J. Crew World or Oreo Universe? You decide.
A recent Modern Love column in The New York Times, written by a college student, provides a compelling illustration of at least one of the issues facing those of us who work in the world of brand development. Consumers are decreasingly interested in our brands, because they are increasingly interested in the curation of their own brand. And, like brand managers throughout the world, they ultimately confront the challenge of constraint: Stringent brand identity guidelines subvert the notion of growth.
If you spend eight years building a house (no matter how uncomfortable or ugly it may be, no matter how impractical or poorly lit), it becomes nearly impossible to knock it down. That is about how long I put into building my social media presence, into becoming the cool girl I showcase on Instagram and Facebook. I built her without blueprints, not knowing that she would become a wall with no doors.
The writer may be able to break “the chains I forged in life,” as Marley tried to warn Scrooge. For brands, like J. Crew, however, the challenge becomes more confounding, as witness the recent article in The New Yorker: $2 billion dollars in debt, laying off 150, closing Bridal (a genuine tragedy for teen girls seeking prom dresses, for sure). Here’s a brand that so narrowly defined its vision and audience that when the market moved on from mall-based preppy chic, it is left high and dry, seemingly imprisoned in its own design. How to escape the ‘wall with no doors?’
I think the place to look for role models is the packaged food aisle of the grocery store. Look what Oreos is doing. It is not constrained by a “cream-filled, chocolate wafer sandwich cookie” brand identity. Nope. Here come Oreo Fireworks, in time for summer. Here come Oreo Waffles & Syrup to help us relive breakfast, anytime. Wait! There it is in ice cream! No look, over there: It’s in crumbles over our favorite yogurt spot. Now it’s thin. Now it’s double stuffed. Whoosh! It’s a candy bar. It is a brand unleased: part of a passionate Brand Liberation Movement bringing moments of joy, whenever, wherever, to whomever. No walls here, just doorways serving as portals into the brand’s multi-dimensional world. Hershey is doing it too, as witness the move beyond the candy aisle and into snack bars and cookies with its Cookie Layer Crunch varietals.
Lesson: Brand and expand through the emotion. Not tightly controlled ‘look and feel’ edicts that try for cool and end up, well, stranded in a room without doors, in a mall without customers.
P.S. I need some help here: I received a white coffee mug from Amazon. It has a picture on it of someone’s parents (circa 1930) and, I suspect, was meant to be a Mother’s Day present. But not for me. The package was never supposed to be sent to me, yet it was, so it doesn’t show up on my “orders” listing. And, well, we know that Jeff Bezos doesn’t want human connection, so I can’t find a way to alert a human being that I have the mug and would like to return it. There was no return address on the package in which the mug arrived. Augh. Any advice?