Craving for Cool (part deux)
Last week (9/4/06) I wrote about the race to be labeled “cool” by product marketers, branders, and even cities. Don’t kid yourself, just because cities exist in the world of “not for profit” doesn’t mean they’re immune to the pressures and tactics deployed in private sector to distinguish and separate themselves from the pack. I won’t use any names, but we used to joke about the fact that a neighboring city didn’t do many things all that well, but the one thing they did very well was market themselves. They didn’t worry about making sure trash got picked up or streets paved, but they never missed a chance for pitching themselves to the unsuspecting public that still believes what they read in newspapers and magazines. They were really good at getting the packaging right — although I always thought that the product inside never lived up to the hype.
Kent’s problem is more the inverse — we’re so anti-packaging that too few people get to see just how cool things are (and could be) here.
I’m the first to agree that packaging at the expense of content is a bad deal and I don’t think we should ever fall into that trap. The truth is there’s a lot of bait and switch advertising out there among cities and one of the things that I admire about Kent is that it’s never let itself get sucked into the false advertising syndrome. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not. We’re a “love us for who we are” city, full of real people, with real personalities and everyday challenges. Kent is not stettford community with every hair in place. As a matter of fact, I’d argue that we fall more on the other side of the middle of the road where hair is usually out of place, it’s also multi-colored and spiked.
It’s that “make no excuses” attitude that makes Kent so unique — and I’d argue so potentially cool. I say potentially because that same edgy attitude also makes us a bit of a hazard to ourselves. I think we’ve grown so adverse to the “pretenders” out there that we have given no attention to our own packaging. Again, I don’t believe in packaging at the expense of content, but I think there’s plenty of room for packaging that complements the content. Milk without the jug is just a mess, and so are cities that don’t try to celebrate what’s great about them.
In my first 14 months I can count on one hand how many Kent people said to me “X, Y, Z is so cool in Kent.” Instead, we seem to be stuck on pointing out all the things we don’t like so I had to discover all the cool stuff myself. I can’t tell you how many times I personally sat at an outdoor summer movie showing, high school football game, Kent State basketball game, live music, parade, and even peaceful protest that I said to myself (and whoever else would listen) “what a cool freakin’ place this is.”
I have never seen so much cool tucked in little surprising corners all around. I’ve heard the new university president refer to Kent State as being a “best kept secret” in academic circles, and I’d say the same thing for the city of Kent. As a city I’m afraid we’ve lost sight of the forest through the trees and as a result we consistently sell ourselves short.
Anyways, I wasn’t intending to climb up on that bandwagon, I started this to posting to talk about the fact that like so many other corporate functions, cool is actually being outsourced to trendy, young businesses that specialize in cool. Below I’ve copied an article that talks about this phenomon and as I read it I kept thinking how cool is actually one thing that we have a pulse on thanks to the cycling of young people in our community year after year — but like our heart beat we stop hearing or seeing it because it surrounds us (and at times annoys us).
In a day of offshoring, we can homeshore our cool.
A Craving For Cool
Big companies are outsourcing “cool” to nimbler, closer-to-the-ground outsiders. They might as well farm out their souls.
When Hasbro wanted a hand lifting its decades-old My Little Pony toy line out of the realm of kitsch last year, it turned to a tiny Brooklyn, New York, creative agency called Thunderdog Studios. The result: a New York gallery show full of Ponies, each uniquely decorated by a different woman artist.
Now, that was cool. Which is exactly what Hasbro was after. The question: Why did a $3 billion toy giant with 6,000 employees need the help? Even Thunderdog, now preparing to freshen up the toy giant’s Transformers line, is at a loss, sort of. “We’re all very young. When we’re in the boardroom, we feel like, ‘What are we doing here?'” admits president Tristan Eaton. “We’re waiting for them to realize we’re just a bunch of kids.”
We should’ve seen this coming. For decades, business pundits (and, okay, we) have lauded the merits of lean, flexible organizations: Embrace the activities that truly add value; jettison everything else. And companies have done so, outsourcing their IT departments, human resources, copy shops, even manufacturing and distribution.
But this is something different, and more sinister. Companies are outsourcing cool. They’re paying other companies–smaller, more-limber, closer-to-the-ground outsiders–to help them keep up with customers’ rapidly changing tastes and demands. Talk about a core competency! It’s like farming out your soul–or at least, asking someone what you should wear in the morning.
It’s happening because technology allows ever shorter design and manufacturing cycles–in turn forcing more-fleeting half-lives for anything deemed “cool.” So our friends at Time Inc.’s Fortune have hired hipster ad shop Strawberry-Frog “to contribute some strategy on how to best position the Fortune brand,” according to The New York Times. A magazine spokeswoman says it’s a “small research project.” (Fortune to StrawberryFrog: “Honey, should I wear the gray suit or the brown suit today?”) Mitsubishi Motors recently did the same.
“We surround them and give them a hug; it’s a process we call ‘total engagement,'” says StrawberryFrog president Scott Goodson. It’s not clear how literal he’s being about the hug. “When we started [at Mitsubishi], they had dissatisfied dealers, apathy in the organization, no sense of spirit. The mission we came up with was to fight boredom. It was a movement to make a more dynamic organization.” (StrawberryFrog to Mitsubishi: “Oh, dear, don’t wear that old thing again.”)
There’s something ageless about this: One generation has looked to the next for advice on cool for as long as there have been out-of-it parents. But seeking advice is one thing; letting an outsider set your agenda is another. Doing so forfeits control of your brand to someone who doesn’t own it; it turns you from a creator into a distributor, which is a pretty low-value activity to base a business on. Martin Lindstrom, whose 25-person consulting firm, Brandsense, helps 11 of the world’s 100 largest companies keep their brands cool, says, “I’m surprised when they come to us, because they should have structures built in to inform and shape their brand in those fundamental ways.”
They don’t because staying cool is difficult work. It requires constantly scanning the horizon and taking gambles. And that’s scary. “People in huge corporations are afraid of being fired,” says Lindstrom. “They don’t dare take those risks anymore. The only way they can get a mandate to do this is by taking the risk outside of the company.”
The question: Can big companies find their inner Thunderdog? Can they create internal structures and processes that let them recognize, and embrace, cool on their own? Some already have. Procter & Gamble’s Tremor is an in-house “word-of-mouth marketing” division that continually tests new ideas and products (80% of them for non-P&G clients) with a network of 220,000 teens. And in April, P&G launched Vocalpoint, intended to do the same thing with a universe of 600,000 mothers.
“I’m surprised when they come to us. They should have structures built in to inform and shape their brand.”
To get closer to customers and speed the feedback loop, Samsung’s U.S. marketers established relationships with some 1,500 Web sites that serve its target markets, from fly-fishing sites to the home pages of rock bands. When designers in Korea give the word that a new product is on the way–often with only a few months’ warning–marketing puts out the word through its network. Presto! Instant product launch.
It’s a promising approach to the challenge of keeping up with one’s customers. Cool, even. So, your choice: Farm out what most makes you distinctive to a bunch of kids in Brooklyn–or do the hard work of figuring it out yourself.