Monthly Archives: July 2007

Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey Responds to my Blog

A few weeks ago, following the incendiary Business 2.0 story about changes to Burning Man this year, I wrote a series of blog entries that looked in detail at the article, and then analyzed the responses and what I took to be a bit of a Black Rock Mountain being made out of a corroborative molehill. Larry Harvey, the co-founder and executive director of the Burning Man Project, was kind enough to write an extensive and insightful comment to my blog entry, expanding upon a number of points and providing a wealth of very valuable background information.

Yesterday, it was posted on ePlaya by Larry Harvey (Mon Jul 30, 2007 12:36 pm Post subject: Will the (drink) Org respond to the 2.0 controversy?). Unfortunately, Larry had some difficult posting it to my WordPress blog, probably because of the length of the message. But it certainly deserves our full attention.

I run it here, with thanks to Larry, in its entirety:

The following post was intended as a response to an entry in the blog of Robert Kozinets entitled, Burning Man’s Sold Out!! I think my mini-essay may have overburdened his website. It wasn’t accepted, so I decided to post it here. You see, we really do care about the ePlayans! — Larry

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your thoughtful essay. Thanks also for the following statement, “I’ve been researching and writing about Burning Man with the permission of great people like Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jim Graham, Lee Gilmore, and Jess Bobier for almost a decade (my first burn was 1999). I have never heard them talk about Burning Man as a brand.” What you say is correct. We, the organizers of Burning Man, never speak (or even think, I’ll boldly add) of Burning Man as a brand. I’ll admit, however, that I have participated in an act of branding. This took place some years ago on the playa. One night a red hot branding iron was applied to the hide of Dale Scott, a good friend of mine and one of the original carpenters who helped construct the Man. I held the flashlight. I took this for a fairly radical act of self-expression. It produced an ugly welt (apologies to Dale) that roughly resembled our logo.

As a general rule, however, I hold that only cattle should be branded, not human beings. Commercial ‘branding’, like the branding of livestock, comes from without. It is imposed on consumers by the apparatus of marketing. It advances the seductive image of a ‘lifestyle’, shrewdly associated with purchasable goods and services, at the expense of a more authentic kind of identity: a mode of being and belonging that’s produced by acts of self-expression that we freely share with others. Unlike commercial branding, real identity can only issue from within. Its agency is deeply personal participation in a culture, not psychological manipulation.

The above expresses our ideals, but we are now accused of violating these principles. So, let me address what I believe to be the two immediate causes of the ruckus that has recently ensued. The first, of course, is the article in Business 2.0. We announced our plans for the Green Man pavilion back in February. Somewhat disappointingly, it generated very little public comment. However, the current controversy over the pavilion and the role of corporations at Burning Man was incited by that article. So let me start by pointing out that Business 2.0 is, very obviously, a business magazine that addresses business people. The author of this piece, Chris Taylor, was apparently trying to translate the values of our culture into business-speak.

For example, you cite four “lessons from the counterculture” that are contained in a sidebar. Each one of these so-called lessons revolves around a statement that I made to Chris Taylor. Lesson number one quotes me as saying, “People contribute [to Burning Man] because they feel that Black Rock City is them, not a source of entertainment. That’s an enormous motivator”. However the headline which summarizes the lesson supposedly derived from my remarks reads, “Make your customers feel like owners.” This reeks of manipulation. I was speaking of people – volunteers, theme campers, artists, nearly everyone at Burning Man—who feel that their identity’s enhanced by their involvement in the culture of our city. Making ‘customers’ feel like ‘owners’ sounds like Nike attempting to persuade consumers that they have a swoosh in their souls. As you suggest, a great deal was lost in translation.

However, I, like you, nearly jumped out of my seat when I read the fragment of a sentence that you quote: “Branding’s important.” Important to whom? To us? To them? Branding is inimical to nearly everything we’ve stood for over 22 years, and to see this phrase glaring back at me felt positively aberrant. I have never used the b-word in relation to Burning Man, in public or in private. What could she have meant? Was she offering up Black Rock City as a testing ground for viral marketing? Is this the beginning of that famous slippery slope – you know, the one whereby we gradually sell out and retire to pleasure spas?

I am quite certain that Marian regrets ever having said, “Branding’s important…” This statement, more than anything else, is the match that lit the fuse that exploded a firecracker. I think she may have been trying to make her language rhyme or resonate with that of the reporter. However, another clue to understanding what she meant to express is contained in the remainder of her sentence, spoken in the very same breath: “…but there’s a middle ground between having it all over the place and just knowing that it’s Current TV and feeling good about the way they’re treating you. That’s a very interesting potential for companies that see a value in Burning Man culture.”

The “interesting potential” of a “middle ground” that she refers to concerns Current TV’s netcast in 2006. We’ve always welcomed media at Burning Man. We’re eager to communicate what we are doing. We believe that we can change the way the world does business, and in this case, we did. They distributed cameras to participants (allowing them to produce the content), erased their logo, ran the programming commercial–free, and for one week became an interactive participant-driven news service. Frankly, I would love to see more companies behave in this way. Did this segment gain them more viewers? Maybe (though much of this potential audience was at the burn). If they continue to produce more programming in this fashion—and make it commercial-free – will they deserve attention? I am inclined to think they will. Did we make any money by allowing them to film? Absolutely not.

The same is true of our relationship with Google. In the magazine article, I am quoted as saying, “A lot of Google people come to the event. And the reason is that their corporate culture has similarities to ours. They do what they’re interested in. They have fun and worry about monetizing it later.” I was referring to Burning Man Earth, a version of which we hope to house in this year’s Green Man pavilion. We are working with Google to create a three-dimensional model of Black Rock City as it actually exists from year to year. Participants will be invited to map themselves, their artworks and their camps into this digital environment, just as they create things on the playa. What is the point? This is what I asked when I was first approached with this idea. Is this some sort of hermetic game environment, a passive and masturbatory entertainment, a substitute for immediate experience? Far from it. People who enter into this digital realm we be able to travel—eventually, it’s hoped—down every street of Black Rock City. They’ll also be enabled to make contact with every participant who chooses to become a settler in this on-screen metropolis.

In other words, one needn’t just ogle on Google. This is not intended to be a spectator environment. It will be possible to see behind the scenes, to knock on the door (or scratch at the tent flap) of anyone who has elected to participate. It’s never possible to experience all of Black Rock City. It really isn’t feasible to see even 5% of Burning Man. But, once we’ve gathered up successive years of the event, once people have lovingly labored to recreate what they have done in the desert, it will be possible to witness something like the fullness, the spatial-temporal plenum, of the Burning Man experience. But, again, the crucial point is that people will be able to make direct contact with other people, to visit their websites worldwide and communicate with them via email.

It is notoriously difficult to describe Black Rock City to people who have never attended the event, and efforts to evoke it too often reduce down to descriptions of spectacle. Burning Man Earth will allow participants to peel back the spectacle and reveal the lives, knowledge and the aspirations of fellow burners. In other words, we hope to engineer, with the help of our community, one of the largest fully (and deeply) interactive social environments ever contemplated. Did you see something on the playa that you’d like to emulate or understand? Soon (well, relatively soon and with a whole lot of work on our part), you will be able to go to the source. Just ask people why and how they’ve done things. Burners being burners, they will probably tell you.

So, what is Google getting out of this – a lucrative demographic, a valuable branding opportunity? Hardly. They’re very rich and we (I don’t want to offend anyone who thinks that Burning Man is the center of the known universe) are really very small. The truth, instead, is that we’re near and dear. The founders of Google have attended Burning Man for years. They feel they’re part of our community. Many of Google’s employees are participants, too. People put it in their resumes. Entire walls at their headquarters a papered with Burning Man photos. Are we being paid off? No. Are they making money? Well, no. They are offering resources as a gift. Does this large cooperation covet your business? Not really. They have plenty of business (and most of you, in point of fact, are probably their customers, already). Both parties simply thought it would be fun to work together. We’ve signed no contracts. We have done no deals. And we don’t envision advertising as a feature of Burning Man Earth. We regard this collaborative effort as a purely culture-bearing enterprise.

What I’ve been describing is a process of benign détournement whereby one reuses or repurposes well-known media to create a new work with a different message that’s conditioned by the context of authentic culture. This is a form of decommodification, and it applies directly to the Green Man pavilion. After all the ballyhoo, — the howls of execration and denunciations—let me describe the ground-floor reality of this effort. Currently, about 30 different parties are contributing installations to the Green Man pavilion. The majority of these projects are DIY affairs undertaken by veteran burners. These are attempts at self-expression by individuals and groups who care passionately about the environment. They have no commercial profile. This also applies to three or four non-profits that are exhibiting.

What is left reduces down to a handful of mom and pop entrepreneurs who’ve accepted all of the remarkable restrictions that we’ve placed on marketing. We banned, as you note in your essay, the use of logos, the display of brands and any sort of sales representation. They were willing to participate in a festival of ideas that focuses on green technology. Will witnessing a solar carport, stripped of its commercial context, interfere with anyone’s experience? Will it substitute passive consumption for an immediate act of encounter? Or will it function as a motivator that inspires folks to go back home and re-examine how they lead their lives? Our theme this year is educational. The purpose of the Green Man pavilion is to display environmental technology, some of which might help to change the world. This is not a sly attempt at marginal or viral marketing. I really can’t imagine that an anonymous carport is going to corrupt anyone.

The Business 2.0 article induced some people to assume that we were frolicking with corporate colossi, doing secret deals, accepting sponsorships, but none of this is true. It is true that we talked to some large corporations about exhibiting their wares at the pavilion. However, when faced with all the strictures we applied to marketing, these big boys chose to walk away. In the end, the pavilion project will host only two businesses that can be said to represent capital in a significant way. The first involves the installation of a very large (and beautiful) solar array that will power both the Man and the pavilion. After the conclusion of the event, we intend to install portions of it, at our expense, in the small Nevada towns of Gerlach and Lovelock. It will provide power to a public school and hospital, respectively.

The company that’s doing this brokers solar power deals, mostly for large institutions. They make their money from clean energy tax rebates that are offered by the government. Neither we, nor our participants, can be said to represent their target demographic. They are accustomed to much larger operations. What, then, is their motive? They were simply tickled by the notion that, over time, the tiny town of Gerlach could become the first municipality in America that employs solar power to produce more energy than it consumes. I’ve no problem if our partners in this project want to claim the bragging rights for eventually doing this. Last year, we distributed $91,000 in charitable contributions to local communities in Nevada. For us, this is simply a continuation of that practice.

The second large-scale pavilion project involves an array of wind turbines that will be installed along the Y3K light circle that surrounds the Man. In this case, we were able to go around the marketing departments of various companies and approach the scientists themselves. Scratch a scientist, I’ve often said, and you will find an artist. These folks felt that exhibiting their beautifully engineered handiwork would be ‘cool’. They’ve been motivated by a kind of passion – radical self-expression, if you will. They have no intention of selling these large objects to our ‘customers’, any more that Jim Mason, the artist who is creating the Mechabolic—a massive mobile slug-like object powered by organic refuse—has any intention of selling Mechabolics to ‘consumers’. (Although, I almost wish he would. I’d like to imagine that the roadways of America will some day teem with giant fire-spewing slugs.)

After reviewing all that I have said about the pavilion, I think it’s clear that we are doing nothing that betrays our values. Specifically, we are not violating the principle of decommodification. This is the third of our Ten Principles. It states, “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” Nothing that I have described violates this tenet. It’s said that he who sups with devil must dine with a very long spoon. However, in this case, I think its clear that we’re not supping with the devil; we’re not even doing brunch.

This talk of deviltry brings me to my last point and to what I think is the second cause of controversy. After the Business 2.0 article, talk of corporate involvement struck a visceral nerve in our community. Many of those who bitterly protested the Green Man pavilion seemed to feel that we were trying to inject some sort evil corporate bacillus straight into the heart of Black Rock City (though others, gratifyingly, had faith that we would never do this). But why were so many ready to impute a bad intention? It seems to me that, as consumers, we are tempted to assume that there is a law of spiritual entropy, a force inherent in the ‘default world’, that drags us down, that makes us all ‘sell out’.

This can sometimes generate a callow cynicism, a half-baked knowingness, a virulent sense of distrust. It can lead people to say that the Org, the BMORG or, my favorite, the BORG conceals deeply sinister motives. We are imagined, in this scenario, to be a profit-driven Juggernaut: a heedless corporation, an impenetrable bureaucracy that ignores the needs of the community. In reality, we are a very small corporation that employs only 30 full-time people. The majority of participants in our community, on the other hand, probably work for much larger corporations – certainly ones that do not publish letters such as this. This sometimes makes me wonder if we’re being offered up upon an altar as a sacrifice to pay for other people’s economic sins.

The disgruntled tone of some of what has recently been said about the Burning Man Project speaks to me, at times, of a deep-seated malaise. Only a consumer of mass-marketed products would assume that objects such as turbines and carports can be mysteriously instilled with meaning at the factory. This, after all, is what consumers often seem to feel they’re getting when they buy a ‘life-style’. Furthermore, only a dispirited consumer could yearn for deliverance, for some kind of absolution in a city that they imagine to be a moneyless utopia that’s unconnected to the word-at-large. The truth is that the Project, as a corporation, spends millions of dollars to create Black Rock City, and our participants spend many millions more in a capitalist marketplace in order to inhabit this city. Once that occurs, however, it is entirely up to all of us to actively instill these goods with meaning. That is what identity is all about.

We believe that our community can change the ‘default world’. This is what the Green Man theme aspires to accomplish. We know that this is possible because the Project has already begun to help insert Burning Man’s culture back into everyday life—without selling out. For those who’d like a progress report on these efforts, I suggest you consult this year’s Burning Man Journal and, in particular, a front page article entitled, The Default World. It may accessed at our website. I also suggest that people read the featured article in last year’s Journal, Commerce and Community. It might help to put these issues in perspective.

Larry Harvey

Green Marketing, The Alleged Hybrid Car Scam, and the Power of MR

Okay, you’re waiting for the rest of the Poschiavo mysteries, like the Alpine witch trials, right? Well hang in there. I wanted to post something about Green Cars and Green Consumption first. The Swiss Horror stuff is coming soon….and it’s juicy….

This is a different kind of story. It start with an updated major research study by CNW Marketing Research. The report looks at the “life cycle” energy required for more than 100 makes of cars and trucks, a rather gargantuan task that had been tried once by Volvo, and then abandoned. The article in the newspaper I read, one of Canada’s national rags, the Globe and Mail, calls this “the world’s most comprehensive analysis” of this sort.

Here’s their punchline: when you account for all of their additional energy costs, and for how many miles they are likely to be driven in their lifetime, hybrids like the Prius are not very Green at all. Many different cars and trucks, Hummers, Durangos, Explorers, TrailBlazers, and Grand Cherokees are more environmentally friendly than hybrids in terms of the reports’ energy costs. That cost is the dollar cost of energy per mile of use, or “US dollars per lifetime mile.” So while a Toyota Prius has a lifetime energy cost of $2.86 a mile, the Hummer has one of $1.90 according to the report. The writer of article, Neil Reynolds, used this finding to consider that the tax credits being offered by a Provincial government in Canada are a waste of money and energy (the American government does something similar). Rather than subsidizing Prius drivers, if we really want to look at all-in energy costs, we should be looking at the best cars overall.

Which cars are those? Although Toyota disagrees with a lot of CNW’s findings, assumptions, and figures, CNW doesn’t see to be biased against the company, it just critiques their (and others’) hybrids. The report finds that Toyota makes some of the most energy efficient cars on the road: the Scion (48 cents per lifetime mile), the Corolla (72 cents), and the Echo (77 cents). Apparently, those are the cars we should be subsidizing. If you drive one of those cars, you deserve some subsidizing.

On closer reading, the article gave me a sense of deja vu, since I remembered reading something like it last year and sure enough, the main findings seem to date from April 2006. But this is the second annual report.

As someone who has thought carefully about these issues, and taught the Toyota Priis case for several years in my Consumer Behavior course, I think that the article raises some very valid points about hybrids. Consider what it says about the massive, vaunted nickel-hydride battery of the Prius:

“Toyota buys 1,000 tonnes of nickel a year from Ontario (mined and smelted in Sudbury). This nickel gets shipped to Wales for refining, then to China, for further processing, and then to Toyota’s battery plant in Tokyo – a 10,000-mile trip, mostly by petrol-gulping container ships and diesel-powered locomotives.”

This is good cradle to grave sustainable design stuff. That’s very valuable in that it points us to the lifetime energy costs of cars, directing us to try to guesstimate holistic environmental impacts.

These ratings don’t take into account other important factors in environmental degradation and cultural reality however, and that’s been the point of some negative responses to the report. An extremely well-reasoned response, for example, is Prius versus Hummer: Exploding the Myth by Bengt Halvosen. Halvosen has read the entire 300 plus original report and makes some insightful comments.

Here are two additional things to consider. First, consider the development of innovations. At the beginning of innovation cycles, products are always more expensive to produce and can be considerably more energy intensive. But as production grows, the kinks come out of the system, scale efficiencies are realized, and the innovation realizes its potential. According to this way of thinking, hybrids will, as they get popular, achieve real energy returns on the energy invested, and reduce dependence on oil. Of course, this future gains type of thinking can be used to justify almost anything and, at its core, isn’t all that different from any ends-justifies-the-means kinds of argument (and we all know where those tend to lead).

Secondly, and even more importantly, I think the symbolic identity function of cars like the Prius fulfills a very important cultural role that transcends (for the moment) their actual environmental impact. The Prius says something about Being Green. It sends out a message that tells people that you (yes, you Mr. And Mrs. Upper-Middle class) are willing to shell out extra money to drive a slower, smaller car in order to seem environmental. To me, that says something about Green Chic, which we need a lot more of. Of course, the ultimate Green Chic is to drive you bike to work, but there are lifestyles that make this difficult (commuting with four kids, for example). In a culture in which personal and collective prestige is built through massive potlatch like burns of money and resrouces, this is a movement in the right direction. Maybe the crest of a real, lasting Green movement. Maybe.

A bigger implication of the study that is worth thinking about is the role of marketing research firms like CNW Marketing Research. A lot of the complaints about the report sounded something like this:

But the biggest problem with engaging in a serious debate is that CNWMR won’t release its data or methodology from its report for critical peer review. Meanwhile, the report’s conclusions are often stated as fact throughout conservative and anti-environmental commentary (from autobloggreen, which is, you guessed it, a Green Auto blog).

So who is CNW Marketing Research? Searching their web-site, reading their FAQs and other information, I gather that…they apparently like to golf. A lot. And, apparently, to boat. From my read of it, the studies that they specialize in look at the purchase process, including such consumer behavior-y types of elements as the size and income of intended car purchasers, and consumer “wish lists” of product features. The survey-regression skillset of this kinds of study seem pretty distant from the delicate engineering calibrations and resource engineering perspectives required of a cradle to grave resource impact study of the entire automotive study.

This type of research study is called a “Syndicated study” which means that they perform the research and then sell it later to clients. They claim that they did this so as not to be influenced by anyone during their data gathering and analysis. Perhaps, but they still probably had a target consumer in mind. They still likely knew that their report was going to appeal more to particular players than others, depending upon what it says, and who it favors.

That leads to my central point. Marketing Research is increasingly politically important. Because it is legitimized as factual “research” it gives companies like GM confidence to present products like the Hummer in a particular light. It gives newspaper and blog writers material they can use as “facts” that then go to publicly criticize government policies that affect consumption and to encourage consumers to take actions in forms both political and financial. It can be used to influence consumers and to suggest to politicians material changes in legislation and regulation that affect consumption. In the absence of other facts, it becomes the de facto set of facts.

In North America today, we are currently in the Age of Green Consumerism, where the consumer is expected to bear almost the full weight of making the right environmental decisions, from using the right recycled toilet paper and replacing light bulbs to driving the right car. But where is the quality assurance of the information that the consumer is to use to make those decisions? It’s a free for all! How is the consumer to decide on the scientific rigor and general accuracy of research? How do we judge its quality? Who is conducting and overseeing the research? Who is paying for it, and whose interests is it likely to manifest? Who is rating it and telling us it is legitimate? As it currently stands, anyone can hang up a shingle and practice marketing research, saying just about anything they want. They get coverage, they get press, they have influence.

I’m not saying that I completely mistrust this particular set of findings. But is this marketing research firm really qualified to make the delicate and highly-skilled engineering types of estimations that this type of report requires? I am saying that I don’t have enough information or knowledge to really be able to evaluate its quality. And I’m a skilled marketing research professional with a Ph.D. and twelve years of intense research experience. I’d expect the average consumer to be even more confused. And the fact that the way these important judgments are reached is kept “proprietary” doesn’t help things one bit.

In this age of Green Consumerism, when there are a lot of people who care and truly want to try to make a difference through their shopping and consumption, I think we deserve better information, valid and validated research.

Not only is Knowledge Power, but in this contemporary world (Marketing) Research is Power. Those can be very different things: knowledge and research findings. That power is in the hands of a lot of private companies right now, with almost no oversight. We need to ask ourselves if self-regulation is adequate in these important matters? Are operational codes tight enough? Are we really trying to change to world through redirecting our consumption? If so, then these are by definition world-changing matters and should be taken seriously as such. Could a government agency or another arms length certified party start to oversee the quality of work that impacts the environmental impact ratings that products contain ? How can we all get more critical of the research that gets report to us as fact?

The Mysterious Sibyls of Poschiavo: The Illuminati Connection

This is a spooky tale of branding horrors that is going to continue for a few days. Are you ready for it, kiddies, cuz it ain’t gonna be pretty…..

During my recent travels in Europe, I had the opportunity to stay with a good friend in the small, old, beautiful town of Poschiavo, Switzerland, in Italian Switzerland, at the base of the Alps. It’s part of the whole region also called Poschiavo, or the Valley of Poschiavo, branded as Volpasciavo. A few years ago, following the major success of the St. Moritz region and their sunshine logo and branding campaign, came up with the logo above and branded themselves. So far, so good. The place has a ton of natural beauty, great hiking trails and access to skiing in Winter, some wonderful old churches, great restaurants with Swiss-Italian food (great pizzas!), and access to the Bernina Express train line through the Alps, one of the most scenic train rides in the world.

It also has some very cool features that you’re not likely to read about in any tourist book or pamphlet, and that’s what this blog is about today. My famikly and I were very fortunate to have our good friend, who is also a tourism official and local politician, as tour guide. He provided all kinds of insider information that made me wonder: why doesn’t anybody else know this?

Here’s the first part of my touristic tale. It starts with dinner out on our first incredible evening in the Albici hotel, an old and elaborate Manor called piazza del Borgo, owned by the 18th Century Baron De Bassus with ties to the strange and powerful mystical movement termed the “Illuminati.” Here’s some great detail that I found on the wonderful “Conspiracy Archive” website which draws upon the work of one of my favorite modern mystical writers, the late Robert Anton Wilson:

The baron Thomas Maria Freiherr De Bassus was born in Poschiavo, Switzerland, in 1742. He studied jurisprudence at the University of Ingolstadt. Weishaupt (code name Spartacus), who founded the Order of the Bavarian Illuminati, on the 1 May 1776, was his schoolmate. De Bassus practiced for a year as an Adviser of court to Münich in Bavaria. In 1767 he became Patron [Podestà] of Poschiavo, a task already taken from his father Giovanni Maria. . . .At the premature death of his father, he inherited the palace of piazza del Borgo in Poschiavo, known today as the Albrici Hotel, in addition to his wealthy possessions in Valtellina and in Val di Poschiavo. . . .

Entering the Order of the Bavarian Illuminati with the code name of Hannibal, De Bassus had the assignment, like the pseudonym suggests, to spread Illuminism beyond the Alps, above all in the Three Leagues (Swiss) and in the north of Italy. De Bassus acquired a printing company that, with the help of the Illuminatus typographer Joseph Ambrosioni, became the center of the diffusion of Weishaupt’s ideas from Poschiavo. The edition of De Bassus (1782) of the first Italian translation of the Werther of Goethe, written by Gaetano Grassi from Milan, was famous.

In 1787, police searches of the Baron’s castle turned up incriminating evidence against himself and the Illuminati. He was a great recruiter for the Order. In letters to Weishaupt he boasted of his conquests at Bozen (in the south of Austria), initiating “the President, the Vice-President, the principal Counsellors of Government, and the Grand Master of the Posts.” Later, in his travels to Italy, he sends back word of having initiated “his Excellency the Count W…” in Milan. [AB: 605]

Perhaps most powerfully of all for all for me were the paintings that surrounded us in the dining room, each of a mysterious sibyl. The Sibyls, of course, were the oracular seeress’s of Greek mythology, but these paintings had a variety of different sibyls, not simple the Delphinians, some of the paintings have mysterious signs and iconography. Here is my photo of one of the paintings.

This is of the Roman Tiburtine Sibyl, who is famous for an apocalyptic prophesy in which a final Emperor actually slays the Antichrist. As I start my very superficial investigations into these mysterious paintings, I can see how they can weave an amazing tapestry of history, myth, and legend, a lot like the Da Vinci Code book by Dan Brown (but in this case, the quality of the research is up to all of us, these are genuine mysteries, and a genuinely mystical secret society; of course Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons was about the Illuminati).

But maybe the strangest thing about these paintings is their lineage. No one seems to know who painted them, or why, or where or when the Baron got them…they are, like the entire Illuminati movement, shrouded in mystery. They really are a sight to behold, amazing to see, fascinating to investigate, and my picture does not do them justice at all.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the much gorier and horrific Alpine Witch trials, and we’ll continue to wonder…how might this connect to the branding of place and touristic marketing?

The Conquering

I think that I shall never see

A blog posting as lovely as a poem.

Okay, that doesn’t rhyme. But some days a poem says it all for me. And today is one of those days.

This is an old poem/story that I wrote when I was an MBA student, ah the good old days of exams, job interviews, and beer kegs. I was trying to capture how the war & battle metaphor pervades the practice of marketing, for good and for ill. Thank goodness there are no battles in academia (yeah, right!).

The Conquering

We tarried long in darkness, bundling ourselves in obsessions, packaging delightedly the compulsion to package in brightly colored boxes, with ribbons and bows, papers and cards to feed to the dying off of the Light. Lest we die, go off without honor and remembrance.

Naked out we went, bereft of indulgences of niceness or acrimony. We were Warriors Supreme. Our Mission was simple. Market Share, and Dominance, and nothing less.

Ragged and hungry, we stooped by flickering fires to tell stories of Vision and Values, Conquerings and Challenges on the night before doing battle. We caught our falling souls in time to justify clinging to one another as something inspired and honest and reminiscent of truths of whose wholeness we’d always rightfully been contemptuous.

And then the battle creek raged with the fire of our uplifted swords, and the Consumers, though they fought, were caught unaware and died in droves, in gutwrenching pain, and we sang our butchering battlecries up to the stars and hightowers that flickered like honey moons skyscraping starlight in our eyes. And no one heard us but the Bankers.

And there was terrible trembling in the air as, in yearling blood, the ghastly debts for our campaign were finally paid.

Adult Entertainment Brands in the Age of YouTube

Revolutionary times happen in every industry as technocultural change keeps on keeping on. Everyone knows that the Internet has seriously deflated the traditional adult entertainment industry. Adult entertainment once upon a time made major profits printing airbrushed pictures of beehived babes on dead trees. Along came videocassettes, along came cable, and then boom, along came the Internet as a major challenge. How those brands have adapted and not adapted to the changes wrought by technoculture might provide some food for thought for all media companies facing major challenges from rapid technological change among their consumer bases (and that’s just about everyone in the media).

A few years ago, I did an interview with BusinessWeek magazine about the Playboy brand (see the article here). I said that the brand and the bunny icon had some residual appeal, however, a kind of kinder and gentler sexuality that had some kitsch appeal. I thought at the time that a positioning around playful sexuality made sense for Playboy, and indeed, with the Hefner name attached to Playboy, it seems like they can’t move too far from their emotional roots. Playboy is like Adult Disney, it isn’t particularly threatening, dangerous, or perverse. Once it moves into Hustler’s terrain, the brand is, um, screwed.

That’s where the marketing insights of Christie Hefner really seemed to shine. Playboy followed the lead into all forms of New Media–they’ve had to. Although Playboy is the mainstream brand, Playboy Enterprises has built its Spice brands into a hardcore heavyweight. Catering to divergent needs with different brands, Playboy is able to maintain a mainstream corporate brand that offers porn to the masses (and the masses are loving, it by the way, as this recent popular machinima YouTube video attests). And with Spice, they also have a complete range of offerings to satisfy many adult tastes. Diverse tastes, legitimacy concern, multiple brands. I called it “decoupling” in the BusinessWeek article, and Christie Hefner called it the use of a flanker brand. Whatever you call it, it made good sense to me.

The results seem to bear out that this strategy makes sense. I see the Playboy brand around, adorning women’s jewelry and clothing, more than ever. Although we don’t often acknowledge it, sexual repression is alive and well in our contemporary society, and it inspires resistance. Clearly the brand’s meanings of an open, guiltless, approach to sexual pleasure have resonance with young and old.

Penthouse’s brand hasn’t been doing nearly as well. Entering Hustler’s space, Penthouse went hardcore and its sales suffered. Channels closed up, and in 2003 its publisher filed for bankruptcy. As Abram Sauer writes in an interesting online posting about the brand for, Penthouse has been restructured and re-launched into the same mainstream segment that Playboy occupies. Like Playboy, Penthouse now features only “tasteful” full nudity and now has at least 11 international editions and a circulation around 350,000. There is little doubt that this brand is struggling, and Sauer opines that Penthouse needs to find its proper customer segment. Which group of people, which set of needs, is the brand going to appeal to?

But I think my initial observations paid far too little attention to the revolutionary changes that technoculture–the combined impacts of technology and culture–has brought. How do adult entertainment brands find and create meaning today in such a rapidly changing, high-demand, instant access, everything available, porn, porn, everywhere world? Consider first some alternatives, like the Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and SuperCult web-sites that spotlight a different type of young woman, exposing a grittier and more realistic, more 3-dimensional view. As you can see in the quick posterview comparison in the graphics above, sites like these seem to cater not only to a different target but to a different aesthetic thank Playboy and Penthouse, and I think that’s important (BTW, I don’t mean to ignore or bypass the many important and worthwhile alternatives to mainstreamy straight porn in this blog, I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with everything in a focused way this time).

But I think what is going on simultaneously is something even more fundamental than a particular target’s needs not being served. What if parts of the porn industry are shifting, just like parts of so many industries are shifting, into a more communal and do-it-yourself (DIY) model. What if increasing numbers of people don’t have the same taste for professional porn that they once did, and prefer the amateur variety?

What if the porn industry is becoming wikimediated the same way that Star Trek and other media properties are, the same what that YouTube is democratizing the media, and blogs are engaging the news? What if a rising tide of people (yes, people, male, female, and every possible combination) is actually *enjoying* the combination of voyeurism and exhibitionism that they can only get by DIYing their porn?

There are many business models out there for monetizing this trend and its activity. Go check out RedClouds, WhatBoysWant and YuVuTu web-sites, for instance, to see adult entertainment brands that brand themselves around user-generated content. And there is an awful lot of room for free content out there. People seem much happier consuming their porn rapidly on screens rather than slowly on dead trees. What works and what doesn’t in the adult entertainment industry is going to be an interesting lesson that is going to help us understand the nature, appeal, trends, and business models of user-generated content across many other new and old media industries.

Harry Potter Secrets: REVEALED AT LAST!

OMG: it happened. After years of waiting for the climactic conclusion to the spellbinding Harry Potter Chronicles, hackers and…could it be…the New York Times done went and spilled the beans before the rest of us have even had a chance to flip open the cover of our freshly-pressed copies. They all die: Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Voldemort. Even Fawkes the lovable Phoenix. Wiped out by a comet crashing into the Earth at a dramatic moment.

No fair! You told us the ending. No fair! Actually, of course, I didn’t. But everyone wants to, it seems.

As Fox News was only too happy to report, the New York Times just published a review of the newest and final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You can read the NY Times review here. If you want to read the review, feel free. I did and it doesn’t contain any really big spoilers. Ironically, a lot of the stories covering the story that the NY Times broke the story have actually been the ones telling the big secrets (or, maybe more accurately, reporting accurately on how others have told the big secrets: for example, see this other Fox New story about how hard it is to keep the Harry Potter ending secret, which seems to reveal the secret to the ending….).

Yes, this is big news. Everyone wants to know the Harry Potter secret. Everyone wants to reveal the Harry Potter secret. And of course, the biggest group of all wants desperately to keep the Harry Potter secret secret, but also wants everyone who already knows or may know the secret to shut up and keep the damn secret secret.

Isn’t it better to read the ending of the book for yourself than to see it on Fox News, read it in the NY Times, or overhear it in a public bathroom? That’s why the book’s publisher Bloomsbury is on record as being “disappointed” with the NY Times review. Author Joanne K. Rowling is even more emotional about it, quoted by Reuters as saying:

“I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children. I am incredibly grateful to all those newspapers, booksellers and others who have chosen not to attempt to spoil Harry’s last adventure for fans.”

Of course, she’s chiding them, but she’s right. On a personal note, my sons and I are big Harry Potter fans. I read the books to my sons until they could read them for themselves, and they’ve each read the series of books over three or four times. But for the last three books, my son has consistently had the ending ruined for him. As soon as my son mentions Harry Potter’s newest book, a “friend” will rapidly tell him, “Oh so and so dies at the end.” It’s like a new sport: Potter-baiting. Of course my son like most kids mistakes this information for “knowing” the ending. Which it both is and isn’t, since the book is an entire journey not a single outcome. But still, my kid has known who dies in the books or what the big mystery thing is accurately before he has read the book, and he’s been rightfully disappointed every time. So this little personal anecdote points out that it isn’t just big newspaper reviewers, hackers, and over-eager Internet posters who are spoilers, but that the “spoiler gene” is widespread. A lot of kids will end up spoiling this new book for each other.

This time through, I reserved a copy for my son, and have told him he can stay up all night, segregated in the house, reading the book so that he doesn’t have the ending spoiled for him. I didn’t realize that we might have to fly him to Namibia and put him in solitary confinement as well…

But from an academic marketing Consumer Culture Theory perspective this is all so very interesting. From a marketing standpoint, Harry Potter has become incredibly successful. My Irish colleague, the brilliant and inimitable University of Ulster professor Stephen Brown has written a lot about Harry Potter’s secrecy methods over the years, including in a chapter for my recent co-edited book Consumer Tribes. One of my favorite articles he has written was “Marketing for Muggles” which he wrote for Business Horizons in 2002. In that article, Stephen emphasized the lockdown security over Book IV of the series, and called it a “sadistic marketing strategy.” He said that the strategy for selling and promoting the book was based upon “unavailability, postponement, absence, and deprival.” We know you want it, but you can’t have it. And yet the book as also, paradoxically “ubiquitously unavoidable”–it and its marketing were (and are) everywhere. Stephen has even written an entire book, entitled “Wizard!” about the major marketing lessons we can learn from the Harry Potter franchise and its marketing.

This is a culturally potent combination, and we’re watching its fire burn and cauldron bubble in fine form right now. In this, the final dawn before the ultimate breaking of the story, Harry Potter’s secret climax is both everywhere and nowhere at once. It is instantly visible and yet its culmination is frustratingly out of reach. We have waited over a decade to find this out, and we want to know the end and we want it now. We can’t wait any more.

Stephen Brown has called this kind of marketing “TEASE” marketing, marketing that torments customers (and they love you for it). He finds its origins in carnival sideshows and P. T. Barnum-esque excesses. I also think that its mysterious, paradoxical qualities give it a mystical religious air. It has what Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I (borrowing from novelist Alex Shakar) have called “Brand Paradessence.”

And as no one who has read the book has failed to notice, the Harry Potter Septology is a Joseph Campbellian mystical heroes journey made accessible to all ages. How could it not be charged with psychic resonance? And that sort of charge wraps itself around people’s identities, enchants them, drives them: it creates fans.

I’ve also been reading some of psychologist Jacques Lacan’s work and find it very pertinent. Lacan argues that at our core, we are desire, we are bundles of wanting wants. But at the heart of this, what we most desire is to maintain the pleasurable tension of desire itself (which is ego’s wanting to continue to exist, since its own existence is predicated upon desire). We learn at a very young age that we are disappointed when we are fulfilled. And so what we most want is to keep right on wanting. It explains a lot about consumer society and the contemporary self, where people seem to get so much and yet want so much more, to never be fulfilled but to always be seeking. And perhaps that is why Harry Potter has enchanted, beguiled, and bedeviled us for so long. We want to know the end, but, wait, once we know then we won’t want to know anymore. But we don’t want to hear from someone else. And we want to want…so…what do we want?

The hoopla over Harry’s fate (will he live? will he die? go read it yourself and find out!) is desire, consumer society, fandom, mystical marketing writ large. Just as I did with the iPhone, I am loving watching this magnificent contemporary drama unfold.

The Giorgini Principles: Lessons on Midwifing Innovative Industries from the Milanese Fashion Industry

I’ve been fascinated by the theory and practice of innovation for years, having taught and developed the New Products course at the Kellogg School of Management for seven years. My recent blog entry on the Conference Board’s critique of Canada as a stagnant cesspool of unimaginative copycats has spurred my interest in this area even further.

The more I personally experience of Canada’s business climate, the more despondent I become. The Canadian economy is an American business clone living in a different political-social-cultural ecosystem. The supermarkets are all-American styles, but the service and stocking systems are pathetic. Same for all the franchised “services”? All-American style, but with the Canadian spin on “service.” Is there a unique Canadian cuisine? Canadian health care advances (American style, but without the budget or the service orientation)? Canadian rituals and customs? Uniquely Canadian brands (you mean President’s Choice?)? Almost everything manufactured is Made in China and consumers here don’t seem to really care: Made in Canada seems to signify nothing in any sector of the economy. And why should it?

No wonder Canadian national wealth is based on the hewing of trees and the dredging of oily tar sands. Oh, and tourism. Camping, fishing, hunting and skiing. It is a patchwork economic system based on raw material exports, exploiting land mass, and a plethora of professional services based largely on (watered down) imitation (of course there are notable exceptions, like Research in Motion, but far too few of them). It needs more.

Many of these critiques could also be leveled at the American economy. It isn’t nearly as apathetic as Canada’s, but its design and innovation orientation are slipping. What does Made in American signify anymore? In which sectors (besides Hollywood, weaponry, and high-tech) does it matter anymore? American and Canadian, heck, the rest of the world too: these are challenging times requiring immense innovation. We can all do better.

I recently came back from a magnificent trip to Italy and Switzerland as part of the European Association for Consumer Research conference (Stefania, Cele and Mary Ann put on the best conference I’ve ever attended…bravissimo!). While I was on that trip I spent a lot of time with my colleague Diego Rinallo at Bocconi University in Milan, and we spoke about the topic of innovation, and creating innovative industries. I can’t say enough about Bocconi, by the way. It is the #1 University in Italy, it has a gorgeous campus and, best of all, it is chock full of brilliant scholars doing cutting-edge, important work in the areas of consumer culture and marketing, people like Antonella Caru, Bernard Cova, Stefania Borghini, Stefano Pace and of course Diego.

So let’s talk fashion. Milan is chock full of important and innovative designers: Prada, Armani, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana are households names around the world. There are many others: Emilio Pucci, Navarra, Cavalli. Somehow, I was under the impression that Italy and in particular Milan had always been important fashion centers, that their innovation in clothing design had been long-standing, like maybe from the Roman ages when togas were all the rage. But Diego’s recent historical studies set me straight.

Amazingly, given its international influence and renown, the Italian fashion industry is actually only 56 years old. That’s pretty amazing. Before February 12th, 1951, there was no Italian fashion industry as such. Italian dressmakers were simple copycats. They looked to Paris for design, creativity, novelty. Paris dictated fashion. Milanese and Italian dressmakers built it. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Then along came Giovanni Battista Giorgini. He was originally a buyer of handcrafted leather goods (and much more) for a set of American department stores, a guy in touch with markets and marketing, who knew how the fashion industry worked at the level of merchandising and retailing. With some hard work, he convinced thirteen important Italian dressmakers to present their own designs and collections in Florence, at the beautiful Sala Bianca of Pitti Palace, in front of a selection of American buyers and journalists.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The idea caught on, Italy became a center for design, and a major high-value-added Milanese and Italian industry was born.

I think that major case studies of how innovative industries and companies begin and work is of immense value to managers, educators, and policy-makers. I’d love to work with Diego on building a more rigorous examination of Giorgini’s Milanese success story into an article about creating innovative industries.

Here are Five Initial Principles for Creating Innovative Industries that we can learn from the Creation of the Milanese Fashion Design Industry. Without wanting to personalize them too much (because I believe and assert that we can definitely learn from what he has done, and others can do it again in other industries), I call them “The Giorgini Principles.”

1. Code-Switching: The innovative industry “movement” was led by Giorgini, a man with cross-continental experience, a fluent translator who spoke fluent American-English, fluent Italian, fluent business/marketing lingo, and fluent fashion. He was a perfect ambassador.

2. Histori-Localization: Giorgini maintained and emphasized the Italiano aspects of design. He talked about how Italian collections would have particular lines, cuts and portability that drew from the Renaissance artistic tradition. Locating the critical “First Italian High Fashion Show” in the 15th century Palazzo Pitti was brilliant and highly symbolic of this historical-national connection. We now find that historical and local connections are read as the harbingers of authenticity by consumers of all kinds (this goes for B2B buyers as well). There was no real historical continuity between these Renaissance designs and the current Italian fashion industry. It, too, was manufactured. And fairly recently.

3. Tuning: Giorgini not only initiated creative ideas, he knew how to sell them, by first learning, building connections, tuning in and customizing for the relevant market, which was the American (and Canadian) market, through his connections with major retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, H. Morgan, Tiffany, Bonwit Teller, and Sakowitz. Staying in touch with American buyers and customers meant that Georgini was balancing multiple needs. He was managing the creative market-driving of designers, but also matching and directing it to be market-driven by the needs and responses of the American markets. That opportunity to bring in a fresh perspective and listen exists for every entrenched market.

4. Rupture Opportunism: The timing was no accident. Paris had been battered by WW2 and Hitler had misunderstood the value and placement of the Parisian fashion center and tried at one time to move it to Berlin. Paris’s dominance as a fashion center had been challenged and weakened and the time was right for a strong challenger to step in. Giorgini’s genius was to recognize this, get the timing right, and implement perfectly.

5. Pattern-Breaking: Giorgini planned the fashion shows to occur immediately after Paris held their own fashion shows. This left the designers with no time to imitate French fashion designs. They were forced to be innovative and unique.

I think that this story and these principles can be an inspiration for Canadian companies, industries, educators, and policy-makers to wake up and find an industry to claim (or reclaim) as its own. I think that industry should be in that oxymoronic necessity of environmental “technology.” I use the word “technology” loosely, to also denote new changes in techniques, procedures, practices, and ways of living, as well as in complex machines. Canada still has a natural (as in close-to-nature) “brand” meaning for the rest of the world, especially Europe and the USA (they buy Canadian mineral water for this reason). Will the world attune to our new technologies and systems to help form a more sustainable future?

What will the future cities of the world look like? Europe is ahead in innovations in this area, but with its environmental challenges, its educated workforce, and its access to capital, I think that Canada could become a quick study. The first step is that we are going to need major public and private players who recognize that the oil-and-trees boom is going to go bust very soon.

Who will be Canada’s green tech Giogini? Will someone please step up? You will need to be

  • An excellent code-switcher, attuned to the realities of global environmental markets
  • Aware of local and historical backgrounds, and able to build a strong case for the basis and value of Canadian ingenuity and design in this area
  • Tuned into international opportunities and sales/consumption networks
    Able to take advantage of the ruptures caused by the general lack of green technology or emphasis, particular in the current Bush-led America
  • Capable of devising ways to break Canadian thinkers, engineers, students, educators, policy-makers, and companies out of their intellectually lazy imitative funk, and able to motivate them to create novel products and procedures for a world that needs them

Canadian industry needs a new direction. Merely talking about “commercialization:” (the current buzzword, even worse than innovation) or “innovation” is far too general. Canada needs a specific sector or sectors where a small country like Canada can sustainably focus its “resources” literally and figuratively into particular kinds of investments and risks, portfolios of places that lock together into the kinds of microclimates and ecosystems we see in places like Silicon Valley or Hollywood/Burbank, where expertise builds on top of expertise, instead of single isolated bubbles of technology.

We have the beginnings of some interesting innovative clusters: hydrogen in BC, handheld devices in Waterloo, theater in Toronto. So how can we use the Giorgini Principles to get the geographical clustering that will attract diverse but focused talent (a la Richard Florida’s very important Creative Class work), build communities of interest and concern that functional alongside the economic practicalities of workaday culture, lead to an easy informational marketplace that aggregates ideas and companies, and lead to centers of excellence that get funded and richly pay out their investments? That’s a big question, but it’s well worth getting our finest minds tgo start thinking about it.

In Canada, for sure. And everywhere else.