Can’t tell you now much it cheers me up to learn that the man behind King of Shaves, my favourite shaving brand, is actually called King. I suppose whatever business he’d got into it would have wound up being ‘King of…’. King of Lawnmowers, King of Cheese, King of Pants…
On the way to the airport Friday I found a Swiss Army Knife at the bottom of my bag. Not much of a knife (and the little tooth pick was gone anyway) so I gave it up to the nice lady at the X-Ray machine.
On the flight I thought about the poor sods who make these things. I assumed they must have been wiped out by 9/11. Since about 75% (complete guess) of Swiss Army knives must be bought at airports and since you can no longer take them on aeroplanes I couldn’t think of a viable survival strategy. Of course, I was totally wrong. Geneva airport is thick with Swiss Army Knife concessions. Giant, mechanical pen-knives open and close silently at every gate and in every souvenir store. They weren’t wiped out at all. In fact, the business insight here is that even the nastiest existential shock might conceal an opportunity.
When you buy a Swiss Army Knife at an airport now, a nifty pre-paid envelope is produced and your new knife is posted back to your home. That’s pretty neat but the leap forward here is that they now (obviously) capture your name and address in the sale and, with your permission, sign you up for the quarterly catalogue, special offers, ads for related products, whatever. 9/11 had the paradoxical effect, for the Swiss Army Knife people, of converting millions of customers from an undifferentiated horde of anonymous foreigners to a rather up-to-date International customer database. I hope they make good use of it.
It’s National Chip Week. No, really. It is. So I thought I’d bring you these lovely facts:
“A portion of chips (175g) contain double the fibre, 75 times more folate and four times more vitamin C than an apple.”
“Kate Winslet loves chips. She recently said “the perfect Saturday night for me is to get the kids to bed, pour myself a glass of wine and send Sam for fish & chips.””
“A portion of chips (175g) also contains five times more vitamin C than a bunch of grapes (100g).”
Will a Google takeover of Wikipedia be a good thing or a bad thing? Don’t ask me. I’m more interested in what Google‘s offer says about the company’s persistently geeky culture. I may be wrong but I’m about 90% sure that it hasn’t occurred to anyone at Microsoft to host Wikipedia (this would be more their style). Wikipedia – and Wikis in general – are a good analogue for the net itself, an expression of its technically distributed and socially collaborative nature.
Wikipedia’s intelligence lives, necessarily, at its edges. In fact it barely has a centre at all in the old-fashioned sense. Most businesses find that sort of thing pretty alien, which, presumably, explains why the poor, benighted (but still awesome) Encyclopaedia Britannica actually survived the net’s first big attack only, by the look of it, to be completely broadsided by bottom-up knowledge sharing. Google‘s culture, though, evidently still thrives on funky, open, edgy phenomena like Wikipedia. Absorbing Wikipedia (which would, presumably cause barely a ripple in Google’s Ocean of CPU and bandwidth) might be commercial nonsense but it shows that the brand is alive and well.
Anyone who does product design or marketing should read this entertaining and inspiring account of the history of a Mac software product called Audion. Why? Because a) more and more products will be made and marketed like software (and because more and more products will actually be software), b) because the Panic team’s passion and sense of fun should be a model for any product team, c) because story telling should be more important in product marketing and d) because this kind of honesty and modesty is rare in business and should be encouraged…
Understanding Mac users used to be quite easy. For a few years at the beginning (maybe 1984–1989) Macs were undeniably cool and undeniably better than anything else you could buy. I encountered my first Mac in 1984 or 1985. Apple had made a gift of first-generation Macs to my college (the Polytechnic of Central London). I’d never met a computer before. I’m at least five years too old to have encountered one at school so I missed my inoculation of BBC, Spectrum, Atari and the rest. I’d never played a computer game (or even an arcade game). I knew nothing about programming or microprocessors or PCs or anything, really. As a result I was outside the geek/jock or geek/creative opposition. It never occurred to me that getting interested in computers might be in any way problematic, that people might reclassify me or demote me as a result.
I sort of figured this out, though, when I nearly failed my degree because I used a computer and not a camera to produce my degree show (although my attachment to the Crown & Sceptre in Great Titchfield Street might have had something to do with this. I blame Paul, anyway). So I figured out these strange new machines (I unpacked and set up quite a lot of them, even had a key to the computer room for a while) and began using them to make work for my degree course (which was a BA in photography). I finally conned my Dad into buying me one in 1985 – it had 512Kb of RAM and a 400Kb (single-sided) floppy disk drive (no hard disk, obviously) – it cost more than my latest Powerbook – about a year’s student grant, at the time. A fortnight later I blew about three months wages from my evening job at Marks & Spencer on a second floppy drive because I was getting a repetitive strain injury from swapping disks (they never mentioned that in the swanky West End Apple Centre where I bought it).
My Mac was a sort of khaki-beige and exotic and unutterably magnetic – I couldn’t stay away from it. It ran the excellent early MS Word, MacPaint, MacDraw, (later PageMaker, SuperPaint and the quite amazing HyperCard) and another lovely Word Processor called Nisus, which, weirdly, survives and has become my primary WP again). The Mac’s early ‘bong’ start-up sound is a perfectly preserved memory and the thought of it rushes me back to my cosy, top floor bedroom in Camberwell (and staying up late with the World Service and big mugs of tea and rounds of toast fetched from downstairs at hourly intervals). In my final year dissertation (1988) I quoted Derrida and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and used the Sun Microsystems copy line ‘The Network is the Computer‘ as a title. I cited Byte magazine more often than any other publication. No one (and I mean no one) understood what I was on about (including me, to be quite honest). I sort of had a vague idea that there was some connection between computers, images and language. Of course, I totally failed to prove this connection and I think my dismal 2.2 was a pretty good measure of the thought involved.
When I left college in 1988, Apple’s first golden age was already coming to an end. Jobs was on his way out, making way for a long dismal decade of increasingly cheesy beige boxes; a sad, botched licensing effort (anyone remember the appalling Gil Amelio?) and the slow demise of the eccentric and over-priced Newton (didn’t stop me buying four of them, though). The remarkable thing about Apple is that the firm’s fanatical following survived the middle period at all. The irony of the period is that the brand wasn’t sustained by the band of radical early adopters who were in at the beginning but by the people they’d become – the ‘can’t-change-won’t-change’ fuddy duddies with hair growing out of their ears (people like me). We bought Macs because we knew no better and were terrified of the alternatives. Anyway, somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.
In fact, when you’re trying to place Apple on the spectrum of brands it’s much easier to put it with the kookier fashion and lifestyle brands than with the other PC manufacturers: it’s Manolo Blahnik, FCUK, Diesel, fancy mountain bikes and hi-tech watches. This is why it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony. It’ll probably take a Virgin or a Calvin Klein to slow Apple’s progress in this weird collision of Moore’s law and downtown style. In the meantime, I think I can recommend The Cult of Mac, a fat, nicely-designed coffee table book covering in one- and two-page features pretty much every weird corner of the Mac universe – from the subculture of fantasy Mac designs to the hordes of people proudly bearing Apple tattoos on their arses. I say I think I can recommend the book because, belonging as I do to the hairy-eared old-timers, I may not be in the book’s true target audience. I feel a bit self-conscious in the presence of the teens and geeks and goths and video artists who seem to be the brand’s biggest fans these days. Maybe I should get a Dell.
I love the way these advertisers have moved their brands by claiming ownership of human values only tangentially linked to their products. Nothing cheesy or aggressive about either, though – just clever, provocative marketing. I wonder if either one of them can show a boost to sales as a result. I hope so.
Unilever’s Persil has taken ownership of the very human idea of mess and repositioned it as positive, happy, creative and educative. The product is translated from a boring, functional, day-to-day need-to-have to a fun, involved and supportive helper in building creative kids. Brilliant. They deserve an extra 10 points of market share just for the idea that making a mess could be productive and not just an exhausting domestic nightmare.
Chewing gum ads are usually really horrible – grim Euro-puddings, made to run in multiple, unconnected markets and communicating nothing in particular (why, though?). Anyway, the latest ‘Get Closer’ TV ads for Wrigley’s (those hi-tech, wafer-thin breath-freshening thingies that dissolve on your tongue, I think) still look like they were made to run all over the place but they’re cleverer than usual. They claim for the product the idea of intimacy – of getting physically close to other human beings. An unarguably powerful, emotional idea. The risk, I suppose, of Big Idea advertising like this, is that the benefit produced accrues not to Wrigley’s but to the category and any sales boost is spread evenly across all the breath products (also, they use that brilliant, super-feel-good Hanson record).
And, speaking of tangential links, get this: the picture is a gorgeous Platinum-Palladium print of John Cage on a chewing gum wrapper. What can I say?
Crass television advertising is not dead. In fact we seem to be enjoying a renaissance. To begin with, there are the braindead sponsorship ‘bumpers‘ (I think that’s what they’re called) wrapped around Parkinson‘s new slot on ITV. Tightly framed mouths read ugly little poems clumsiliy themed on ‘plain speaking’ or something – about the silliest attempt to tie together programme content and brand values that I can remember. A very close second position goes to Leerdammer cheese, whose bumpers for Midsomer Murders (are you getting a picture of my weekend viewing?) are also stupid but at least have the self-knowledge to attempt a joke that probably works for the audience (the hard-of-hearing).
Worst of all, come to think of it, are those gut-wrenching ads for The Times, in which celebrities artlessly read scripted ‘conversations’ that are meant to suggest erudition, debate, robust to-and-fro, wisdom freely shared, blah blah. They’re embarassing and succeed in pegging the once-awe-inspiring Thunderer as a witless wannabe (a ‘used-to-be’, I suppose), tagging along behind its smarter competitors. I feel sorry for the handful of really smart and provocative journos who still work there (busy polishing their CVs as we speak, I should imagine). An important brand (and an institution) on its last legs. Sad.
But where shall I go?