Let's fabricate... digitally.

We're currently looking into ingenuity as part of our #smallthinking series. I got a firsthand experience of what ingenuity looks like yesterday, when I was privy to a tour of the Shopbot facility here in Durham, NC. I was excited to see what I thought was one machine, but what turned out to be several working units and some higher level concepts floating in the ether. The folks at Shopbot, including Ted Hall, the founder, are obsessed with details. They make sure they have the best quality rails, motors and electronics to run their super-cool digital fabrication machines. Partly, because clients clamor for them, but partly because Ted wants to make sure the machine runs well enough for his own use if nothing else. He really believes in the Shopbot mission which seems to be placing digital fabrication capabilities in the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to enter the category. So while some of their competitors charge MUCH more for comparable machines, Shopbot keeps putting out hi-test units at a fraction of the cost. There are currently about 7,000 or 8,000 machines in use across the country.

It's really cool to see these machines at work. They sound like Star Wars droids at work, but with much less sarcasm. Their movements are precise. I walked on the floor at the Durham facility with a notion of typical applications: wood, routers, furniture, signage, etc. Nothing too fancy. But Ted changed the trajectory of my thinking by placing these tools into the realm of digital fabrication. To him, digital fabrication is not about automating old ways of making things. It is really about finding completely new ways of making new products. Bringing ideas to life. For example, we saw a 5-axis machine that basically cuts out the tray you place your mini-pretzels on when you're in an airplane. Somebody has to make these things, right? The Shopbot enables the designer to build in certain features that would otherwise require two or more machines. Anyhow, think of this machine hooked up to a Kinect, so that anyone could carve out human figures with a few mouse clicks. Woah! That's a new way of getting something done.

So the inspiration I took away was to constantly look for news ways of doing things. Try them out. See what works. Keep asking " What if?" There's a lot of ingenuity going on in the Shopbot brain trust. A lot of "what if?" questions. And, it seems, a few answers to boot.

Brand Loyalty vs. Product Loyalty

In the mockumentary Best in Show, the film’s antics are interrupted midway by a quiet scene where Meg and Hamilton Swan, the neurotic power couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, reminisce about how their mutual adoration for catalogs brought them together. Spilling all the details, they describe how their young love was first kindled by the likes of J.Crew and L.L.Bean (not to mention Starbucks and Mac laptops). Hamilton used to be such a huge “J.Crew person,” and both of them, we’re led to believe, still carry that mantle proudly. This vignette sets up brand loyalty as something of a lifelong affair, with the most steadfast followers displaying a kind of devotion that can seems almost religious. While the scene serves as fine proof that the “preppy” J.Crew aesthetic has become etched as fact into the shared American psyche, it also misleads us by assuming that brands possess some kind of intrinsic power over people. Marketers should beware of making the same mistake.

It can feel like a matter of instinct, the way we gravitate toward certain brands and reject others. And it often seems as if a brand’s larger message, the lifestyle it promotes, can capture a person’s imagination. But in our complex marketplace, instinct is not that simple. In the past, brand loyalty might have given a built-in advantage to companies able to own a particular a niche. And when we only had a handful of stores in town to rely on, familiarity with a brand name served as a helpful starting point. But the process of winning and keeping customers has been complicated by the fact that we simply have more alternatives than ever before. Now, we’re captivated by individual products that we can experience for ourselves.

As Fast Company’s Co.Design said just a few weeks ago, brand monogamy makes less sense in a marketplace that encourages us to explore our options:

“Today’s consumers are stingier with their brand loyalty than in the past because they can afford to be: they are burdened only by an abundance of choice and knowledge.”

As a result, we’d expect to find more people asking “Where can I find the product I want?” instead of “What can I find at my favorite store?” But if product loyalty is the priority for more consumers these days, not everyone has taken the memo to heart. Many marketers still seem to idealize an abstract notion of brand loyalty, assuming their most important task is to reach customers on that higher level. This comes despite recent warnings that companies should be striving to connect with customers through authentic, personalized interactions, not one-way brand messages.

During a recent visit to our local J.Crew, for instance, I saw the store embracing its core image with fresh vigor. No longer merely preppy in a timeless sort of way, it’s become downright preptastic. A charicature of its former self, its current look and feel can only be described as bedazzled-bohemian-chic. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Amid those efforts to magnify the brand, the products I found in the store were without. My mission was simple: find a few little shirts suited for the warmer weather now creeping into North Carolina. What I found was an armful of Extra-Small tank tops, all of which were too baggy. At 5’11” with a reasonable amount of muscle, baggy is the last thing I had expected or hoped to find. So, while the store used to be a reliable place to pick up an item or two that I could fold into my own style, it now preaches a notion of fashion that doesn’t work for me. And because I’m one of those product-loyalists who will move on to the next store to find what I want, the case for brand loyalty just took another hit.

That’s not to say the store isn’t doing well. Sure, it’s been guarding against the sales drops that retailers have experienced lately, but according to buzz, J.Crew is staying afloat in a still turbulent economy because it offers customers good value for the price and an array of (ahem) “classic” items.

But it does raise the question of how long some companies -- and their marketers -- can expect to build a future on good old-fashioned brand loyalty while others focus on diversifying, innovating, and experimenting through products that excite us. Too many marketers assume that brand loyalty drives product popularity when it’s the other way around: customers fall in love with products first and brands second. Where would Apple be as a brand without the iPhone or iPad, for example? The truth is that die-hard fans become so for concrete reasons. If you assume that brand loyalty emerges out of anything other than loyalty toward experiences and products, you’ve lost touch with your audience.

Small thought of the day: Brand experiences that fit in the palm of your hand

This month’s edition of Fast Company reports the triumphant return of the matchbook-as-marketing-tool. You might be wondering what the big deal is, but this is exactly the type of trend I like to see. For one thing, it demonstrates creativity -- in this case, a reinvention of expectations and purpose. After all, with more and more states jumping on board the smoking ban bandwagon (35 of them, at last count), matches might have seemed as if they were on their way out. And we’re not talking about your big 250-count “strike anywhere” boxes, which will live on as long as we have gas stoves, power outages, candle-lit dinners, and wood-burning fireplaces. (By the way, has the design of that box ever changed?) No, we mean the diminutive boxes, books, and occasional tubes that we’ve all received over the years at restaurants, bars, hotels, weddings, fashion boutiques, and who knows where else. And after all this time, to breathe new life into something as seemingly functional as a matchbook certainly requires a little ingenuity. What we’re seeing here is a reevaluation of what the object means.

Of course matches “have a certain charm,” as Fast Company notes. But the imaginative part of this matchbook revamp is more than that, and it’s beautifully clear: these objects are tiny pieces of physical culture. Products of a particular time and place, they are not just a tool; they are, simultaneously, an experience.

Picture this: when a company gives me a matchbook with a distinctive design, they’re giving me an invitation to remember them over and over again, and to recall the (hopefully) amazing evening out I had at their new restaurant. I want to keep hold of those memories, and so I hang onto the matchbook. It has become infused with meaning of one sort or another, so I don’t throw it away as I might an event flyer. And by keeping the matchbook, I get reacquainted with the brand each time I use it. In short, these matchbooks are a way to reinforce unique and intimate brand experiences with a tangible, unmistakable token.

Not too shabby for an object that had allegedly seen its heyday come and go. Another new and inventive way that repurposing is becoming all the rage.

Bold as Brass

For weeks, I’ve been musing about what it means to be bold today.  If you think this task has the potential to snowball into an awkwardly grandiose endeavor...well, you’d be right.  And so, I’ve also been thinking about how to avoid that problem: It’s usually helpful to ask smaller, more pointed questions, seek fewer ostensibly comprehensive answers, and look around to see what’s in the air.  All good tactics for evading pointless speculation, and for achieving something concrete and timely. I suppose I’m a product of my experiences, and after all my years in school studying cultural difference, it’s clear that what I’m really interested in is not the definition of boldness, but rather how boldness gets enacted in the world.  (If you have anecdotes of your own, post ‘em here!)

You see, this whole thing started a little while ago when friends of ours asked us to name a few of the Triangle’s boldest leaders.  And what made that question interesting to me was the difficulty I had answering it.  Of course, some aspects of boldness never seem to change: courage, defiance, and a rare ability to shake things up in a way that inspires others to do great things, too.  But it also feels as if talking about boldness has become a more perplexing task.

Why?  Simply put: because it’s easier to give the impression of being bold today without actually delivering.  And as a result, the purpose of boldness has become murky.  More than anything else, what’s missing is a greater emphasis on action.  If there’s one sure thing about boldness, it’s that no one will know you’re a bold thinker if you aren’t a bold actor, too.

To illustrate the point, we need only think about noise.  Chatter.  A veritable din.  We live in a society where more people are free to voice their opinions than ever, and everyone with Internet access also has a soapbox within reach.  In many ways, this democratization via technology is empowering.  And as Malcolm Gladwell wrote last October, it's not our imagination that social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and various blogging platforms are “making it easier for the powerless to collaborate.”

But Gladwell also warns against mistaking online activity for real-world action.  The digital setting is often confusing because boldness online can feel both satisfying and effortlessly productive.  If we want use the example of activism, social movements that grow online can amass a follower base of millions.  All the same, the palpable impact of those virtual efforts can be an entirely different story.  Gladwell happens to cite the Save Darfur Coalition’s Facebook page as one place where participation is high but commitment and investment are relatively low (he puts group membership at nearly 1.3 million and the average donation at 9 cents).  But the same could be said of a number of other initiatives -- social media-based or otherwise --  that don’t or can’t place enough emphasis on backing their bold online campaigns up with tangible follow-through.

So, for most everyone, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a little more time in action.  At the same time, a single bold act cannot be your end game; it needs to be well conceived as part of a larger strategy, supported by other, more sustained initiatives.

For example, when it comes to bold fashion statements, the trick is to be arresting.  Inciting people to discourse is a good thing.  But that type of boldness still can’t stand on its own.  There has to be more depth.  Think about Lady Gaga’s raw meat dress from last September.  That garment has earned its keep in the popular imagination -- for better or for worse -- but it’s not all the Lady herself has to offer.  It’s just one part of her public persona that is also comprised of hit songs, popular music videos, and sell-out live performances.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that boldness needs a purpose.  Being bold for its own sake might sound like a positive thing, but it should make sense in the grand scheme of your personality -- or your brand’s personality, for that matter.  Today, seizing someone’s attention with a stunt is not enough.  You have to get people talking, get them moving, and keep them that way.  So go ahead and experiment with being bold, but make sure you can keep the revolution going.