Rob Walker Answers our Questions About Hello Kitty, Etsy & Buying In
From his Consumed column to his Murketing Blog, Rob Walker is a great storyteller and keen social commentator. Walker's New York Times Magazine article, Handmade 2.0, is legendary in indie craft circles. It was the first mainstream media article about the handmade revolution that really got it.
In his fascinating new book, BUYING IN: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Walker examines the dialogue between who we are and what we buy. His research into brands like Red Bull, Sanrio and Converse is eye-opening and funny.
Walker will be discussing his new book at Politics & Prose (5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.) on Wednesday, August 6th at 7 p.m. Plus he'll be giving away 25 of these awesome screenprint posters from Little Friends of Printmaking. He was nice enough to answer our questions about marketing, Etsy, Hello Kitty and more.
Q: What company, in your opinion, is the best at "murketing" right now? Who's the future "murketer" of the year?
A: I wouldn't to crown anybody "best," but I like the idea of "murketer of the year" — it would have to be the kind of thing where it would be up to others to decide whether that's a badge of honor — or a badge of shame.
A couple of things I've read about just recently would be good nominations.
One involves MTV and Sears. Basically they've collaborated on a movie called The American Mall, which will air on MTV in the fall; it was shot in a Sears and all the characters wear Sears clothes. Sears will sell the DVD in its stores, and the soundtrack. Characters from the movie will be in Sears newspaper circulars. And of course there will be Sears ads during the show. But basically it's impossible to tell where the "entertainment" begins and the "marketing" ends. Very murky.
The other is the Chris Brown single "Forever," currently number 9 seller on iTunes. Turns out the bit where he says "Double your pleasure" is no coincidence: He was hired by Wrigley to update the famous Double Mint jingle. (Other pop star types were hired to update the Big Red and Juicy Fruit jingles.) Once Brown cut his new version of the jingle, he added some additional lyrics and voila — pop hit, courtesy of Wrigley gum!
The music arena is a really interesting one for murketing, because it used to be a site of resistance — people were mad when Nike used a Beatles song in an ad, that kind of thing. That's really changed. Procter & Gamble may be one-upping this Wrigley thing, because they've reportedly cut a deal with Island Def Jam to form a record label together. It's called Tag Records — Tag being a P&G brand of deodorant. Once upon a time people might have shied away from getting a record deal with a label founded to promote, and indeed named after, a brand of deodorant. Keeping an eye on that one.
And then there was the thing where McDonald's paid to have its branded iced coffee prominently placed on the set of a news show in Vegas. That one kicked up a bit of a fuss, but I'd say it's still in the running for Murketing Moment of 2008.
Oh, and I have to note the Dove "Campaign For Real Beauty," which while not particularly new, keeps adding to its murky heritage: It recently commissioned Judith Thompson to write a play about aging and beauty. So, a theatrical production tied to the brand message — that's a new one.
Okay, that's enough of that.
Q: Have brands replaced a lost sense of community in some way?
A: There's definitely a widespread feeling of lost community, and brands attempt to tap into that, sometimes explicitly; and there are those who argue that Apple and Harley Davidson and so on do add up to community.
But brand communities aren't real communities, in the way that someone like Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone") would define that idea. Community isn't just about shared interest in something, it's about shared wilingness to sacrifice for higher ideals, for things that transcend self-interest. Brands communities don't deliver on that — which is one of many reasons that consumption can be frustrating, actually. We buy into ideas about brands that they really can't deliver on. And when they don't, we end up trying to buy something else to find satisfaction, and the cycle repeats.
We're very often not conscious of all this, or that this is what marketers are aiming for, and that's a big goal of the book — to give people a look behind the curtain, both at how the commercial persuasion industry works, and at how our own minds work when it comes to our buying decisions.
Q: In your book, Etsy founder, Rob Kalin says, "It's the Baby Boomer generation that fell in love with the mass-produced aesthetic," continuing to call Etsy a resurgence with it's growing customer base indicative of the backlash against the Wal-Marts of the world. Where is the declining economy in this equation? Is he ignoring the fact that it costs more to shop handmade? Is his vision sustainable?
A: Even Kalin wouldn't say that Etsy is going to turn back mass production. But ... what made me want to write about the craft/DIY world (which Etsy is part of) in the book is that there is sort of built into it a different way of approaching consumption. And it's not just about spending more money.
To me what's intriguing is that so many participants in that world bring to material culture a different implied critique, having to do with basic questions like: Do I need to buy this — or can I make it? If I do buy it, what can I learn about how its made (what's it made of, and by whom)? The handmade world can answer those questions in ways that are less alienating that shopping at a mass merchant, where there's no one to ask, and you can maybe Google up some report but it's hard to decipher, etc.
It's certainly true that plenty of people end up on Etsy for totally unrelated reasons — they just see something cute on a design blog, and they want it. That kind of thing may well suffer in a down economy. But if you're thinking on an individual level, to me the issue is: Whatever brought you into contact with the handmade world, isn't it getting at some pretty core issues that are worth considering? Our consumer choices really do matter, both to our own personal satisfaction, and to the broader culture (via ecology and labor practices etc.)
It does zero good to just sit around and complain that "we're all too materialistic." Nor do I think is denial of the pleasure of the material a practical strategy. So I'm very much a believer in the idea that change happens on an individual level. Maybe it means ending up with fewer things — that are ultimately more satisfying. More satisfying individually, and socially. It's just a different way of thinking.
Q: You also talk about the "projectability" of Hello Kitty and how she is kinda everything and nothing all at once to people who love her. Do you think it is because she doesn't have a mouth? If so, isn't that kinda sad?
A: Hello Kitty — sad?? No way!
Seriously, there is no easy answer to Hello Kitty. I use her in the book as the opposite of an answer — she's a mystery. The solution to that mystery somehow rests in the millions who have consumed her image, not in the image itself. I do quote someone talking about how having no mouth is the key. But, my view is that "the key" is almost never in the symbol or object — it's in us, the consumers.
Remember that Sanrio has created more than 400 other characters. And they would LOVE to have another Hello Kitty.
They've never come close.
If it was just about the lack of a mouth, I think they woulda done it.
Q: What do you think about whole crop of user-generated/ designed brands (like Threadless). With these companies, the consumer can be both artist or wanna-be artist and thus has even more reason to market the brand.
A: The obsession with Threadless in the business press & business college courses has become almost comical. There's a lot of creativity out there, for sure. I think one of the interesting things to happen with Threadless is that it's creating "stars" like Glennz, who has launched is own brand after emerging as one of the winningest designers on the site. I'm keeping an eye on that and wondering if we'll see more of it, because that scenario seems in line with other examples of indie-preneurialism from crafting to the streetwear scene.
Q: We've come a crazy long way from the 1940's when Pepsi was known to use Skywriting to advertise. They couldn't have possibly ever conceived the new world of "murketing." Where are we headed? What will the world of advertising look like 50 years from now?
A: Hmmm. Ever see "Minority Report"?
Q: What do you think of Twitter as a marketing tool? Are people more likely to buy from Zappos because they know what the CEO is having for dinner?
A: People ask about Twitter a lot, but this is actually the first time somebody's asked me about it in an interesting way. Because it actually might be helpful to Zappos that people can find out what the CEO is having for dinner. In a weird way that kind of plays into something that I think is real, which is that for all the tech "empowerment" going around, and all the talk of "transparency," shopping remains pretty alienating in a lot of ways. It can be really hard to get the information you want about how something is made, and so on.
Obviously knowing what the CEO had for dinner has nothing to do with that. But it does at least humanize the guy, in weird way. And there's probably a segment — a small segment — of the Zappo's audience that responds to that.
That said, a much bigger segment, I'm sure, is attracted by their return policies and the other real aspects of their business. That's the real key, I assume, to their success.
Which brings up a recurring theme in my conversations with business people and marketers for big companies. They don't want to make big substantial changes to their businesses, they want to do something quick and easy and totally trivial to change their "image." Having the CEO use Twitter would be a perfect example of that, actually. I'm sure there's a consultant somewhere getting paid a lot of money to tell some CEO that if he wants to have Zappos' success, he should get on Twitter, pronto.
Q: With all of this thinking and writing about buying, are you someone who thinks over every purchase or do you try not to obsess too much?
A: It's certainly part of my job to spend an awful lot of time learning about new stuff — in stores, magazines, web sites, on the street. A side effect is coming into contact with a lot of things that, you know, I like. (There's aren't the things I necessarily write about, because the column has different criteria). The weird thing about the Consumed column is that every single week I'm dealing with some new thing, some object or brand, and often I go through this same cycle — at first I get really excited and think "When I'm done with the column I'm definitely buying one of these!" Then a week later, by the time I've finished the column, I'm over it. And I almost never bother to buy it. I'm sort of done. It's like virtual consumption, I get the vicarious thrill of the encounter with something new, but it's faded before I'm in a position to pull the trigger. I think this saves me a lot of money! Not to mention cuts down on useless-junk clutter in my closet (and landfill).
In a way this has affected me, in that even when I'm just plain old shopping I think more than I used to about how I'll feel about something in a week, or a month, or a year. And that's probably even truer after some of the stuff I learned about writing the book, in terms of how our minds work and the way nonconscious processes can lead us astray. Plus I've thought a lot about what I call "unconsumption" — about the end point of the life of a thing. When we throw something away or otherwise get rid of it. I'm more interested in trying to find satisfaction at the end of the process than a thrill at the beginning, so basically I judge the "success" of a purchase by how long it lasts, how long I enjoy it. I don't obsess over all this — and I still buy things on a whim, and all that — but sometimes it's helpful to take two second to ponder it.
And ... sometimes this process also ends up forcing me to re-discover things I already own, rather than getting something new. I'd love to do an ad campaign for things we already own. I was thinking of making that the sponsor for Murketing.com: "Things You Already Own! Enjoy Them Today!"
Thanks to Rob for answering our questions! If you have questions of your own for Rob, you can ask them at Politics & Prose (5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.) on Wednesday, August 6th at 7 p.m.