Crafting brands: A modern mindset with a deep past

On set of Travel Portland work at house Special in Portland, Oregon / House Special

In a new series focusing on industry craft, Fine partner and chief strategist Josh Kelly looks at how a craft mindset can influence all aspects of branding, from how products are made, to how services are delivered, and (most of all) how creatives are guiding the story.

“Can you use your craft to help explain ours?”

It’s the question Chipotle and CAA asked years ago when Gee Staughton, now art director at Portland-based animation studio House Special, helped design the groundbreaking “Back to the Start” video. “They were saying we want to use the art you make, and the artists who make it, to portray how much we care about our ingredients, and where they come from.”

For House Special’s recent “Travel Portland” campaign, he says, the brief was similar: “Portland is a maker city full of creative people. We don’t just want to say that, we want people to look at something handmade, with love and skill, and experience it.”

Clients have leveraged the creative’s craft since brands became a thing. But it’s reached a new level of meaning as brands increasingly try to connect with customers by staking their claim to “artisan” perceptions, and agencies refine their trade to adapt to a changing marketplace.

Craft runs deep. Unless it’s shallow.

When Tiffany & Co. unveils a $9,000 ball of yarn, it’s time to look at the layers of meaning behind craft.

For some, the word evokes deep historical and cultural feels; others visualize superficial hipster aesthetic. It’s linked to frivolous pastimes like macramé or the most-sophisticated artisanship. It’s spoken of frequently these days, whether whispered solemnly or chuckled derisively.

But those who’ve thought about it from an agency, client, academic, or personal perspective say craft’s no fad or rubber stamp for quality. Whether it’s in the making of products, or in how they’re delivered and communicated, there is a deeper connection and intention behind craft that’s always been there.

“As human beings, we need to make,” says Namita Gupta Wiggers, educator, writer, and co-founder of Critical Craft Forum. “It’s hard to give a quick sound bite on what defines craft; it means different things to different people. It’s all the ways human beings have made a practice of transforming materials into things, into objects that they want.”

“Craft is a lineage of principles, form, and materials that all of us are part of,“ says Keri Elmsly, chief creative officer at experiential design studio Second Story in New York. “When we are pushing on the edges of craft, whether it be architecture, visual design, production, code, or creative direction, we all realize we are not alone.“

That link between branding, making, and connecting is on prominent display in Second Story’s work for the FIRST robotics competition. In this 3-day branded experience for innovative energy company NRG, kids made custom “Wattbots” programmed to create art, and, as Elmsly says, “learn the experience principle that the reward is in collaboration, not competition.”

Debbie Millman, designer, author, and host of popular podcast Design Matters takes it even further. “To me, craft means soul,” she says. “To make anything that is genuine and meaningful and inspiring, it has to come from the deepest part of the maker’s being. When people recognize someone is sharing a genuine part of themselves, they’re moved to feel and experience something sacred.”

A depth of relevance or emotional connection is something marketers have always hoped to establish to add value to their brand. But the explosion in new ways of communicating has added a new emphasis on inviting people in such that they feel less like customers and more like co-participants.

Everybody’s getting crafty

If the idea of “artisan firewood” makes you laugh, you already know craft is so much more than mustache wax, fancy salts, and bare bulb lighting. Creatives, in particular, may not find it romantic to think in these terms, but makers, distributors, retailers, agencies, and consumers are all part of a new kind of supply chain. People are getting more adept at recognizing the links in that chain that resonate with them, and the links in that chain that seem inauthentic.

Where we used to envision couch potatoes absorbing 30-second ads, now we know they’re more active participants in filtering messages, sourcing brands globally, joining communities, sharing reviews, and generating their own assets and content at a level never before possible. Technology has democratized the same deep-seated need to create that used to be a trade specialty.

“Everyone has access to the tools now,” says Todd Eisner, creative director at San Francisco advertising agency Barrett SF. “Everyone can create and share things that may look well-crafted at first glance. It’s made us more conscious of being a true ‘finisher,’ as we say — someone who has the idea and sees it all the way through to its best execution.”

It also means that those who ply a creative trade for a living increasingly need to think about how their craft may apply in new and unfamiliar ways to influence all parts of customer experience. And just be the absolute best it can be.

Barrett SF’s recent work for California-based retailer Cost Plus uses a short film about a boy being inspired by llamas to drive in-store activations, promotions, products, partnerships, interactive experiences, social media, and on-demand video. The film remains the emotional centerpiece, establishing the connective tissue for a brand that’s always been a destination for the joy of discovering handmade items from around the world.

The craft mindset: Mustache wax optional

Thriving despite some limitation in resources or geography is part of craft’s history. What creates the value of craft today is more tied to the scarcity of two resources: time and intention.

“For me, craft equals time,” says Eisner. “It’s time put in working something until you know you’ve made it as good as you can.”

That time window may apply to a single project, multiple projects, a lifetime, or a multitude of lifetimes. It may apply to the making of products, to the delivery of service, to the shaping of the story. In short, if there is a definition for craft, it comes back to a particular mindset that applies just about everywhere.

“At its root, craft is an intent,” says Kenn Fine, executive creative director at Fine. When I hear the term, I try to move beyond the language and simply equating it with quality. Behind all that, it’s about an intent that leads to a very personal practice of making things better, honed over time.”

At Fine, the approach now often starts with people using the thought process of their craft — designers, writers, IA experts — to help deconstruct the consumer experience. By doing things like mapping customer journeys and defining a shared purpose, craft can be applied towards uniting brands and customers in many actionable ways. It’s something like what most people call Design Thinking, except that it’s not about imposing a point of view so much as it is orchestrating an experience.

“People who should be using the word ‘craft’ have a long story to tell,” says Fine. “The story of real craft is a long hallway with a lot of doors off it where you can get delightfully lost. The story of superficial craft is an alluring door that opens to a regrettably shallow broom closet.”

The craft mindset can both reflect and influence any part of a company’s offering. It’s not a thin veneer of visuals and storytelling; it’s long-term commitment to honing all brand parts that make the brand what it is and connects it more deeply to others. It’s something that has to be taken personally.

“There is so much history and emotion wrapped up in what animation can do that nothing else can do,” House Special’s Staughton says of his craft. “You can make people feel something that, maybe from a marketing point of view, you almost have no right to ask them to feel. But you can get somebody to fall in love with something before you’ve told them that this is, in any way, tied to a product, which is incredible.”

In future articles on craft, we’ll look more at the history and future of craft, how a craft mindset is influencing industries like food & beverage and hospitality & travel, how it’s changing our ideas about luxury, and how agencies and creatives are honing their craft today.

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