Bad Situation

Hilarious report in the WSJ blog about Abercrombie & Fitch paying Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of the Jersey Shore to NOT wear its brand due to “deep concern” over negative brand associations.  It’s like when so-called “chavs” started wearing Burberry tartan as the uniform of choice across the UK back in the mid-noughties.  That was one hell of a nightmare for the Burberry brand, though that brand is decidedly more aspirational than A&F which is more known for their barely clad models and politically incorrect T-shirts.   Which then begs the question if A&F is genuinely concerned about the Situation bringing down their image with all the tacky Jersey Shore associations or if they just want to fire up some good ol’ fashioned controversy for buzz.  After all, it sounds like they were the ones that released a statement about it.  If I were Snooki, I’d start wearing head to toe A&F and refuse to stop wearing any of it until they paid at least triple what they paid the Situation.  Work it, girl.  For real.

Bottling Innovation

Dude, this Japanese packaging re-do for Gatorade is so much better than those fat, squat things we have in the US! I guess the argument goes that Americans need to drink a lot more electrolytes or whatever than the little Japanese who take sips out of these skinny PET bottles.  But come on, we deserve some visually pleasing design too!  The Gatorade bolt on the black background is so simple and yet it totally pops on the shelf.  Beverage-maker Suntory distributes Gatorade in Japan so I suppose it’s just a completely different sensibility from what’s marketed here.

And while we’re on the topic of Suntory, can I just pose the question for the ten billionth time why we don’t have crystal-cut design capabilities for PET bottle packaging like they’ve had in Asia for like, oh, I dunno, 5 years now?  I’ve asked many package designers about this and the answer always has to do with the cost of changing factory production molds and the scale of distribution in the US, blah blah.  All important considerations, I agree, but it just blows my mind how slow we are to innovate beverage packaging for mass brands in this country.  You get superficial changes and the odd tweaks here and there, but in general the pace of innovation is incredibly slow.  Like think about the cans and bottles of soda you drank as a kid and ask yourself if they’ve really changed in any substantial way.  Yeah, didn’t think so.

TTL Baby

Check out these awesome stickers you can get with any order when you buy stuff at Turntable Lab right now.  If you don’t get the reference, then you must be a much more intelligent, deep and cultured person than I am.  Or maybe you just live under a rock with no cable.

*Fist pump to Shota who works at TTL and wants you to start spending that money grandma gave you over Christmas on records now.

Banksy’s Pop-Up Premier

Photo by FRANTZESCO KANGARIS for the Independent

British street artist-turned-global-brand Banksy struck publicity gold again this week with the limited pre-release screening of his super-hyped film, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop‘, in a cold, dank pop-up cinema hidden in a tunnel underneath Waterloo train station.  Called The Lambeth Palace, the temporary 150-seat theater is screening the film for 10 days prior to its nationwide release on March 5.  Needless to say, tickets sold out instantly and are now being scalped online for upwards of £200.

It’s truly brilliant (and ironic) how marketing-savvy Banksy is.  Despite never having abandoned his anti-corporate, f*ck-the-man message in his art, and never having actually sold out to the powers that be, the man simply cannot avoid having everything he touches turn into solid unobtanium.  Just when you think, “Oh my god, that fratboy has a Banksy poster on his wall,” the artist does something absolutely genius like quietly open an animatronic petstore in the village as he did in late 2008, making you smack your forehead and repent for ever having considered thinking he was passé.  The Lambeth Palace is yet another one of these surprising moments of Banksy brilliance that make him nothing short of an inspiration.

New Banksy work @ The Lambeth Palace

Improving Coffee IQ

Coffee Cupping at Intelligentsia's NYC Training Lab

I went to a coffee cupping session the other day at Intelligentsia Coffee‘s NYC Training Lab.  Cupping is similar to wine tasting and is mainly used professionally in the industry as a way to evaluate coffee quality.  I’ve seen it done before by a roasting expert on an innovation tour I led last year in Tokyo on the topic of connoisseurship, but this was my first time trying it out myself.  Our Intelligentsia coffee educator showed our little group how to evaluate three types of ground coffees in multiple stages, from dry to wet, stirred (called “the break” from when you puncture the upper crust of grounds that forms), and to finally tasting  after most of  the floating grounds have been scooped out.

I felt totally smell-deaf at first as the only descriptive word that came to my mind when smelling the grinds was ‘coffee’.  But with increased focus and some imagination, I eventually managed to find some more nuanced descriptions to write down on my chart of aromas and flavors, like ‘almond cookies’ and ‘molten chocolate lava cake.’  (Perhaps I was just hungry?)  It was encouraging to realize at the end of the session that despite the group consisting mainly of first-time amateurs, in general people seemed to be writing down descriptions that were roughly in the same ballpark.  My favorite description given by a fellow attendee about a particularly complex coffee was, “like a winter wonderland in the spring!”  Sort of makes you think  about coffee in a whole new way, doesn’t it?  Like wine, cheese and chocolate, coffee is well on its way to becoming better known for its origins and artisinal qualities rather than as mere commodity.

It’s a shame that Intelligentsia doesn’t yet have a coffee shop in NYC.  Luckily you can still get their superior coffees in many cafes around town like Kaffe 1668 in Tribeca, a beautiful shop owned by Swedish twin brothers.  Not only is the coffee amazing, courtesy of Intelligentsia, they have delicious pastries and the shop’s Svenska design aesthetic is utterly charming.  Anyway, the cupping session costs only ten bucks and it’s open to the public so if you’re a lay coffee-freak like myself, I highly recommend it.  And from a marketing perspective, what a lovely way to get consumers to interact with your brand and foster brand loyalty!  I for one am totally sold; especially on their Rwandan Bufcafe.  Upgrade your life!  Go buy some good beans!

MUJI in Motion

It’s not often that I find myself mesmerized by a brand website but then again MUJI is not like any other brand.  Check out their Play MUJI site here and tell me you don’t find it intoxicating!  What an unbelievably beautiful way to showcase a ton of products without boring or overwhelming the viewer.  I love the way they use movement in each of the frames but in deliberate timing that leaves some frames still so as not to bombard you with too much stimuli at once.  It’s also clever how you can change the music if a particular tune is driving you crazy while you scroll through and lust after all the genius products displayed.  Given that MUJI is all about great design that combines simplicity with high functionality, it’s perfect that they’ve figured out a way to showcase those qualities so seamlessly in this site.  I know there are a bunch of MUJI stores in NYC now, but I am still counting down the days until my next trip to Japan because there really is no comparison to their flagship store in Yurakucho.  They sell everything from MUJI food, plants, eyeglasses and bikes to entire houses.  If there ever was a reason to visit Tokyo, the MUJI flagship store would be it.  Seriously.

And while we’re on the topic of well-designed brand websites, check out Uniqlo’s Uniqlock if you want to find out what time it is anywhere in the world while watching random Asian women dancing.  Right now they happen to be dancing in Paris but they switch it up from time to time.

Yogurty Goodness

The resident economist shot over a random post yesterday from Slate about NPD Group’s announcement that the Food of the Decade is (drumroll please)…yogurt.  According to Harry Balzer of NPD, the percentage of Americans who consume yogurt regularly went up from 17% in 2000 to something like 28% by the end of the decade.  That’s a lot of yogurt.  And not surprisingly, marketing has had a lot to do with that, with companies having introduced over 1,200 new yogurt products to the market since 2005 according to market research firm, Mintel.

We’re all familiar with the game-changers:  Yoplait’s tubular Go-Gurt, which you can freeze and stick in a kid’s lunchbox, made yogurt more accessible to kiddies, and then of course there were those seriously seductive claims by Dannon’s Activia that bifidus regularis was gonna make you poop as regularly as Jamie Lee Curtis, the Redeemer for all the Constipated.  Despite all the snickering, Activia’s move to start a public dialogue on how frequently we move our bowels paid off big time, resulting in over $130 million in sales its first year followed by a 50% increase in the second year.  Furthermore, the yogurt trend is far from over.  Compared to the decades-long obsession with probiotics and the relentless campaigns against constipation that I’ve witnessed in Japan (to say nothing of Germany), the Activia Challenge represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how much more yogurt (and yogurt-based products) we could potentially sell in this country by leveraging the all-important issue of blockage.

It’s a discourse that’s still fairly new to American consumers and so I don’t blame them for being skittish about discussing their poo health the way, say, Gillian McKeith does on primetime television in the UK on her hit show You Are What You Eat. There’s Gillian at dinnertime, analyzing obese people’s poos on her special German loo and making them get colonics on national television!  If the popularity of products boasting high fiber and probiotics content is any indication, it’s really just a matter of time before Americans get up to speed and become just as poo-literate as many other parts of the world.

And seriously, why is Yakult, the Japanese probiotics brand known for their mini aluminum-sealed daily yogurt drinks, not widely available here?  It’s available pretty much everywhere else in the world, but for some reason it’s hard to locate in the US outside of Asian grocery stores.  Yakult’s line-up of probiotics products would do incredibly well in this market because it tastes delicious, comes in packs that make it easy to consume daily, and the research behind it goes decades further back than anything launched in 2005 could possibly claim.  I mean, check out this Yakult commercial with Ken Watanabe – it looks more like an ad for medication than one for drinkable yogurt.

To keep up the momentum in the next decade, major yogurt brands are gonna have to do more than just come up with nasty new flavors like Red Velvet Cake to add to their already over-crowded lineup.  They’ll have to keep on talking about regularity, for a start, and innovate by taking cues from niche premium brands like Siggi’s Icelandic skyr and Liberté’s Six Grains yogurt, which are way more on the right track with their distinctive offerings.  More on Siggi’s some other time…

Coca-Cola’s Green Bottling

There was an article in yesterday’s WSJ that discussed Coke’s new “PlantBottles” which are partially made out of sugar cane.  They hope to sell two billion of these by the end of this year.  I would hope that by now most of us are aware that plastic bottles are a problem.  There’s a toxic island of plastic twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific, and the chemicals found in PET bottles have been linked to infertility in women among other bad things.  The world’s major bottled beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have all been responding with technology, like plant-derived plastics and “lightweighting” — a strategy that involves using less plastic in each bottle.  All this helps to reduce their carbon footprint, but given that much of the problem is the sad fact that a majority of these bottles don’t end up recycled, I don’t see it having nearly as much impact as encouraging people to refill their own bottles à la Brita and Nalgene.

Last summer, Coca-Cola Japan launched a new brand of water called ILOHAS that is packaged in super-lightweight plastic bottles.  LOHAS,which stands for “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability,” has been a huge buzzword in Japan for the last few years and it’s frankly rather misleading (and predictable) of Coca-Cola to appropriate that term for a line of bottled waters.  As much as I think that these easily crushable bottles that contain less plastic than conventional bottles are a step in the right direction, it seems dishonest to generate such a green aura around something that is so inherently un-eco as drinking water out of petroleum-based plastic bottles in a country that has perfectly fine drinking water coming out of its taps.  But hey, an improvement is an improvement, and as long as people are going to continue to buy bottled beverages it might as well be contained in something that will take up less room when smashed up in a landfill or floating in the ocean somewhere.  I predict that once the price points come down on home carbonators like SodaStream, we’ll start seeing some real progress.  Let’s hope that starts happening sooner rather than later!

Bring on the Romance

Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us — that marketing miracle, second only to Christmas as an opportunity to move merchandise.  On this day, single people around the world are made to feel like crap (no doubt contributing to a spike in Ben & Jerry’s sales), while those coupled up are bombarded with intense pressure to express their devotion in monetary form through products and services all made doubly expensive especially for this day of luuurv.  As an ex-Marxist ex once told me years ago, I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day.  No Virginia, there is no Saint Valentine.

So if there ever was a promotion that resonated with the cackling cynic in most of us, surely it must be this amazing one currently on offer at White Castle.  That’s right, this Valentine’s Day you can book your own private booth at a nearby White Castle and get table service while eating sacks of sliders under candlelight.  You can even buy special Valentine’s Day T-shirts and fuzzy pink blankets.  The whole thing seems too ridiculous to be true, but that’s exactly the point, and why White Castle is brilliant.  As a brand they are much more of a mythical idea than a gastronomic reality for most consumers.  Think of how much free publicity they got from being the unicorn of fast-food establishments in Harold & Kumar.

Of course if you have actually been to a White Castle, you know that those little tiny burgers made from 3mm-thick slices of Spam-like protein hardly replicate the feeling of goodness and satisfaction that washes over you when you’re just imagining the brand.   The idea totally trumps reality.  The fact that White Castle is self-aware about this is what makes them the favorite black sheep in America’s fast-food landscape.  Like the Snuggie, it’s betting (correctly) that more people will respond with humor to what they represent than to what their product actually is.  The corniness of this Valentine’s Day promotion will most definitely get some unlikely people through the door that day, and what’s more, there will be a ton of organic buzz generated from it with people posting online photos of themselves being cheeky-romantical with a slider in each hand.

America, America

Photo by Jens Mortensen (NYTimes)

Seeing this fantastically patriotic sweater posted the other day by Tommy Hilfiger in the NYTimes’ T Magazine blog made me smile.  It’s apparently something his daughter found in a vintage shop in SoHo that is now on display in his Fifth Ave. flagship.  I wish I’d had this to wear last week when some friends threw me an All-American themed party to celebrate my recent attainment of United States citizenship!  All the iconic American brands were represented — Budweiser, McDonald’s, KFC, Oreos, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola — and of course, two types of apple pie (handmade and Mickey D’s rectangles).  As someone who once worked on a trend project around shifting perceptions of Americanism, it’s interesting to see how instantly these connections are made.  A lot of classic American brands currently seem to be fumbling their way towards identifying what the New Americanism looks and feels like.  One of the more interesting recent attempts that comes to mind is the Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign by Wieden + Kennedy.

The commercial makes use of a few stanzas by Walt Whitman, the most American of poets, in an unconventionally erudite effort to convey a wildly exciting youthful American energy–implying that Levi’s, like young America herself, is part of a historically rooted continuum, constantly pioneering into uncharted territory.  There is a certain nostalgia for all things Americana nowadays, and classic American brands like Woolrich, Filson, Red Wing and Bass are now cool again in ways they couldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago.  The new Budweiser American Ale is similarly capitalizing on this sudden popularity of Americanism.  I’m sure I will get a lot of flack for saying this but it really is fascinating how quickly the image of America as a brand turned around after 8 years of a semi-apologetic and embarrassed stance under Bush.  Obviously the U.S. still has more than its share of problems under Obama but the overall boost in American pride since the change-over is truly notable from a marketing perspective.  God bless America!

Aside: Check out A New Literary History of America by Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors.  It’s a fascinating (and gigantic) collection of essays on the history of our great nation.  Not your typical reference book, it really captures the richness and vitality of American history in an eminently readable way.