Forty-five seconds. That’s the “official” time limit for an Oscars acceptance speech. With 30 million people watching, and when winners have horns to toot and agents to thank before the music cuts them off, why would anyone choose to share that moment with a brand?
But that’s what happened when, in the midst of accepting the Best Screenplay award for Green Book, Peter Farrelly paused to point at his watch and thank “Shinola watches—unbelievable, they’re saving Detroit!”
On the face of it, Farrelly is right: the claim is unbelievable. Employing three or four hundred people in Detroit won’t literally save the city. Whatever you think of Farrelly’s conclusion about Detroit, what’s incredible to me is how Shinola, a brand that was founded in 2011 (not exactly old-school Detroit) has cleverly built its very essence around the idea of authenticity.
I’ve written before about authenticity —the idea that your brand stands for something consistent, something that is organic to both your products and the experience you wrap around it. The idea that your brand means what it says—and says what it really thinks.
I’ve also written about the importance of irrational preference—that brands drive value by creating a sense of preference and engagement disproportionate to rational benefits. This is System One thinking—the gut-level processing that drives some of the most important decisions consumers make (often without even knowing they’re deciding).
In Shinola’s Oscar moment, 30 million of us witnessed the profound power of perceived authenticity in driving irrational preference. As I watched Farrelly point to his wrist, I couldn’t help thinking about a 2016 piece I’d written about Shinola, comparing it to efforts that other brands—like Bud Light and Colgate—were making.
If anything, the past three years have only intensified our cultural yearning for authenticity (or, at least, a convincing simulacrum). Against an ongoing backdrop of deception and disappointment, both in our political and commercial landscape, the north star in any brand initiative we undertake should be asking: what enduring truth are we conveying about our brand?
Nothing like making the old new again! Enjoy this article about Shinola and the power of authenticity.
originally published February 18, 2016
Nobody’s more jaded than a pro. Most days, I flip past the ads in the newspaper with a kind of clinical detachment, noting some that are more effective and some less—but it’s rare that an ad has visceral stopping power. One of last week’s issues of The New York Times was sheathed in an eight-page ad section by Shinola and, while I had woken early to see what the Times had to say about the New Hampshire primaries, I found myself fascinated to see what Shinola had to say first. As it turns out, Shinola and the primaries are not unconnected—and they provide a great lesson in how to leverage contemporary zeitgeist for your brand.
A quick step back, to set the stage: I’ve written before about the value of brand alignment. By that, I mean that the core positioning of a brand should inform every aspect of a company’s behavior, from product design to customer experience, all the way through marketing communications. There’s nothing accidental about that order, with communications coming last. Fully aligned brands (think Apple) produce outsize returns precisely because everyone in the corporate ecosystem—from engineers to product marketers, from web designers to the folks staffing the Genius Bar—understand just what they’re trying to accomplish…and that well-understood brand value is precisely what the customer has walked in to get. Too often, though, companies focus only on the marketing aspects of brand, treating it as a cynical overlay on product and experience, rather than as the driver. (See, for example, my article on Audi and brand betrayal.)
If the Volkswagen diesel scandal is this season’s poster child for getting things wrong, Shinola gets it right. I’ve long admired the branding chops at Shinola (which is not a client, so there’s no favoritism here). If you want to talk about brand alignment, there are few better examples. Most companies define themselves fundamentally by their category: Cisco is in the networking business, GM in the auto business, etc. What business is Shinola in? Well, judging by the products they make, it’s a bit of a grab-bag:
Hard to put a category to that, right? And that’s the magic of their brand. Shinola does not define “the business they’re in” by the things they make; rather, Shinola’s identity springs from a clear strategy around brand values. Whether it’s estate-sale-looking watches, cruiser bikes, hand-crafted leather bags or journals, Shinola focuses on throwback styling and the sense of artisanal craftsmanship that should accompany it. Consider the newest product line they’ve announced, which makes no sense in terms of consistency with the category of products they sell today, but makes perfect sense in its focus on authentic manufactured goods: Shinola will soon be making turntables. At its heart, the company has tapped into a burgeoning nostalgia for American manufacturing and American authenticity. (It’s the same nostalgia that has launched brands as varied as Etsy, Duluth Trading Co., and, well, take your pick of a dozen small-batch bourbons whose old-timey labels belie only a few years in business.)
So, if that’s how Shinola defines itself as a brand, how can it advertise effectively? After all, its products are virtually all over the map. Without the anchor of a specific category to command an audience’s attention, what do you talk about? In the latest campaign, you emphasize how your brand values align with the most pressing themes in contemporary public discourse. (I told you we'd get to the primaries.)
What’s brilliant about the ad is how perfectly it captures this moment of American zeitgeist and aligns it with the brand. At a political level, our national conversation is focused on the fate of the American working class. As last week’s New Hampshire primary results showed, it doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on. There was record-breaking turnout at the polls—and each of the winners, both Trump and Sanders, portray themselves as champions of the little guy; as outsiders who are ready to fight the establishment; and, most of all, as advocates for a centuries-old tradition of American exceptionalism. Here’s The Donald, speaking after his New Hampshire victory:
“But we are going to make America great again. But we’re going to do it the old fashioned way. We’re going to beat China, Japan. We’re going to beat Mexico at trade. We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Or The Bern, on the same occasion:
“So you guys ready for a radical idea? Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the one percent.”
Party standard-bearers (last week, anyway) on both left and right harken back to a time when America was great—and great specifically because of its robust, working middle class. Look at how cleverly the ad captures this dominant theme in American politics and owns it. Heck, Bernie and Donald can stump all they want about creating jobs; Shinola, the ad claims, is doing it. Even the art direction aligns the brand’s core values with our current nostalgia for the American working hero. The casual work shirt, opened to see the undershirt beneath (hey, this is a real laborer), the leather apron, even the burled wooden work table: all harken back to a time when America was the world’s powerhouse.
This isn’t to say that every brand should be tying itself to electoral rhetoric, jobs or middle-class ideals. But every brand should be thinking about the dominant streams in the zeitgeist and identifying the ones it can leverage. Particularly when, as ample research tells us, Millennials respond to causes and social advocacy, we need to find where our brands align. Millennials want to feel as if they’re part of something bigger than themselves; successful brands need to belong with them.
You may have seen some brands trying to capitalize on the opportunity in last week’s Super Bowl, eschewing critters (there were a lot of critters in this year’s ad crop) for socially responsible messages. While more people may have paid attention to Helen Mirren’s arch wit in this ad by Budweiser, I was moved more by Colgate’s entry. What’s the difference in effectiveness? While I applaud the sentiment of drinking responsibly in the Helen Mirren ad, the overall tenor of Budweiser advertising is not about restraint and moderation. Consider this still frame from Bud’s longer, 60-second Super Bowl spot that evening:
(Is that Dame Helen spraying The King of Beers on her friends? I think not.)
Put another way, Bud’s attempt to leverage socially conscious messaging results in a single, admirable ad—but because the messaging poorly aligns with the pillars of brand identity that Budweiser promotes in so many other touchpoints, it’s not as likely to drive long-term brand engagement. It's particularly problematic that they've run contradictory ads on the same night. The centerpieces of brand building are consistency and authenticity; anything less and you come off like Bernie Sanders at a Wall Street fundraiser or Donald Trump throwing a party at Motel 6.
The Colgate ad is somewhat more successful, in that it prompts viewers to rethink how they use the product—and the socially conscious aspects of the message in no way conflict with other facets of Colgate’s established brand identity. The ad conveys a sense of authenticity, but will there be consistency? That is, will Colgate follow up on this theme, making water conservation an integral part of their identity? This Super Bowl spot was a good start, but it has the potential to be a one-off. Of all these examples, the most successful remains Shinola, which has found a way to align intrinsic elements of its existing brand identity with powerful themes within the public sphere.
How authentic is your brand? How can Grail help you harness the power of irrational preference?
Let’s start a conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org