Month: August 2016

Can Ubiquity Make a Brand Invisible?

michael-phelps-rio-olympics-gold-medal-1.jpgDo we even see the Nike logo anymore?

 

The USA Men’s Olympic Swim Team faced not one, but two scandales last week — the lesser-known and more interesting of which is that Michael Phelps, the superstar of Under Armor’s stable of representatives wore sweatpants featuring a very prominent swoosh on the cover of this month’s Sports Illustrated.

But did he even realize he was wearing it?

All members of Team USA are required to wear Nike gear when competing in the Olympics per the USOC, even if it conflicts with an athlete’s personal sponsorship. This is a tricky branding situation for which I can’t think of another analogy — if a celebrity represents a designer label, she usually wears that label to events, but not necessarily in everyday life or in magazine editorials. This spawns its own interesting question: is an athlete obligated to wear his sponsor’s gear in an editorial, if other celebrities are not held to the same standard?

My answer to that question would be no, but in any case, Phelps is decidedly not in Olympic uniform in this photo. His clothes could be his own or chosen for him (unlikely; no self-respecting stylist would put him in that Zuck-ish polo), but regardless, did none of the individuals involved in this photoshoot —the athletes, stylists, photographer, editors, et all — even notice that he was donning a Nike swoosh? I think it was completely invisible to them, even to Phelps himself. This should be a smug moment of triumph for Nike, besting Under Armor, but instead it’s an indication of an issue in Nike’s brand recognition.

Nike is such a behemoth that it’s a synecdoche for all atheleticwear, in the vein of Spandex, Xerox, Kleenex, and, in Texas, Coke, standing in for all of their respective related or competitor’s products. It’s so big, in fact, that our brains barely process the logo anymore, like speed-reading through something you already know. I wouldn’t have even noticed that Phelps was wearing Nike pants in the photo had the fashion industry not started buzzing about it. But is that a good thing or a bad thing for Nike?

I think it’s both. It’s great to be the synecdoche because it’s a guarantee of popularity and quality. But a brand can become too big and lose its meaning  unless it’s kept ultra-current, which Nike is good at doing by offering enormous variety and customization options. But still, the logo can go mentally unprocessed. Who are Nike’s spokespeople? I can’t name a single one besides Michael Jordan in ye olden days. Perhaps more visible advertisement, beyond a small smooth Swoosh on an athlete’s lapel, would lend the brand more concrete meaning to an audience that doesn’t obsessively consume sports. Perhaps they should also consider non-athlete or famous spokespeople to front or even design for the brand, like what Puma has done with Rihanna, or non-traditional athletes, like Misty Copeland for Under Armor. I would love for a celebrity trainer like Mary Helen Bowers to be a spokesperson for Nike, or for Nike to do a black-and-white photoshoot starring an icon like Mikhail Baryshnikov (who, does, I can ah, say from personal experience, wear sneakers in his downtime.)

My next instinct would be to advise Nike to carve out niches within its bigness, like going after the fashion set. Adidas already has the upper hand here, however, with its ultra-popular Stan Smith and its collaborations with Kanye West, Raf Simons, and Stella McCartney. Reebok, too, is collaborating with interesting non-apparel labels like FACE Stockholm to appeal to a young, trendy set.  Nike could continue to expand its fashion collaboration attempts, like the one launched with Ricardo Tischi earlier this year. Carine Roitfeld for Nike has a nice ring to it.

In the short term, to boost its falling stock, Nike could push the Huarache shoe into becoming the next Instagram star, like the white-and-burgundy Nike Free was few years ago. This style is on the precipice of really “happening,” and just needs some more Instagram and editorial coverage.

Nike can combat its logo invisibility with a revamped advertising platform, since it’s not the logo itself, but its ubiquity coupled with a lack of meaningful advertising that causes the brain skip. But really, we don’t have to worry about Nike going anywhere despite interesting and innovative endeavors by its competitors. It already has the cultural resonance (and money) for permanent staying power, as long as it doesn’t get too comfortable on its laurels.

 

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What Happens When Your Personality is Your Brand?

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A few weeks ago, I went to see Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History at the Jewish Museum. I thought about what I might see at the exhibition beforehand as I sipped lemonade in a novelty chair at the across-the-street Cooper Hewitt Museum courtyard, but couldn’t really bring anything to mind besides bright colors and maybe some Unzipped footage.

When I finally relinquished my chair and took the walk from 91st to 92nd street, I found the Mizrahi exhibition itself to be refreshingly compact, with only three rooms with clothes and another small room dedicated to sketches. I was right about the bright colors, and this glorious full skirt and white tee combination was among my favorite pieces. I didn’t see a particularly obvious thread running through the first two rooms, besides, very broadly “color” and “texture,” respectively; the third room was dedicated disappointingly nondescript accessories in addition to pieces worn either on stage or screen, which were appropriately zany and over-the-top.

But then I walked to the end of the third gallery where there were screens playing clips of Mizrahi talking – panicking over his collection in Unzipped, spitting out fast, droll, blunt talk on QVC, and answering an impossible stream of questions correctly on Celebrity Jeopardy. His hyper-verbal charisma is so engaging, his unabashed confidence so delightful. Every seat on the benches facing the screen was full – I had to lean against a wall with other viewers who weren’t able to claim a spot. This was the heart of the exhibition; this is why we, a diverse group of museumgoers, were here: for Mizrahi, and not for his clothes.

I don’t think this detracted from the effectiveness of the exhibition; I found it thoroughly enjoyable and engaging. Although it was less thematically cohesive than other clothing exhibitions I’ve seen, it was also tightly edited, and I never felt overwhelmed like I sometimes do, say, at the Met. But nor did I feel unspeakably moved by any of the pieces like I do again, say, at the Met. It would definitely be lacking if not for the video footage, which I think says a few interesting things about Mizrahi as an artist, namely, what happens when your brand is your personality?

I was deeply troubled for what it meant for Mizrahi, who doesn’t have a signature running throughout his body of work. I literally wouldn’t have been able to pick out any of the pieces on display as one of his in the wild.  Mizrahi has made his complete lack of visual branding work for him by selling his clothes on QVC, where his face and personality is front and center. He is his own best salesman, more than any other designer in fashion history. But what will happen in the long run, when he’s not there charming an audience with his frenetic wit?

Other artists known for their personalities like Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol have achieved brand longevity – but then again, they have extremely cohesive bodies of work. I thought about how Mizrahi could cement his artistic legacy through creative production. A signature accessory? A return to the runway? Something to do with his dog clothing line?? But then it dawned on me: he’s already done it. It’s Unzipped, the 1995 making-the-collection documentary that’s spawned a hundred other quietly contained, fascinating, and compulsively watchable fashion documentaries. His fashion line won’t outlive him, and that’s ok; he was at the forefront of a new art and entertainment genre, and helped the shape the modern perception of designer-as-celebrity and made fashion less of a niche cultural interest and more of a mainstream art form.

Isaac Mizrahi isn’t a strictly fashion person, he’s an arts and culture polymath (Alex Trebek can attest); a big personality also who happened to also make it as a designer. It’s perhaps even more fitting that he will be remembered for something beyond his design career, and for making a contribution to the culture at large.

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