Interesting story in the WSJ this morning about Alec Duffy, the 33 year old theater director from Brooklyn.  Duffy found himself in an opportune position after he won the rights to singer/songwriter Sufjan Steven’s, newest single.  According to the WSJ:

Duffy won the rights to Mr. Stevens’s song in a 2007 contest called the “Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange.” Mr. Duffy submitted a song that he wrote — called “Every Day is Christmas” — that Mr. Stevens judged the best. In exchange, Mr. Duffy won the rights to Mr. Stevens’s “The Lonely Man of Winter”…In describing the prize, Mr. Stevens’s Web site said: “Sufjan’s new song becomes your song. You can hoard it for yourself, sell it to a major soft drink corporation, use it in your daughter’s first Christmas video, or share it for free on your Web site. No one except Sufjan and you will hear his song, unless you decide otherwise.”

The contest created by Sufjan is indeed deserving of major props.  It is, however, not a concept that should be seen as terribly mind-blowing, especially in today’s environment.  Artists, or I should say, the artists who intend on surviving in this climate will continue to be the trendsetters in the utilization of social-networking methods and tools that connect with and empower their fans–making them feel like an even larger part of the process.  It is the only way to break through the clutter and engage with the loyal and devoted fans you’ve already hooked in; the only way to maintain your brand’s/band’s reputation.  Releasing a decent recording simply won’t cut it anymore.

For me though, the coolest part of all this was Duffy’s response to his new position of musical-power.  Instead of selling the song for some sort of commercial use–which, I am sure, millions of people would have done if given the opportunity–he sent out an invite on his theater company’s website for fans to come to his home in Brooklyn to listen to the song (on headphones), together.  “The experiment lures strangers to Mr. Duffy’s living room about once a week, to [as he says,] “recapture an era when to get one’s hands on a particular album or song was a real experience.”

Duffy describes Sufjan as “the wizard behind the curtain,” and it’s very cool to me how, without being guided in any way by the artist, he has essentially gone out of his way to perpetuate this artistic perception.  He has taken full responsibility for maintaining the brand’s (Sufjan’s) reputation, almost making it a fulltime job.  It’s an amazing example of a brand’s message being embraced and consequently strengthened by the “consumer,” organically.  Authenticity at it’s best…

My favorite quote of Duffy’s is when he says about the gatherings, “This is the finest way we felt we could curate this song. It brings people together, rather than being lost among 14,000 iTunes.”

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I was down in Florida for a few days recently and was reminded of how painfully obvious the absence of “sun-protection” is when down there. The sun is so intensely bright and relentless that without the proper precautions, your skin and eyes can get absolutely smoked. My brother, who is still in high school, came to that realization within the first hour.

As we made the short drive from the Ft. Myers airport toward the causeway and over to Sanibel Island, John was squinting so hard his eyes were watering and he had a headache from the strain. Having had the same experience before, I felt his pain and knew what needed to be done…we were on a mission to find John a pair of “keeper” sunglasses.

FYI: I think it’s important for me to make note of my philosophy on making purchases such as these: Go into every purchase with the idea that you are investing in something you will live with for the rest of your life (even if you know that’s not possible)…this means–within reason–you should buy something you like and think you will like for years and years to come, and you should buy something that has the quality (and style!) to last that long.

So, my cousin and I drove my brother out to the mall, which actually had two sunglass shops, virtually right next to one another. We made our way into Solstice first, which had a sort of Sunglass Hut-experience: a fairly small rectangular space with open racks of sunglasses, organized by brand, lining every inch of the walls and a friendly saleswoman making every effort to help get you in a new pair (pictured above). At first, this was nothing special–a very typical sunglass-store experience. That was until, after a good 15-20 minutes of experimentation at Solstice, we walked over to the second store, Tote’s Sunglass Shop–just to make sure we weren’t missing anything…

Unfortunately, Tote’s was such a mess we weren’t even able to make the judgment.  Not only was there far too much variety, in terms of product offerings (especially for a store with the word “sunglass” in the name), but every pair of sunglasses was locked inside a glass case!  To make it worse, even as the three of us began curiously peering into the cases, the salesman remained tethered to his post behind the register, making no effort to help or see if we wanted to “demo” some of the choices. Honestly, even if he had opened the case and let us fish around, the environment was so non-conducive to experimentation–with small, awkwardly placed mirrors pressed up against racks of clothes–that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. The whole place was truly baffling.

Aren’t retailers actually more successful the longer they get customers to hang around, experiment and go through the mental process of picturing their lives with the product in question? Shouldn’t you do everything you can to facilitate that experience? Have Apple stores still not been around long enough for everyone to realize this? What seemed like a no-brainer for the creation of a successful retail experience was completely lost by a clear lack of focus and direction at Tote’s. The experience we had seconds before at Solstice only highlighted this failure.

Needless to say, we spent about 1 minute in the cluster-fuck of an “in-store experience” before returning to Solstice where we spent an additional 10 minutes experimenting before my brother settled on a pair he was happy with; a pair that would protect him from the mean Florida sun and, hopefully, a pair he would continue wear for many years to come.

Clutter Busters?

March 21, 2009

Originally posted on 3.18.2009

Rob Walker pointed out a interesting AdWeek article today that mentions Wal-Mart’s upcoming in-store video display system which they are claiming will help REDUCE advertisement clutter and offer a more seamless shopping experience…

Stephen Quinn, CMO of Wal-Mart Stores U.S., says that the only clutter-proof medium he’s aware of is the one that the company created itself, the Walmart Smart Network….When it’s fully rolled out next year, it will include some 27,000 in-store video screens in 2,700 stores. The content includes both infomercials and advertisements from Wal-Mart suppliers, and the schedules are customized to individual stores and shopping occasions.

Perhaps I don’t fully understand how Wal-Mart envisions this program working, but it sounds more like a clutter-MULTIPLIER than any sort of simplifier. Do they really think this will enhance their customer’s in-store experience? Customers are already surrounded by thousands of products vying for their attention, and Wal-Mart thinks adding video screens that bark out offers while they stroll down the aisles will reduce clutter?!

As Walker mentions, Wal-Mart is clearly very excited about the ability to eliminate “non-Wal-Mart sactioned” brands, but they are completely neglecting how this will affect the Wal-Mart brand experience. Sure, this may be an attractive opportunity for many of the brands housed inside Wal-Mart, but I suspect, in the long term, everyone’s brand will end up suffering from such a short-sighted strategy.