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Seriousness is the new provincialism
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At the couture week, Daniel Roseberry, creative director of Maison Schiaparelli and l’homme du jour, shared that in his designs he wanted to avoid that “dreary self-seriousness.”
There is little worse that a fashion brand taking itself literally. Earnestness in following traditional luxury codes veers dangerously in the bourgeois territory, reserved for premium brands, aspirants, and aging American fashion executives. Pathos is often mistaken for elevation, gravitas. Look at the high-end US legacy brands and their mass market imitators, and you get the Euro luxury vibes of the 1980s - or their idea thereof. It’s understandable: nothing masks provincial taste better than self-seriousness.
Self-seriousness is not just dearth of creativity, but also a losing strategic proposition.
Serious brands are dead brands.
It is infinitely easier to be earnest than to be playful - but playfulness and humor build and protect brands. GOOP’s ability to poke fun at itself is the reason for its business longevity, despite the setbacks. Take “this smells like my vagina” candle seriously, and you are the butt of the joke.
On brand level, playfulness and humor are expressed through: a) brand identity, b) brand aesthetics, c) creative direction, d) audience management, and e) strategy.
Brand identity. The best brands are known for the role they play in culture: Apple is a creator, Harley Davidson is an outlaw, Patagonia is an explorer, Disney is a magician. These roles are defined as brand archetypes, and they organize all brand activity into a coherent identity. All brand decisions are tested for consistency with the role/s that a brand wants to play. But a playful identity is not a fixed identity: rules and roles may be reversed, turned upside down, and mixed together. Roles riff on reality - Gucci is a Renaissance gender-fluid psychedelic magician - by subverting reality, parodying it or enriching it.
Brand aesthetics. It’s easy to slip into literalness when building a brand world. It is also aesthetically dangerous. Earnestness kills poetry. Most aesthetically distinguished brands - Hermès, Apple, IKEA, Lego, GUCCI - walk the line between camp and sophistication, art and kitsch, wittiness and simplicity. It’s hard to list all the things that Demna is playing with. Ambiguity is critical here: the brand world is both part of the ordinary world and the world of the game. In this ambiguity, playful experience matches the aesthetic experience.
Creative direction. Humor, playfulness, spontaneity and wit are contradictory, complex and chaotic. They require nuance and depth and sensitivity to zeitgeist. Creatively, playfulness simultaneously keeps multiple meanings and possibilities at play. Telfar TV is a creative playground and live TV and a community and a social movement and a fashion brand. The main rule is to exist outside the “ordinary” life. Creative destruction of the ordinary - all the variations and exaggerations and incongruities - lead to experimentation and innovation (example: Margiela and Balenciaga’s couture shows; Hermès stores). Play and humor are real and not real, and this makes them ideal for both brand differentiation and brand’s advertising: it turns creative expression into a game of pretend and make believe, which most aspirational shopping is about.
Audience management. Playful communication is about making human connection. It’s a quick relationship building. Humor and wit introduce rhythm into communication: they subvert the familiar and elicit suprise. They are ambiguous enough to feel personal to multiple audiences. Brands that deploy humor in their communication have a chance to assume multiple personalities in different channels; just like role-play, they can extend their repertoire to be a creator, a sage, a magician in different touchpoints. Playfulness in experience design is also the opposite of a transactional relationship: what are we really doing when we participate in Da Great Corteiz Bolo exchange?
Strategy. Humor and playfulness connect a brand with culture by being open to interpretation. Wit makes culture, and strategically, playfulness is an activity system that connect different brand executions. Playfulness is always strategic: there are rules that make the world of the game. These rules are binding, and direct all brand actions. Playfulness is executed not only in touchpoints - like Hermès windows and stores - but how touchpoints are connected in the customer journey. Every play has structure. Every type of humor has a template (see below).
Playfulness and humor reflect exquisite taste and precocious creativity. They also reveal sharp intelligence, maturity and confidence, irreverence and independence. In the practice of humor and play, imagination is crucial. Here are some favorites.
Parody and self-depreciation: mockery and imitation of oneself
Wit: dry, clever and reliant humor and play revolving around intellectual engagement of the audience.
Dark humor: involves some dark themes mixed with an unusual and comic setting
Surrealism: weird, illogical, absurd situations and nonsensical themes
Burlesque: uses ridicule, satire and exaggeration for surprise or comic effect
Lowbrow: despite popular opinion, it requires a lot of creativity and wit to do something tasteless.
Incongruity: unexpected and surprising things, mix of things that don’t belong and are inconsistent with what we know about reality.
Hyperbole: a technique that exaggerates situations, objects, or emotions in an unexpected and playful way.