Tuesday 18 March 2014

Luxury and enlightenment

This essay was published in Luxury Briefing in March 2014


Her, the ultimate brand
by Alexander Gallé
March 2014

Making something pretty is easy.  Making something meaningful is the real challenge.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently.  It puts in a nutshell what brand design signifies to me.  We're working right now on a brand identity which has brought me something like a minor epiphany - let's call it a "ping" - and I've been thinking about what exactly the "ping" is.

It is certainly a beautiful brand.  Much of it is inspired by baroque design, full of curves and complexity.  But the aspect that is really inspiring about the work done so far, is that it all fits conceptually.  Why the choice of baroque style?  Because the brand's values are rooted in the Enlightenment.  Why are this brand's values rooted in the Enlightenment?  The answer is in the word itself: light.  Intelligent use of light is what makes this particular product so good.  But, going deeper, it is clear that the mission behind the product is to achieve through science and knowledge what Bernini's Holy Spirit - a stained glass window depicting a dove emanating light - achieved with religiously inspired art: to transcend, to go beyond.  In other words, to enlighten.

Quite a few brands have been evolving their "ping" over the last few decades.  One of the best examples is Nike.  Since the 80s, Nike haven't been selling shoes, they've been selling "Just do it".  The spirit behind the brand is what you were buying, the product is just an embodiment of that spirit.  The ultimate brand would be for a product that is weightless and invisible, but that changes everything about your life for the better and makes you feel great.

Interestingly, I have recently discovered a weightless and invisible product that changes everything about its user's life for the better and makes him feel great.  Sadly, the product only exists in a science fiction film set in 2025.  That film is "Her" by Spike Jonze.  Its story revolves around Theodore, a man who develops a romantic relationship with a body-less artificially intelligent operating system whose first decision is to call herself Samantha.  Originally installed on his computer to help him organise his virtual life like a personal assistant, Samantha delights Theodore by the speed at which she learns about life, the depth of her insight, her ability to intuit what he needs to do and change in his life to be happier.  Within weeks, she composes wonderful pieces of music inspired by their moments together, and draws witty illustrations of their jokes.  They spend weeks walking everywhere together, having great conversations and forming a genuine romantic relationship.  That is, he walks everywhere, she speaks to him and interacts with the world through his smartphone. 

The relationship deteriorates when it becomes clear that, like all code, Samantha is infinitely replicable: she's not working just for Theodore but for another few thousand people, and is in a romantic relationship with hundreds of them.  Are these iterations copies of her, or are they also her?  Does this multiplicity weaken their relationship's authenticity or does it augment it? At this point, it becomes clear that the limitation that attributes value to anything because it is a material object and "mine" is a human limitation.  Theodore is most hurt by his own possessiveness over Samantha who, by her essential non-material nature, cannot be owned. 

The transhuman aspects of this story are phenomenal, but going back to the fact that Samantha was a product bought by Theodore, the lesson for this brand designer is this: the ultimate brand will not only sell a weightless and invisible product but, wonderful and life-changing as it will be, it'll also be a brand that challenges humans' hardwired notions that we attribute value to things because they exist in the physical world and can therefore be owned.  The ultimate brand will sell an experience that transcends these limits and go beyond.  In other words, it'll sell Enlightenment.