The Passing of a Master

Massimo Vignelli, a graphic designer whose Modernist vision inspired countless others, passed on Tuesday, at his home in New York City. Though he considered himself more of an “information architect,” Vignelli sought to convey concepts, ideas and places in the simplest, truest forms for all to understand. Clarity and coherence were the ideal in all the projects he touched, be it signage, books, shopping bags, kitchenware, etc.

His resolve for simplifying designs was key to his methodology and to his vision, which has also helped his designs stand the test of time. According to his obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Vignelli’s work has been shown in North America and Europe. It is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as well as museums in Philadelphia, Montreal, Jerusalem, Munich and Hamburg, Germany.

His clients included American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox and Gillette. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan had him design an entire church. His brochures for the National Park Service are still used. Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys all gave out Vignelli-designed shopping bags in the 1970s. He designed the signs for the New York and Washington subways and suggested the name Metro for the Washington system.

While not all his projects were deemed successes, most notably his 1972 NYC subway map, Vignelli stood behind the vision of his work and continued to push it. Last year, the M.T.A .incorporated an updated version of his subway diagram on its interactive website.

The breadth of Vignelli’s work is far reaching and global, though most outside of the design world, may not be able to immediately recognize a Vignelli piece in front of them. Great design provides a seamless experience and does not call attention to itself. His Heller dinnerware was a prime example. Vignelli was a master of great design and has made the world a better place fot it.

An Experience Worth Remembering

I recently visited Sloan’s Ice Cream in Florida for the second time in my life. Talk about a childhood fantasy! For those (like myself) who have never heard of or been to Sloan’s, imagine walking into Candy Land or a Willy Wonka factory. From the bright and colorful signage, sugarcoated displays, and fairytale wallpaper, to the (dare I say) breathtaking bathroom (I’m embarrassed to say I took a picture), Sloan’s has drawn upon everything that makes sweet treats magical.

Although Sloan’s has been doing this for a long time, the idea of capitalizing on the retail “experience” has really been a game-changer for others in the past few years. Brands and retailers alike have started to use innovative technology that allows consumers to interact with their products on a more personal level within the retail space.

As an athlete, I’ve always looked at Nike as an inspirational retailer, providing this sort of “experience.” The store doesn’t simply display athletic apparel, but allows consumers to interact with the merchandise in a way that seems to have only been done in the tech space. Images, videos and quotes of some of the greatest sports figures can be found all over the store, making the consumers who enter feel as if they too can be great.

Nike additionally gives consumers the ability to customize their own shoes, as well as help them choose the right style and fit to meet individualized needs, both in-store and online.

Similarly, by playing up the fact that every consumer is different and comes to retailers with different needs, customization has become more and more popular. Sephora has done this in the beauty space with their Color IQ technology by capturing a picture of your skin in order to match the best foundation with your skin tone.

Whether you are selling goods or a service, find a way for consumers to engage with it. Make them leave feeling like they’ve been a part of a great experience.  Regardless of whether they end up making a purchase or not, they will at least walk out with great a story to tell.  Make it a memorable one!

Bill Simon, President & CEO of Walmart U.S., Shares His Story

Today, the TPN Bentonville office attended the Benton County Single Parent Scholarship Fund luncheon. Bill Simon, President & CEO of Walmart U.S., spoke at the event. Instead of speaking about how Walmart and the Walmart Foundation give back by supporting the Single Parent Scholarship Fund, it was a much more personal speech.

Mr. Simon was very real and down to earth. He discussed his upbringing in a single parent household with four siblings. His mother never graduated from college, and she did any odd job she could to help support the family. She instilled in her children the value and importance of an education, that being average or being exceptional is a choice, and the importance of giving back. Because of this, Mr. Simon, along with three of his siblings, all graduated from college. Two of them even went on to receive their Master’s degrees. While Bill’s mother never got the chance to earn her own college degree, she believed she earned six- thanks to her children’s accomplishments.

Besides gaining an appreciation for Mr. Simon and his personal story, we were reminded that while Walmart may have its share of detractors, they do give back to the communities in which they serve. Mr. Simon specifically mentioned the $4 prescription program, which he helped implement, as well as the emphasis and importance Walmart places on helping the community – illustrated through their everyday low prices, the practice of hiring veterans and associates without college degrees, and making it easier to shop with one-stop convenience.

La culture du travail

As a first generation American, it came as a surprise for me to see people in the US work so hard at jobs that seemed to be making them miserable — jobs that literally were driving them to an early grave.

Where my family comes from, work seems to come secondary, or even tertiary to family, friends and quality of life.

Not to say that I came from any sort of slacker roots. Au contraire. I grew up around very driven, successful people. Aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents speaking a minimum of three languages, adorned with Masters Degrees, holding highly coveted jobs — all while surviving a 15-year Civil War.

Approximately 70% of Americans seem to hate their jobs or are regularly disengaged in the workplace. Has this generation of Americans missed the boat when it comes to work-life balance? We’ve all heard “When you truly love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work” and we all know it to be true. We long for it. So how can Americans begin to adopt this seemingly passé attitude and still earn the respect of their peers? It comes down to office culture.

To most in the corporate world, a job is a job and work is what it is. But in advertising, one of the most important determining factors that goes into choosing an agency are the culture and values. Instilling a work-life balance needs to trickle from the top down.

Managers need to lead by example to show that “hard work” and “over work” are not necessarily synonymous, and that employees cannot produce their best work if they are not given adequate time for themselves. This is one of the most important things that supervisors can teach in order to preserve sanity and inspire creativity and growth. Sometimes, you have to leave the office and look up, catch your breadth and take in what’s out there.

When in Shanghai: Part 3

We Are What We Buy

I love visiting grocery, drug, convenience and even big-box stores when traveling abroad. My husband does not always view these visits as highlights of our vacation, but he’s generally a good sport about it.

When I am traveling on business, I visit with immoderation. Seeing what is on the shelves of stores (and what isn’t), how the shelves are merchandised, what the packaging looks like, prices, what is in shoppers’ carts, etc., … can draw a vivid picture for me of the marketplace and the people. You can learn about customs, tastes and traditions just by walking into a retail store.

While recently in China, I noticed in a Watson’s drug store that there were no aspirin or pain relievers to be had on the shelves – no section at all on the floor dedicated to these products. It turns out that in China you need a prescription for aspirin and analgesics or at least need to speak to a pharmacist to buy what you need for what ails you. Even in Europe, where things are still behind the counter in drug stores, you can point and ask for what you want. In China, you need consultation. And coming from a country that has end caps of Tylenol during “cold and flu season,” it was sort of a stunning observation. It made me think differently about a headache or a sore leg.

In Carrefour and Walmart, three areas within the store really stood out for me:

1) The candy and sweets section. Notice I didn’t say aisle; it was a section of aisles and took up a large percentage of the store, with everything from packaged candy bars, gift packs and baskets, to container upon container of individually packaged pieces of bulk candy, merchandised the way I am used to seeing grains or nuts at a Whole Foods back home. And there were so many interesting and different types of candy. Tiny, individual “pudding cups” filled with pieces of fruit, suspended in a sweet gelatin base (unrefrigerated) made up most of one, long aisle. Clearly this is a go-to snack for Chinese kids. It reminded me of the Del Monte Snack Pack of my childhood. But that was fruit suspended in sugary water, not jelly. I can say without any research, these would be a hard sell in the U.S. because the concept of jellied sweets is not a popular, mainstream texture profile here; not yet, anyway. And I am sure my Del Monte Snack Pack would seem watery and odd to the Chinese.

2) The fresh fish section of the store. There was a wide assortment of seafood including fresh, fileted fish, laid out on ice, like you would see at a U.S. grocer or fish monger – salmon, tuna, clam, mussels, etc., … but what you wouldn’t find was the large, aerated tank of live frogs or the live, local yellow croaker fish swimming next to them in an even larger tank. I am sure that if I liked frog legs, these would be the freshest I had ever tasted, but from my perspective, the frog tank belonged in the pets aisle. Of course, if one of my fellow Chinese shoppers had walked into a Petco in the U.S. and seen the frog tank, he or she might wonder why that was the only human “food” they were selling in there!

3) Fresh fruits and vegetables department. I could have created my own game show in this department – Name that Spiky, Brown Fruit! This is where, as a cook, I get frustrated traveling abroad, not being able to fill up my cart and go home and try these exotic, interesting foods. There were huge piles of interesting, unknown-to-me produce with signs above them, written in Chinese characters, so I really had no idea what half the stuff was. I did a few sniff tests and took a lot of pictures. One fruit I had never tried before going to China was dragonfruit, which I loved and know that I can get in New York.

Convenience stores were smaller and cleaner (for the most part) than their U.S. equivalents, but they served more as prepared-food destinations. I visited a 7-Eleven and a Family Mart at the lunch hour and they were bustling like we would think of a QSR in the states. They had prepackaged vegetable, rice and chicken plates on the shelves, alongside boxes of crackers and chips. I guess the chicken was preserved in some way as to not need refrigeration, but the look of it was still a little unsettling. And there were interesting flavors of chips to accompany the meal, like shrimp and salted-fish flavor. I am a fish and seafood lover, so why not a chip flavored with those ingredients? What is new and unknown might be delicious. Might it also be just a little weird?

While there were several fun and funny differences between these retail experiences and the familiar ones back home, there were as many similarities. Merchandising clearly matters; I saw some great displays and well-stocked and maintained shelves. Wayfinding was in place and helpful (if you read Chinese) and there seemed to be a familiar flow to the store’s layout, so finding the different sections and departments was not hard. At Carrefour, there was a huge, well-stocked imports section, (accurately) reflecting the presence of a large ex-pat community nearby who shopped the store. At Walmart I saw families with full baskets clearly doing the weekly “big shop.”

Shanghai is a world away from New York City, of course, but I was very much at home in retailers I know (and several that I didn’t), surrounded by brands I know and love (and others that piqued my curiosity and were loved by my fellow, local shoppers). Shopping is social, even if you don’t speak the same language. We can express ourselves and define parts of ourselves by what ends up in our basket – and that’s true anywhere in the world.




When in Shanghai: Part 2

Upstairs, Downstairs

The Chinese boomtown Shanghai is a city of juxtapositions. There are the ones you expect: ancient buildings standing behind glittering towers erected as recently as 15 years ago; traditional neighborhood noodle restaurants sharing a block with Starbucks; or Mercedes-Benz taxis parked alongside rickshaws. But for me, on my recent visit, one of the most stark and surprising juxtapositions was the retail scene.

Beneath the Museum of Science & Technology in Shanghai, the most visited modern museum in China, lies a tourist attraction with realistically more draw than the museum could ever hope for: AP Plaza, a.k.a the “fakes market.” It’s a cavernous maze of individual stalls selling the literal retail underground: designer knock-offs of everything, including watches, sunglasses, handbags, shoes, scarves and umbrellas, even cosmetics. Many of the counterfeits perfectly mirror the luxury items they are ripping off, down to the tiniest detail. Even if the booty is tantalizing, the experience is stressful. Sellers are extremely aggressive and the setting dingy and disorganized.

Just across town, very much above ground, are some of the most massive, swanky and impressive retail stores I have ever seen. Here is where you’ll find the authentic versions of those luxury items. The stores themselves are opulent, ultra-luxe showrooms, with spectacular visual merchandising and highly trained and polished sales people. And the items themselves are ones of great tradition, quality and even greater expense.

I was a shopper in both of these very different worlds this past week. What struck me was that the tie that binds them both: brands. The allure of brands, and the power they have to reward us, fulfill us, validate and make us feel special, is a unique but global phenomenon. There would be no fakes market without the brand love and desire engendered by legitimate brands, sold at “real” retail, over the span of generations.

Does buying your second fake Louis Vuitton bag in a dirty basement under a museum qualify you as brand loyal? Do fakes leave the shopper with the same pride of ownership and joy from the purchase and subsequent use of the real thing? Do throngs of shoppers carrying fake bags marginalize buyers of real goods?

The matters of brand loyalty (or brand fascination, perhaps) and pride of ownership can get murky. But I think there is little doubt that a sea of fakes muddies the waters of global retail and cheats buyers of authentic goods. But, regardless, it begs the question: Just what is the true value of a brand? It is a question that threatens, to some extent, the luxury end of retail. I do not believe the fake versions of their products are stealing much revenue. For the most part, people who buy the fakes are unlikely to purchase the real thing anyway. But what is being stolen is brand cachet and reputation.

I remember clearly the first time I bought a designer handbag. I had saved for it and was excited to go buy it but also a bit nervous about the price. The very chic, older saleswoman sensed this and said, “Don’t worry dear, I was your age when I bought my first one, and we will both be buried with these bags. They are timeless and of a superior quality.” I felt satisfied and smart, like I was making an important “investment.”

Buyers of knock-offs, of course, are getting as close as they can afford to get to being a part of a brand-name club. Those who can afford the real thing usually buy it, paying the high price to participate in the whole luxury brand experience. They are buying into the opulent store setting and stylish sales people as much as they are buying the actual designer bag or timepiece. But when they see their prize possessions filter down to the masses not just in imitations but exact copies of the same product, does it tarnish the privilege of ownership?

It’s tough to envision a resolution for this divide. While vendors of fake goods around the world get policed and shut-down from time-to-time, the source of these good knock-offs is a thriving component of the Shanghai economy. It may be underground, but it’s a major tourist attraction with barely the hint of impropriety or dishonesty.


When in Shanghai: Part 1

The Chinese market shopping experience (pearls, home goods, clothing and accessories and “the fakes”) is its own kind of dynamic retail. In a country of 1.3 billion people, finding jobs and making money is not an easy thing to do. Couple that with a culture (and history) of commerce meets corruption and counterfeit, the lack of physical space in crowded cities, and a language so different and difficult for nearly all foreigners and the stage is set.

Frenetic, slightly ‘sketchy’ vendor markets with aggressive “sales people” and language barriers that make the back and forth on price nearly impossible are certainly not unique to the Chinese market experience. And let’s face it: the experience itself can be a big part of the fun of any foreign travel. Haggling for a treasure in a foreign place and in a foreign tongue is the stuff of travel memories. These items become our trophies and proof positive that we are excellent and intrepid shoppers! Ha.

But to enjoy the market shopping in Shanghai one must go into it with the right perspective. Westerners need to adapt their notions about personal space, rethink what constitutes aggression, and reconsider the whole concept of customer service. Think Hunger Games meets the Amazing Race crossed with Deal or No Deal and you will begin to get closer in your head to the experience you will have.

We entered the first market (the wholesale market that sells to anyone) and we were swarmed. Everyone was excitedly asking (screaming, really) WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR, LADY? (in clearly comprehendible English). Shoving printed brochures at us with blurry photos of knock-off Gucci bags and Rolex watches. We politely said “no thanks” and kept walking. They kept walking too, very close behind, kept asking and nudging. We plotted how to lose them down the next crowded aisle of stuff. For the record, it makes it hard to shop when you are feeling the urge to run!

Eventually, though, they give up and whatever fear might have existed in us was quickly replaced by the familiar comfort of retail therapy in a discount environment!  As in other countries where haggling is a way of life, such as Morrocco, once a price is set by the seller (usually by typing into a calculator and showing you) you cut the number in half and if they don’t honor your price, you walk away (because they will eventually honor your price!). And this applied to the people selling the fake watches and handbags as well as those selling much more expensive, high-end jewelry in the same locations.

The well rehearsed back and forth seems so silly to me. These people are not stupid, quite the opposite. They are hard working and enterprising and certainly all speak more English than I did Chinese! They know what my guidebook told me to do! I imagined they simply typed into their calculators double the price they wanted, so the games could begin and they would come out whole.

I survived and even thrived in the markets of Shanghai. I have a few pair of sunglasses, some silk pajamas, and a string of fresh water pearls to show for it. Did I pay a ‘fair’ price? Who knows? And to some extent, who cares? The price seemed fair to me for what I was buying and the seller seemed happy after our sparing match was over and a price was decided.

In a sea of merchandise sameness and after the chase, how did I choose which stall to buy my treasures? I picked the same way I choose a sales person at a department store in NYC: the one who was the least aggressive and pushy and who seemed the friendliest.

I just had to alter my Western understanding of those descriptors to fit the situation. It was fun.

Branding Ourselves…Literally

We have all entertained the idea of doing something that had been deemed “forbidden” under the judging eyes of society. Maybe it was the second you turned 18, because you felt empowered by the fact that you were now legally an adult. Now in your late 20s, mid 30s and 40s, as a thriving professional with a salaried job and growing 401k, have the times changed enough that toying with the idea of getting your first tattoo isn’t ludicrous?

What if you didn’t have the urge to get inked in your glory days? After all, your mom had always warned you against permanently branding your body by instilling the fear in you that it would limit your future and keep you from getting a “real” job.

Athletes, for instance, are able to shamelessly flaunt their tattoos and are often praised and well-respected for what they represent, so why should people with more conservative jobs be held to “higher,” and arguably more condemnatory standards?

Despite any possible lingering stigma of baring tattoos in the corporate world, it appears that an increasing number of people are looking to tattoos as a form of artistic expression drawing from personal experiences in their lives, as opposed to simply getting stamped with a design of the times.

Brands could learn a lot from this way of thinking by putting a similar amount of thought into what your brand says to the world. Say it loud and show it proud. Similar to tattoos, people may or may not easily interpret the meaning and reasoning behind them; but they serve as a great conversation starter. Just like a tattoo does for an individual’s “Brand,” a marketer’s Brand image and voice can provide us with insight as to what they’re all about, what they value and ultimately have to offer.