Monday, January 17, 2011

The Hummer and the Mini

Last week, as I sped down the road in Scottsdale Arizona, I slowed down at the sight of a brand new custom edition Chrysler PT Cruiser with faux wood panels on the sides, clearly channeling the "Woodies" of the 1930's, 40's, 50's and 60's. A few days later, a photographer I know showed me how he had updated one of his fancy cameras by affixing distressed leather to the body. The new designed to look old. The delicate designed to look tough. For better or worse, everywhere I look now I see the paradoxes that served to jumpstart the writing of Robyn Waters' The Hummer and Mini: Navigating the Contraditions of the New Trend Landscape.

Divided into bite-size chunks by section, chapter and example, the little book was easy to take with me, to read a bit while waiting in line or (godforbid) at a red light. Every day I had new little nuggets of marketing insight to share with friends and strangers (like the fact that
"Automotive makers have had to reengineer the cup holders in their cars and mini vans to be able to accommodate all those Big Gulp drinks we buy at convenience stores and fast-food outlets." Page 97 - Ridiculous! Appalling!) but then kept experiencing a sense of deja vu. At first I wondered if I had read some of the piece in a magazine somewhere, or if it was simply because I had started the book ages ago and never finished. Was I just remembering the text? Soon though, I realized that I didn't just FEEL like I had read about a certain marketing paradox before, but that I actually had. See pages 5 and 100 for information on "Sarah Susanka the Minnesota architect who started a countertrend to McMansions. Her 1998 best-selling book The Not So Big House take a fresh look at how many people want to live now. Susanka argues the importance of scale and livability...Her mini movement makes a case for downsizing and simplifying." Pg. 100 And the Susanka example was certainly not the only one? Where was Waters' editor? Maybe when you have had a fantastic career in such an abstract field as "trend tracking" maybe frivolous things like editors are no longer required.

I love idioms and alliterations and exploit every opportunity to be punny. Clearly, so does Waters. However, chapters named "Functional Candy: Sweet Revenge," "Omlet Hen Houses: Cheap-Chic Chick" and my personal favorite "Christian Dior Contact Lenses: Eye Class" followed by the phrase "Dior's concept is sure to make a spectacle of the wearer in a unique and differentiated manner." (page 92) may be overkill and The Hummer and Mini might just find itself roadkill on the highway of literature. Too much?

Written/published in 2006, some examples in the little book are already a bit passe', but the majority are interesting and really does make you look at the products and experiences we crave in a different light. Being from Seattle - the liberal, anti-mainstream, independent book store-shopping city, where we love to hate the big box stores, I was interested in this tidbit about Wal-Mart, found on page 104: "Wal-Mart has developed a strategy to grow bigger with smaller units. While their Sam's Club concept satisfies the Big Box end of the spectrum, their Neighborhood Market stores are smaller, and more convenient, and enable them to expand their presence in smaller towns and locales where a bigger "footprint" may not fit or be cost efficient.
Fewer SKU's smaller footprints, less hassle...For some, less is indeed more. Retailers are discovering that that formula equals more frequent visits, along with lower overhead and higher sales. For many it's not only a simple strategy, it's a winning one."

While the former Vice President of Trend, Design, and Product Development at Target reports on "the next big things" one after another after another, she seems to celebrate each one. Maybe it isn't a Trendmaster's job to offer opinions, but I would have liked some dissenting editorial somewhere. I mean, does she think it's acceptable that you can have a company mail your frenemy a real postcard from a fake exotic vacation in order to illicit envy? So we really need an organization dedicated to the development of the 35-hour work week? It's market info for the love of market info and trend-tracking for the love of the chase.

The non-fiction books on my list are there partly because their subject matter is interesting, but mostly because I hope to learn something valuable. I currently hold a position in retail, a food/service hybrid, and am always searching for ways to increase sales and set our store and products apart from the the rest. I'll be taping this definition from page 74 to my computer screen: "A commodity is a mass-produced, unspecialized product that is both useful or valued. A luxury is something that adds pleasure but isn't absolutely necessary. Surely then, a luxurious commodity qualifies as an enchanting paradox. its' all about taking a "need" and turning it into a "want."

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