October 28, 2020 — Article
Before the industrial revolution, the home was the centre of all production. We grew our own food, built our own homes, wove our own fabric and sewed our own clothes. In that milieu people developed pride in their skills, developed craftsmanship and knowledge that created quality. Since the industrial revolution manufacture as a labour of love has all but exited the average person’s world. We no longer know how anything is made, where it comes from and we are helpless to make any of it ourselves. In a global economy, products are brought to us as fast as possible for the cheapest price. The companies that bring them to us rarely demonstrate a passion for doing so.
In the world of mass production no wonder we place a premium on that which is unique, handmade and authentic. We yearn for something with the passionate human touch. The artisan is special because they provide us with hope that there is still passion in manufacture. Craft is a fashionable word. It is even used in websites to talk about a company’s attitude or behaviour. I have even applied this word to research methodology. ‘Artisanal’ has long had cachet in marketing and applied to all sorts of products, often with a long bow, like fast food offerings. Consumers are attracted to demonstrations of quality and the attention to detail that only individual passion brings.
Herein lies a dilemma for the big corporate manufacturer and retailer. In trying to provide something cheaper, faster and more of it than your competitor, how do you demonstrate passion for your product? How for example, does a huge bank demonstrate they are truly passionate about smart investment? How does a large department store demonstrate they love the diverse products they sell? How does a big box store show love for their products when there are so many of them and they move so quickly at a bargain price?
1. Passionate sourcing
The French brought us the concept of the provedore, or the person whose job it is to source the very best ingredients. This passion for finding the best is something with cache in our culture. In the corporate world it does not have to mean finding something premium. For example, it can be a passion for sourcing something at the right price. Scouring the world for the best bargain still provides passion as someone has to go the extra mile to find a hot deal. In some ways the cheap end-of-line stores like the Reject Shop and Shiploads have attracted loyal followings for their perceived cleverness and commitment to bringing you something cheap from a way off, hard to reach place. So many companies (most of them in fact) hide their processes and inner workings. In some cases, showing the faces of those who go the extra mile do the deals could really add passion to a brand.
2. Revealing the inner sanctum
The corporate world has a history of carefully managing consumer exposure to the ‘backend’ of its products, traditionally keeping factories, processes, ingredients, recipes and so on hidden. However, within this inner sanctum there are a host of complexities, struggles, standards, compliance, policies and protocols that prove a business is working hard to get things right. Once I said to a friend, who worked in a superannuation company, that I was thinking of having a self-managed super fund instead of going with a regular superannuation brand. She pointed out that the Chief Investment Officers of superannuation companies, and the highly credentialed professionals around them, are super-geniuses, and she wanted one of them to invest for her as they knew so much more than she did. It struck me as true and I put my super onto a great returning fund, made lots of money and never regretted it. Why hide these geniuses and their amazing credentials from me I wondered?
3. Blood, sweat and tears
The outward image we receive of corporations can be a controlled, stable, simple and static in comparison to its inner workings. Most corporate brands look pretty boring. However, as they have lots of people doing a well-oiled set of complimentary functions, they are actually great ‘doers’. They are alive with hard work. The one thing about large companies is that they are moving and shaking a whole lot of something, and it isn’t easy.
Gone are the days when you could find a corsetier in a lingerie shop. And AI enabled self-serve is on the way so there will be even less staff. Demonstrating passion through knowledge is almost a passing art. Big retailers must find ways to demonstrate knowledge through other channels such as social media. Corporations need to use the web to share knowledge and educate those around them. If you truly care about what you do you will want to talk about it and bring others along on the journey. It is true that when I shop on line all I seem to get is products with a price tag. I never learn anything.
5. That little something
We often think all that matters is the core of what we do. But the peripheral things can change a brand’s direction too. In my experience women are particularly sensitive to the peripheral dimensions of a brand, like the staff uniforms in a hotel, the patterns on the tissue box, the atmosphere in the lobby at corporate headquarters and so on. Attention to detail says a lot about how much a company cares. And that something special (that may not sell well because it is premium or for a tiny target market) may be necessary to demonstrate love. Mercedes always has a very expensive, unattainable car at the top of the range showing people that they pursue the best (even if you cannot buy it). Knowing that a famous fashion designer designed the uniform for the flight attendants on an airline can change perceptions. When I lived in New York the up-town women’s department store Henri Bendel had a ‘market’ for jewellery artisans (who might be struggling to even make a living ‘downtown’ let alone ‘uptown’) who were invited into the store to display their wares in ‘stalls’. You could stop and talk to the jewellery designer. Their willingness to support up and coming designers with a bit of floor space lingers with me today. It makes them a different sort of department store for me; I do not lump them in with the others. Likewise I remember Bergdorf Goodman (really expensive department store) having something different and artisanal, not just the big designers or expensive brands. They prided themselves on having something no one else had that was special – and finding it first. They had a soul to me for this reason.
6. Simple celebrations
It isn’t hard to say ‘I care’. Simple things like signage can help. Even hanging up directions and signage in a box store can make customers feel you a celebrating your products. It says, “Hey look what we’ve got!”. Making a big deal about ‘new arrivals’ is important. Celebrating milestones is important, like how long you have been around, or been making something or stocking a certain line. Sensitive floorplans make a big difference, giving products space demonstrates that you respect that product. It makes the humble important and less of a commodity.
7. Not for profit moments
People who are passionate do not care about the money. They do it because they are compelled to do it. Giving back to the industry is important. Leadership in corporations are important for this reason. Leaders can be mentors, advocates and educators. There are always causes that an industry can be intimately connected to like a certain take on the environment; waste, recycling, sustainability, the list goes on. If you are truly into something you won’t overlook issues along the way.
8. The human touch
In past research projects I have asked people to draw images to express how they feel about small business and big business. They tend to draw people for small business, and buildings for big business. The first thing they think of for big business is an office tower. Why has the corporation become faceless? I guess there is safety and control in dehumanising your image, after all people are wild cards. However, there is no emotion without a human face.
9. Fun and happiness
Nothing says passionate like having fun and being happy. Brands with a soul give the feeling that those within the company just got up that day and enjoyed themselves. They make fun communication, find creative solutions, change things a lot, moving it around and mix it up in-store. I have a friend who runs a homewares store. She loves it. It is her calling. I never go in there and find the same things in the same place because she can’t help but interact with her precious products all the time.