In an consumer society like ours, image is everything. Minyanville.com contributor Diane Bullock takes a look at the products that slide upmarket or downmarket, in perception at least, when they travel.
Let’s say you’re not the most popular person in town. Whether earned or not, a certain reputation follows your every step like a dark, lingering shadow and no amount of bobbing and weaving can shake it off your trail.
So, what’s the easiest way to get distance from that unflattering persona? Distance...literally. Packing up and moving to a brand new place where no one knows you is an instant do-over, allowing you to shed your old skin for whatever face you want others to see.
The same rules of reinvention apply to even the most iconic of national brands. While companies may be forced to bear scarlet letters at home, those badges of shame can get Photoshopped right off their labels once they hang out a shingle on different soil. Minyanville has profiled six such image-challenged brands that went overseas for a change, and suddenly found themselves miraculously upmarket.
If you’ve visited the MoMA design store in Manhattan, you may have seen this high end, minimalist Japanese brand. Muji, which translates as “No Brand Goods,” specializes in sleek and streamlined products that adhere to a philosophy of unadorned beauty and simplicity in innovation and materials. The company’s guiding aesthetic aims to highlight the bare essence of form and function by eliminating all superfluous detail.
Take the “classic round design and easy-to-read face” that grace this mini analog clock. Truly, “a modern take on time.”
Or, depending on who you ask, an affordable 2.5-inch basic necessity in plastic. Nothing special.
In its homeland, Muji’s “brandless” wares are less fit for the curated shelves of Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art gift shop and more appropriate among thousands of off-brand items in a big box retailer, where they sell for up to half the price for which Americans are coveting them.
A well-meaning New York Times City Room reporter, swept up in Muji’s designer chic at the MoMA store, considered buying one as a thank-you gift for a woman in Tokyo. “You can’t do that!” her Japanese-American friend admonished. “It would be like buying a present from Target!”
NEXT PAGE: Reinventing Themselves Abroad
In North America, BlackBerry has been all but blackballed, deemed a dinosaur of a device by smartphone consumers. Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion (RIMM) is seen as out-of-touch, not only in the US but also on its home turf, where Canadians are opting for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone and Google's (GOOG) Android devices by a wide margin.
A hop across the ocean and a skip over the equator and it’s a totally different story. South Africa, for example, is pining for the BlackBerry, especially when it comes to the hardest and savviest users to please: kids. The barometer for what’s hip, that is, the Sunday Times Generation Next Brand Survey Awards, deemed that BlackBerry was it. At its annual ceremony over the summer, BlackBerry nabbed “Coolest Cellphone,” “Coolest High-Tech Gadget,” and “Coolest Brand Overall” for the second year running.
Perhaps the brand will get us Westerners to look up from our Apple and Android products and take notice once its criminally overdue BlackBerry 10 OS debuts at the end of January. The jury is still out, but early reviews are promising.
A pretty reliable indicator that a brand’s image may be in trouble is when part of its name ubiquitously becomes a derogatory prefix. In America, putting “Mc” before a word imbues it with some of the worst aspects of our culture, be it the low-quality, dead-end McJob or the super-sized footprint made by the homogenized, cookie cutter McMansion. If I’m eating McDonald’s (MCD), it means I’m probably a) hungover and b) sitting in my car.
Imagine, however, an alternate reality where spinach and parmesan-stuffed chicken tenders, chilled gazpacho, endive, escarole, and chicory salads, and torta della nonna are enjoyed in soft, brown suede booths atop textured, faux wood flooring, surrounded by drop pendant lights and crisp, white walls with just the occasional pop of yellow color. That’s exactly the menu Mickey Ds has cooked up overseas (accompanied by higher price points) and the designer touches it has given its digs.
Either kids from Europe, Australia, and even Asia are far more sophisticated than young Americans , or their McDonald’s isn’t meant for them. And in a few years, the same may be true for our own Happy Meal-inhaling generation. An over $1 billion renovation project will overhaul the menus and decors of most of the franchise’s 14,000 US locations by 2015. Can we say McChic?
NEXT PAGE: Different Perception Abroad