Hacking Authenticity

Have you heard of Shinola? I first heard of the company when my brother called: “Hey, there’s a really cool new company making watches in Detroit. They’re the first watch made in America in a long time. I pre-ordered one.”

I’m originally from Detroit and the house where I lived as a child is abandoned and broken.  It's a pretty good stand in for a city as a whole. Once the "Paris of the west” we all know that it has seen much better times. So any good news from Detroit makes me happy, and naturally I wanted a Shinola too. Then last year I got one as a gift. I love the watch, and the packaging was over-the-top well done. It even came with a little tin of leather cream to use on the band now and then. Nice touch.

When the little orange lightning bolt thread in the strap unraveled, I made the trek to their Tribeca flagship store for a replacement. The place had an uncannily well done retail presence that brought to mind Anthropologie’s  temple of too-expensive-to-be-real cool. And it was filled with a too-perfect collection of leather goods, bicycles, and watches in an awesome space replete with a hipsterific 3rd generation coffee shop in the foyer.

You know, this place might just too good to be the scrappy Detroit-based startup it presents itself as. What’s going on? I Googled them, but at the time I didn’t find a whole lot except for bits here and there extolling them for bringing manufacturing jobs to the Motor City.

Can you tell shit from Shinola? Maybe that’s this brand’s challenge to all of us?
Two weeks ago I attended Alistair Croll’s BitNorth conference in the woods outside of Montreal. It was a fun intimate event held at the Canadian Association of Music summer camp (“One time, at band camp…”). Jaethan Reichel gave an interesting talk about reviving old brands that was centered on the Shinola story. It turns out that the guy who built the Fossil brand around the idea of importing watches into the mid-level fashion market, had left that gig and was now running an investment fund called Bedrock (yes, after the Flintstones – this guy can’t be all bad). Bedrock essentially invented Shinola from thin air after a conversation at a Plano Texas conference table. “Can you tell shit from Shinola? I don’t know, let’s see if the mark is available.” It was, and they could.
It turns out that old brands, even one for a shoe polish who’s heyday ended with the second world war, are super valuable. We remember something about them even if we’re not sure what, and those deeply buried inchoate associations in our cultural brain give them tremendous value. And maybe it isn’t just the awareness that’s valuable, it’s probably also the subtle promise of time honored authenticity. Buying into such a brand is a peek into our cultural rear view mirror, the same kind of nostalgic looking back that powers hipsterism writ large, farm-to-table restaurants, the Barrett-Jackson auto auctions and many other cultural accouterments of our moment.
When I started life in the mid 60’s we thought 2015 would be all personal helicoptering to work and colonies on the moon, now we want 2020 to be 1960 again. What sucked then seems like paradise to a generation raised on war in the middle east and ever-imminent climate nightmares. I guess. So, here we are, a society whose brains are full of surprisingly-robust dead-brand associations in the middle of a looking-backwards cultural moment. There’s money to be made in that.
So, of course Shinola isn’t alone. As it turns out, there is a whole wave of old brands being revived for their latent value. There is a cottage industry of sorts right now of people who are digging up old brands from newspaper microfiche to revive them with new methods and new manufacturing. The promise of nostalgia wrapped in modern, efficient, and reliable design easily manufactured from foreign parts is great – Shinola is assembled in Detroit, but it’s a Swiss quartz movement after all.
Jaethan’s talk was a kind of how-to guide to the process for small scale entrepreneurs, and one worth thinking about, and I don’t mean this post to be a criticism of his talk. There are lots of opportunities to build good businesses this way and attaching oneself to an existing (but languishing) store of value is a great way for an entrepreneur with limited budget to get started.
So, why was I thinking about my watch and feeling more and more like my brain had been hacked? The phrase “inauthentic authenticity” kept tumbling around in my head. My question is: how can we do something with a cultural storehouse full of brand equity without feeling icky about it? Or making our customers feel icky later that they were taken in by something false dressing itself up as an authentic experience?
Maybe this one just hit close to home because of the Detroit connection for me. I’m growing tired of brands attaching themselves to our fascination with its ruins, while the death rattles continue unabated and its people suffer. Detroit is not something to be trivialized. It’s not a set piece for your authenticity hack. It’s a city in deep trouble full of people living difficult lives (read this instead of Chrysler marketing copy).
Anyway, this isn’t my first experience with authenticity hacking (once you look around you realize it’s no one’s first experience with authenticity hacking). I own a Ducati motorcycle that was manufactured after Cagiva bought the mark. Ducati was a going concern when Cagiva bought them, and they didn’t exactly AMF them (see Harley Davidson in the 1970’s). Ducati even today continues to build engines with desmo valve trains and only recently dropped their “here comes a Ducati” dry clutch while beginning the move away from their traditional trellis steel frames. So, there is continuity in this story – a lot of Ducati DNA was alive and thriving inside of Cagiva when they made my bike in 1993.
But later Cagiva pulled off a trick much closer to the Shinola gambit when they purchased the MV Augusta name in 1991. MV hadn’t manufactured anything since 1980 and yet many people carried at least amorphous associations with their pre-1980’s racing exploits in their heads. I remember coming across the first MV Augusta F4 in 1997 at the Fast by Ferracci showroom and wanting it. So. Bad. I loved how it wrapped Italianess around a screaming inline 4 cylinder engine. It was everything I loved about my Ducati (well, a lot of it) coupled with the performance of a modern Japanese bike. Yet, I can tell you if the exact same bike was called a Cagiva F4 I would have barely noticed it. Too recently Cagiva was a machine tool company (or something equally glamorous) that started into the bike business by making bad bikes. Well, my position on that probably says as much about me as it does about authenticity hacking, but there it is. Would I buy a Cagiva? Nope. Would I wear a $550 watch by Fossil? Nope.
What’s different? Does a brand need to imply continuity with previous experience to make sense to me? Is that why they work? They say that “brands are a promise,” but a promise of what exactly, and whose?
Ducati is, even now, connected to its roots. They’ve traded hands a few times (they are owned by Audi now) but as a company with at least some DNA intact, not as a brand detached from the things that make it real. If I were to buy a new Ducati today I could reasonably expect it to have something in its essence similar to the one I own. Although, as I say that, I’m wondering what I could expect from a piece of Ducati branded Tumi luggage.
Meanwhile MV Augusta is Cagiva wearing clothes it found in a second hand store. I would wager there wasn’t a single MV engineer involved in the F4. And want to hear the punch line? Cagiva doesn’t even call themselves Cagiva anymore. They changed the name of the company to MV Augusta Motors a few years ago. MV’s success has made it more important to Cagiva than the things that used to be called Cagiva, and I suppose they've painstakingly built a new brand, so I guess that’s no sin. It could certainly be worse (Phillip Morris nee Altria and Blackwater nee Xe nee Academi I’m looking at you).
I’m obviously just the right kind of dupe for this game since I also own a Mini Cooper that was designed and built under BMW’s revival of the brand. Is BMW promising that a modern Mini Cooper is designed by Mr. Cooper? Obviously not. So, is it enough to say “we are selling you a car designed with the same spirit?” Or are they saying “we’re selling you a BMW that we could never market as a BMW because it’s too far from that brand’s promise, and it has funny gauges.” Anyway, I love the car so I guess it has kept whatever promises it made to me in 2006 when I bought it.
Even now I have mixed feelings about Shinola. I like my watch, I like that they are creating jobs in Detroit, and I like that they really seem to be trying to build a supply base in the United States. I still feel manipulated though. Like my brain was hacked by too-good marketing, a too-slick narrative, and too much money to spend making it all too perfect. There is a fine line between borrowed (appropriated?) authenticity and a false promise.
If I were going to dig through old newspapers looking for a store of latent neuro-association value to build a business around, I’d want a set of guidelines for making and keeping the promises of the brand. Where the brand is attached to a still-going concern I think a big part of that promise-keeping would revolve around maintaining the continuity of as many of the things that make up the mark’s DNA as I could. And of course a lot of that is inside of the people that make up a business.
In the case of a brand that has long detached from the company that built it, it seems like a more complicated undertaking. I mean, I never thought that Shinola in 2014 was related in any direct way to the Shinola of 1945. I knew that it was a brand revival, but I guess I just thought it was scrappier. I didn’t expect a $100M war chest and a $15M flagship store in Tribeca (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they spent more on their Tribeca real estate than they did on their Detroit manufacturing operation). I’m not completely sure what an “authentic” Detroit revival story would look like here, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. Authenticity is the accretion of little things. Of experiences and associations over time, and it can be simulated in a big bang, but not really recreated.
So, maybe that’s the answer. You can build a new business on an old brand, but you can’t do it by appropriating authenticity, you do it by building your own authenticity on top of that existing storehouse of associations, one good experience at a time. The trademark you buy is the starting point, but the brand you build with it is yours, and just like the original meaning of that brand, will take time to build. Or, maybe Shinola proves me wrong, and I’m just an oddball with an awkward set of sensibilities when it comes to authenticity.
By the way, I used to fly “Pan American Clipper" from Trenton, NJ to Bedford, MA. The connection back to the original brand was so laughably transparent as to be ignored. My brain certainly hadn’t been hacked by a fit of nostalgia into flying with those guys, they were simply the only airline flying that route. I didn’t feel hacked or duped by the name, just sort of bemused that the name that used to decorate glamorous clippers was painted on the side of my little puddle jumper. I wasn’t surprised at all when the government eventually shut them down for their unwillingness to follow safety regulations. 

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