This article started with the a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto working on a lifestyle brand inspired by Ancient Japan. My client wanted me to see with my own eyes this enigmatic culture revered the world over for its power and its mystery. The article is now up on BrandChannel with a bit more of a branding twist than it started out with (original article below).
FRESH BRAND THINKING FROM ANCIENT JAPAN
By Chauncey Zalkin
Japan, the land of paradoxes. From the start a collectivist society, Japan has always had a devout reverence for nature, a hardened understanding of what is now the biggest buzzword of our time, social responsibility, and yet a derring-do where only the brave, most visionary, and sometimes slightly wacky, need apply. These qualities, with all their distinctly Japanese nuances, couldn’t be more relevant to today’s branding challenges the world over.
Historically, In a simpler time before the jet age, Japan was physically isolated, surrounded by treacherous seas, formidable fault lines, and land three-quarters covered in mountains. The entire population clustered inside the land left – a constant reminder of nature’s strength and the need to adhere to a manageable social order. Their history of isolation led to a respect for nature and an emphasis on the group over the individual. The result was an enviable system of organization and ethos of constant improvement that gave rise to innovative brands and services.
As China and Korea look to transcend their reputation as efficient manufacturers and get into the branding game, they look to Japanese standards as a beacon. Brands like Toyota, Mitsubishi, Sony and smaller progressive brands like Muji and Uniqlo hold cues to the future for these emerging markets. “For us, ’Made in Japan’ means quality”, says a Korean marketing MBA interviewed for this article and an employee of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto in Paris. While other east Asian countries are still finding their capitalistic identity mostly by westernizing, she explains “the Japanese dare to be themselves.” After the Beijing Olympics, Reuters reported that a new game was under way, ‘telling China’s economic future by reading the tea leaves of Japan’s past’. By all accounts, China yearns for Japanese standards of style and hospitality.
Superb craftsmanship, strict standards and attention to detail are what makes Japanese corporations the envy of all the rest. But it’s the deeper cultural differences long embedded in Japanese society that are hyper-relevant to living and branding in a new, more accountable world.
The consumer perception of Toyota is that the perfect car is possible which is as much a part of their brand as it is their internal workings. On the other end of the spectrum, Comme des Garcon’s creator Rei Kawakubo and her stable of designers are known in the industry for pursuing the ultimate form of creation. Its this combination of pushing the limits with a particularly Japanese brand of restraint, that is most ingenious.
LESSON 1: CONSIDERATION OF THE GROUP
In ancient Japan, once someone did even a small favor for a stranger, for example, picked something up off the street that you dropped, you had to reciprocate. The ancient word for a social obligation that must be repayed was an ‘on’. One could wear an ‘on’ their whole life if they did not or were not able to reciprocate. In ancient Japan, it was considered by many to be a burden. Even now, every individual is strongly linked to every other individual in Japanese society.
There is no literal translation for the phrase “kuuki wo yomu” in English but it means to ‘read the air’, essentially to get a sense of the feeling of the room or the group. In a recent social experiment, Japanese and Western participants were shown an individual standing in front of a crowd and asked to describe what the individual was thinking. The Japanese test takers ‘read the air’ when assessing the situation. They considering the facial expressions of the group behind the individual, whereas westerners focused solely on the expression of the individual in the foreground.
The fundamental principle at Toyota is kaisen or ‘continuous improvement’. Another is genchi genbutsu or ‘mutual ownership of problems’. When Toyota CEO Yuki Funo was asked if he might star in a Toyota ad (as the American president of General Motors had), he said something along the lines of, ‘there’s not one single hero, we all are.’ The ability of a brand to be socially conscious and consciously expansive are crucial. Social responsibility is now inexorable to a company’s reputation.
LESSON 2: RITUAL AND RESTRAINT
One set of slippers is for the house. Another, for the bathroom. Sake comes before, not during, the meal. After a Japanese meeting, it’s time for karaoke and raucous good times. The working day is done. Each experience has its place, and for that time, every other experience is put aside.
Japanese patterns and rituals have the ability to clear the senses, to reorder what the mind takes in. Interiors are marked by clean, minimal lines and stripped to their bare essence. Nature is controlled in Zen gardens or the pruning of a bonsai tree. Each object in the landscape is distinct and pure.
‘Shibui’ means inobtrusive beauty. ‘Wabi Sabi’ is the reflection of inner perfection, simplicity, the rustic and the unembellished. Muji, for example, employs top designers whose names are absent from all packaging and merchandising.
In the hospitality and service industry, the flashy boutique hotel with its disco lobbies has had its day. Luxury now is about time and space, superior construction, and escape from the ordinary.
LESSON 3: REVERENCE FOR NATURE & THE HUMAN TOUCH
Number five of Toyota’s fourteen guiding principles is “Be reverent, and show gratitude for things great and small in thought and deed.”
There’s been a shift in the U.S. collective consciousness — green is no longer an issue marginalized to fanatical environmentalists; nearly all Americans display green attitudes and behaviors versus a year ago.
Japan is by many measures the world’s most energy-frugal developed nation.
-New York Times referring to Japan’s “single-minded dedication to reducing energy use”, 2008
“Custom-made and one-of-kind are rising above the mass-produced.”
-Head of Trend Research, JWT, 2007
(Luxury consumers) are looking for unique handcrafted things that can’t immediately be reinterpreted at every level of the marketplace.”
Brand Media Week, 2008
Japan is known for sci-fi style innovation but also for employing nature’s materials. Japan’s ancient Shinto religion is based on reverence for nature and the power of the spirit of animals. Zen Buddhism pays homage to nature in the form of pristinely preserved rock gardens and an abundant use of natural materials.
From Maison Objets in Paris to Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan to PCBC show in California, design and building news is dominated by natural and renewable materials.
In all communities, even in our post-industrial individualistic society, we’re tribal in some aspects and isolated in others. The values of social responsibility, respect for nature, and a distinctly more modest and subtle luxury are extremely relevant in a saturated environment of strident individualism, materialism, waste, and social alienation.
I like the idea of nesting dolls as a metaphor for personality and layers of personal and social significance of an individual or an idea or both. What should you choose as the outer layer? What the public sees first would be the obvious choice, but maybe its the biggest thing about the person, the thing that will emerge ultimately. Is the biggest thing about Obama what his happy family represents to the world and to America as our concepts of family change? As a black man in a cohesive family unit as a role model to African Americans?
Or should that be at the center of who he is, the deepest layer, the most discreet and most protected part of who he is?
Is the family he came from a segue into his adult self? Is this a personal or political nesting doll? Are we talking about him as a figure or as a force? There’s lots of ways of slicing it.
Though a great idea, which is why I’m posting the picture here, I wish the designer had spent a bit more time on the execution. I would have liked to see a deluxe version with a bit more of a finish or more color. A shame to waste such a great idea on such scant development.0 Comments
By December 1st, my boyfriend and I will have transplanted ourselves from Paris (me) and London (he) to a cozy 45 square meter flat in Barcelona. I’ve had a tendency through the years to disclose my flights of fancy in ill-conceived rushes of enthusiasm only to later regret it. As we all know, sometimes visions of sugarplums do not materialize. That is not to say that I haven’t given each and every one of my dreams my all and had more than a couple come true. It’s just that dreams can get a little fuzzy toward the final frame. This time, the final frame is all I see. As 2008 stumbles toward the finish line, my dreams are once again before me. One dream completes, another waits to upload, and a third begins at the very beginning. And at the same time, I’m driven to distraction by events taking place back home.
Living in Paris has changed everything, the order of my priorities, the sharpness of my values. It’s finally flushed away the detritus, the lovingly worn but ripe for discarding parts of my life – glib, clever, soulless part time players, shopping sprees packaged to my cerebrum as errands, the all-too passionate conversations about vapid pop culture personalities plastered on tabloids, playing along with the deification of brands. I came here to get some distance from the demands of materialism, to flee the ad world, to stop subjecting myself to the daily charades of office politics, to put a distance between myself and my language, and to question the mindless comprehension that becomes a hum under the surface of everything so blindingly familiar.
I’ve been gone 22 months. Now a new newness is at hand. I’m swapping French for Spanish. I have no foothold in the new land. No job awaits. No program. No new book to start. It’s not a sabbatical. I can’t couch it in any of those terms. It’s a nose dive hopefully onto a bed of roses on a cloud of honey and spice. We’re hoping for a little harp action – and a little financial luck. Because we’re going for broke precisely as we enter the worst economic period since the Depression.
I have to say, I’ve been anxious. I know that in five short days we will know who the president will be and we will either be elated beyond imagination, dancing in the streets (well, I’ll have to do so figuratively and through youtube), or so utterly frightened we’ll be running from the theater of American life like the opening scene of The Blob.
I’ve been watching this campaign so closely that it would be fair to call it an obsession. It’s a comfort to me that America (and its myriad of dreams) is still at arms reach even with all its follies and absurdities. Nobody on this side of the pond can quite understand the thing that makes us American and love it the way we do. It’s been quite an embarrassment lately and not just because of George Bush’s administration, but because of our insouciance about how out-of-touch we truly are as a nation. But now, suddenly, we have this person, this clear-talking level headed, comforting presence that has brought out a lot of hope in all of us, a sign that we’re not just crazy when we compare truth to sensationalism, globalization to domestic arrogance. Finally, someone who everyone can get behind and at the same time will tell us we need to ramp up and pay attention to the innovation going on in the rest of the world. That we should solve problems, not rest on our crumbling laurels. As chain stores and billionaires take over New York, I see that perhaps all is not lost. From under the economic and cultural rubble, lo and behold, there is a voice of reason.
I’m using the disaster of the economy and Obama’s campaign as a guidepost in my own personal affairs – my business plans, my conflicts about subjecting my creative projects to scrutiny and criticism by a flailing paradigm (the publishing world). A renewed effort to participate in the world of culture making without big compromises to my integrity and passions. And to my love life, which is also in uncharted territory. Never mix love with business? Well, we’re mixing it alright, and with relish. Please stay tuned and take a ride with us on the new adventures and misadventures of Girl on the street. And let us all pray for our futures.
-Chauncey Zalkin1 Comment
we are not asking permission from some great Uncle Sam like authority to be who we are or to have power.2 Comments
(edited and published on Brand Channel) – When branding industry experts and enthusiasts discuss luxury, they generally agree that products of French provenance enjoy a distinct advantage. Words like perfection, detail, heritage, and the French “touch” are peppered throughout conversation. In fact, to witness true luxury, all one has to do is look around France itself —the immaculately preserved masonry of the stone buildings, the glimmering gold-tipped iron gates, and the regal gilded statues polished to perfection.
With more than 30 million fashion-hungry and camera-toting visitors every year, Paris, the “City of Light,” is the most popular tourist destination in the world and France with its vineyards, lavender fields, and regional cuisines, is the most visted country with 79 million per year but the center of all that glory is Paris. From the gold hued river Seine with its glimmering reflection of the Eiffel tower to the notorious French locals and their surly relationship with t-shirt loving vacationers, the underlying psychology of the city is rooted in a heritage of beauty and meticulous attention to detail. Lionel Crochet, a luxury travel business owner located right off the famed Avenue Montaigne (www.ultimatelifestyle.fr) says “Paris is a big swimming pool of the best of what the world has to offer. Growing up in a French household, you develop a taste for quality. You are raised with the best. We might not have it in our genes to be super efficient or hyper creative in a trendy sense but in regards to a Chanel suit, 20 years later, you wouldn’t move a stitch.” A local Paris bar-goer describes his home city by explaining that the term luxury comes from the Latin root lux, the Latin word for light, and, in French, there is actually le luxe, the masculine, and la luxure, the feminine, which doesn’t occur in English—a branding tragedy!
French luxury brands remain decidedly on the top of the luxury pyramid. French holding companies LVMH and PPR reign over the luxury marketplace and consumer perception when it comes to the finer things in life just like their forbearers -the ‘createurs’ that dressed kings, queens, aristocrats and the upper bourgeoisie.
However, the very idea of luxury brands and branding is undergoing unprecedented analysis due to issues such as the shifting tide of global economics, the increasing availability of so-called ‘luxe’ products, and of course ‘green’ fever. The latest buzz regarding luxury brands stems from two books in particular. The first is Dana Thomas’ Deluxe, How Luxury Lost It’s Luster, which provides a detailed overview of the history of Paris couture—for example, the more than 200 hours of work that go into the creation of a single gown and the moment in time when the visionaries behind the frocks came to hold sway over the aristocrats who wore their designs.
This was an important development in the history of luxury brands for two vital reasons (1) the creator was empowered to focus on quality – asking can you sit, can you stand, what will you be doing in the dress, etc. –for these were dresses made to be worn repeatedly. They were not disposable fashion and (2) creators came to dictate (in the strictest sense of the word) fashion and style as indispensable counsel to aristocrats seeking advice on trends, elegance, and taste.
The very idea of luxury came about a close relationship between the master creator and the client. Thomas talks about the modern day massification of luxury brands and the consequential loss of “luster” now that the sense of exclusivity and the special je ne sais quoi of luxury items have been compromised by mass production and increasing financial means. The very rich must now (and do) look for even more heightened and exclusive luxury experiences—so take note luxury brands.
Another even more riveting book, The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury, charts the rise of luxury brands on the other side of the world. In the collectivist societies of Asia, which are enjoying sustained prosperity, luxury shoppers are more than mere consumers; they are fanatics. in Asia, a Louis Vuitton bag is more than a must-have luxury; it’s even become an icon of Japanese culture. The Japanese account for 40 percent of all luxury purchases worldwide. China is growing exponentially, and both India and South Korea have a growing and voracious demographic of luxury brand-obsessed consumers. In the wake of this shift, the long courted US market is no longer seen as the premiere demographic in which to push luxury brands and lifestyles.
Poise, grace and careful attention to detail is apparent in the demeanor of the new generation. Hotelier Antoine Chevalle, 34, of family-owned jetset hotel, The Byblos in Saint Tropez (where Mick and Jade Jagger had their wedding in 1967) takes pride in what his family has built and honors its tradition yet he doesn’t take anything for granted. In an office unlike our utilitarian and minimalist American boardrooms, oil paintings surround a long carved wooden table. This is where Mr. Chevalle’s sits, hands politely folded in front of him, and explains, “luxury to me is made to order or ‘sur mesure’. It has to be created especially for an occasion and has nothing to do with mass market. Luxury is a hand-crafted experience for specific people.”
Take couture as the ultimate example. Today couture is an oft misused word in the English language. “Couture”, loosely translated means dressmaking or needlework and “haute” means high so ‘haute couture’ implies hand-done made for measure garments fitted to the individual. In reality, true couturiers are comprised of a short list approved by the Chambre Syndicale De La Couture via a decree issued yearly by a special commission of the Ministry of Industry. They must employ a minimum of 15 or 20 technical sewers along with a slew of other criteria and aesthetic judgments – yet the bastardization of the term is rampant.
In fact, with today’s growing luxury brand-obsessed demographics spreading across the globe, there is a risk of a real devaluation in the value and perception of luxury brands as they become more available, accessible, and attached to the bling quotient.
When it comes to luxury brands then and now in fact, much is lost in translation. For example, when asked about luxury brand sales, one Parisian personal shopper to wealthy clientele, Noémie Khatchadourian (www.noemiek.com), says she has a hard time finding American clients with the declining strength of the US dollar. “All of my clients are Russian. I must educate them on the French touch though. When they first come to me, all they want is bling.”
The concept of “bling” is decidedly at odds with the French concept of luxury. In fact, Noémie, in a follow up to her own comment, asks about bling, “Is this an Italian word? I don’t know the origin of this word.” After being informed that rap and hip hop are responsible for the term bling, she — still bewildered and not understanding this is not a guess — comments, “I don’t know… maybe it comes from England?” A person at the next table hesitantly agrees, “Yes, Angleterre.” When, finally convinced that bling is indeed from the streets of America, illustrated by the gold-fronted teeth and knuckle rings of rap album covers, she gasps, fascinated, “Really?”
The French value the idea of longevity and the importance of heritage as it relates to the quality of products. In a modern day marketplace where character is achieved in clothing through “distressed” jeans and shirts, many people tend to think of authenticity as something we manufacture—like theme parks. The French appreciate heritage because it contains the story of themselves—their identity. Who they are has been fermenting for years in the barrels of wines, and is etched deep in the stones of their 15th-19th century architecture. “The acknowledgement that one is great because one is standing on the shoulders of past giants is essential if we are going to be serious about our work,” says creative director Alexander Gallé (www.galle.com) who has worked on French luxury brands YSL, Garrard and Boucheron. And nobody could ever accuse the French of not being serious – least of all about their luxe. Philippe Mihailovich – a South African brand strategist and university professor who grew up with a chic Parisian perfumer mother whose mother was a “Fath” as in famous designer Jacques Fath – moved here five years ago to investigate luxury brand culture says “With French luxury, it’s the story, the true authentic story. Without that, without the heart, your brand is nothing.”
For many luxury brands the French touch is where the value lies—that combination of heartfelt whimsy, that elusive nuance that can’t be described, but no doubt exists, in an elegant product that is built to last. That never loses its meaning. For the French, quality comes before any apparent branding. In fact, the love of money is an object of scorn in France. Branding grows out of reputation and is maintained by quality standards. Philippe Starck says, “We (the French) are the world guardians of abstractions. The creators have to keep an extreme rigueur to deserve the glance of their peers. Thus, France is the country of quality.”
As for technology, indeed a major part of new luxury, branders might pull from other cultures and disciplines but without the ‘je ne sais quoi’ touch, no amount of technology or service or bling will matter in the game of luxury. For that we say, Vive la France.
An emerging irony is that the French themselves are being priced out of the luxury brand demographic. The owner of a well-known luxury multi brand store near Concorde, explains “We can not afford these things in our economy. We sell to the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans, the rest of the world.” “Real craftsmanship is breathtaking, so you will always find people who really ‘get it’” says Gallé. Surely France will ultimately sustain their luxury heritage for the people within its borders as well as without – it’s sewn and knotted into its history
How can we be more like the French?
- Think of the long haul. Build a brand with meaning, one that is rooted in a true story, not a story you manufacture and place adhoc on a brand.
- Say no to the ‘bling’ factor. Don’t go for the cheap shot, the flashy bells and whistles that makes your brand hot one day and not the next. Give your luxury brand time to ferment.
- Remember luxury, in the true sense, has zero to do with function and utility. It’s about pleasure, beauty, and indulging yourself in a unique quality experience. Don’t lose that. X says “the iconicity of the object becomes its raison d’être which is why jewelry, which has zero functionality, is the most prized luxury of all.”
“Chauncey writes about the current state of luxury from the French perspective. This week’s feature story on BrandChannel.com”0 Comments
previously titled “Mind Tag – You’re It”. My mind goes through so much subject matter with all that’s going on. My more precise thinking disappears before I can get my fingers to march.
Flit flit go the pages..
Flit flit the remarkable sentiment Obama unearthed deep in America’s heartland on Super Tuesday, flit flit Recession panic circling the globe showing how much the rest of the world looks to us to know their own fate, flit flit the conversation I had with an Indian bricolage store owner on Faubourg du Temple where he told me that the caste system in India has disappeared (his words) and how the country is becoming predominantly Muslim because in the Muslim religion there IS no caste system (his words); he thinks there will be a Christian Muslim World War Flit flit how a new bar for innovation in the online and offline world has us soaring to ever more hypoxic heights, flit flit my newly pricked ears homing in on companies like Ideo, flit flit taking online social networking innovations offline, flit flit amorphic online offline design and social space experience, flit flit living in paris, flit flit not living in paris, flit flit the view of New York from Paris, flit flit Should I consider Shangai? Hong Kong? How could I even get there? Could I find a way to live in the east for six months? flit flit the universal love quagmire and the single woman, and on and on.
While writing this an ex-boyfriend started up a video chat so again, my attention is divided. The distractions of multiple tabs and multiple agendas. I am writing and submitting. I am looking for a job. This is the first time that I am REALLY looking for a job because I want one and not just for the money. Actually honest to goodness desirous of a company I can believe in and call home. And it can be in Shanghai or Tokyo or Portland. I am open. I have a fantasy of looking out from plate glass windows onto some wilderness in some sort of city on the ocean/forest/cliff side/mountain range so that I can feel elements other than taxi horns, pedestrian body smacking, and foie gras stinky cheese sewage concoctions – but I love cities so I can accept the aforementioned. I just want my future to be ‘tagged’ innovation, design, experiential, experimental, revolutionary, ethnographic, social network, social space, team, creativity, and best of all user generated.
A CHORUS OF MANY VOICES FROM LIVES LIKE YOUR OWN BUT NOT
I currently live in Paris in case that wasn’t clear. I’m dedicated to my search to get a small chorus of multinational voices going as I continue to talent scout in the city of the ‘createur’ (createuse). I am looking for photographers, artisans, artists, visionaries, and designers for my next shopping party hosted in my home. I have found a great Vietnamese sister duo who have a store not far from my apartment. They are going to find a gang of like-minded souls that I can sift through as well. At least in theory they are.
I’m very happy to have Aja contributing to this site and I have a few interesting thought leaders lined up. Aja’s next post is already waiting in the wings as her mind is as fast as a Virgin Galactic plane. Daonne Huff has also written. She writes about sexuality in New York from a different point of view – not the jaded been there done that trickster viewpoint. It’s not ready to post though.
ON CROSS CULTURAL RESUMES
And outside New York, where I’m aiming to pick up more traction, I’ve met a woman at an international women in business event at the Deloitte & Touche building here in Paris who I think would be of great interest to you. She’s from Alicante, Spain. She just got her MBA (with a semester in India), she’s lived in Madrid and speaks Italian, Spanish, French and Russian. She raised her hand with great enthusiasm to say she was looking for a job in India and wanted to write a c.v./resume that would be of interest to Indian companies but make sure to separate it from her European C.V. (resume) in her online profile. What reads well in France wouldn’t work in India – or New York for that matter. In France, including a picture on your c.v. has been customary for years (one woman claims that’s a thing of the past but I was told to do so) and they always seem to ask your marital status and what your parents do -even when you’re in your 30s – and its not against the law. There is not one universal way to present yourself that is palatable or relatable to employers internationally.
FEAR OF FLYING IS NOT JUST A BOOK BY ERICA JONG
We know India and China have huge growth opportunities but I was really struck by the enthusiasm she had for every day life in Southern India. The danger right now is that these countries are drawing their own talent back home from the United States where they came to be FREE and CREATE and PROSPER because of our as-of-late impossible immigration policies and fear based government. But the even bigger danger is that us as Americans are still the most hesitant in the world to embrace cultures different from our own. ‘Assimilate to our ways gosh dang it’, would say our president. We are not natural emigrants – anymore. We cling to our comfort zone more than most anyone. Australians, as we’ve all seen, seem to get up and go and keep going once they do (I know, they live in the middle of nowhere). And though the French are afraid to put their toe in the water, the people I meet in Europe are infinitely better traveled than anyone (including me) that I’ve known in America. They are happy to trot around the globe as much as possible for work and adventure. We’re the ones that think Turks and Caicos is far enough for most vacations. It’s no surprise – with just ‘two weeks’ and 15 hour work days, there are a lot of reasons why this happens.
NOT GETTING INTO OBAMA HILARY
Lets see how the earth (r)evolves in 2009. I won’t get into Obama and Hilary as I really have to walk my dog but I will say I do hope to hear from my new Spanish friend and that she will tell you more about why she is so antsy to get back to life in Southern India.
It’s on the topic of the Design Moment and it’s published in this first issue of Terrace by the founders of the brilliant and inimitable Trace. Pick it up at your local (better) newsstand. By the way, that’s me with the hat in the lower center square. Inspired by my 2007 visit to the Salone del Mobile.
And here’s the video:0 Comments
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