The elegance of nothing

What ever happened to details?

The red sole of a Louboutin shoe, or the elegant tag on a pair of Tom’s? The sweeping fenders of a Porsche 911 or the needless complications of a fancy watch…

Today, a certain kind of customer is using a Muji notebook, or wearing a plain Everlane t-shirt. Is this what we’ve come to? One might come to the conclusion that consumers have rejected all the effort that designers and marketers have produced in a statement that rejects design. Not so fast.

Design is the new marketing. It is the product itself, not the ads or the slogan. Design is the supply chain of Patagonia, the ethics of Purple Carrot and the customer service at Union Square Cafe. It’s design, not advertising, that turned Apple into the most valuable luxury brand (and the most valuable company) in the world.

But design requires a point of view. The confidence to make an assertion. And the skill to turn that assertion into something that resonates with the person you seek to serve.

It’s probably easier to create heavily adorned mash-up than it is to produce a Field Notes notebook. Stripping away the artifice doesn’t always leave something pure. It often creates banality, the simple commodity that’s easy to buy cheaper one click away.

The elegant nothing brands aren’t about nothing. Not all. They merely have a different, more difficult sort of artifice. The artifice of no artifice. The elegance of leading with utility as its own form of style.

And what is a brand? It’s not the logo, certainly. I have no idea what Everlane’s logo is. The brand is our shorthand for the feelings that an experience creates, the promises that a product or service brings with it.

If Nike announced that they were opening a hotel, you’d have a pretty good guess about what it would be like. But if Hyatt announced that they were going to start making shoes, you would have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER what those shoes would be like. That’s because Nike owns a brand and Hyatt simply owns real estate.

For a company that stands for few details to become a brand, then, there needs to be a promise associated with what they make and what you’ll get if you engage with it instead of buying the cheaper commodity.

In most cases where brands have been built, the brand has:

1. Served users who care about origin and elegance. They resist the idea of buying the cheaper commodity, because telling themselves they have the real one creates personal value. Beyond that, these users have the sensitivity (or taste) to be able to tell the difference between the real one and the knock off. Cayce Pollard (the fictional heroine of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition) only wears an authentic MA-1 jacket (you can buy a real life version right here). Her narrative about sensitivity, origin and authenticity makes the jacket worth the $675, even though she knows she could buy the knock off for 10% of that artificially high price.

2. Served users who care about status. The status of ‘people like us do things like this.’ These users know that their peers will recognize the invisible products they’re carrying, and this recognition is worth far more than the product itself costs. Seeing a designer with a genuine Uni-ball Signo UM-151 Gel Pen in her hand (from Japan) is to see someone who is better than you (perhaps). Better in the sense that she cares enough to go to the trouble. That she cares enough to know the difference. That she cared enough to pay a bit extra in time and money, because it matters–to her, and perhaps to you.

3. Found the intestinal fortitude to play a longer game. There are shortcuts everywhere, corners that can be cut, profits that can be taken. Once you get a small head start, you can license your name to others. You can cash out with a vodka or an affiliate deal of what sort or another.

The invisible brands that last, though, realize that the artifact is only an artifact. It’s not the point. It’s a souvenir of the point. The point is that people like us do things like this. Our tribe, our group. That when we see the others, we see ourselves.

Will the momentary mania among a small group who is busy measuring just how invisible they can be in their design fade away? Of course, it will. It always does. The cycle moves because the very people who drive the market, the neophiliacs, are in search of something new. Because something new gives them a new chance to tell a story, to earn status, to engage with that which is scarce.

But the brands that matter are voices that choose to matter. Voices that make assertions on behalf of their users. Who market with people, and for them, not to them or at them.

Work that matters for people who care.