Chance v. Swift: Sincerity v. Authenticity

David Brooks: “It’s interesting to compare Chance the Rapper’s new song with Taylor Swift’s new song … The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it … The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance the Rapper and Taylor Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about ‘working on their brand,’ and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.”

“A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience. ‘I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,’ is how Swift puts it.”

“The second thing you notice is the difference between sincerity and authenticity. In Lionel Trilling’s old distinction, sincerity is what you shoot for in a trusting society. You try to live honestly and straightforwardly into your social roles and relationships. Authenticity is what you shoot for in a distrustful society. You try to liberate your own personality by rebelling against the world around you, by aggressively fighting against the society you find so vicious and corrupt … rebellious authenticity is the familiar corporate success formula, and sincerity, like Chance the Rapper’s, is practically revolutionary.”

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Breath Mints as ‘Social Currency’

The Wall Street Journal: “For makers of breath-freshening mints and gum, there is no such thing as over-sharing. From big candy companies to small artisanal confectioners, the makers of mints are tinkering with product design, packaging, and marketing, all to encourage us to share … A mint is ‘a social currency,’ said Jeff Wurtzel, a marketing brand director for Mars Wrigley Confectionery, which makes Wrigley’s gum, Life Savers, Altoids and other breath-freshening treats. ‘You connect with someone else by offering something small’.”

“This year, the company plans to launch Extra Chewy Mints, which will come in a plastic package with an opening designed for easy sharing … In the early 1900s, Altoids were packaged in a tin to keep the mints fresh, according to Mr. Wurtzel. But the container turned out to have unexpected sociable benefits. ‘It’s literally in your hand and it’s an extension of you when you open it,’ Mr. Wurtzel said of the Altoids tin.”

“Mints can play a communal role in offices and restaurants. At the Minneapolis location of Industrious Office, a co-working space, the community manager, Marie Adrian, keeps a bowl of individually wrapped mint Life Savers on her desk. The mints have become a post-lunch routine for many people, creating a natural ‘touchpoint’ with the space’s members, Ms. Adrian said … All that sharing doesn’t just spark sociability. It means more business for Tic Tac and other mint makers.” Todd Midura, the vice president of marketing of Tic Tac North America, comments: “If you’ve got people sharing, it adds more occasions.Before you know it, you pass around that pack and it’s empty.”

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Crocs: A Divisive Shoe for Divided Times?

The Washington Post: “Crocs, perhaps the most polarizing shoe of our time, is making a comeback. The company’s signature foam clog fell out of favor a decade ago, but now it is a star reborn on Twitter and beyond: On the runway, in the pages of Vogue and on feet of people who feel a little funny about it but can no longer resist.”

“The turnaround is no accident, analysts say, but rather the result of four years of strategic changes, following a $200 million investment by private-equity giant Blackstone Group in 2013. Since then, Crocs has closed hundreds of under performing stores, done away with unpopular styles and shifted its focus back to its classic foam clog, which sells for about $35 and accounts for nearly half of the company’s sales.”

“Crocs now come covered in glitter and emblazoned with Minnie Mouse, Spider-Man and Batman. The company — which markets its shoes as slip-resistant and easy to clean — has also found a niche among medical and restaurant workers. Its Bistro line, for example, includes clogs covered with eggs and bacon, sushi and chili peppers … Company executives recently began noticing that people were buying a dozen pairs of clogs at a time, all in the same color. It turned out, they said, that high school and college sporting teams were buying them to wear before and after competitions. Many of those students had worn Crocs as children, and were now rediscovering them.”

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Disney Brings Its ‘World’ To Retail

The New York Times: “Quietly, like a mouse on tiptoe, Disney overhauled its retail store at the Northridge Fashion Center mall in late July. Out went the twisty Pixie Path aisles, the ornate displays, the green walls and the color-changing fiberglass trees. In came a movie-theater-size screen, a simplified floor plan, white walls and more items for fashion-conscious adults … the Disney Store here was a prototype, and the company has been monitoring sales and consumer feedback as it prepares to revamp its 340-store chain.”

“The redesign makes Disney’s stores a bit more like Disney’s theme parks. For instance, daily parades at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida will be streamed live to those colossal video screens. During the parades, store personnel will put out mats for shoppers to sit on and roll out souvenir carts stocked with cotton candy and light-up Mickey Mouse ears. The screens could easily be used to stream other events, such as red carpet arrivals for Disney movie premieres. That kind of programming could bolster foot traffic, and thus sales — while also turning the stores into a more potent promotional platform for Disney’s films, television shows and theme parks.”

“As it attempts a new mall strategy, Disney is also remaking its e-commerce operation. ShopDisney.com is replacing DisneyStore.com. The new site will have a less cluttered look and a vastly expanded assortment of designer merchandise aimed at adults (Mickey-themed Ethan Allen furniture and a $350 Siwy denim jacket with Minnie embellishments will be on offer). The site will also stock more items that previously were available only in stores inside Disney theme parks.”

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Porky Pig: The Anti-Mickey

The Wall Street Journal: “There were essentially two modes of expression in the Hollywood studio cartoon: the Disney style and that of Warner Bros. Disney strove for believable narrative and overwhelming naturalism—even in a fantasy like his 1937 milestone, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Conversely, the Warners style, which is often conflated with that of Avery, its most innovative director, came to mean uproarious, fast-paced and often transgressively violent humor in which characters frequently violate the fourth wall and confront you with their artificiality.”

In 1935, “Warners released a cartoon called ‘I Haven’t Got a Hat’ introducing a group of animal schoolchildren, and the one who began to attract notice was a certain pig with a speech impediment. Within a year, he was starring in his own series of shorts, and before 1936 was over, Porky Pig was rapidly becoming the embodiment of a whole new kind of animated film. … By 1938-39, Bob Clampett had become the dominant directorial influence in Porky’s career. On his watch, Porky became considerably cuter, thanks equally to Mel Blanc, who now provided the pig’s voice and made the stutter more adorable than grotesque.”

“Clampett’s characters are like cuddly, bouncy balloons being manipulated by a maniacal genius … Clampett seems determined to contrast exaggerated cuteness with even more extreme violence, as if throwing a hand grenade in the middle of a Disney Silly Symphony.” By 1943, “two characters had already succeeded Porky as the studio’s biggest breadwinners, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. As popular as Porky had been a few years earlier, he was essentially a passive character—like Laurel & Hardy, things happened to him. He couldn’t compete with the brash, aggressive stars of the World War II era, like Bugs and Daffy, who belonged to the age of Abbott & Costello.”

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Cake Ladies: Inside The Box Thinking

The New York Times: “Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.”

“The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts, at two and three times the price. Food journeys in via jet, small plane and barge. Milk and eggs spoil fast. Produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam and soda, cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that require actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a ‘cake lady’ with her signature twist. Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket.”

“In America’s northernmost town, Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), the baker Mary Patkotak is an expert at gaming cake economics. She uses Betty Crocker triple chocolate fudge mix for her famous cherry-chocolate cake. In the village store, it costs $4.59 a box. On Amazon, where Ms. Patkotak orders it, it’s $1.29. Alaska’s many weather delays mean the mix never shows up on time, but she doesn’t care because it qualifies her for partial refunds on her annual Prime membership.
‘I can’t remember the last time I paid the Amazon Prime fee,’ she said.”

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Strategic Selection: Less is More for Aldi

The Wall Street Journal: “German discounter Aldi, is betting billions it can win over spoiled American shoppers. How? By offering them fewer choices—way fewer—than rival retailers. The unlikely proposition has worked nearly everywhere Aldi has set foot … It offers a deliberately pared-down selection, sometimes a tiny fraction of the number of items sold by rivals, which helps Aldi cut costs to levels U.S. grocers can only dream of. Among other benefits, fewer items means faster turnover, smaller stores, less rent, lower energy costs and fewer staff to stock the shelves.”

“About 70 years ago, brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht, fresh from military service in World War II, took over their family’s store in Schonnebeck, a mining neighborhood of the bombed-out industrial city of Essen. In the early 1950s, they began rolling out their ascetic concept to other branches throughout the region. Back then, their stores offered just 250 items, the essentials miners’ and steelworkers’ families needed to survive—flour, sugar, coffee, butter, bacon, peas and condensed milk. In the 1950s and ’60s, Germany’s economic miracle took off, and a wave of glitzy supermarkets selling thousands of items sprouted up to serve the newly affluent middle class. Aldi didn’t flinch.”

Today: “Aldi is gambling it is more in tune with the American tastes, rolling out small, nimble stores instead of sprawling warehouses and supermarkets that take longer to navigate … One of Aldi’s strengths that has eluded many discounters is its ability to draw middle-class shoppers—those with more money to spend—despite its limited array of goods. It did this by cultivating the image of a company focused on quality rather than pinching pennies … There too, executives say, the limited assortment played a central role. The small number of items ensured that staff could carefully choose, taste-test and quality-control each item.”

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Houzz & Poshmark: Killing It Against Amazon

Axios: “How can you do something different from Amazon, like having professionally-generated content? Houzz is a perfect example, offering expert-curated products and help for people looking to remodel part of their home. Amazon just isn’t geared to build that sort of community. Or a company like Poshmark, where you have lots of users sharing and selling what’s in their closet. A lot of them have become influencers because other users like their style.”

“It’s what Pinterest should have done with commerce but didn’t. Amazon sells clothes, but it sells them like it sells a PC or a phone. Fashion is about having different parts that go well together, which means curation.” [Excerpts from an interview with Venture capitalist Hans Tung]

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Public Hotel: Ian Shraeger’s Airbnb Killer?

The Wall Street Journal: “Stroll into Public, a full-service, 367-room hotel that opened this summer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it quickly becomes apparent that certain features are nowhere to be found … Guests check in via a series of self-service tablets along a wall, where they can find their reservations, create their own room keys and proceed up an elevator to their rooms. If questions arise, they’re answered by a handful of roving, jack-of-all-trades staffers known as ‘Public advisors’.”

“These cost-cutting efficiencies are all part of an attempt by Ian Schrager, the veteran hotelier and night life impresario who owns Public, to fight back against Airbnb Inc. on behalf of the hotel industry, which he believes hasn’t properly assessed the challenge posed by the tech upstart … he aims to better compete with Airbnb on nightly rates and offer superior amenities such as bars and other places to socialize … Mr. Schrager’s new concept fuses a sprawling bar and restaurant operation onto the property, deriving revenue and profits from amenities that are meant to attract a much larger crowd than just the hotel’s guests.”

“Bjorn Hanson, a clinical professor at New York University’s hospitality program, said Mr. Schrager’s concept flips the traditional role of food and beverage in hotels. Rather than being a less-profitable service that a hotel must provide as an amenity to guests, Public’s food-and-beverage offerings are meant to be a centerpiece that can ultimately drive more room occupancy, he said … The hotel’s rates officially start at $150 and increase during high-demand times, such as fashion week. In early August, rates started at $250, with some last-minute online rates as low as $180—well below the rates of upscale, full-service Manhattan hotels, which typically range higher than $500.”

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Kmart #7749: A Throwback Experience

Anne Kadet: “The unassuming entrance fronting Penn Station’s lower concourse is easy to miss. But hang a right at the beauty aisle and suddenly you’re confronted with a vast, multistory array of merchandise that feels totally unexpected. Who knew you could buy fishing rods and beanbag fill at Penn Station? Not only is the Kmart #7749 dreamlike in size and scope, it’s also a bit of a time capsule. From the scuffed linoleum to the signs promoting layaway plans, it recalls a simpler era, before big-box stores started with the self-checkouts and baby kale. It functions almost like a three-story bodega.”

“Now, it’s fascinating to compare Manhattan’s Kmarts to, say, the new Target store in Downtown Brooklyn … Target gives the impression that every inch of shelf space was carefully planned by a team of Wharton business school grads. Kmart’s displays often look like what your mom might create after too many hits of espresso … you can buy a 3-foot-tall lion garden sculpture or find a “Deal Flash” on audio Bibles. A display of 2018 calendar planners sits next to the houseplants, which abut a bin of leopard-print boxer shorts.”

“Moreover, with their often relaxed pace, the Manhattan Kmarts are perhaps the most peaceful locations in their respective neighborhoods. The regulars say they appreciate that … Kmart wouldn’t comment on the stores’ performance relative to other locations, but district manager Richard Trksak said sales have grown due to the tourist-focused shop added to the front of the Penn Plaza store, and a convenience store tucked into the Astor Place location that sells snacks, drinks and apparel from nearby NYU.”

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