Saturday, 14 October 2017

Sinking Craft




“More depends on what things are called than on what they are.”
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 

Being a neurotic parent I can’t look at my daughters without thinking they’re destined to carry variants of my mistakes with them through time and space, seeding the future with updated versions of past calamities.

In June, 1981, my mother rescued me from The Stonehenge Festival. The humiliation I felt slinking through a cordon of Hell’s Angels to her Vauxhall Chevette remains with me.

The past repeated itself this summer when I collected our youngest daughter from The Secret Garden Party - in a Lexus. On the way home she told me the blatant drug taking had upset her, and she’d had her fill of conversations that revolved round brands rather than bands. When, in the 80s, Huey Lewis sang, “It’s hip to be square”, maybe he was foretelling the kind of future my daughters now inhabit, in which stoned, privileged kids boast to one another about gin brands, parental trips to Waitrose and other people’s Rolex watches. In marketing’s emotional economy drugs and brands amount to the same thing.

Dickens observed that gin gave the wretched and defeated a temporary fix of oblivion from their despair. Gin houses were a symptom rather than a cause, though Dickens recognised that in offering an escape from life’s brutality alcohol advanced its own insidious form of capture. As long as there was poverty, gin houses would continue to exist.

Gin survived the last decades of the 20th Century as Gordon’s, but like deep-ocean bacteria that cling to hydrogen sulphide vents for breath, the brand lived out a woebegone existence at the back of G-Plan cabinets, or else bottles were inverted and hung in dingy rows of optics.

In the 90s, I attended the launch of a Gordon’s Gin commercial. The ad was aimed at a ‘younger demographic’, but as a result of EU directives restricting TV advertising of alcohol it was scheduled for cinema distribution only.  Despite all the fizz and clink no one there believed the ad would achieve its brief and recruit a new generation of revellers to Gordon’s. The more the presentation addressed this separation, the wider the chasm grew. Spirit brands needed to be able to bypass EU interdictions, or find new markets and new media that were less inhibited.

The advent of digitalization and mobile phones changed both the way we view the world and way the world views us. The cultural theorist, Ian Buchanan, makes the point that twenty years ago we were in the middle of an ADHD epidemic, yet for the past decade parents have been yelling at plugged-in kids to be less attentive, and turn their phones off. As with Dickens’ gin houses, we escape one problem by stumbling into another.

Digitalization, according to Bruno Latour, “finds more complexity in the elements than the aggregates.” The extraordinary capabilities of today’s search engines allied to our propensity to share likes and dislikes creates strategic opportunities for Google, Twitter and other social networking platforms. I see myself as autonomous, resilient, and centred, but Google sees me much more open-endedly: as one possible intersection of people, services and products that can be reshuffled and built upon.

As a case in point, while writing this post, I searched and re-read Bruno Latour’s paper, ‘The whole is always smaller than its parts’, only for Google’s algorithm to return my inquiry back to me in ads for single men and wine tours. Google deduced enough about my lifestyle from ‘Bruno Latour’ to try and top-up my R&R network of people and places. Digital marketing develops opportunities virally from the bottom up. It can create new and inclusive aggregates by enhancing, occupying and expanding upon individuals’ existing connections.     

Latour volunteers the Mexican wave as an example of viral behaviour. There is no preplanning: a man stands and raises his arms, and sometimes this builds into a spontaneous rhythmic motion, and sometimes it doesn’t. Similarly, ants don’t work to a master plan when they build a nest. The interaction of one worker ant with another means every ants’ nest shares certain features, yet each nest is a unique structure. Both examples start with the individual and their immediate connections. Rather than seeing society as ordered from above, Latour urges us to think of aggregates loosely overlapping other aggregates, but these assemblages ultimately depend upon the connectivity and agreement between individual elements in order to emerge and persist.

Another example may help here. If we enrich the combined data set of Conservative and Labour Party supporters by including members’ published attitudes towards Europe then, potentially, we can search and cut across old alliances and realise a new social grouping – ergo, UKIP. The connection between Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks gathered up and united political opponents, eventually disrupting what most of us thought was an inevitable, self-replicating structure of governance.

UKIP may prove to be as short-lived as a Mexican wave, but it is a useful, if simplistic, model for showing how digital analysis can break-up and realign existing organisations. We can think of aggregates (in this case, political parties) as unstable isotopes whose atoms keep bonding in different ways to produce new, fragile forms. Whether assemblages bring about order of disorder, individuation or cohesiveness depends on how they overlap with other assemblages, if they overlap at all.

Crucially, Latour doesn’t look upon the ‘the digital’ as epoch-making, instead he believes that digitalization helps reveal a structure that was always there but until now escaped our scrutiny. Aggregates and elements are fundamentally equivalent.  The reason we think of them separately is because when it came to complex assemblages like societies we simply lacked the empirical muscle and data to see how the elements behaved, so a separation was fudged between the macro and micro, society and individual.  

I think Bruno Latour would approve of my daughter’s use of ‘a thing’. According to her UKIP is ‘a thing’, and craft gin is ‘a thing’. Urban vocabulary captures the coalescing of people, places, time and products in a way that subverts the established vernacular of thing-hood as existing independently from us. Furthermore, ‘things’ overlap and build into lifestyles. In Cecily’s example, she needed to endorse Rolex-Gin-Waitrose to gain access to, and the approval of, her peers. Apple, remember, implored us to ‘think different’, not differently.

Sacred is the exemplar of the craft-gin-thing. The company was founded by Ian Hart and Hilary Witney in 2008. Their story brings together entrepreneurialism, expertise, networking and a fortuitous legal about-turn that meant spirit production could take place at a micro level. We also need to add Gordon’s to this ensemble, the marooned market leader that had become separated from its customer base by EU interdictions; and a youthful, connected bar community that couldn’t be bothered with gin’s historicity beyond the role it played in corroborating the costume drama of hipster lifestyle.

Ten years ago, tech media companies were regarded as the benign gatekeepers of a shared virtual space rather than as monopolists, and the digital turn seemed, for a brief moment, an opportunity for the many rather than the few. The algorithms that would turn our intellectual property into their capital were still pending, and information trafficked freely. Sacred crossed the moat before the draw-bridge was pulled-up, benefiting from uninhibited and rapid access to the early adopters and influencers in their market; underscoring the fact that with every success story there’s an element of right place, right time, right thinking.

Today, both digital space and the craft gin market are much more crowded than they were back in 2008. Vlogs are the latest trend to air. Watch a well-produced video and you’ll have to squint to see the joins that separate it from cinematic commercials, or our own fantasies of a better funded life; but watch a duff one – the overwhelming majority are disturbingly bad - and you sense the embarrassment of the man whose Mexican wave dies unrequited.

Sitting through crap vlogs and irrelevant ads, the realisation came to me that only with hindsight does marketing purify itself into a meta-language of success, aspiration and affirmation. Most of the time marketing muddles through life, just like us, though it’s better at hiding the flops behind the triumphs - until it began leaving a digital trail on YouTube and Instagram, that is. More generally, marketing seems to uncritically co-opt, and bandwagon itself upon, ‘the digital’, ‘the neural’, ‘the irrational’, ‘the genetic’, parading them as paradigms of future prosperity, or as smart ways out of a doomed present. As Steve Woolgar has pointed out, marketing has a revelatory structure. Like the analyst and the couch, it stages a scenario in which the consumer’s irrational motivations are brought to client consciousness; thereafter, all manner of quackery is prescribed as a fix. There has to be some useful stuff mixed in with the dross, but marketing has a tendency to swallow things whole, fearful that it might be outmanoeuvred or outflanked by them. Contradictions are inevitable. ‘Let the consumer decide’ sounds like Smithian rational decision making, but these are often the same consumers whose irrational motivations - or so they tell us on the couch - are hidden from them. If this sounds a lot like a man selling ladders to escape the snakes he sold you last week, you are not alone.

Gin brands have kept pace with the inflationary expansion of vlogs. Sipsmith and Sacred have been joined by hundreds of new entrants, and craft now accounts for 50% of the domestic gin market. Craft evokes a utopian view of gin production, stripping away the silos of bulk manufacture, and superseding familiar brands.

The philosopher, Mark Fisher, recently asked the question: which musical genre from the last 10 years will constitute the retro-choices of future generations? His point being that creativity has been the looser in the backward looking world of digitalization that finds profit easy to come by in the simple reproduction and distribution of back catalogues. Even today’s new acts sound like they’ve been plucked serendipitously from the past. As Fisher points out, we can listen to pop music from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and even if we don’t know the artist we can still make an informed guess at the year it was released. There’s was an identifiable progression and succession of musical styles that the derivative Ed Sheeran and Artic Monkeys have helped bring to a halt.  

Viewed from this perspective, craft, like vinyl and hipsters, is a demand to let history take place, but as nostalgia and retro rather than as events. It aestheticizes production, pursues the image, and abandons historicity. Images proliferate precisely because their production already includes their own obsolescence. If craft seems a precarious category it’s because it is so tied to the fate of the image and to fashion, and is therefore exposed to the compulsion for change and the relentless churn of the new.

Ten years ago, two friends of mine, Jasper Cuppaidge and John Hegarty, collaborated together on Camden Brewery. I was involved in the project in a very minor way as I did the first brew with Jasper at a friend’s micro-brewery. Jasper’s family had run a brewery in Australia, so there was a nice back story to the brand about moving away to come back home.

John is the man who got generations of kids who’d shot Germans in the playground driving Audis – ‘Vorspung durch Technik’ is his tag line – and he brought decades of branding intelligence to the project.

Camden Brewery rode the craft wave. Their beer was well-received; they did a nice line in retro-labelling (Jasper owned the rights to some of the original Australian labels); and the company bolstered its capacity through crowd funding. Camden became the poster boy for nostalgic beer drinkers who were younger and less sweaty than CAMRA. If squabbles within categories are embittered by the narcissism of fine differences (psychoanalysis uses fine, never small!)  then craft drinkers are always to found on the self-regarding side of the argument.

Seven years after that initial brew, Camden was sold to Budweiser for £78million. I was pleased for Jasper and John, but the recriminations among my beer obsessed friends were immediate. Prior to the sale they’d sought out the brand, but now they confided in me, “It was never any good, anyway.” They felt they’d been duped. Craft, for them, was a line of flight that broke free from the big breweries – they were the ‘first capitalists’ according to a beer writing friend – and now this escape route had been seized and blocked. As if this thought wasn’t bad enough, there was an even more subverting idea in play:  that Camden had set out to steal the heart from a category that was imitable precisely because it was built on sentiment rather than substance, and what substance there was could be easily replicated. The same principle applies to scale: is there something intrinsically different about small batch production, or is it just, as Latour would have it, a misplaced emotion tied to an expedient division between macro and micro?

I remember John Hegarty criticised a paper I’d written on wine branding for being too headstrong, so maybe he’d seen a seduction at work in the reinvigorated beer category that was open to leverage. Monks making Lambic beers has precedent, but surely UK production is derivative; its own form of capture, even. Moreover, isn’t there a circular argument at work here? Craft beer is interesting and good, and the reason it’s interesting and good is because it’s craft.

What goes for beer also goes for gin. All the new market entrants must be persuaded that there’s either an insatiable interest for botanicals, or that they can outcompete and undercut the categories premium market leaders and still make margin. Sacred made a timely jump across one moat before the bridge was raised, but maybe it needs a white knight to help it make the next leap. Even my kids are starting to wonder how many craft gins the UK market can sustain!

The reason John Hegarty is pertinent to this post is because John, in his dual role as Creative Director of BBH and owner of a domaine in the Minervois, has been unequivocal in his criticism of the wine business, in particular the categories’ dearth of consumer focused brands.

A Twitter exchange that followed on from Charlie Ingham’s post ‘Big Brand Wine” made me reconsider John's argument.

I 'liked' this tweet form Joelle Nebbe-Mornot:

Brands as safe shortcuts on everything we don't care about. Then on topics that grab us, we all end up seeking the niche diversity. Geek out

My experience in the supermarket reflects Joelle’s. Ten washing powders is enough, but drifting down the wine shelves I can rarely find a bottle I want to buy. I’m too involved in the wine category for the supermarket’s wine selection to be relevant; and I just buy Persil out of habit.

My supermarket basket looks the same as many other shoppers, but their avoidance of wine comes down to a lack of confidence, or unfamiliarity with the brands on offer. What John Hegarty and others conclude is that we need more relevant and recognisable wine brands to recruit, retain and up-sell consumers. Customers don't trust their own knowledge, nor are they trusting of the distributed brands to provide value for money.  Supermarket bottle spend remains low, but it could be improved if customers were offered a better choice. This line of reasoning is often underscored by a threat: ‘If wine continues to be resistant to consumer needs then it shouldn’t take its market share for granted.’

When following this argument, we again need to be aware of staging. Firstly, marketing offers solutions, but in order it prescribe a cure it often needs to contrive a threat that it alone is the answer to: - ‘Do it our way or suffer these consequences in the future’…. Secondly, marketing naturalises ‘choice’ to suit its own purposes and methods. What Joelle refers to as ‘geek out’ is, for me, actually what constitutes making a choice. I am in my element choosing between tens of thousands of wines. I can bring my expertise to bear and, within reason, buy what I want. By contrast, phrases like, ‘Let the consumer choose’ or ‘The customer will decide’ seen in the context of a limited range of brands is, in fact, no choice at all. By the time the supermarket buyer has whittled a category down to a few brands there’s little choosing and decision making left for the consumer to enact. What is called ‘choice’ is an oligopoly of brand interest. Finally, the whole issue of wine brands starts to look like an exercise in opportunistic appropriation. I just don’t buy into Mike Paul’s argument that what the Cistercians were really doing when they erected walls round the perimeter of Clos Vougeot was brand building. This is a pernicious example of marketing capturing the slowly built reputations of others - ‘Latour’, ‘Petrus’, ‘Krug’ - to help secure its own nebulous luxury category. Marketing is a child of the 20th Century, not before. Lafite isn’t a brand, just as Homo Erectus pulping a Neanderthal brain with a stone axe isn’t proto-neurology. We need to be able to show a disciplinary framework - the ‘working out’, if you like –  to earn the right to claim something as ours.

Cars are the exemplar of marketing's value to a single category.  Almost every attribute and quality is communicated through the prism of brands. We experience luxury, mid-market and value through brands and their extensions, rather than as abstractions: Porsche, Vauxhall, Audi, Seat. Cars are branding’s primal element, and marketing does the job of generating and distributing new products for profit. Even the most earnest innovations appeal to consumers in ways they’d never imagined possible. Who ever thought we’d boast about batteries? And which of you doesn’t want to own a Tesla? 

What works for cars works for other categories too. Persil doesn’t fulfil me, but I’m a repeat customer. Brands make decision making easy. So why am I a sceptic when it comes to wine?

Providing a definition of terroir that fits all regions is problematic, but arguably the most obdurate difficulty facing marketing is that terroir’s spatial distribution of differences is already doing the job it has earmarked for itself. In the bottled water category, branding brings its own topology of premium and value to products with a high degree of convergence, so you’d think that wine, with all its multifarious differences, would be an open goal - but it isn’t. Wine marketers are like latecomers to a game of Monopoly who find all the sets are owned, and all the hotels have been used up. The only strategy left open to them is to buy stations and utilities.

A variant of this problem faces new entrants into wine production. Australia made a bold attempt to resist terroir with interregional blends, but, with a few notable exceptions, premium Australian wine (often the most profitable part of the market) now sells on typicity and regional identity. Sure, you can corral all the exceptions into a subset and make a counter case, but this just strikes me as another gratuitous act of marketing self-purification. Exceptions, it’s said, make for bad law, but they’re very useful for marketers.

At its most hostile, Wine Australia claimed terroir was marketing, but the criticism didn’t stick. Terroir is more than ‘a thing’, despite all its inherent vagueness. History and economics has sedimented and reified the ineffable into the immovable. For centuries, terroir was compresent with God, exerting power over generations of Burgundian vignerons. We can bemoan the fact that Bordeaux and Burgundy are now winner-take-all markets, or that Pomerol is always assumed to be better than Minervois, but there’s little we can do to change things. Rejigging a Slavoj Zizek one-liner: It’s easier for us to imagine the end of  civilisation than the overthrow of the 1855 classification.  

Terroir is an encounter with historicity, rather than its faux, nostalgic shadow - craft. Frederic Jameson writes about the appeal of ‘ecologies of production’ as an escape from the uniform and standardized world of manufacture. Digitalization has only intensified this yearning, of which the flight to craft is symptomatic. According to my account, craft creates opportunities for marketing as it enables brands to populate sentiments and emotions, thus capturing and returning us back to the very cycles of production and manufacture we were originally attempting to escape. By contrast, terroir’s historicity creates an impasse to wide-ranging brand creation. As Europeans, our history is inescapable and immanent to us, yet even in the pristine vineyards of the New World terroir is passively territorializing 'luxury' and 'premium' with its own concepts and understanding.


Marketing still has a job to do in wine – a little bricolage to keep the consumer in our thoughts - but the frustrations of terroir means its in-tray is a little more prosaic than all the grandstanding seminars might suggest. Steve Woolger, has a phrase: “It could be otherwise…..” Woolgar is directing us toward the ironic structure of marketing’s reveal. Irony includes the possibility of being mistaken about something: “You thought it was this, when in fact….” John Hegarty was imploring the wine trade to change: to think and be ‘otherwise’. But what was revealed behind his threat was just more marketing: the chance to ‘think different’, as Apple put it, within a category that is already impelled by terroir to do things differently.

If terroir is a taboo, then marketing is the gratuitous pleasure of breaking it. We may not like laws and interdictions, but we’ve learnt that if we obey the taboo and take the more convoluted route it directs us down, then the pleasure we attain is all the more intense. The more we submit to the taboo, the stronger it gets, and the more it structures our experience and pleasure. Over time, terroir becomes less like ‘a thing’ and more like a universal principal, hence its power over us. In the end, what enables us to resist the instant gratifications of wine marketing is pleasure. Drink differently!