Illustration by Tim Holloway
“Now it’s time for a story...”
You only used to hear those words at very particular times. It was the soothing phrase the teacher used when you’d all sat down after a long, restless day at infants’ school. It was what your mum or dad would say after you’d brushed your teeth and arranged yourself, all cherubic and sleepy and expectant, under the duvet. It was the signal that the school day, or the public, adult world, was about to go away, and you were about to be transported to a fairy-tale sanctuary, far from the complexity and confusion of Growing Up.
Now, you hear them absolutely everywhere, and far from the cosy contexts of childhood. Trumpeted branding experts and lampooned Apprentice losers alike bang on about “narrative” as the secret to capturing the public imagination and generating sales success. Politicians describe it as determining the future direction of their policies and parties. Stories are even more important than life and death, in the minds of some: they’re put forward as the way to win the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at home and on the ground. Getting your (compelling, convincing) story straight is everything. Donald Rumsfeld – with his perversely poetic kind of obfuscation, his cleverly loaded fairy-tale language of “Old Europe” and “known unknowns” and “enemy combatants”, his Cold War-era conviction about mass psychological control – was a glorious case study in the modern, grown-up mania for stories as strategic weaponry.
It’s always time for a story now, because our lives have changed so much. We’re even more juvenile and youth-obsessed than we were then, for a start, and we have also come to depend on, inhabit, the digital world in a way we never could have imagined a decade ago. That leaves us so overloaded with information, data without structure, that anything that takes us on a – forgive me – journey, that connects with something deeper, more emotional and more resonant, will stand out. The story that earns the most ears, that connects the data dots in a way people can relate to, wins.
Fashion has its own tragedies and fairy tales, demons and heroes, and it hasn’t always seemed overeager to hurl itself into the digital world, quite understandably. Luxury is about exclusivity (consider the much-discussed Tom Ford show last autumn, where he banned all cameras and relied on the buzz generated by an invited elite, in an explicit rejection of the everywhere-instantly digital consensus), and high-end fashion has traditionally used only very particular places to formally promote itself. It also has an allegiance to haughtiness and detachment that’s at odds with the prevailing Facebook-friend mentality. At the same time, it’s a business, and one that knows it has to adapt, as it has done so many times before. After years of tentative steps and redesigns and silly Flash labyrinths, labels seem to be finally working out how to present themselves online.
TELLING STORIES IS THE ULTIMATE, MODERN MEANS OF SELLING ANYTHING WHATSOEVER
One distinct approach, according to a sudden flurry of fashion- business stories in January, was “edvitorial”. That was Women’s Wear Daily’s term for a new kind of “branded content” that is neither fashion advertisement, nor editorial coverage, nor the traditional “advertorial”, where a magazine will design a section in its house style in collaboration with a brand (and then ruin it by slapping ADVERTORIAL in big block letters across the top for legal reasons). Rather, “edvitorial” is an online or print magazine that is funded by a brand but only nominally about it. WWD focused in particular on the slick, sales message-averse, LVMH Group-backed fashion site Nowness, which launched a year ago, replacing a “luxury” online shop as the group’s web presence. The way it covered competitor labels and designers (and cultural phenomena beyond fashion) was picked out as a defining new quality – now brands themselves own the media outlets. They appoint and pay their staff, rather than having to court them and compete for their attention. Which means that, rather than having to solicit the favours of journalists and fashion editors, brands are doing the job magazines used to do: picking the best of the culture; deciding what matters. They historically relied on magazines to create content that complemented their collections, the argument goes, and then had to contribute themselves by booking advertising in spaces owed by others. Now – in a post-publishing world – they are doing it all themselves.
The New York Times,Techcrunch and Fashionologie explored the same ground over the following fortnight, examining the latest magazine-like web turns and iPad apps from Net-a-Porter, French Connection, Dunhill, Anthropologie and Alice + Olivia – all of them based around “content” and, to varying degrees, avoiding traditional, product-focused sales spiel. Macala Wright, the blogger-consultant who kick-started the topic in a series of articles on Mashable.com, was not one to understate its importance in a follow-up blog a fortnight later. “I’m glad the Mashable articles I wrote spawned a revolution in fashion editorial conversations,” she said, without so much as a self-deprecating smiley as chaser. “Here’s the thing, certain brands get branded content, other don’t... Nowness and Anthropologie’s Anthropologist don’t sell anything whatsoever, they’re telling stories.”
But as we’ve seen, telling stories is actually the ultimate, modern means of selling anything whatsoever.
Nowness is impressively slick and nonpartisan in what it covers, but its terrain is fairly standard fashion, style and stars – only, being backed by a monied luxury group, it’s more polished than your average London-based style mag. It feels proper, but hardly revolutionary. French Connection’s Manifesto, meanwhile, is a text-only series of quietly branded statements and aphorisms on various subjects around modernity and maleness. It’s mildly diverting – but then, so was the brand’s recent old-fashioned ad campaign. The Anthropologist has no Anthropologie products in it, but it’s hardly radical either – it’s a series of visual profiles of classy artisan types, shot in that familiar, authenticity-fetishising, photo-filtered way. And surely it’s selling something: a flattering sense of connoisseurship and superior taste that reflects right back at its customers. “We’ve learned so much about you,” the site tells them, “like how you appreciate innovation, artfulness and good design, and how you’re drawn to soulfulness and sincerity... Complex as you are, you remain our inspiration and because of this, we endeavour to bring you an unimagined experience.”
If that’s soft-selling, I think I find it less painful when they give it to me hard.
Furthermore, “branded content” is hardly a new idea. Glossy fashion magazines and luxury advertisers have always been utterly interdependent. In the mid-to late 1990s, poor London fashion magazines squeezed millions out of game-console companies and denim brands for art shows, bespoke books and events where the product was never mentioned at all. Brands like Acne have long had their own magazines about everything but their own stuff – and back in 2002, Tank won a coveted editorial design award for a book it created for a famous denim brand, without mentioning that brand at all.
Beyond that, the language and visual language of fashion editorial is, and has always been, very close to that of advertising. The same photographers and art directors who make the fashion magazines have historically been the people who’ve made the ads, and the revenue from ads – not news- stand sales – is what makes glossy fashion magazines viable.
The “purity” of fashion-magazine editorial has always been a matter of debate, too – arguably, it is often branded to a great degree, informed by the products that embody the lifestyle it champions. As GQ’s longstanding editor Dylan jones wrote recently, “I think if you advertise in the magazine you deserve to be featured in the magazine. Most editors feel that’s a compromise and I don’t.”
The “level playing field” idea comes up elsewhere, too. It’s not about how much or how little you mention your company’s products that matters: what the web has actually done is oblige people to put up interesting content – because if what you have to offer is boring and predictable, people will click away quickly rather than stick around, and, online, that’s the definition of failure. That was certainly the way Columbia Business School professor Bernd Schmitt framed the discussion in the New York Times: “Consumers know that branded editorial isn’t objective, and they have no problem with that,” Schmitt contended. “They’re on a quest for a broad range of information, and they have control over which brand’s website they want to visit and which they don’t. What they’re
looking for is information and tips, and brands are no longer just about the clothing but about a broader lifestyle. Of course, the company owners get something out of it, because they have a better way of reflecting their brand for a lifestyle perspective. Everybody gains.”
“Contributing to the overwhelming content landfill doesn’t do anyone any favours,” katrina Dodd, of marketing analysis site Contagious, adds. “Which is why we’re seeing brands take such an interest in content curation: it’s providing a useful service for people while at the same time establishing a level of taste or a credible eye for the good stuff. Also, for brands, just as with people, it’s obnoxious to only talk about yourself.”
“Content”, which is in many ways synonymous with “story” as the make-or-break holy grail of modern marketing, is of course the obsession of old-fashioned magazine people and forward- charging marketing types alike these days. It’s the thing posh fashion magazine publishers spent years putting online for free, until they realised that, in a post-paper world, it was the only commodity they still had. Your “content”, not your magazine or your real estate or your staff, became your USP – like some terrifying, neverending vat of sausagemeat you could squeeze into any skin technology developed in the future.
So a year or so ago, magazines began to decide to put all the same content into unwieldy, shrunken iPad editions of the same magazines, and hope that would save them. For a few months, at least, until they realised how much time and money these iPad editions were costing them to make, and how incredulous people were at the idea of paying the cover price for a downsized PDF with bells on.
Unique “content” was the intangible commodity that was supposed to make London’s Times newspaper something people would pay for online – but its owners didn’t seem to face up to the fact that, in a Google News world and a cash- strapped time for newspapers, it’s very, very hard to “own” a news story that is in hundreds of other places too. Especially in a post-Napster, post-mashup, YouTubed landscape, where the web-wise have largely disregarded the idea of intellectual content as something anybody owns: instead, it’s something everybody shares.
Which means, it seems, that on the one hand, “content” is everything. On the other, though, it’s not something people seem to be willing to pay for. That’s no worry for brands, who have bags and shoes and clothes people will still buy, but it doesn’t help the reams of magazines who built their own brands in another, more papery, less information-overloaded world.
As for the fashion names that are now moving into the position of publisher, perhaps they are ushering in a new age of cultural sponsorship for cash-strapped times. Above a list of its sponsored art events and exhibitions down the years, Louis Vuitton’s website has a quote from the LVMH Group’s big boss Bernard Arnault: “Art is the best means through which to manifest our belief in freedom.” It’s some statement, one that makes you wonder whether brands’ investment in culture is, at its grandest, a pitch to install themselves as modern-day versions of the Medicis, who, in a golden cultural era that began in the 15th century, used their business profits to pay for the great art that helped forge Renaissance Italy. Such a prospect seems a long way off. The Medicis were bankers, who did branch into luxury goods and textiles such as wool and silk, but only as a way of making their banking money look more respectable and thus to aid their ascent into Florentine politics – the only way a businessman at the time could insure his assets against drastic taxation, war and conflict. Much of the grandest religious art the family commissioned has been seen, in a time when you could pay holy men to negate your sins, as a kind of insurance for the afterlife – usury, aka the collection of interest, was the basis of the Medicis’ business and still one of the greatest sins in the eyes of the Church.
The Medicis had a stake in the city and churches they decorated, too – they processed the Pope’s monies, married into his family and hung their crest in his sanctified spaces (which gave them the space to champion humanist endeavour and to shelter persecuted scientists like Galileo). They had a kind of ownership over the places where their art was seen, and worked ceaselessly to connect the family “brand” with the wider city, church and state-to-be. It’s quite a feat, when you consider their wealth was their only actual product – or rather, their interest was, and it was also something damned by religions down the years because 1) it’s an unnatural product, a perversion of money’s function, the fruit of “money copulating with money”, and 2) it enables you to earn while being idle, in contravention of standard injunctions to work and be humble in this life.
In the edvertorial era, brands got the money, they’ve got the cool, they’ve found the credible Safari window displays that make you forget they’re money-making international conglomerates. But their open-minded approach to the coverage of other brands, people, designs, aesthetics, their aversion to selling what they make, is also a weird sort of self-denial, when you think about it.
I can buy an HD camera and make a Tumblr page for peanuts, but I couldn’t make a Bottega Veneta bag if you
gave me 10 years, a wad of cash and a studio full of specialist equipment. Luxury brands, for so long able to justify their prices by reminding you of their unique archives, creative geniuses and sought-after seamstresses, have stopped talking about why they’re special, and instead started talking about why other brands, or even their customers, are so awesome instead. The only artists old-school labels used to talk about were the genius designers, the Cristobals and Cocos and Yves in whose name and image their houses were created, and in the service of whose visions irreplaceable artisans laboured for weeks. Are they merely being generous and welcoming, or are they giving away their only USP in a flurry of interchangeable, if unerringly tasteful, “content” – in a time when we are told only manufacturing output, making actual stuff, can save us from financial ruin?
“I’m always having these meetings with brands and telling them, ‘You need to let us tell your story,’” one magazine designer-cum-edvertorial generator told me, with the understandable accompanying request that he not be named. “But sometimes I’m in the middle of the spiel and I suddenly become aware of this feeling of dread – I think, ‘These people have been making shoes for 100 years. All I can do is tell stories. Anybody can tell stories,’ and you just worry that one day they’re gonna figure that out...” §