Discover more from People vs Algorithms
How a new era in marketing invites us to think expansively.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #41.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
Post may be a little long for email. Read it online here.
A few things for you today…
First, Brian Morrissey and I have known each other for years and always engaged in a lively back and forth. I am a big fan. We've talked about doing a podcast together for a while. Alex Schleifer, our pal from Universal Entities pushed us over the line and graciously volunteered to produce it. Together, we will try to understand patterns in media, culture and business, bring in smart collaborators and deliver it in a light-hearted, conversational package. Please have a listen to our pilot. Welcome your thoughts.
On to this week’s note… I have been thinking about "world building" for a while, which is just a good way to frame the modern practice of rendering a brand. Looking back, it's pretty clear that the past few months of writing this newsletter have guided me here. The topic is expansive, and I’ve touched on it from multiple directions… I’ve summarized some of those observations and the related posts below.
To think about it a bit I enlisted the help of Ben Dietz. Ben spent a long time at Vice bridging the worlds of media, brand and advertising. He is plugged into culture and shares his curiosity through a terrific newsletter, [SIC] Weekly. Do take a look if you want a wonderfully curated set of top-shelf links each week. Our text exchange further down.
On route, I also bumped into Derek Davies, founder of Neon Gold Records, manager of dissident punk act Pussy Riot and, more recently, co-founder and president of fan engagement platform company, Medallion.fm, a group I work closely with. He provided good context from the music world, fertile territory for new ways of thinking about building community through expansive storytelling.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the final weeks of August. Thanks for reading.
I've run at this "new concepts in brand building" idea a few times from complimentary directions. Marketing is an endless cycle of innovation, imitation and iteration, but there are few true fundamental shifts. It’s an everlasting dance between media — broadly, the way in which a consumer accesses and ingests information and entertainment — and a commercial world that leverages these connections for economic outcome. I’ve struggled to put my finger on something singular that would suggest this is a moment. Perhaps it is naive to try. Ben calls the modern practice “middle-out”. Derek kept using the term “world building”. Both made sense to me.
Nonetheless, I am obsessing a bit right now because it seems few trends are converging to create something new. I looked back at few posts and found an attempt to articulate the forces at play. My summaries here:
"The Internet Meat Grinder" was a meandering post on how digital worlds blend media types in one delicious stew where the most entertaining outcome is the likeliest, video and gaming highjack more and more time, defining what is premium becomes ever more difficult as amateur auteur competes for attention with Disney. Advertising is just content and content advertising. The days of defining media by channel are numbered.
Bottom line: Everything is transmedia, boundaries between media types are disappearing and the storytelling possibilities are endless. Advantage goes to the playful with something to say.
"Full Composability" likened the current moment to the desktop publishing revolution, but times ten. Desktop publishing began a steady stream of innovation that eventually democratized tools for music and video creation. Now it’s happening with gaming engines. Technologies like Unreal Engine are making world creating tools accessible to everyone. AI-driven visualization technologies (MidJouney, DALL-E 2, Stability.ai) will add tankers of fuel to the fire. The innovation is truly staggering right now.
Bottom line: If you can imagine it, you can create it.
"How to Launch a Brand Now" highlighted the importance of community engagement as a starting point for any brand launch and focused on content format innovation as a key in driving uniqueness and repeatability. The post centered on media brands, but the lessons are the same for all.
Bottom line: Launching a brand is like launching a band. Paid media is nice, but your ability to develop a group of fans and co-conspirators around your idea is key.
"NFT as Media" pondered the viability of invested NFT stakeholders as an ingredient to community formation and IP propagation and foresees the growing importance of a "community programming" role. "Community" built on the idea, imaging community as the last stand against the algo and attempted to define the ingredients of our shared connections.
Bottom line: NFTs will be more important than you think. We’ve never had these kinds of tools to connect fans to things they love.
All of which is to say you have a perfect storm. A new generation raised in a social media ecosystem, an expansive tool set to create and connect, an ability to transact without friction, and an emerging construct for distributed ownership and participation. The hardest part now… are your ideas and ongoing programming good enough to sustain attention. Perhaps you can create energy, but can you turn it into something.
Vacation seemed like a good case study. I wrote a bit about it last week. A fun streaming passion project became a digital world, then a line of tanning products and this week, a NFT-driven membership community. It's worth looking at what they are doing. Broadly, we are seeing round two of NFT projects — more fun, more accessible and better articulated as part of a meta-narrative. This stuff is only getting more interesting.
Admittedly, none of this is really new. For years Apple has scaled a distinct visual and linguistic universe, aligned to great tech products and its seductive and humanist POV. Rapha reinvented bicycling lifestyle by reimagining a stylish world for the enthusiast and championing cycling in culture. Tracksmith is doing the same with a New England inspired running vibe. Goop has done it in media and commerce as a tasteful rendition of Gwyenth’s world view. Kim Kardashian has extended influencer fame into a distinctive fashion expression with Skims. Swedish influencer Matilda Djerf is channeling Scandinavian lifestyle for the TikTok generation. Gossamer is doing it in weed. Praying has carved out an ironic and nihilistic narrative in street style. Cash App has penetrated the worlds of hip hop and fashion to create a distinct and playful precedent-setting effort in the financial space. BTW, their most recent video with Kendrick Lamar and Ray Dalio is a charming juxtaposition.
The tools have made world building accessible to small and large. Media fragmentation has made it a precondition for success. Two-way media means everybody needs to live by stimulus / response / evolve.
Fashion is a good place to look for precedent and inspiration — here the story is as important as the product. So is music.
I spoke to Derek Davies about this. The notion of “world building” is central to how he thinks about A&R. Naturally the music is key, but Derek was more focused on how an artist embodied something you can build narratives around. He referenced Nadya Tolokonnikova, the activist leader of Pussy Riot. He also pointed to the intoxicating creative world of artist / musician Young and Sick, to Charlie XCX, the collaborative efforts of musician Flume and artist Zawada.
Derek made a couple of great points about how the music world reflects changes we are seeing more broadly. Lyrics have never been more important. He pointed to a change around the time Taylor Swift released the album Red. Swift’s lyrical stories resonated, and drove rabid engagement. He noted the emergence of a "lyricist" as a critical collaborative role in the creation process. He also suggested that an ability to render coherent visual worlds was increasingly important to success — lyrics and visuals become the foundations for a world that replaces radio play and MTV.
Collabs, he noted, which have played an increasingly important role in marketing for some time, particularly fashion, found their start in music, born of a need to cross pollinate fan communities and, more recently, grow audiences on Spotify.
Like any brand in a modern media context, it’s tough to break through as an artist and even harder to sustain attention. A world creates narrative coherence across platforms. And story arcs for fans to connect to. Worlds are bigger than artists, influencers or brands. Derek referenced a standout example in music, the world of singer, songwriter Melanie Martinez.
Martinez’s fairytale storytelling is incredibly coherent, her twist referencing the world creators like Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Mark Ryden, Nicoletta Ceccoli. Her stardom is not radio driven, but she has seen 100m plus views on most major YouTube video releases including a self-produced 90 minute film.
Pull back and appreciate the themes in all of these examples. The importance of words and design. The power of fan culture. And humor. The importance of programming a participatory journey.
I thought it would be fun to talk about brands and marketing. You are tuned into the next.
I am probably out of touch with the new/new but seems that there’s something going on. I mean everything new is old bla bla but per our convo there seem to be some fresh examples like Vacation. What’s your take?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak on the new new - I’m too old and too comfortable for that - but you’re right that I’m fascinated by movements of brands acting uncannily. I messaged you about Vacation because it’s a prime example of what I refer to as ‘middle-out’
(Ben's disclosure: I’m aware of the ‘middle-out’ as used in the series Silicon Valley, and this is not that. My middle out radiates outward from a central point of inception, where the show’s middle out was literally removing a middle section. They’re opposites, basically - but the term is catchy.)
They’re brands that build up organically (maybe even accidentally) from a single product, but not the one that they ultimately become known for. And on the way to becoming known, they build a holistic world of brand expressions that both reinforces their worldview and suggest new directions they can take - if and when they feel like it. What I like about them is how uncalculated the middle-out approach feels - and how that makes the brand easy to love and engage with, even if you don’t love its ‘hero’ product. I also like, having spent my career in IP-creating media, that middle-out brands seem to naturally take a media-led, IP generative approach to interacting with their customers.
I love this idea. The narrative isn’t a slave to a product story. So different from benefit-driven funnel thinking. I mean you still have to sell and you still have to be relevant to someone.
Where do you see antecedents for this idea? Contemporary examples outside of Vacation? Why do you think this approach might be relevant now?
Interesting! My head goes to Factory Records and Peter Saville; aestheticians first
It’s interesting to see it hit weed marketing like Gossamer or that high-end weed dispensary in Mass… Farnsworth.
Yeah Gossamer is on my list of brands, I started making a 2x2 to plot where they live relative to media-first brands like Hodinkee.
Factory records is a fun example. Highlights the importance of design.
I once cajoled Peter Saville into claiming (from stage) that he was responsible for the design modes of the British High Street. I think it’s beyond design tho. I think it’s a spirit of possibility, aesthetically rendered. We *can* do this - so let’s! And then the successful attempts come from an aesthetic/ design POV.
Yea.. its a world...
It’s quite editorial in that way. The most interesting storyteller, not necessarily the most interesting story.
As a corollary, this post on Palace Skateboards and the clever use of language in product descriptions.
All written by one of the brand’s founders, interestingly. They are very, very formidable precisely because they’ve made being not serious a serious business. And they’re so transparent about acknowledging their influences and idols.
Where do you see antecedents for this idea?
They’re everywhere once you start looking, but like I say, I think a lot of the thinking comes from media and entertainment. Find a fanbase, probe their interests, and seize on the corollary opportunities: that’s what The New Yorker does with its festival, its video series, and its beach towels. A brand like Vacation comes out of a guy in Scotland trying to cheer himself up with a poolside playlist - he builds a moodboard for it - and then once the audience starts sending signals back, the pathways open. Suddenly, if you can open yourself up to the possibility, you’ve got a universe.
Gimme some more examples…
It’s funny, after we started talking about this I asked my friend Andrea Hernandez, who writes Snaxshot for suggestions from the CPG world, and she pointed me to a piece from March which asserts “brand universes are the anti bland” in reply to the notorious Bloomberg “blanding” piece - and then goes on to cite the beverage brands Ruby Hibiscus, Ghia and Liquid Death. I think Ruby’s the most holistic example of what I mean in CPG, but Truff is probably the truest ‘middle-out’ example – it literally started as the IG handle @sauce and the dudes behind it figured they could make the actual product and went for it.
Other favorite examples are Brain Dead and Palace in fashion, How Long Gone in podcasts, and of course the mighty A24. They’ve all pushed past their original product expressions (tee-shirts, podcasts and films respectively) into totally new categories when the opportunity presented itself.
Why do you think this approach might be relevant now?
It’s always been relevant; what we’re talking about is essentially what Walt Disney sketched out in his famous organizational synergy diagram - a flywheel. The reason it’s resonant now is that we all have the tools to build a universe ourselves, most of them right on our phones, but not many have caught on to the secret ingredient of middle-out building, which is a healthy disregard for “the way things are supposed to be done.” Young people and outsiders have that disregard because they haven’t been indoctrinated yet. And things move so quickly now through digital mediums that there isn’t even time for that traditional indoctrination to happen. So the kids learn organizational synergy / world building from their favorite brands - and favor brands that show them the way.
In some ways it’s an indictment of all the distribution first stuff especially the Amazon product roll-ups. That stuff is feature first and relies on distribution optimization.
Right. And an insight into how low-friction production platforms can plug into distro. The smartest brands build a universe to generate fandom and mystique - and then fulfill orders on demand, so they don’t have to carry inventory or sometimes even overhead.
Beyond entertainment, seems like fashion and street style are good reference points. Would you agree?
For sure. To quote Chris Black from How Long Gone, you can’t escape the long arm of streetwear, haha. Tho apropos of the previous point, street style brands like Anti Social Social Club are a great example of both the genius of the approach and the dangers of on-demand fulfillment. ASSC stoked a huge desire for their hoodies and tees, trained people to wait for them - but then got overwhelmed by supply chain and killed its brand love by failing on customer service.
What skills win here?
I think the best middle out brands are characterized by their problem-solving natures, and their openness to change. And a lot of youthful enthusiasm. None of which are skills per se - but all of which make their possessors more skillful.
I wonder how this puts pressure on agencies and big brands?
For most legacy brands, sunk cost fallacies will hold them back from taking this approach adroitly: it’s not ‘on strategy’ and it’s too hard to explain to higher-ups - and their business cycles take too long for authentic participation. They’ll have to get in via acquisition, if they can get in at all.
Agencies are theoretically in a much better spot; they’re ideally wired for ‘problem-solving’ and ‘creativity’ already. But they’re often just as reluctant to let go of “the way the business works” - ie their existing incentives around time spent, not actual output. What’s already happening is that these new brands will develop their own ‘agency services’ suite and sell those to other brands. MSCHF operates along that continuum, for instance.
Feels like Old Spice tried this years ago with success.
I think a lot of credit there is due to their AOR Wieden Kennedy’s parallel efforts to set up an IP-generative studio within the agency. WK has always been world class creatively, but I think the studio catalyzed even more of a question of ‘what else can we do with this?’
What are you looking for in a brand to get a sense of whether they will succeed ?
Sense of humor is a big indicator for me; as well as the simplicity of the idea. Your press release shouldn’t be about explaining the logic of the product - it should be about how the product is organically selling through (or popping up for resale).
Thank you Ben... really appreciate your time and thoughts.
Have a great weekend../ Troy
(PS: Amanda… apologies for typos. I am sure there are many. Rushed this more than usual.)
A perfect song for the waning days of summer.
Jake Xerxes Fussell was raised on the traditional music of the Georgia-Alabama border, joining his folklorist father Fred on his trips to document local bluesmen and basket-weavers alike. Now an established artist in his own right, the younger Fussell has a deep respect and affinity for the Southern folk vernacular, though he also maintains his childlike awe for it. In recent years, he's moved from Oxford, Miss., to Durham, N.C., where he found a perfect home in local label Paradise of Bachelors for his self-titled 2015 debut. Produced by William Tyler, it yoked together vignettes of Southern life ("Raggy Levy," "Rabbit On A Log") with an open-hearted groove that would please scholars and little kids alike — Fussell's burly, winking voice is made for storytelling.