Internet shopping. Bloody brilliant. The answer to a modern man’s dreams. Everything I could want at my fingertips. No other shoppers to deal with. No annoying sales assistant bugging me. No bags to carry around. No problems. Bliss.
But as I cruised ASOS looking at jackets, jumpers, socks… (anything really, it’s my birthday this month) my girlfriend walked in. There’s a white T-shirt from Uniforms For The Dedicated on screen.
I rolled my eyes: she doesn’t understand. I tried explaining it to her but she just walked off while I was in mid sentence. I bought the T-shirt. Now I’ve made it my mission to clarify to my girlfriend exactly why, so she needn’t look at me with disgust every time I wear it.
In the simplest terms, I am a brand whore. If I wasn’t, I couldn’t do my job. Premiumness is the word-de-jour in the branding world. “How can we justify to people that they have to pay more for our stuff?” Here are my three theories about what makes premium, and what it means to people:
[WARNING: sweeping statements and massive generalisations will, more than likely, be made.]
1) The rules of credibility theory
Brands in the premium landscape can appear in many different, equally credible, ways. Credibility, in this scenario, is relatively dependent on the economic situation of a person’s environment.
For example, in developing nations a visual statement of premiumness is key. Brands that show their credentials – like D&G’s large silver plaque-like badges on jeans, or the candy-coloured, instantly-recognisable repeat pattern of Lois Vuitton – are coveted because they are a declaration of wealth, situation, and, in some cases, political preference.
In more developed countries, craft is what people look for; a story behind the brand that consumers can buy into. Brands talk about the way things are made. They tell their story and that is what consumers care about. Whether it’s the way a particular chef’s knife is made (e.g. Global knives, made the old way Samurai used to make their katana swords) or the story behind the Burberry Trench. It’s a chance to wear or use something with meaning; something of importance.
Lastly, we are now seeing a new wave of premium, for the discerning millennial who has turned away from traditional forms and, indeed, the crowd. These brands leave it all up to people to discover them. They are the hidden secrets, occupying the speakeasy mentality. It’s about the secret handshakes, the emblems, the codes. Being in the know. I could name some brands, but that would spoil the whole idea, right?
2) The fixed theory
“Premium is specialist”. Why do we buy into Armani suits for upwards of £1000, but when they make watches with a Rolex or Breitling price-tag, we get all squirmy and feel like they don’t belong? By branching out of their specialism they have, in turn, lessened their premiumness.
We believe that if you do one thing well you can charge a premium for it. If L’Oreal stuck to making hair dye in 1907 and only sold to Parisian hair dressers, would we be paying a premium for their hair dye today? Would we be lusting after L’Oreal like we do over Dom Perignon?
3) The abstract theory
This theory’s a tough one to hear for most marketers, as it essentially takes the power out of their hands, but there is a happy flip side to it. At a recent meeting with Chris Arning from Creative Semiotics he uncovered an insight that struck me as profound:
“Premiumness can only be measured by how long the consideration time is before we actually purchase a product.”
This sliding scale highlights that a £50 white T-shirt (just off the top of my head) could be a really significant purchase for one person, or a completely throw away item for someone else. It scales with individual wealth and individual perspective. The happy flip-side is, no matter what your brand is, there will always be people who consider it a premium product. (Unless you’re Primark. Some elephants are just not meant to fly.)
One thing is clear from all of this: the attitude towards premium is always in flux. Whether it’s your pricing strategy or your brand story, your bling-tastic badges or your on-the-down-low approach, there is a place for all of you; there are tribes for all of you. The one thing you need is an understanding of how people view your brand, how they want to be spoken to and getting them to believe in what you stand for.
One brand does it best. Through the quality; through the timeless design; through a single ethos that has been upheld for generations, flowing through the family-owned company from the top to the bottom. An ethos that resonates with parents all over the world. A unifying point of view that everyone understands and aspires to. It ticks all the above boxes, in every premiumness situation I have mentioned: a badge to show, a story to tell, an art to discover, a specialist, and a life-long consideration time. All summed up in one line:
“You never own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”
I just hope I can now wear my T-shirt in peace.
Question: How did student Tom Hubbard win such a unique and prestigious trophy? A hand-crafted, hand-painted masterpiece, topped with a golden microchip and worthy of any bookcase or designer’s desk?
Answer: Tom simply took part in a boring student brief set by Elmwood.
When deciding on a theme for student competition briefs, it’s easy to think of exciting and cool things to design; from book jackets and CD covers to TV idents and phone apps. But these things are already interesting to start with. So we decided to set students a particularly dull and boring brief. Because interesting ideas often come from uninteresting briefs.
It was simply titled ‘The Boring Brief’ and was set to various Universities this year. Those students who took part were instructed to pick out a ‘boring’ word from a hat and asked to re-brand it. They were judged on giving this dull word a brand that was unexpected, exciting and stood out from the usual designs found in its field.
If you rummaged through any designer’s bucket list, it would be rare to find any of these words in it. Words such as dry cleaners, Internet security company, removal hire, toaster or window blinds. But there lay the challenge, and most importantly the opportunity to rethink the product or service, rebranding it with a unique and memorable solution.
Students were asked to think about what the brand would be called and how it would look. What would its tone of voice be? How would the new brand live? What point of difference would it have?
The shortlisted students came back to Elmwood to present on their ideas, and Tom Hubbard, from Leeds University, became the overall winner for rebranding a microchip manufacturer.
Tom based his idea on two key insights:
1. Microchip manufacturers are constantly striving to produce smaller and smaller microchips that are more and more powerful.
2. Microchip manufacturers are usually regarded as corporate and functional organisations.
Tom therefore presented a strategy to create a brand identity that was more light-hearted and approachable, using a friendly tone of voice. All themed around his big concept: ‘Tiny but Mighty’.
Tom created the brand ‘Itsybitsy’, a name that combines both tiny and technology, with ‘bits’ relating to the binary digits used in key components on microchips.
The brand toolkit included a large speech bubble that gave the tiny microchip its mighty, but friendly voice. The content of the speech bubble translated the complex language of the industry into something digestible, light-hearted and easy to understand.
With this, and the help of the colour palette and rounded typography, ‘Itsybitsy’ turned a microchip manufacturer – usually regarded as cold, informal and technical – into something engaging, warm and single-minded. Itsybitsy is the tiny microchip manufacturer with a mighty output.
After an articulate and insightful presentation, Tom Hubbard became the winner of the first ever Elmwood student brief trophy, tailor-made to suit his solution with the golden microchip. Most importantly, Tom takes home the title of ‘The Boring Brief Champion 2013’. Something he can proudly tell his grandchildren all about in years to come.
No, not another ludic hybrid naming exercise from the London studio. Well, not entirely. This particular mash-up came out of our target exploration insight work with Sign Salad – Cultural Insight on the recent mammoth grooming pitch!
If we think about male identity, most of us will be old enough to remember the birth of metrosexual culture in the early noughties, embodied on the global scene by our very own football captain, David Beckham. Sarongs and Alice bands quickly became wardrobe staples for young male urbanites, and with that came a far more considered and nuanced grooming regime. I mean, if manly old Becks and Ronaldo are doing it, then why the hell shouldn’t I?!
It didn’t take long before the trend spotters and journalists (early adopters themselves) started to make the connection between young, straight men living in big cities and their lady-like attention to grooming – hence the coining of the term metrosexual. Naturally, this rather catchy neologism reached media-frenzied levels, soon entering common parlance in a ‘I’m not heterosexual, I’m metrosexual!’ kind of way.
Inevitably, radical changes in gender identity or behaviour often give rise to mass backlash – ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ as Isaac (Newton, not Hayes) once said. Before the Brylcreemed-one could say ‘fine n dandy’, female fashion gurus and lifestyle editors were already ordering chaps to ‘man-up’. The uber-sexual counter culture was born; a man-land where chests are beaten, not waxed, and where minds are groomed more than bodies.
The initial expressions of this were, unsurprisingly, through facial hair; be it side-burns, the handlebar moustache, mutton chops, goatees or the full-on Abe Lincoln look. However, the beautiful irony of this deliberately ‘ungroomed’ look was an even wider repertoire of grooming products.
The trouble with the notion of an uber-sexual identity – and possibly why the term never really caught on – was that the metrosexual bedrock of guys taking more time over their appearance, and investing extensively in grooming products, was still thriving. While the form in which this culture was expressed had changed, the content was still very much intact.
The challenge, as men (consciously or sub-consciously) saw it, was how to continue grooming like before without being labeled as an increasingly unpopular ‘metro’. The ubiquitous ‘cro magnon-chic’ facial hair provided the perfect decoy, effectively pulling the beard over the prying eyes of the public.
As with most trends, brands were quick to seize the big opportunity, and the very same form and content dichotomy began making its way onto our supermarket shelves; highly cosmetic and carefully designed products stored in simple, unadorned packaging harking back to the barber-chic, Mad Men era when unfussy men were groomed as per tradition.
So the next time you lay eyes on an large, urban walking beard, side-burns that seamlessly flow into slicked back hair, or a moustache worthy of a BMX badge and a pair of trick nuts, spare a thought for the meticulous detail and brimming beauty cabinet of products that have gone into the perfectly ‘ungroomed’ look of the Metro-Anderthal!
It’s Friday the thirteenth. Strange and unexplainable things will happen to many people today that will cause them to become ridiculously superstitious about this date for the rest of their lives. (If you’re interested, the fear of Friday the 13th is known as friggatriskaidekaphobia.) But lots of good things will happen to people as well, and thousands of others will experience absolutely nothing of significance at all. So there we go.
But this Friday the thirteenth is Friday the thirteenth of September, which means Australians will be celebrating 44 years since the birth of one Shane Keith Warne, Italians will be marking Fabio Cannavaro’s 40th, and parents of school children across the country will be sending their kids to school dressed as Oompah Loompas, Head Witches and Fantastic Foxes. Or, if you’re like me and you have a daughter called Matilda, you can just send them to school.
Yes, 13th September is Roald Dahl Day (he was born on 13th September 1916). I have no idea who’s responsible for creating official days in honour of writers, or whether you just need to pick a date and buy a url, but I can’t think of many modern writers more deserving of the accolade.
Dahl’s obviously best known for being a children’s writer, but he takes his dark and slightly twisted sense of humour to new levels in his adult work. ‘Pig’ from Kiss, Kiss is one of the most surreal and macabre stories I’ve ever read, ‘Genesis and Catastrophe’ poses some unsettling questions and the ludicrously obscene My Uncle Oswald… well, maybe just check you’re OK with the subject matter before you order a copy. (It is brilliant though, IMHO, as the kidz say. Actually I don’t think they say that anymore.) Even Tarantino’s been so impressed by Dahl’s warped mind that he’s taken a metaphorical page or two out of his books. (Although possibly the less said about Four Rooms, the better.)
What makes these grown up books so beautifully disturbing is not just their subject matter, but that they’re all written in the same voice as The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox. In the way that the dark humour from the adult books makes his children’s stories so engaging, it’s the innocent tone and language from the kids’ books that makes the adult stories so unsettling. There’s an awkward juxtaposition in what’s being said and who’s saying it.
That’s what I love about Dahl – every time I read one of his books I get this mental picture of a childish old man hunched over his typewriter, chuckling away to himself devilishly as he taps away on his keyboard, weaving these bizarre and magical tales. You get the impression that he’s never been bothered about what people think of his work – the only person he’s writing for is himself, and he’s enjoyed typing every word on that page.
And that’s where I think brands can really learn from him. For me, the majority of the copy I read in advertisements and brochures creates a mental picture of a man in a suit, sat in an office. And he’s got really, REALLY nice teeth. And he’s typing away on his MacBook Air, and he’s probably called something like Hank, and he always looks people in the eye, and he’s got a really strong handshake. It may very well be written in slightly different styles, or in different tones, but it still all comes from Hank. Don’t get me wrong – Hank’s not a bad guy – you just can’t trust his motives. (Apologies for stereotyping the world’s entire population of Hanks.)
Dahl’s gift was creating characters that he could resonate with, not characters that he thought other people could resonate with. From Sophie to Charlie Bucket, from Aunts Sponge and Spiker to farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean), all his characters are based on a real people from his life. And then he twists them a little – he makes the familiar seem slightly unfamiliar. And that’s where brands often go wrong with tone of voice – they try and make the familiar seem even more familiar; they try and make the perfect seem even more perfect. And the result is Hank, and his beautiful set of gleaming white teeth.
So, that’s my quick overview on Dahl – probably my favourite writer of all time, and also the reason people stare nervously at me as I roll the aluminium foil from my sandwiches into a ball after lunch. Make sure you don’t just leave him for the kids.
Written by Tom Franks – Work Placement, Elmwood New York
I’ve loved my stay in New York. The food’s great. The people are incredible. But, being honest, my favourite thing about the city has to be the bars.
There’s just something about the bar culture here that seems way more advanced than the UK. Each one has its own identity with different quirks and idiosyncrasies that make it unique.
Take ‘Don Pedro’s’ just off Myrtle and Broadway in Brooklyn. After sitting down with my pint, I noticed people nipping downstairs with their drinks. As it turns out, there’s a vintage shop in the basement. I love this, not just because the thought of getting people drunk before they buy clothes is a pretty shrewd marketing tactic, but because it’s just so unexpected. It offers something unique.
Through the wardrobe
There also seems to be a real desire for a sense of exclusivity within New York’s bars. Take ‘Please Don’t Tell’, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar that most people wouldn’t have a hope in hell of finding. Hidden behind a phone booth in Crif Dogs, a run-of-the-mill hot dog joint, it’s like walking through a doorway to a Yuppie Narnia. It feels as if you’re one of the only people who knows it exists. Or, at the least, it certainly makes you feel lucky to have been let in.
Then there’s ‘Bathtub Gin’, a local coffee shop that also serves gin cocktails. Or the elusive ‘The Back Room’, owned by Tim Robbins. Simply pass a bouncer, go through a gate, walk down some steps, through a back alleyway, up another flight of stairs, through a prohibition-era door complete with peephole… and voila! You’re there. Keeping up this air of authenticity, all drinks are served in teacups, just in case the cops come busting in. If you’re super lucky you might even catch a glimpse of someone entering through a secret door in the bookcase.
Not only do these bars offer something unique, their clever concepts and sense of exclusivity also lead to lots of self-marketing. Every time someone finds one, they’re so excited to have been let in that they’re immediately bragging on Facebook or Instagramming like there’s no tomorrow.
The main thing I love about these bars, though, is that they’re striving to do something that separates them from the norm. They’re offering an experience, an atmosphere, something to make them stand out and give people reason to show off.
Back in England, for students such as myself (technically I’m an ex-student but I refuse to acknowledge reality), the best bar is usually the one that serves the cheapest drinks. And the closest we get to feeling upmarket is paying double the price for a bit of mood lighting. There’s the odd exception to the rule, but they’re few and far between.
I’m sure in the dark corners of London there are a number of similar bars to New York. ‘The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town’ in London is definitely leading the way, taking direct influence from New York speakeasies and hiding itself behind a fridge door inside ‘The Breakfast Club’. It’s increasing in popularity and is a wonderful example of how daring to give your bar an authentic attitude and a feeling of exclusivity will bring in the punters.
To use our favourite Jerry Garcia quote: “It’s no longer good enough to be the best of the best. You have to be the only people who do what you do.” It certainly wouldn’t hurt to see a few more establishments trying to separate themselves from the pack anyway.
I’m going to miss having all these weird and wonderful drinking spots to look forward to after work. But hey, it’s not all bad. Courtesy of the Chancellor, I can now look forward to pints that are 1p cheaper than when I left.