Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fifty shades of blonde

What is it about blondes? Are they really having that much more fun? Are they really that much dirtier and that much dumber? Or is it all just decade upon decade of brand reinforcement on the part of celebrities, hair care companies and the aryan master race?

If the now infamous film from Terry Richardson is anything to go by, blonde still acts as a kitemark for sexuality, frivolity and all round good times. It’s a defining feature that tends to be found first on a list of adjectives when describing women with blonde hair. Just the merest flick of a golden tress instantly references goddesses from Venus to Gaga, whilst simultaneously calling to memory every quip and joke ever aimed at the fair haired of the fairer sex.


In September 2011 I started on a spiritual, psychological and experimental hair journey from brunette to blonde. Little did I realise how dramatic the effect on perception would be - both mine and others - and how much I had to learn about the brand of blonde. For a tribe known for its dumbness, there’s a huge amount of complexity beneath the surface.

 Sarah Jessica Parker has always maintained that New York City was the fifth character in Sex and the City. And, in Legally Blonde, Elle’s hair was as much a character as any of the film’s stars. To provide subtle cues for Elle’s state of mind and mood, Reese Witherspoon’s hair was reportedly dyed differing shades - a bright yellow blonde for when she’s in love, or an ash blonde for when she’s struggling professionally. Raymond Chandler even went so far as to formally classify the varying ‘types’ of blondes in his literature; “small cute”, “big statuesque”, “soft and willing”, “small perky”, “pale pale with anemia”, “gorgeous showpiece”, and “the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home”.

As a chick in two largely male dominated industries - design and tech - I’m not above resorting to fighting dirty with my lady powers if the need arises. I firmly believe that, if people start off thinking you’re stupid, you can only prove them wrong. My blonde hair is now an integral part of my armoury - pretty much guaranteeing that I’m starting conversations from a baseline of zero, with plenty of open space to claim. For women, it’s been said that you can never be too thin, too rich or too blonde - the ultimate triple threat that makes men want them, and other women want to kill them. Even Marilyn Monroe attributed her success to having “blonde hair and a body men liked”. Of course, I’m leaning on huge and demeaning stereotypes for both men and women here, but the more blonde I go the more evidence to support the theory that I’m gathering.

And that’s the point - it’s the stereotype that’s both so interesting and so powerful. As a brand - and by that I mean a recognisable image that represents certain meanings and values - blonde is more or less universally recognised and understood. As a user (hell, let’s take the analogy and run with it), the statements one can make with it are clear and unambiguous. Try as they might, brunettes and redheads have never achieved such refined messaging, or such cut-through in the market.

The novelist Margaret Atwood observed that, "Blondes are like white mice...They wouldn’t last long in nature. They’re too conspicuous". And with this in mind, my research remains ongoing. In becoming one of them, I'm able to observe their conspicuousness up close while examining the impact of being perceived as dumb, dirty and a fully paid up member of the Too Much Fun club. While blondes may not last long in nature, however, it seems they're doing just fine in the urban jungle of our modern metropolises where sex, success and the mighty brand of blonde sell more than just shampoo. This isn't dumbing down, it's merely blonding up and they're gonna have the last laugh. And not just because they took a while longer to get the joke.

Thanks to JW - a natural blonde - for her collaboration and input. x

Monday, July 16, 2012

Model behaviour

Service is a great barometer for our time. Through economic downturns, technological upturns and corporate u-turns, the changing approach to customer service can be read like a newspaper. I wrote last week on the Moving Brands blog about O2's successful little foray into Twitter-based crisis management, which you can read here. But it was a recent trip to Westfield Stratford - all dolled up for the Olympics - that attuned me to another shift in how brands are are using customer service to cope in today's climate.

"Models protect and project the image of the brand through personal style, providing customer service and maintaining presentation standards" - so runs the job description for sales assistants, known as 'models', at Gilly Hicks. This purveyor of beachwear, 'cute bras' and 'down undies' is the "cheeky", faux Australian cousin of Abercrombie & Fitch. Like A&F and its other (probably backward and almost certainly unsafe around small animals) cousin Hollister, GH caters to buff teens roaming free with their parents' credit cards. Like all stores in the A&F chain, they appeal to their impressionable customers through 00 sizes and stores that are loud, dark and thick with the richly perfumed undertones of consensual rape. 

When A&F opened in the UK in 2007, it drew a line in the sand for service design. Harp on all you like over how there was something distinctly 'not cricket' about they way they swanned into Mayfair, stripped to their smalls and started a roaring trade that sex-ed up a once dingy end of Burlington Arcade. Nevertheless, it's impossible to deny that the all-American customer service that came with it was in stark contrast to the stiff pleasantries of Saville Row. It marked a new era for British retail - as people fled online, great customer experiences were the only thing to keep them in-store. Following A&F's lead, many UK retailers woke up to the value of a more touchy-feely sales experience.

In 2012 at Westfield Stratford, however, Gilly Hicks appears to be doing a weak doggie paddle in the swirling tides of socially-driven commerce. I was greeted by a hungry-looking tween, muttering something about 'welcome....beach......cute...something something'. At check out (research, research!) I was handed my receipt and told in a bored monotone "Don't forget to follow Gilly Hicks on Twitter for all the cutest bras and cheekiest tanks.". I've had dental work sold to me with more excitement.

Forging great relationships with customers through social platforms is key for retail brands moving forward. As Mercedes-Benz CEO Steve Cannon said in a recent Fast Company article, "[youth] perception is going to drive perception of the brand... In order to win, you have to know who they are. That means digital, social, and all the things we are doing". And, for the young audience Gilly Hicks is looking to attract, bridging that gap between online and in-store is critical. Only through on-brand  customer service and socially-driven messaging can this happen and, right now, their 'models' are seemingly too busy ignoring hunger pangs to start a meaningful conversation for the brand that can continue online.