Episode 195
February 19, 2021

“Adorkable” Brands, Blands, and CARLY

Bloomberg’s Ben Schott wrote the story that shook the millennial-pink branding world. His article on “modern blands” opened the eyes of many who felt tired by the well-trodden aesthetic of modern millennial brands. His most recent piece, “Generation Z, You’re Adorkable”, focuses its lens on Gen Z-focused brands and how their countercultural tactics might be nothing more than big-corp brutalism. Listen now!

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Bloomberg’s Ben Schott wrote the story that shook the millennial-pink branding world. His article on “modern blands” opened the eyes of many who felt tired by the well-trodden aesthetic of modern millennial brands. His most recent piece, “Generation Z, You’re Adorkable”, focuses its lens on Gen Z-focused brands and how their countercultural tactics might be nothing more than big-corp brutalism. Listen now!

What Are Blands? What are Dazzle Brands? What are Adorkables?

  • “Blands are the identikit army of disruptive direct to consumer startups.” - Ben Schott
  • Blands are DTC brands that all have a neutral and friendly aesthetic, who claim to be unique, but are all the same in terms of their identikit formula, business model, and tone of voice. 
  • In WWI, a british artist created a new form of Marine camouflage called Dazzle Painting, which didn’t aim to make anything hidden, but to make it difficult to target. 
  • Ben correlates this to brands that distract consumers: persuading consumers that bad is good (potato chips), that good is bad (margarine), or bad is bad (Death Cigarettes). 
  • “Adorkables are a growing gang of disruptive brands that definitely target Gen Z with a jarring, visual aesthetic and authentic emotional appeal.” - Ben Schott
  • “While Blands seduce millenials with an ever receding notion of self-actualization, Adorkables double down on Gen Z’s internal conflict between self-consciousness and self-promotion.” - Ben Schott

Punks and Posers of Gen Z

  • Ben theorizes that big brands will absorb the culture of Gen Z brands: “That’s exactly what big brands do. They look for the marginal edge trends and they devour them.”
  • In much of the way that punk rock killed disco deliberately, Ben wonders how much Gen Z is faking its aesthetic - because Gen Z brands are naturally ‘rebellious,’ but are run by the establishment. 
  • There’s a dissonance between the target market of CARLY (Can’t Afford Real Life Yet) brands and the actual price point of those brands - which moreso matches HENRY (High Earner Not Rich Yet) brands. 
  • Gen Z has a link with impermanence - renting, subscription services vs. buying products directly, etc. This impermanence “changes your attitude towards saving, towards money… [it becomes] about experiences… That instant surge gratification you get from consumption, that then leaves you empty. By that stage, it’s time to consume again.” - Ben Schott
  • On a positive note: “Experiences are very important. It’s not just pure consumption, but it’s about living in the moment.” - Ben Schott


Have any questions or comments about the show? Let us know on Futurecommerce.com, or reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We love hearing from our listeners!

Brian: [00:01:08] Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about next generation commerce. I'm your host, Brian Lange, and unfortunately, I'm without Phillip Jackson today, but fortunately I have one of the most exciting guest we've ever had on the show. Ben Schott, columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Welcome Ben.

Ben: [00:01:25] Hello.

Brian: [00:01:28] So, Ben, I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to have you on the show. Phillip and I have both referenced your writing significantly and are huge fans of what you have to say and sort of your take on what's next in commerce. And there's an article you recently wrote called The Adorkables, which I absolutely love the title of, and we're going to get into that a little bit today. But before we get into some of the stuff that you've written and what's next and what's ahead, tell us a little bit about yourself and and let everyone know who you are and what you're doing.

Ben: [00:02:09] {laughter} Ok, so I was born in London, and my name is Ben. I am a writer for Bloomberg Opinion. But previous to that I was very briefly in advertising. I worked at J Walter Thompson for about six and a half minutes. I then became a professional photographer for about ten years. I then wrote a book by accident that became a bestseller. It was a Christmas card that went right and became a bestseller. Schott's Original Miscellany. I then wrote four miscellanies, six almanac's. I've written a couple of novels and I'm now writing about brands, branding, advertising, strategic communications.

Brian: [00:02:52] Yes, and are you ever. So many interesting things in this world to write about and what a storied career you have? I don't know how you accidentally write a book. Hopefully I accidentally write a book someday, too. I'll just stumble into it. That'll be fun. But very interesting stuff that you've been putting out recently, especially for our world here at Future Commerce, we're constantly thinking about what brands are up to and how they're evolving and what's next. And one articles in particular that you wrote, has it been about a year now since you wrote the Blands article?

Ben: [00:03:28] No, well it was September. Last September. I mean, the problem is now time is in this weird telescopic moment. So everything feels like 13 years ago.

Brian: [00:03:36] It really does.

Ben: [00:03:36] It was just last September.

Brian: [00:03:37] Wow. It really, like I have no concept of time anymore. I don't know how many years, I mean, months we've been in quarantine. {laughter} And everything is starting to become a blur. So it doesn't surprise me at all that it was just in September that you wrote this. Actually I reference that article significantly in my existential brand series that I wrote shortly thereafter. Actually, I think it was right around the same time in September. But just for the uninitiated, tell us a little bit about what that article was about and what Blands are.

Ben: [00:04:15] So Blands are the identikit army of disruptive direct to consumer startups. So the vanguard of which we've got companies like Casper, Oscar, Warby Parker, Away, Harry's... And then you have this vast inventory of wannabes and copycats. Now, quip was the one that sort of the article begins with. So quip, I think people know is this subscription toothbrush. By the way, the notion of a subscription toothbrush, if you told my grandfather that he'd slap you. What an absurd idea.

Brian: [00:04:53] {laughter}

Ben: [00:04:53] He was a very gentle man. But what's hilarious is that Quip launched at least a dozen copycats... GOBY, Burst, Boka, Brush, Gleam, and Shine. But hilariously, it also prompted Colgate to launch Hum, a smart toothbrush that guides consumers to brush better. And if you go to the Hum website, there are two things. First of all, it looks nothing like the Colgate website. It's like a mini microsite. And second, it looks like all of these other brands. These Blands, because [00:05:26] these Blands all have a look and a feel that's neutral, pastel, sort of your friend, under the radar. And the entire point is that what brands do is they play this game. It's a game of duality. So what they do is they claim simultaneously to be unique in product, groundbreaking in purpose and singular in delivery, while slavishly obeying an identikit formula, a business model, look and feel, and tone of voice. [00:05:54]

Brian: [00:05:55] And toothbrushes are just the tip of the spear. This is something that... Or the tip of the iceberg. We see this across industries from toothpaste to food, frozen food, to ramen, to whatever it is. Like literally every product out there that you can think of now has a bland brand associated with it. That's my take at least, is that we're seeing this pop up everywhere. But I think you sort of evolved that thought process into seeing some new types of brands pop up. And the next article you wrote was one on what you called Dazzle Brands. So tell us a little bit about that.

Ben: [00:06:41] Well, so this is true. So there's this thing about Blands that sort of ineluctable and this notion that they're all sort of the same. They all share this look and feel and you can almost construct like a homo blandest, a Swiss army knife of interlocking Blands. You awake on a Casper. You throw back to Brooklinen, and you reach for the Warby's. You chug a Silent. You log on to Slack. You Grubhub a Sweetgreen. These are these all little independent sort of groups that joined together to create this bland life. Now, the bland article really touched a nerve with a lot of people. And a lot of people said, "Well, how do you avoid being a bland? I literally had founders saying, "Oh, my God, I think I'm creating a bland. What do I do to stop being a bland?" I mean, I won't name names, but it was remarkable the number of people who sort of felt this either reflected what they experienced or reflected the products that they were creating. So this notion of how do you not be a bland? Well, one of the most interesting series of products out there is what I call Dazzle brands. Now, dazzle actually has an obvious notion as shiny and glitzy and whatever, but dazzle actually comes from the First World War. And that was a British artist called Norman Wilkinson, and he pioneered a counterintuitive form of Marine camouflage called Dazzle Painting. Now, what he did was he took massive warships and he literally painted them in huge black and white zebra stripes, which is the complete opposite of what you think camouflage could be. Now, his thinking was that invisibility against submarine attack, U-boat attack, was impossible. You literally couldn't hide these because you've got a ship on the ocean. If you painted blue, the sky doesn't work. You painted gray, the sea doesn't work. So what he said is, if you can't make something invisible, you have to make it difficult to target. So if you think about all sorts of brands, specifically, for example, alcohol brands or car brands or hedonic brands, so I'm talking about potato chips or butter or cream cakes. What they do is they distract you. They make you look in a different direction and they hide the fact. So what they do for potato chips is they persuade you that bad is good. So reduced guilt Trader Joe's or Skinny popcorn. They persuade you that good is bad. So margarine is branded, "I can't believe it's not butter." They don't mention margarine. Utterly Butterly. They say, "Oh, actually you're getting something good. But actually it's bad because everyone likes butter," or they persuade you the bad is bad. But what the hell? And if you look at one of the most famous dazzle brands, in my opinion, is Death Cigarettes. So he was a brand, a short lived brand that literally had a skull and crossbones on the packet and called itself Death. The point being, is that every smoker knows smoking is bad for them nowadays. And if you can't sort of hide that fact, you might as well dazzle it. It's almost sometimes the headline is so big you can't read it is the point.

Brian: [00:09:50] That's really interesting. It's that sort of doublespeak thought process that Orwell sort of defined where like words are changing, like we're changing words to mean sort of the opposite of what they actually originally meant, if you will. And sort of just creating such confusion or just sort of subverting things or changing things so much that you can't even really identify the fact that it is what it is. That's really interesting.

Ben: [00:10:24] I suppose... I mean, the thing about dazzle is that it sort of hides in plain sight. I mean, perhaps the most famous is Avis, that Avis was number two to Hertz and Avis basically said, "Avis is number two. So why rent with us? Because we try harder." They took a massive negative, I would say, with a smaller brand. And they said no, because we're number two, we have to make sure that the ashtrays are clean. We have to make sure that the wipers aren't worn. We have to make sure the tires are well inflated because we're number two. And that's you know, if you can't hide your number two position, essentially attack number one for being lazy. Pure dazzle.

Brian: [00:11:02] That's so good. So, so good. And then you wrote another article recently called Adorkables. And so this is the next iteration of brands moving from Blands to Dazzles to Adorkables. So tell us about the Adorkables.

Ben: [00:11:22] So Adorkables are a growing gang of disruptive brands that definitely target Gen Z with a jarring, visual esthetic and authentic emotional appeal. Now in some ways that are very similar to the brands. They're DTC, they tend to be single. So you buy one thing, it could be single sweets or it could be clothing. It's a little niche that they have created. But there's a difference. While Blands seduce millennials with an ever receding notion of self actualization, what Adorkables do is they double down on Gen Z's internal conflict between self consciousness and self promotion. They're awkward. They're strange. They're visually jarring. And [00:12:12] I suppose in the zoology of consumer capitalism if old school brands are lumbering elephants, and Blands are these well fed, sleek, underdogs, then Adorkables are sort are baby giraffes. That goofily cute, endearingly wonky, yet somehow tenacious, growing, and strong. [00:12:31]

Brian: [00:12:33] See, this is something we've definitely been talking about a lot at Future Commerce, the idea of sort of the, and I love how you just put it, it's sort of an internal struggle of Gen Z and this idea of like things being sort of the two things at once almost. Where it's like they're good brands, they're really interesting concepts, but they have this sort of ironic component or self-aware component or like there's something there should be a name for this, and maybe Adorkable is the word for it, where something could be completely ironic and self-aware, but also really good and like even potentially beautiful at the same time.

Ben: [00:13:17] Well this is the notion of Adorkable. This adorable and dorky, this sort of gawkily cute. I mean, if you take I think for me, the kind of entry product into Adorkability is this brand called Starface. Now Starface essentially creates a sort of zit plaster's that you put over a spot that's erupting and it has a chemistry that essentially dries up the spot. It dries up the inside. There's nothing new about this product. So Clearasil have overnight spot patches, which is an old school brand. There are all sorts of Blands that have this very elegant miracle patches and then Adorkables said, "Hang on a sec. Teen acne is let's bring it out of the shadows. Let's bring it out of this kind of something to be horrified by and embarrassed by." And it causes psychological as well as actual physical scars. So Adorkable Star Face created bright yellow pustule patches that you put on your face and they draw attention like a yellow highlighter. They even have tried rainbow stars that you put on your face. This notion of again and this is this sort of Dazzle notion that if you've got really severe acne, everyone knows that, you know, you can't hide it. You might as well take a bit of pride and take that control and say, yeah, I have acne. Pretty much everybody who goes through puberty has acne and here it is. And don't be ashamed of it. Don't try and conceal it, but be sort of confident and upbeat and own yourself, which is a very Gen Z sort of sensibility.

Brian: [00:14:58] Yeah, absolutely, in fact, Starface... We are in complete agreement. Back in the summer of 2020, we released a report called Nine by Nine, which was eighty one brands that we sort of thought represented our view of the world and one of those views was about a psychographic called CARLY, which is predominantly from Gen Z. And CARLY's world thrives on impermanence. So cool things come and go much quicker. Their mindset is fueled by the ephemeral, you know, viral nature of videos and chat services like Tik Tok and Snapchat. And so it's like meme culture. It's identity that's constantly changing. It's calling attention to things that are in the moment but also, like you said, sort of that there's an element of identity that's beyond the monoculture. And I think that's what really differentiates CARLY brands, or Adorkable brands, from monoculture brands, so the old way of doing things, the Blands, as you call them, is that the world's just constantly iterating and changing. And there's also sort of a response to an ever darkening world. Fierce political debates even within family units. And it's really, really difficult things. Cyberbullying. Even things like school shootings and really horrible things. Coronavirus. This generation's gone through just like this incredibly difficult period of emotional struggles, ups and downs that are very big swings. And so there's an element of like having to be very raw and acknowledging their flaws. Like you said with Starface. And so Starface is actually one of the brands that we called out in our report as one of the top CARLY brands out there. Came in at number five, I think. And, you know, I think that celebrating your flaws and sort of embracing stuff that's not Instagram perfect. It's something that's a little bit more real to life is necessary for this new generation, just given what they're sort of up against and the pressures of being perfect and fitting into monoculture. I think there's just like sort of an element of rebellion against that, almost. What do you think about that?

Ben: [00:17:44] There's a lot going on there. Well, I mean, I think it's always a mistake to think you're on the cusp, a generation is on the cusp of something new, and I don't necessarily think that CARLYS are experiencing... I mean, I get it. Life is tough. There's COVID, which is a unique human experience. And the first time that the world has been shut down by a pandemic. Even the Spanish flu didn't do that. It was sort of episodic and geographical. But this is the first time in a very long time the entire world has experienced something together, and there was no way you could escape it. But equally, people grew up with a bomb and people grew up with war. And so I'm not sure something fundamental about how tough it is to be a kid. I do think the fundamental change is technology. And I think there is a bizarre reaction between consuming and creating content. And I think Gen Z is the first generation to basically have the mobile phone as an appendage to them. They are always with it, and it's always with them. And I think this circularity between consuming and creation is something entirely new. And I think this notion that the number of people, there's a remarkable statistic, the number of Gen Z people who consider themselves to be brands, I mean personally, is absolutely fascinating. Eleven percent of American Gen Z consider themselves to be social media influences. That's absolutely remarkable. And this is something new that you are your own brand, and I think that is a key part of Adorkability in CARLYS. The notion of CARLYS, which is Can't Afford Real Life Yet, I think is also a statement of just economic reality. That Generation Z, I'm not quite sure about Gen X, but but certainly Gen Z may be the first generation to be less well off than their parents. That's incredible. I mean, the Boomers have taken a lot. They have pensions, they had the good jobs and whatever. But this notion that there's a generation of people who know they're going to be poorer, who know they're never going to be able to afford a house, who probably will drive a car either because they can't afford it once they'll be self-driving cars, who don't need to have bookshelves because they have books because they'll be in the cloud, who have a record collection, because they've got Spotify, who Rent the Runway for clothes. So it's this notion of having an entirely different sort of attitude towards permanence. And of course, if you don't have a house and you're paying rent, then you can pay rent anywhere. If you haven't got a mortgage which ties you for 30 years to one geography. You haven't got a landline, the notion of a landline is fascinating. So impermanence is built into their life through technology and also economics. I mean, just the rising price of property just means that an entire generation, it's not even an aspiration. Like, well, it's a bit like moving to Belgium. Why would you do that? People do, but that's never going happen to me. So [00:20:45] I do think technology and economics come interplay here in the impermanence. But of course, then the real question is what happens when this generation has kids? Because it's the kids who give you permanence. You've got to have schools. You probably want somewhere where you can stay and then there's jobs. So in some ways, CARLY is a transitional experience. And one of the horrors of COVID is that it's extending this transition and making it more sort of surreal for a group who are already, I think, flailing in their position in society. [00:21:20]

Brian: [00:21:21] Yeah, I think that's a really good point, is that the flail sort of that the just constant feeling of churn, of change, of unable to like, find some permanence. Do you think that there will be a sort of a return to maybe looking for that sort of that, looking for more of that plan sort of monoculture experience with this constant ever changing, sort of ephemeral sort of feeling that CARLY is experiencing right now?

Ben: [00:21:54] I think possibly. I think there are two reasons for this. First of all, the Adorkable aesthetic, which my piece identifies in this sort of difficult, strange, awkward, Anime, 8-bit, K Pop, jarring colors, weird typography. A) it's I think, going to get a bit exhausting, and B) the big brands are just going to rip it off. Already you see sort of McDonald's introducing Schnuggs and whatever. You already see big brands, which is what they always do. This is sort of phagocytosis, if you remember from your biology, where the white blood cell engulfs the foreign body and basically eats it up. And that's exactly what big brands do. They look for the marginal edge trends and they devour them. And that's absolutely what is happening. So I think Adorkability will fade and it's conceivable that Bland will come back and the sense that people will just be exhausted and then just be like, oh, give me a product that just gives me one of everything. It's the IKEAfication. Oh, I get my toothbrush and my thing. And it's just I just want everything from this one brand and as simple as possible and of course for the CARLYS and the Gen Z, it needs to be ecologically sensitive and it needs to be fair trade and needs to have a mission statement that needs to be... It needs to have a supply chain that is robust and isn't exploiting slave labor. So I think this will come into it. My guess is that people will just get exhausted by choice and will just want simplicity and certainty and something that they can just rely on and not have to think about it.

Brian: [00:25:19] In many ways, I would say that Blands still dominate the brand landscape, would you agree that CARLYS still have... There's still a good amount of market left open for this. If you think about the Blands that are out there and how many are out there, it still feels like they sort of dominate the market.

Ben: [00:25:37] They do. I mean, they were in the earlier and they have vast venture capital behind them. I mean, they sort of present as underdogs, but, my God, they're well funded. And I think in some ways, the Adorkability is a reaction against it. It's using the same techniques, but being deliberately alienated. In my piece, I draw a comparison between what Adorkables do to old folks like me at the grand old age of 46. It's exactly like the Mosquito. I don't know if you remember the Mosquito. It's a device that beams that high frequency that only kids can hear. Now the Mosquito is like a speaker that blasts out this high frequency. And it was designed to essentially drive kids away from council estates or shopping malls because they were just annoyed by this noise that the adults couldn't hear. And there's something about these jarring visual aesthetics of Adorkables that people like me just go, oh, it's just ugly. It's got this Normcore, ugly photography, badly set type, horrible, jarring colors. I hate it, but it's not for me. I'm not meant to enjoy it. I'm not even meant to see it. Just like the Mosquito blasted out a sound only kids can hear. Adorkables do not care whether I like them or not. So maybe I'm the wrong person to ask.

Brian: [00:26:52] And I feel like this is interesting. I feel like this actually it sort of does remind me of that rebellion sort of back to, like you mentioned, each generation sort of has the different things that they have to face. In many ways, there's nothing new. Like every generation has to face something. And there is this sort of if you look at the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and how different generations sort of responded back at with the things that were facing, to me, this sort of feels like that rebellion, like we're going to create something that adults and older people don't get, so that we have our own thing. To me, that's sort of like an element of rebellion.

Ben: [00:27:38] No, I agree. And I mean, the most obvious example is with fashion and then really more obvious is music. I mean, music got louder, faster, more obnoxious. Punk destroyed disco and deliberately so. And in art you have movements like Dada. Surrealism is a way of like challenging the status quo. I think this is something that happens in every generation. I question how many Adorkables... So, for example, punk was punk rockers. Punk bands did it, and they really did put safety pins through their lips and they really did drink and do drugs and often to an early grave. This was at least real. [00:28:21] I do wonder whether these Adorkable brands are actually run by Gen Z or whether they're like, hang on a sec, we know the Gen Z tricks, and we're going to get venture capital in that. I don't know how many are actually created by the generation they're meant to appeal to, which is what music and art normally is. Now obviously then, big record companies come along and discover them. But you know, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, these were real people and they lived their life and they weren't faking. And I wonder how many Adorkables really are faking it. [00:28:49]

Brian: [00:28:49] Well, that's like... I've got to process this. {laughter} Because what you're what I hear you saying is that rebellion is now led by the establishment.

Ben: [00:29:01] Absolutely, and the establishment always came in and big footed rebellion because there was money to be made. And that's just the way it goes. You know, as I say in the piece, the Adorkable bandwagon is picking up speed and it's only a matter of time before it's memes going mainstream. What was jarred becomes jaded and the bleeding edge of consumer capitalism is blunted, once again. There's a line from "Withnail and I" where Danny says. "They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworth's, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over." So the hippie wigs in Woolworth's is exactly what it's always been. And then a new generation takes it forward. But I would be interested to know how many Gen Z facing brands are actually Gen Z owned, but my guess is very few.

Brian: [00:29:49] And this also I think it's very interesting because I think we're going to, like you said, there's a few years of runway here, it seems like, and we've talked about this for many years on the show, it seems like generations are getting smaller and faster that actually calling peopl Gen Z or Millennial or Gen X in many ways is just lazy marketing. Because the next generation is probably a five year period of people, of Adorkables, that are actually targeted. Would you agree with that?

Ben: [00:30:27] The answer is I mean, it sounds true. I don't know what the data is. I think we also have to step back and be slightly more honest about who we're really talking about. It's like Gen Z, who have phones and lived this life and whatever it's like they're also millions of children around the world living in poverty. And this notion of this is a kind of universal generational experience really isn't true. It's really a certain group of... Every generation really responds to a certain group that can afford to live this life. So I think a lot of kids around the world are just struggling to get by and not to mention what's going on with the mental health issues of COVID and isolation and not being at school, not being with friends. So let's not forget, this is essentially DTC. This is direct to consumer. This is basically evolved capitalism. And there's nothing fundamentally new. It's about selling people stuff. And whether they need it or not, I don't know. Now, is it wiser to make acne positive brands? Probably. And is it better for humanity that people aren't terrified about having acne? Probably. So there are certain things that are unalloyed good. But there are a couple of brands in here that I mentioned that are kind of pro mental health clothing brands and they still sell sixty five dollar sweatshirts for kids. And you're like... There aren't many families who can afford a sixty five dollar sweatshirt for kids, no matter how from pro mental health it is,

Brian: [00:31:56] That's a really good point. This is targeted in a very specific demographic of income. And so do you see these brand messaging sort of filtering its way down to more mass market brands and out of sort of that HENRY Target, if you will, those people that are High Earners Not Rich Yet? I feel like you're on to something here. The price point for CARLY brands actually matches an earner that maybe doesn't match sort of the target market. There might be some dissonance there.

Ben: [00:32:39] It's true. And this gets very complicated very fast, because, again, we're talking about a small selection of people. But I do think this notion of impermanence is central. And I think if you can buy essentially, or rather rent, all of the world's music for ten bucks a month, which you have with Spotify, Apple Music and your Amazon Prime gives you access to Audible books. And if you can, Netflix or whatever gives you access to... This nation of like 10 bucks a month buys you pretty much anything you want from that particular sphere is one thing. And then the other thing is this nation of property. And I think this notion of impermanence now, it's a very British thing to want to own your house, which isn't necessarily such a big thing on the continent. But there is a notion of impermanence, if you don't have stuff, you don't need a house. If you can't afford a house, you're renting, you've got your laptop, you've got your phone, you're zipping around, you've got [00:33:37] your... Home is where the hard drive is. That's going to be the kind of Gen Z future forward look of life. And that means you could go anywhere, do anything. And it totally changes your attitude towards saving, towards money, and if you've lived through a COVID or you've lived through another recession, you're like, "Why save? What am I saving for?" And therefore it's about experiences. It's about little products that give you a buzz. It's about makeup. It's about candy. It's about clothing that makes you feel good. That instant surge gratification you get from consumption, that then leaves you empty. But by that stage, it's time to consume again. [00:34:18] So I think this is a very different notion to say my parents or their parents where you saved, you got the best if you could afford it or you just got by and you kept a notebook of all the money you spent. I don't think kids are going to do that.

Brian: [00:34:32] That's really scary to me, but {laughter}... The idea of just being fulfilled by the things we consume is absolutely terrifying. And I do believe you're right, we're headed towards that, although I do believe this might be something, as we said before, things kind of come around in cycles.

Ben: [00:34:51] Hang on. Hang on. Sorry. It's not all negative. I mean, if you wanted this notion of what Gen Z is, they want experiences. They want to go to concerts. They would rather they'd be happy to spend 60, 70 dollars on seeing a band because this is a live experience and they want to travel and they want to... So experiences are very important. So it's not just pure consumption, but it is about living in the moment rather than that sense of if I struggle and toil for 30 years, I might be able to pay off the mortgage of this kind of house that I've lived in all of my life. It's like, is that the point of life?

Brian: [00:35:28] Yeah. And I think that's sort of exactly where I was headed, which is I feel like Millennials kind of went through this as well. There was a moment where millennials also went through that impermanence phase. And then just recently, we've seen a move a little bit back towards suburbs, towards homeownership, towards not sharing things all the time as they started to move into positions of purchasing power and didn't feel hopeless about owning things after we got through 2008 and sort of saw recovery, they realized and they started to have children. There was sort of a bit of a movement back towards permanence. And maybe the Bland aesthetic actually plays really well into that. And that's why we're seeing dominance by Blands currently because it actually matches where millennials are in the maturity of their thinking around, "Oh, maybe I do want something a little bit more permanent, more lasting, more long term." And they're finding it out in places they never thought they would find it before.

Ben: [00:36:32] True. And I think there are two parts of Blands that I think play to this. One is that they're not cheap, but they're also not great. There's that great first premium mediocre.

Brian: [00:36:45] Right.

Ben: [00:36:45] They're sort of they look good. They've got good branding, but they're often made in China. They were designed in California {made in China}. And so often, not always, but often there's something basically sort of cheap and nasty about them. But given the veneer of quality, so they're one up from just sort of the really tacky stuff, but they're actually not great. And I think the second thing about brands that speaking to sort of millennials about this is that sense of exhaustion. So one of the reasons why Blands flock together, and I suppose Adorkables do in their own weird kind of anti-flocking way, is that once you've done the work... I mean, this is why everyone wants to look like Apple, right? Apple has spent forty five years really struggling to hone down the brand and now they have it. Their entire market proposition is summed up by a single silhouette. That's it. You can see and you know exactly what it's going to do and how it's going to feel. And a lot of Blands start from where Apple finished, and they use that and they want to look the same. They want to have this look and feel, because once you have, for example, done all the work to get Warby's, a brand that looks like Warby's for sneakers, you're like, "Oh, I know what that is now. I know roughly the price point. I know the values." And you have to do the research all over again. It's a bit like back in the day where people bought Sony because they bought everything. So it's a great brand. I'll buy a TV. I'll buy a Walkman. I know what I'm getting. Is it the best? Maybe not. Is it the worst? Certainly not. And I think this notion that the kind of Sonyfication, the Blandification means that once you've got into the psychology of one Bland, the other ones sort of piggyback on that and go, "Yeah, yeah. What about us for your toothpaste?"

Brian: [00:38:35] That is, I think you're onto something here because it's sort of the Cosco effect a little bit in that when you go to Costco, you may not be getting something that's truly premium, but you're probably going to be happy with the thing that you buy. You know, what you're going to get when you go in there and you're going to be happy enough with your purchase because it's consistent. You know what you're going to walk away with.

Ben: [00:38:59] Of course. And that's true but Blands do more than that. So it's not just about the product and the price point. It's also about a sort of an ideological statement. They're all B Corps. They all have mission statement. They will give back a little bit to charity. They all sort of have their websites always have a full range of gender fluidity, a full range of racial fluidity. There's no judgment. There's no value. Everyone's equal. That's absolutely a given with these with these Blands. And in my Bland piece, I compare it to, say, My Pillow... My Pillow, I think probably more famous now than it was when I wrote the piece, for all sorts of reasons. But actually, it's absolutely fascinating, My Pillow, in many ways could be a Bland. Direct to consumer. Single product. But the look and feel is absolutely not Bland. It's weird. It's jarring. It's kind of 80s. You've got Mike Liddell hugging the pillow. Plus its politics are not inclusive, not kind. They are pro Trump. They are also here's the thing, My Pillow probably sells more than all sorts of Bland pillow brands because, you know, there's a huge demographic [00:40:13]. Blands don't have to get everybody. They just have to get the people who like Blands, and there's enough of those to make a billion dollar companies.  [00:40:21]

Brian: [00:40:21] Interesting. That's a really good point as well. It's something sort of like as I'm thinking about all of this... It's almost like Blands are like, and bear with me here, but it's almost like we're privatizing communism or socialism.

Ben: [00:40:38] Oh. Absolutely.

Brian: [00:40:38] It's like I mean, I'd love to hear your thought here, but I was just thinking about this. This also gets back to what you said at the very beginning, which is that large brands are naturally going to want to add the Bland aesthetic and the Bland mindset and project Blands onto what they sell because it actually makes sense that they would. They're reliable. It's going to be consistent. You know what you're going to get. It's a similar thought process. It all sort of relates back. I'd love to hear what you're about to say.

Ben: [00:41:17] So I mean, so this is the thing. So I wrote in the Bland piece, this Blands are ineluctable. So I said despite embodying the vanguard of consumer capitalism, Blands tend to be subtly Soviet, quasi post-apocalyptic, even. So, even within a saturated market, every Bland has a message that it's somehow post-choice. There's a sort of totalitarian inevitability to say there is only one mattress. There was only one razor. There was only one chef inspired human grade subscription service dog food. Now, actually, there were dozens. Ollie, The Farmer's Dog, Nom Nom Now, PetPlate... Lucky Dog. And that's to name a few. But this notion... Towards the end of the piece, I discuss Apple and of course Apple created in 1984 that most famous, one of the most famous adverts of the period, if not ever.

Brian: [00:42:11] Right.

Ben: [00:42:11] Where they you know, it's this Orwellian 1984, the right year, where they basically there is this sort of female androgenous athlete who hurls a sledgehammer through Big Brother. And it's an absolute attack on IBM. But what's fascinating to me was how many Blands looked like the products from 1984 in which the Ministry of Plenty rations Victory Coffee and Victory Cigarettes in Bland unadorned packs. And there's a quote he took down from Mrs. Winston Smith. He took down from the shelf a bottle of colorless liquid, a plain white label marked Victory Gin. And if you go to public goods, they have all sorts of things with plain black and white labels for all sorts of everything you can buy. This notion of this sort of post-apocalyptic-there-is-only-one-of-everything is what Blands what. They want to be the only choice you have for toothbrush, the only choice you have for a hoodie. That's what they're looking for.

Brian: [00:43:13] This is what made watching the movie Vivarium, like, really poignant to me because I feel like that's sort of the ultimate, like Bland subscription service. I don't know if you've seen the movie, but it's the idea where people get caught in this world where they just receive the exact same bland products over and over and over and that they have to well, it's a bit of a horror sci-fi thing, but they end up having to raise this alien baby. And so it's a great example, I think, of the ultimate like the landing spot for the Blands. And it makes me think that, you know, the thing that we're going to see and again, this comes back to something we talked about years ago on the podcast, is Life Subscriptions. So a lot of these Bland brands are going to have to probably roll up whether that just be through Target or Walmart or some new conglomeration of these types of brands. And they're going to offer subscriptions that they're going to accomplish a lot of these things from a single point, which we'll see. We'll see what happens.

Ben: [00:44:22] But it's true. I mean, here's the thing about Blands and Adorkables, I think, unlike old fashion brands, is that Blands are in it to exit rather than settling in for the long haul. Most Bland founders aspire to, what they want to do is accelerate customer acquisition to launch velocity before spinning off an IPO or seeking acquisition from a competing brand. In some ways, someone said to me, you know, some of these Blands are essentially blackmail. It's like, "Oh, all right, well, we're going to launch something super cool in your space. We're going to spend an absolute fortune on customer acquisition. We're going to grow and grow like Topsy. And then you kind of have to buy us. Otherwise we're going to destroy you." And a lot of these companies are bought out or other companies buy them out because they're like, "Listen, we can either try our own version of this sort of super cool indie product. Or we just give them the money and just acquire it ourselves." And the founders are like, "Great. Move on to the next thing." They're not in it to create something really fundamentally new. They're in it for the exit.

Brian: [00:45:21] And that's also sort of terrifying. And I'm thinking about Adorkables again. I feel like maybe Adorkables are a little bit of the opposite of Blands in that they do sort of represent that diversity, that sort of excitement, that new, that ephemeral. But I think you've hit the nail on the head here is that their end game is actually the same as Blands, which is that acquisition.

Ben: [00:45:48] Yeah. Let's not fool ourselves. You can call yourself pro mental health. You can call yourself proactive. You can have all sorts of things that are probably very, very good. And the world needs more openness to all sorts of gender, race, ability issues, this kind of thing. This is all great. This is not charity. These people are out to make money. These people want to get 60 dollars for a hoodie from you and they're going to do in any way possible. And maybe they're on the side of the angels. Maybe they're not. But I think probably it's just another overlay of capitalism and it's just the latest iteration of it.

Brian: [00:46:24] And I know we're coming up on time here. I would love to hear your sort of your final thoughts here going, you know, going into this, just questioning the motives behind all of these brands in are very broad sense. But what happens as we see a Adorkables sort of start to come into maturity and see larger brands start to copy this? What does this do to the landscape and what's next?

Ben: [00:46:53] That's a good question. I think next, actually, I'm working on a piece now about this. I think next is... I think it depends on the brands, I think Adorkability will carry on, I think Blanding will carry on. And again, they don't have to dominate the market. Warby Parker doesn't necessarily... Warby Parker came up with it sort of took on big glasses. It doesn't have to... It still can be a very, very valuable company with a tiny sliver of people like me, who like the brand. I think brands are going to try and integrate themselves into our lives. I think they're going to be more integrated. I think that's probably the future, but not all brands. I mean, most people go and they buy Kellogg's cornflakes. Let's not forget, there's a vast amount of branding that you just buy because you like it, because it's easy. It's the only one there. It's the one the shop sells. A lot of branding purchases are just done by convenience or laziness or just comfort.

Brian: [00:47:51] That I totally agree with. There's so much more I wish I could talk to you about, Ben.

Ben: [00:47:56] {laughter}

Brian: [00:47:56] I love your take. I'm excited about your next article. Where can people find you?

Ben: [00:48:01] You can find me on Bloomberg Opinion. Ben Schott. Bloomberg into your Bing. Because I'm sure you're all using Bing, and up I will pop.

Brian: [00:48:12] Love it. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and thank you for listening to this show. We would love to hear your feedback on Ben's thoughts here and his upcoming article and your thoughts on Adorkability, CARLY, Blands, and the whole lot. So we feel free to reach out to us. Hello@FutureCommerce.fm And thanks for listening. Help us build a future that we can all be proud of together.

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