September 28, 2007
The nerd archetype is always a bit of a techie. Tech is almost by definition not cool. Cool is drinking beer, doing drugs and burning your homework to the delight of attractive leather-clad onlookers. Tech is staying in because you’re too spotty and socially inept to hang out and because there’s too much maths homework to conquer. In fact why hang out at all “it’s illogical.”
Technology brands are disadvantaged so to achieve cool status at all is a minor miracle. Even mega fashion brands afford the dalliances of short run productions, statements and talk pieces that maintain their high status, whilst in tech-land minimum production numbers run into hundreds of thousands. As investment rises so does risk and with risk brands soon lose their appetite for adventure. They then anchor in the safe waters of mediocrity and the illusive and volatile cool disappears in a whisper.
Tech’s Achilles heel is the contradiction at the heart of its being. As close cousin to science it is in the bloodline of logic, the binary building blocks that gel all these complex systems, pipes, bits and bytes together into an intuitive narrative. If you make a radio it has to work and its’ functions must be apparent and easy to use. But cool isn’t about logic or what you get when you boil everything down to constituent parts, instead it bubbles off idiosyncrasy and emphatic invidualism, the guy who makes his own rules versus the one who learnt them from a book or worse, a teacher. So how can you make something that works, performs a desired function, that is usable and practical and yet has that easy air of that rare desirable distinction?
Floating to the surface of the grand meritocracy of brands are a handful of technology companies that aren’t led by logic and yet still manage to provide the user with the functions they desire. The difference is that they aren’t defined by function, rather something more illusive, grander, something almost holy. If the Coolbrands book existed twenty five years ago Bang & Olufsen would have been in there for sure. This was when I met my first B&O at my uncles beach house in Denmark. Sleek, long and low, it had no discernable knobs or controllers just subtle dips and grooves as cues for magician like interventions, a hand passing over to control volume, causing previously hidden hairline LEDs to expose themselves only to softly dim back behind the hard dark gloss façade. The form, materials and interaction with these devices were unnecessary or even absurd, yet the poetry of these elegant operations invoked previously unknown dimensions of desire, an experience almost erotic in nature. B&O were making much more than music centers, they were making shrines to contemporary culture, (and Jean-Michel Jar) objects which elevated us from the humdrum to the hip. These manifestations of a richer philosophy than we’d been previously accustomed still echo through technology today, particularly in mobile phone design where the hard definitions of buttons and borders are melting into blobs and blocks that look like polished semi-precious stones. Interaction design draws from the same language of smooth gestures of scrolls and soft-touch screens compared to the ploddy point and click inputs of recent times.
B&O are still on our list today, still guarding and evolving a rock solid brand in an industry rife with quick sand. The few brands that keep hold of cool never allow themselves to be compared or commodified, always staying out of reach to competitors who might have all the same buttons but none of the soul. Leica, also on our list, shares many of these attributes, its’ confidence and precision deeply apparent in every turn and hard edged furrow of these weighty, hansom machines. Even the shutter mechanics seem to sing a song of artfulness. This isn’t just taking pictures.
Some technology brands have an easier access to coolness. Like fizzy drinks that win favour with fickle teenagers by associating with flavour-of-the-month-pop-princesses, tech brands are sometimes lucky enough to get some beneficial rub off from things already centre stage. The R&D department of Marshall amplifiers still need dorky doctorates from Imperial to finesse the circuits in these rock boxes, but because these amps sat on stage behind every music making legend over past decades they have secured the brand a god like status. The right place at the right time still stands for a lot. Technology that mediates music has this advantage over pedestrian tasks like satellite navigation (although Tom Tom made it into the top 500, Well done!). Sennheiser because the music connoisseur broadcasts their choice wherever they’re brandishing their oversized cans. Bose with their branded boxes in every sleek bar and club and more recently adorning every boutique hotel suit from New York to Knysner. Djs are cool and so are their tools, so Technics make it in again and are unlikely to exit until all the world’s vinyl is melted down.
People’s tendency to associate things is the marketeers key tool of persuasion. For camera brands, the connection to fashion is their low hanging fruit. The “gdssser gdssser gdssser” of motor-winds on high stress fashion shoots have long established the Nikons, Canons and Olympuses (all in the list) as names which share the limelight with supermodels and glossy feature spreads. Hard edged front line documentary imagery too relates these names back to us, black beaten Nikon F2s in the hands of “are they courageous or crazy” photographers against the backdrop of war torn grainy Vietnam.
Associations with music, fashion and the front line have woven a heritage for these brands that provide a platform, a right and a reason to exist and the genetics that ensure continual renewal and reinvention along the lines of their breeding. Heritage brands have a gravity that buffers short-lived falls from favour. They become reference points that are always fixed in the hearts and minds of the public so are always springboards for new thinking and new ideas, something that’s very hard to synthesise. Heritage embodies authenticity which is a cornerstone of cool.
But heritage alone is not enough to stay at the top. Great brands have frequently fallen from grace, toppled by their reluctance to reinvent or in the case of tech simply by being outmoded. The killer formula draws strength from heritage and from the fans and supporters loyal to their cause but uses this to amplify new ideas that respond to the times and to the new landscape of technical possibility. Motorola made some of the first car radios and put the first radios in space and yet of late they’re enjoying the spoils of the meteoric successes of the RazR that managed to appeal to both the adoring mainstream and the discerning, design aficionado. The same technical prowess applied against the same principles in a modern context ensured Motorola still came out on top.
Apple too have managed to continually reinvent themselves successfully whilst always sticking close to its guns on issues of simplicity, materiality and formal elegance and the same integration of object and experience as the first Macintosh delivered over 20 years ago. The iPod’s application of contemporary technologies and behaviours might betray the fact that it still has a lot in common with the company’s principles. It is this continuity that gives Apple the right to innovate in the way that it does, throwing down radical alternatives to interaction that still somehow makes a lot of sense to the user (the mouse back in the 80’s and more recently the iPod scroll wheel.) Other brands wouldn’t necessarily get consumer buy-in because these idiosyncratic interfaces would seem alien and impenetrable, whilst from Apple they are accepted as the expectation is there that it is there for good reason and will thus be better to use. So powerful is this platform that apple has created that the iPhone launch managed to generate the biggest product launch buzz so far this millennium, so much so that people were already contemplating the form and function of the iPhone long before Apple had even announced it was going into production.
In addition to Apple finding the perfect balance between form, materiality and function, it has also managed to straddle two usually distinct worlds, trendsetters and the mainstream. Rarely do mainstream brands also hold favour with the in-crowd, but Apple miraculously manage it.
This ability to cross from cool to mainstream is also shared by a new breed of web centred brands, names like Google that are so utterly generic and yet still have something special that puts them up there, slightly beyond mechanical definition, something that makes them truly iconic. And strangely they have none of the visual styling or cues that would invite a definition of cool, but even this somehow increases the effect as the friendly cartoon logo is a clear sign it’s not here to impress and we all know not trying makes you cool.
Youtube, Skype and Myspace also span the top rung of the marketeers hierarchy of opinion formation. These youthful, exuberant brands earn their status through creating cultures akin to the recreational social spaces of the physical world but in many ways have become bigger, better, truly multicultural and fully joined up experiences. Their atmosphere is a breath of fresh air set against formulaic and controlling broadcast channels and so they earn a place closer to the hearts of the participant.
As the web reaches total ubiquity not only is it home to these rampant emerging brands but also an increasingly influential fabric of opinion formation and the maker and breaker of reputations. What would the iPhone have been without those billion conversations before its launch?
So technology brands we might expect will become more numerous in our list as years pass. In a way all brands are to a greater or lesser extent technologies these days anyway.
It’s almost a year since we started to talk about Branded Utility - a term that suggests that successful brands in the future need to be useful. Since that time we’ve seen discussion across the blogosphere and even the new marketing magazine Contagious spent much of their recent London conference on the subject. We decided to go back to one of the co-originators of the term and ask how he sees the development of the idea he seeded.
The RFID Journal has an article on attempts by the struggling paid-for evening newspaper, the London Evening Standard, to retail loyalty.
In an effort to expand its readership, entice readers to buy the paper more frequently and gather insights into the buying habits and interests of its readers, the Standard has launched an RFID-based loyalty/debit card. The paper’s managing director, Andrew Mullins, hopes readers will become enamored with the Eros Reward Card because of the discounts it offers on the newsstand price (the paper does not offer home delivery), as well as other perks, such as free song downloads from iTunes.
The card was rolled out this week at London’s Waterloo Underground station, Mullins says. Staffers have been signing up users, providing new enrollees an Eros card and using Web-enabled wireless PDAs to record their names and e-mail addresses. By the time the commuters reach their home or office, an e-mail message should already have arrived from the Standard, providing a link to a registration page where they can use their bank or a credit card account to load value on their Eros account.
The discount is determined by the specific amount loaded onto the card. For instance, loading £4 ($8.10) on the card provides a savings of £1 ($2.02), with the cardholder paying £0.40 ($0.81) apiece for 10 copies of the paper. Loading £34 ($68.82) on the card yields a per-paper cost of £0.34 ($0.69), a savings of £16 ($32.39) on 100 copies.
In addition to getting free music downloads, the card user also qualifies for discounts at select area restaurants and merchants. In exchange for the deals, readers must provide some personal information and agree to receive promotional e-mail messages from the Standard, but Mullins considers this a quid pro quo arrangement.
September 27, 2007
To celebrate the launch of the new Mini Clubman, Profero have created a new site. Every week starting today at 4pm BST they will play a short film in real time. So say for example you’d logged on today at 4:00:03 you’d see the film three seconds in. The next film is due when the countdown above reaches 0.
The film will be a surrealist interpretation of an everyday event and will only be available at the allotted time on theotherview.co.uk
The interesting thing about this project is that it turns the notion of timeshifting, that we’ve become so familiar with over the past couple of years, on its head. We now have to be on the web, on a specific site, at a specific time to see the content.
The Guardian has an interview with Robert Senior the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon London in which he explains why Gordon Brown is a marketer’s dream and why it’s not weird that Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency held partly responsible for Labour’s wilderness years, has won the account.
Smart ad from Wilkinson Sword where a father fights his baby for the attention of his wife.
An article in the NY Times looks at how some retailers are offering consumers the opportunity to pick up goods ordered online at a bricks and mortar store:
Offline retailers are increasingly offering a way for consumers to shop online but pick up the goods in stores, allowing them to avoid shipping costs and choose from a wider selection of items than their local stores can stock. Because customers tend to bolster these purchases with others once they get into the store, retailers are profiting handsomely.
Take Wal-Mart, for instance. In recent weeks, the company, the largest retailer, completed a national introduction of its Site to Store service — in which consumers buy items from the Web site, then have the items delivered, at no charge, to their local Wal-Mart stores where they can pick them up. Items arrive within days, though the system is not yet set up to tell customers when something they want is already in stock at a local store.
Sure, the ad industry’s failure to connect with the communication channels of today is a big problem but we don’t think that fully explains the tumble-weed spilling down Madison Avenue. Maybe. there’s no buzz about Advertising Week because there’s no buzz about advertising. Quite frankly, bloggers aren’t going to write about anything that’s not interesting or inspiring. Continue reading| Comments
To promote his love for graffiti, Marc Ecko is creating digital “citylights,” or large LCD screens, that feature bluetooth interactivity. These giant LCD screens allow passerby’s to access the screen via bluetooth and “spray”… Continue reading| Comments
The WSJ has an article by Dr David Aaker about the need for companies to think beyond their niche and just tweaking their products. He argues that companies need to focus not on what brand… Continue reading| Comments
Some random, but interesting inspiration from YouTube. Not quite Halo 3… Continue reading| Comments
Over on Influx Insights, Ed Cotton has written a really interesting post on the future of marketing. He summarises it as follows:
b) provide utility
“We are rapidly moving into a landscape where there will… Continue reading| Comments
On Wednesday I’m going to go to the Brand Licensing 2007 thing and sit on a panel called ‘Licensing Trends: style guides and packaging for the 21st century’ with PSFK friend Oliver Dyer…. Otherwise - maybe we could organize a nice cup of tea with you all - maybe one in the West End on Wednesday pm and one out East on Friday am? Continue reading| Comments
Google Maps mash-ups were so 2006 but it’s not really been until 2007 that brands have realised just how useful they can be. Ikea have created a very nice maps mash-up for their Home campaign… Continue reading| Comments
For the past 10 years or so Stella Artois ads have been an annual highlight. Often of a far higher quality than the TV shows they interupt they have followed a Jean de Floret style… Continue reading| Comments
Techlightenment recently released what TechCrunch calls “quite possibly the coolest Facebook application to date”: a 20-second customizable clip from Bob Dylan’s music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” - an interactive bulletin board and… Continue reading| Comments
Virgin Mobile are taking steps to counter the carbon footprint of its print operations. Continue reading| Comments
Rohit Bhargava reacts to criticism of micro-blogging technologies by developing a well thought out list of reasons why Twitter and its ilk are important: Broadcast Yourself For Real…. Rohit says: For me, Twitter is a compelling platform that can easily become addictive once you start to use it … Continue reading| Comments
A TV channel in the UK has built a giant man swimming through the grass of the gardens just next to the Mayor of London’s offices. Continue reading| Comments
A great quote from Mike Monello of Campfire at the PSFK Conference Los Angeles… Continue reading| Comments
At the PSFK Conference Los Angeles Hispanic trends consultant and blogger Juan Guillermo Tornoe led a panel on the Hispanic market in the US, the stereotyping it has faced and the important trends developing within it. The panel included Jennifer Woodward and David Morse. Here are some key extracts… Continue reading| Comments
New services are turning that on their head - watch out for RCRD LBL launching later this year with its branded brought-to-you-by play.The second slide here preceded the first one when I showed them. The slides were prepared for a presentation to a large industrial company I gave a couple a weeks ago and this section of the pres was on the ‘Digital Native’ (somewhat inspired by something Josh Spear once said to me). Continue reading| Comments