the required bricks for their new sets.”

Ok, it was an April’s Fools Day joke by the gang at Sociable. Full disclosure: I fell for it. Tweeted a link to the story and started writing this essay under the assumption it was legit. Seems a bit silly, but if you’re taking that Disruptive Technologies class, it doesn’t seem so far fetched. In the class we are focusing on three brands – Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders who all got crushed by Disruptive Technologies. Now, I’d argue they all got crushed by the same disruptive technology, the Internet, just different applications of it. But let’s go back and think about LEGO for a minute. If in 3-5 years thousands of people have 3D printers in their house and can easily produce LEGO blocks at home maybe taking a ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy isn’t a bad idea. Didn’t we all look at Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders and ask why they didn’t create Instagram, Netflix and Amazon respectively before those latter companies put the former out of business? And don’t we all think that universities all around the country are trying to figure out what they are going to do about Coursera?

Now the question is: What disruptive technology is your client (or brand) facing? Are you in denial about what it will do to your industry, market or brand? Do you have a plan to own it before it owns you?

I’m done with Star Wars, The Muppets and LEGO

Culture today is a remix. Kirby Ferguson told me so. So did Faris Yakob. We’ve become incredibly good at taking what already exists and making something new. From Warhol to GirlTalk, flipping the script has produced real creativity and moved culture forward. But at some point, it’s worth pausing and taking a look at the cultural road map and ask, “where are we going?”  I think this is particularly relevant in regards to what have become three pieces of our cultural bedrock: LEGO, Star Wars and The Muppets.

These are more than brands, or products or franchises. It would be difficult to strip any of these out of our culture at this point, so deep and wide are their roots. I have no problem with that. In their own ways, all three have inspired, amused and thrilled multiple generations with their creativity and quality. But now remix culture threatens to strip these brands of their essence.

Star Wars: The Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe

I was 7-years old when the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) came out. I’m acutely aware of the power of the original trilogy and it played a huge part in my adolescent interests.  I’ve written in the past about Star Wars’ Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe, and I love the fact that things like the 501st Legion can exist. I think there is something great about expanding the use and definition of a brand. It’s what keeps it alive and relevant long after its original creation.

One and a half Stormtroopers.

But at some point, as fans, we stop expanding the narrative universe and start creating an inward-looking, self-referencing implosion.  One that does no favors for the brand, but more importantly, does no favors for us.  There’s nothing interesting anymore about photos like the one on the left. Not because it lacks quality, but because it lacks novelty. Here, take a look at the flickr set, all 365 photos. Again, all terrifically executed, but to what end?  Where does this all lead?

LEGO and the Death of Original Creativity

Go to YouTube and type in Lego and you’ll be able to see just about every major current franchise has been “LEGO’d” by people: James Bond, Gears of War, CSI, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and yes, of course, Star Wars. Over on Flickr it’s a similar case: Batman, Halo, Indiana Jones, Mario.  The LEGO community is of course diverse, and there are many that create their own, original efforts, but what gets shared via social networks is often the derivative culture-mining outputs.  Recently, my 8-year old son built an “Awesome Store” with his LEGO’s. That’s great, he built it himself, from his own design. What did they sell at the “Awesome Store?”  LEGO Stormtrooper helmets. Now, he’s eight, and he was using the Stormtrooper helmets because, from a store inventory standpoint, that actually makes sense.  But why are 28-year olds basically doing the same thing?

Muppet Mashup Madness

The Muppets continue to be a vibrant brand, continuously integrating themselves with pop culture. Check out this Mad Men parody:

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Or this Apple iPod spoof:

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When the brand itself is doing things like this, I’m not sure that we need to use the Muppets for our own creations. Editing a Muppets video and setting it to hip hop music quickly exhausts the conceit. Muppets and Kanye, Muppets and NWA, Muppets and Lonely Island. Got it. Thanks.


It's not easy be green.

To some degree the property owners are guilty here too. They give us permission to act and think this way by doing these collabs with adidas.  Recently, Kurt Anderson wrote about the death of style innovation over the last 20 years in Vanity Fair. I think this phenomenon falls into a similar area. Culture seems to be folding in on itself. By continuing to tweak, mash and mine the past, we run the risk of diminishing new cultural outputs. It reminds me of the mid-/late-80s English band with the possibly prophetic name, Pop Will Eat Itself.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t have a problem with remix culture, I understand it and know it is hear to stay. But it feels like we’ve exhausted the meaningful iterations that can be had from Star Wars, LEGO and The Muppets. Let’s agree to give them a rest, at least for a little while.