13 April 2008

Prada and Starbucks: the non-place of retail.

In his eponymous essay and book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995) French anthropologist Marc Auge coined the phrase "non-place" to refer to places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as "places."

In Auge's original concept non-places were those spaces you typically encounter when travelling such as airports, bus terminals, hotels, shopping centres and supermarkets and which you often only remember in very generic terms.

But the concept of non-place is now increasingly engulfing many more places as brand owners and their brands struggle with brand differentiation and experience.

I was recently struck by the comment in a recent review of Taylor Clark's Starbucked: a Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture, where the enclaves of Starbucks were described as "non-place" and could just as easily be in "Manchester, Mumbai or Montreal" given the scale of its globalisation.

The two key issues non-place raises is: does globalisation make it possible for ANY brands to create real and unique spaces? do the elements of branding actually work against the development of these kinds of spaces and experiences?

In the first instance, globalisation is designed to bring about both ubiquity and consistency in the performance of the brand and in the consistency of experience. For retail brands there should be little difference between your experience of your brand in one country versus another. This is best demonstrated by luxury brand, Prada.

Given the brand strength of their various marks and portfolios, luxury retailers rely particularly on the elements of place to support their brand positioning. Location, store fit out, visual merchandising, service and stock are all shared elements. In Los Angeles, the Rem Koolhaus Prada designed store might look like a garage - it has no fascia and unlike most stores on Rodeo Drive, is open to all. Despite Koolhaus' experiments with reversing a traditional store layout (the stairs face backwards and are used as more of a display area, the overall design, layout and availability and display of product still remain essentially consistent with the Prada brand identity and system.

While Koolhaus tries to subvert our notions of a retail space, I felt it was as much a a non-place as a Gap or a Starbucks, because my experience was essentially the same as any other Prada store I had been in from Rome to Sydney. As Auge puts it Prada presents "the clean, cold lines of non-place" and in what he describes as the "supermodern".

Auge describes a place "as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place". In simple terms, Prada's place branding is so concerned with the assertion of its own identity everything else seems opaque.

This failure supports the second issue, if branding is designed to contribute to the creation of meaning, why in the same instant does it also create non-identity and non-space and perhaps the answer lies in the non-critical application of branding.

Branding works best if it can create, manifest and control the experience of identity. However, the application of logos, design systems, visual positioning, tone of voice which all in their own way produce brand and product expression and convey core messages and meaning, also work best in an environment that can be ordered. This is the purpose of branding, to create that order through a shared and understood experience.

If we take Starbucks as an example, it is fairly easy to see how Auge's non-place can be applied and how branding works against the brand. Firstly, the stores have been designed against a specific set of criteria with user experience mapped through identified touch points. These touch points, whether they are transactional (lining up at the counter order and pickup the coffee) or visual (the logo) are part of a series of cues for messaging the brand, and provide an incentive to buy and consume product.

Secondly, because customer experience is so managed within the store to maximise sales, the brand is only ever going can only deliver a ubiquitous experience. It is as
Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said, the brand has last lost its soul (see DIFFUSIONblog 3/5/07) If as Auge claims place is "relational, historical and concerned with identity" then Starbucks branding is never going to deliver anything but a partial sense of this.

In an internal memo published last year Shultz describes "the commoditization of the Starbucks experience", he laments the the loss of "the romance and theatre" of the traditional Italian espresso machines, which have been replaced by "cooking cutter" formats and automatic machines. And it is is this sense of place created by the "romance and theatre of the machines", which is what I think is part of this non-replicable brand experience. They are intrinsically linked to the European cafe experience, which tends to be seen as non-commodified, unique and very very much about Auge's idea of "place", the Italian lifestyle.

So what can retail brands do? Auge describes the place and non-place as "polarities" and with the latter never fully resolved and this is where I think retailers need to address. If we are all supermoderns, wondering from place to non-place as we traverse the globe and even our own countries in the search for authentic experience, we need to start to encounter retail experiences which relate to a sense of place, are embedded in historical context and contribute to the creation of personal identity. The desire for a Prada suit might deliver some aspects of this but the store as the mechanism of experience is flawed. Branding needs to be far more self critical and ready to fall outside systems and formats. Its why love boutiques and flea markets. They are unordered, lack any brand homology and are always different.