Episode 270
September 9, 2022

Funereal Commerce

“Death eventually comes for us all, why not buy your casket direct and save a bunch of dough?” Today we dive into the digital transformation that has taken place in death care, and how funeral home websites have become marketplaces unto themselves. PLUS: a Veleb gets canceled for “digital blackface.” Listen now!

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this episode sponsored by

Caskets, but in Millennial Pink

  • A large portion of the funeral homes in the United States are owned by private equity rollups that consolidated infrastructure and operations through the 90’s and early 00’s.
  • Phillip: “Why would you want to go direct [for a casket]? If you have ever been a family member making end-of-life choices for someone that's close to you, there is a very soft and gentle, but really gross, method of upselling in the funeral industry”
  • Business Wire from 2021 says Titan Casket grows 400% in 2021, and it's poised to move beyond caskets to become a digital solution for funerals in 2022. It has seen its B2B business grow 15 X this year as well in launching a wholesale program. They also are in Sam's Club and Costco.com as of October.
  • Capitol Records announced just last week that they were bringing on a robot rapper called FN Meka. And that robot was apparently powered by artificial intelligence for some marketing purposes. So it was backed by a major label, backed by Capital Music Group, backed by Blue Note.
  • The virtual appearance of the rapper people were calling digital blackface and saying that there were tropes and appropriative tropes and maybe racist tropes therein of both the likeness, appearance, and the rap style, and all designed specifically to appropriate culturally that of real people.
  • Phillip: “Virtual celebrities have an innate advantage in that they are the product of a marketing machine. And a marketing machine would make careful and considered decisions before putting the actions of a virtual celebrity out into the world that would bring repercussions back to the brand.”
  • Brian: “This feels like corporations want to take all of the artistry out of something and just turn it into something that they can control 100%. They realize that… people are messy. So why don't we do this with non-people? It turns out that you have to have people behind something somewhere.”

Associated Links:

Phillip: [00:00:08] Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about the next generation of commerce. I'm Phillip.

Brian: [00:01:28] And I'm Brian.

Phillip: [00:01:29] And we are declaring today's episode dead on arrival.

Brian: [00:01:37] This is the third time trying to get started here.

Phillip: [00:01:39] We're declaring end of life to a lot of things today. We're covering a bunch of things we're covering is it the end? Has MSCHF lost its edge? We're also going to cover a little bit of what we're calling funereal commerce.

Brian: [00:01:54] Also that's death related.

Phillip: [00:01:56] That's death related. The velebs are getting canceled, which is a thing that I never thought could happen. So maybe the velebs are dead.

Brian: [00:02:04] Yeah. And I quit being bougie. I went bougie for, like, a minute. And then I stopped.

Phillip: [00:02:10] Brian went bougie, and now he's coming back. He's anti-bouge now.

Brian: [00:02:16] Kind of. I'm not fully anti-bouge.

Phillip: [00:02:19] We're going to cover that a little bit in detail. And I might be ratcheting back my spending too, a little bit. And that, I think might be a sign of the times. It's going to be a great show. Stick with us. But first, I have to get into something covered on The Senses a little while ago, Brian, but I said, hey, listen, the boomers, they're to blame for a lot of things. But I think we have the millennials to thank for ruining luxury. We covered some time ago on the show your visit to Aimé Leon Dore in New York. And so about a month ago, I had to go check it out for myself. I think we might have mentioned this in passing when we talked about our Grow New York episode about a month ago.

Brian: [00:03:04] We talked a lot about it.

Phillip: [00:03:05] Yeah, yeah. I had a very, very bad experience with this cherished millennial luxury brand. And while people continue to still fawn over the brand, they have not figured out how to be an omnichannel business yet. And it's an interesting conundrum. And so out of that experience, I sort of coined this new phrase that I've been throwing around called LIPO-suction.

Brian: [00:03:34] Luxury In Price Only.

Phillip: [00:03:38] Stands for Luxury In Price Only. And that sucks.

Phillip: [00:03:42] LIPO-suction. And I feel like I've been getting LIPO-suctioned a lot. {laughter}

Brian: [00:03:48] No, man. Right after we did the Brian Goes Bougie episode, I just quit. I was like, "Man, this is stupid. I'm done." Actually, it wasn't intentional. I just stopped spending as much.

Phillip: [00:04:00] Well, you definitely are the experiential guy, right? So you're the climb a mountain, you know, hike a forest, you know, camp on an island, sort of a guy. Your experiences, I think, in the world are already, like they're already experiential. The only thing you could probably add to that is like some like Jet stove, ultralight, something or other that's more expensive.

Brian: [00:04:22] No, I think my Jetboil is... I believe... I believe. I need to double check this. It's actually Monoprice.

Phillip: [00:04:37] You have got to be kidding me.

Brian: [00:04:38] I am not kidding you.

Phillip: [00:04:39] That is the most authentically Brian Lange thing I've ever heard.

Brian: [00:04:42] Yep.

Phillip: [00:04:43] Wow.

Brian: [00:04:44] In fact, I can actually say with confidence, that it was about $42.

Phillip: [00:04:49] I have a more expensive and more bougie fuel system than you do is what I'm hearing. 

Brian: [00:04:59] Yup.

Phillip: [00:04:59] Wow.

Brian: [00:04:59] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:05:00] Wow. All right. Well, let's shift gears on that because this is going nowhere. On this idea of LIPO-suction, which I called a HENRY wallet-emptying machine and of which I have been a HENRY, and my wallet's empty. {laughter} So I feel like I have firsthand experience enough to talk about it. [00:05:21] I was thinking about other experiences that are supposedly high-end luxury experiences that we're supposed to appreciate. And it just feels more and more these days, like it's the Emperor's New Clothes. I feel like a lot of this just comes down to young brands not fully having come into their own yet, trying to do way too much, way too fast. And it seems that today we're realizing more than ever that it's not technology and it's not capital that is the differentiator. It really is a learned, lived-in experience, and having made mistakes in the past and having built a culture and a team who have experienced all the rough edges enough to know how to build systems that prevent those things from creeping into customer-facing, negative, bad friction. And this certainly isn't the only bad experience I've ever had. [00:06:38] I don't want to go on a laundry list of bad luxury experiences I've had recently, but they are frequent. And I think it tends to be in these hype circles of these exciting...

Brian: [00:06:52] Isn't it kind of like premium mediocre all over again?

Phillip: [00:06:56] Well, we can keep saying the same thing over and over in our space. But I think a related story recently is the dumpster diving aesthetic of the Kanye and GAP collaboration. Brian, did you see the?

Brian: [00:07:15] Oh, did I see it? {laughter} I think there's a comment from me in The Senses.

Phillip: [00:07:20] Oh yeah, that's right Yeah you had a that was... I forget how you put it. Do you remember what you said?

Brian: [00:07:28] Yeah. I was talking about how. It's just another form of power testing. So GAP and Kanye.

Phillip: [00:07:42] Hold on. I have to put on my philosophy hat real quick. I just have to... Here we go. There. It's on. It's on now.

Brian: [00:07:48] Nice. Well, no, I mean, this isn't really even that philosophical. It's like oftentimes brands are just all customer, customer, customer. They have no idea how much power they actually have in the relationship with their customer. And so there were some comments, I think, on our team and in general in the world that were like, "Oh, is this even on brand for GAP? Why is GAP doing this?"

Phillip: [00:08:15] Yeah.

Brian: [00:08:16] And I think the answer isn't so much about GAP. It's more about Kanye. Kanye, it's not even power. I don't think it's like conscious power testing. I think he just does it.

Phillip: [00:08:29] I don't know. Maybe. I think it is actually. 

Brian: [00:08:31] Maybe.

Phillip: [00:08:33] There is a trend at the moment, and we might have identified it a couple of years ago as maximalism and then maybe dadaism. But there is an instinctive nature in the creative where they instinctively zag when others are zigging, and they are trying to create the kind of experience that is so notable that folks just can't help but say, "What the heck?" Let me give you an example. When Kanye does the dumpster diving, which, by the way, for those who are unaffiliated, the Kanye GAP hoodie release, mass market hoodie release in GAP stores nationwide, are in these big fabric barrels. They're basically like a big tote that they're just piled into. They're not really sorted in a very specific way. And you have to kind of dig to find your size and it's merchandised cleverly to sort of create a bit of a frenzy. And what's really interesting about that is that this has existed for ages in other mall brands. I remember going to Express or Structure in the day and they had bins during sales and they didn't sort them so well. And there was a dumpster dive there, too.

Brian: [00:10:01] That was more like a treasure hunt than it was like a frenzy drop. It's yeah, there's an element of treasure hunt, I guess, but it's more like...

Phillip: [00:10:09] The treasure hunt exists in so many other brands. To say that this has never been done before... There's a whole genre of retail that's just this. So this is much closer to, I think, it's performative. Yeah, it is power testing. It's can he get away with it? And absolutely he can get away with it.

Brian: [00:10:29] Well, no, but there's also like I think there's an artistic statement as well. So there's it's both. I think it's both. I do.

Phillip: [00:10:37] Yeah.

Brian: [00:10:38] But how conscious is it for Kanye? Maybe. Maybe it's pretty conscious. I feel like a lot of what Kanye does he has a purpose for it. Is it conscious power testing? Maybe it is. I don't know.

Phillip: [00:10:55] Could be. I have at moments thought of Kanye West as a genius.

Brian: [00:11:03] No, there's no question.

Phillip: [00:11:03] Maybe tortured genius at that.

Brian: [00:11:05] Yeah. 

Phillip: [00:11:06] But I think that there is, I don't think that we can philosophize this enough. I do think that there's a lot of thought and intention that goes into creating something like this, and people hate it. It is so unbelievably polarizing. The earned media value on something like this, I believe that there's probably quite a good deal of press that goes into this, probably a ton of PR teams working overtime to try to get the word out on something like this. But the viral nature of sharing, people digging through bends, and the nature of, you know, of Neil Saunders Retail just having an absolute tizzy over the fact that this is the death knell of GAP and it's the absolute degradation of consumers.

Brian: [00:11:55] Oh my gosh. No, you know what I have to say about that? I think it's super smart in that it's something that you're right, the earned media value, it's something that certainly certain people absolutely adore.

Phillip: [00:12:10] Yeah.

Brian: [00:12:11] Adore enough to go dig through those bins. And then everyone else loves to hate.

Phillip: [00:12:30] All of the old guard of retail on LinkedIn and Twitter all have the same, they share a hive mind. They all think the same way.

Brian: [00:13:19] Oh, did you just say that there's an echo chamber among the old guard of Twitter?

Phillip: [00:13:24] There is an echo chamber amongst everybody.

Brian: [00:13:26] There is an echo chamber for everything. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:13:27] Yeah, there really is. But the old guard definitely had a very specific reaction to this of this tarnishes the brand of GAP. And as if no one thought that there was anything left to tarnish, they found a way. And just think of the consumer buying a $200 hoodie. Just think of them. What a horrible thing to be communicating during a recession, pandemic inflation, and mega-storm Sharknado. And my response to all of it is can you not see the audacity on display here?

Brian: [00:14:06] Right.

Phillip: [00:14:07] It is unbelievably bold. Anyway. But at the same time, it is also LIPO-suction. Because while that would be novel if they were just bins of $35 hoodies, no one would care. It's the fact that there are $200 hoodies that makes it interesting.

Brian: [00:14:26] Well, and they're Kanye West hoodies.

Phillip: [00:14:29] They're Kanye West $230 hoodies.

Brian: [00:14:31] I'm not sure that anything that Kanye West does could be considered luxury in price only.

Phillip: [00:14:37] Well, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know about that. But we can we could come back to it. I do think that concert T-shirts and some other things could be of questionable quality. But let's put that let's put a pin in it. I do think that there is an emergence of what millennials consider to be... I think there's luxury. There's new luxury, which I think is actually like a nouveau riche genre unto itself, which definitely started with Supreme and has informed all kinds of other types and manifestations.

Brian: [00:15:19] ALD can be considered...

Phillip: [00:15:20] Absolutely. New luxury.

Brian: [00:15:21] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:15:22] And then I think there's faux luxury. And I think that this faux luxury is something that we're having to contend with. And I feel like especially the digital experiences for some of these new luxury brands feel very faux luxury to me at the moment. They don't know how to be online retailers. They know how to take orders. They know how to ship product. They don't know how to actually have a relationship with the customer. And in that way, I can agree with the old guard and I will now tap into the hive mind because I do think I would have thought that you were crazy five years ago if you would have thought that I'd have been harping on omnichannel. But here we are. I think it is unbelievably important today.

Brian: [00:16:04] I think you're on to something Marshall McLuhan talked about how technology is actually synonymous with fashion.

Phillip: [00:16:11] {sarcastically} Who's that? 

Brian: [00:16:11] Marshall McLuhan. We talked about this on our last episode and I told you...

Phillip: [00:16:14] You're not going to assume that everybody has listened to everything.

Brian: [00:16:17] If you didn't listen to the last episode, you're getting ten years of Marshall Mcluhan from me. {laughter}

Phillip: [00:16:23] Buckle up.

Brian: [00:16:25] He was an advertiser and a professor and a philosopher, and I won't rehash more than that. But he wrote about how technology and fashion are actually of the same ilk, in that fashion is an extension of humanity in the same way technology is as well. And how fashion actually had a huge impact on even warfare and how people fought and power. And so fashion is a form, an extension of humanity unto itself. It is a form of power. Technology runs in the same camp. I feel that luxury is a form of fashion in many ways. It's a form of art and technology if it's properly employed. It's actually just as powerful of a part of that same like thought process. So I think you're right actually that [00:17:31] to see some of these luxury companies pretend like they understand how to harness technology cheapens them. The ones that do it right are the ones that are capturing and harnessing the power well. And that's why we talk about the homogenization of experiences. That is basically a cheapening of the tool. The power is being spread out and therefore it is actually not as powerful when something gets commercialized. All of a sudden, the next generation of technology becomes the more powerful weapon. [00:18:14]

Phillip: [00:18:14] All right, so let's bring it back. Speaking of a powerful weapon, this is a segue for you. I had the unfortunate circumstance to attend a funeral in the last couple of weeks, which you kind of getting to that age where these happen from time to time now. And a gentleman in our church passed away unexpectedly, and it was a big shock to a lot of folks. I can't help but notice when I see things that sort of take me by surprise. In the preparation for going to the memorial service, the way that the family shared the details of it, like the time and the date of where it was going to be, where this funeral, this memorial service, was going to be was shared through the funeral home's website. So the funeral home has a website. They create a landing page for the event or the series of events. So there's not just one event. If you've never planned a funeral. I'm going to talk a little bit about this. But if you've never planned it, there are a lot of things that you just don't know what to do. There are things for the family, like a private viewing, if you so choose. There's a celebration of life service, which sometimes happens differently from an actual memorial service, which sometimes happens at a different date and time from the actual internment. They'll do a graveside ceremony. There's like there are things, right? So. I'm just kind of geeking out about the tech a little bit as I'm going through this because there's an add to your Google calendar button. You can save the calendar event so that you know where to go. And I'm like, of course, that makes a lot of sense. What took me by surprise, Brian, was the existence of cross cells and upsells. So, you know, of course, if you are out of town and you want to send sympathy cards or flowers, that seems like an obvious thing that you should be able to do pretty easily. I don't know why there was a part of me that was a little bit grossed out that this is an integrated feature of a funeral home's website platform. Engaging in commerce during this difficult time for a lot of people.

Brian: [00:20:37] It does feel like a Nathan for You episode.

Phillip: [00:20:40] It feels like Nathan Fielder rolling in his grave. No, sorry. That...

Brian: [00:20:48] He's not dead.

Phillip: [00:20:49] Yes, I know. He might be soon. Have you watched The Rehearsal?

Brian: [00:20:54] I started. I watched the first episode.

Phillip: [00:20:56] I am so... A total aside. I get totally cringed out and I get second hand embarrassment so badly. I can't watch stuff like this. I can't do it.

Brian: [00:21:06] It's so funny because you are an Office aficionado.

Phillip: [00:21:10] I love that show. I don't know how.

Brian: [00:21:12] But it's like super cringeworthy and I feel like...

Phillip: [00:21:14] It's really not that cringy.

Brian: [00:21:16] Oh, it's very cringy. But Nathan For You is like a real-life...

Phillip: [00:21:22] I'm desensitized to it. Yeah, I've desensitized myself to fake docu.

Brian: [00:21:31] The Rehearsal is brutal.

Phillip: [00:21:33] It's brutal. I can't do it. It's brutal. Anyway, total aside. So it seems like a send up. If you were to make a Saturday Night Live pitch, a boardroom pitch commercial of what our website for the funeral service has to be. It's like this is a responsive website. Someone sat down and was like, "We need to cross over into mobile, guys. We need a mobile-friendly website." Somebody designed and implemented a digital transformation effort for this funeral home. It's wild to me. Someone sold software.

Brian: [00:22:14] It's interesting.

Phillip: [00:22:15] And taught them how to use it.

Brian: [00:22:16] I think we may have covered this on the show at one point, or maybe we just talked about it about how all funeral homes are actually like rolled up.

Phillip: [00:22:25] Yes.

Brian: [00:22:26] They all look individual.

Phillip: [00:22:28] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard a podcast a couple of years ago about this. Yeah.

Brian: [00:22:34] Yeah. It's no surprise that they're investing in technology because...

Phillip: [00:22:37] It's a private equity roll-up strategy. And they have one piece of software that powers all of these fake faux local, fake family-owned, funeral homes. Here's the thing that really got me. You can plant a tree in someone's honor. This is the thing that just totally sent me. You can buy memorabilia. And it makes sense. I don't want to come down too hard on this, because I do think that there is there are natural outgrowths. Like you would go do this for yourself anyway. You would go to some keepsake website, you would print a commemorative plate or a plaque. You would print out a picture that was framed very nicely that has a matte. Like you would do all of that on your own. It makes sense to give people a place to do that all in one place. It makes sense for a funeral website to be a marketplace. It just feels gross.

Brian: [00:23:42] So if it feels gross, then does it actually make sense?

Phillip: [00:23:46] Does everything need to be frictionless?

Brian: [00:23:48] Yeah. I trust the spidey sense on this. If it feels bad, it's probably bad.

Phillip: [00:23:53] It's probably bad. I don't know. I mean, I don't think that some people overthink it as much as I do. You have to believe that to some degree this has been quantified. Like somebody has done the math on this and there... 

Brian: [00:24:08] I'm sure the math works out.

Phillip: [00:24:09] Oh, I'm sure. Well, let me tell you how I know the math works out. So in this process, I thought I would be cute and I threw it out on Twitter. I was like, "Hear me out. Direct to consumer caskets. Because surely we haven't done Millennial Pink to caskets yet." But it turns out, Brian, that absolutely exists already. And you can buy a casket as low as $400 through Titan. Titan is a... 

Brian: [00:24:40] Cutting out the middleman.

Phillip: [00:24:46] {laughter} Titan is a direct to consumer casket...

Brian: [00:24:49] You know $400 for a casket is actually very good. It's very, very... That's a well-priced casket.

Phillip: [00:24:57] And again, why would you want to go direct? If you have ever been a family member making end-of-life choices for someone that's close to you, there is a very soft and gentle but really gross method of upselling in the funeral industry, and I have witnessed it firsthand on two occasions for both of my parents. And it's an unfortunate thing that you encounter where it's like, "Yeah, but that's really our most inexpensive piece and it's two-ply pine and that is a very soft wood. And it's like they upsell you by telling you all the negative things about the particular price point and it plays to your emotions. So why wouldn't you want to make that decision and be deliberative about it yourself in the comfort of your own home where nobody is pushing you? The problem is that people are pushing you. There's ad tech now, there's lead-back. There are now ways for us to do behavioral segmentation. And it's going to be nuanced and it'll be algorithmic nudges, but we're going to have the same outcome. But anyway, it does exist.

Brian: [00:26:22] Thankfully, Costco sells caskets.

Phillip: [00:26:25] Of course they do.

Brian: [00:26:26] Why even mess around? Just seems like a no-brainer.

Phillip: [00:26:34] Oren Charnoff who's the Founder of Fondue, slipped into my DMS in this fun little Twitter exchange and pulled some stats on Titan from Similarweb and better him than me because I don't pay for Similarweb. It's pretty expensive. So he showed me that in the last 90 days they're getting about 30,000 total site visits a month. And if you make some assumptions, they're cleaning up. You know, 300 plus monthly transactions, looking at something about maybe an 1100 dollars AOV. And then there's a shocking amount of direct traffic. So CAC might be pretty low. So they kind of own organic search over at Titan. It's not terribly competitive. If you want to start a DTC startup, maybe start there. But direct to cremation also exists as well. There are cremation services that you can broker both locally and through the Internet that allow you to make that choice as well. Everything exists, Brian. There's nothing new under the sun.

Brian: [00:27:42] Yeah. If you conceive of it, it probably... 

Phillip: [00:27:46] Already exists. Funereal commerce. 

Brian: [00:27:49] It already exists, or it will exist. One of the two.

Phillip: [00:27:50] I thought it wouldn't. But here we are. It absolutely does. On one last little note, I have to say, if you have ever pictured what the software buying process looks like, if you've ever been in that or you don't have to picture it, you and I have been in the middle of buying and selling software for a decade. There are people who sell software like ERPs just to funeral homes. This just blows my mind. I don't know. 

Brian: [00:30:01] How fast do you think they end up going to like a distribution model as opposed to direct to consumer? At what point do they give up on direct to consumer and just say, "You know what? We should just go directly to funeral homes. We'll offer them a great B2B buying experience."

Phillip: [00:30:17] Oh, yeah. Oh, they're going to have to make the digital leap to B2B.

Brian: [00:30:20] You know what? I bet you that they already have.

Phillip: [00:30:23] I bet they already have.

Brian: [00:30:24] I'm going to say that that already exists. DTC casket brand converts from direct to consumer to a multichannel omnichannel business that sells B2B with a B2B portal that has so many phenomenal features. Why would a funeral home ever buy caskets from anyone else?

Phillip: [00:30:48] Well, thankfully, and you're in luck, Business Wire from 2021 says Titan Casket grows 400% in 2021, and it's poised to move beyond caskets to become a digital solution for funerals in 2022. It has seen its B2B business grow 15 X this year as well in launching a wholesale program. They also are in Sam's Club and Costco.com in October.

Phillip: [00:31:14] And there you have it.

Phillip: [00:31:16] There you go.

Brian: [00:31:16] I did not look that up ahead of time.

Phillip: [00:31:18] Why do we even... We don't even need to have a podcast. People could just Google things.

Brian: [00:31:23] The reality is... 

Phillip: [00:31:25] {laughter} What's the point?

Brian: [00:31:26] That was an inevitable outcome. We've seen this with all of DTC.

Phillip: [00:31:32] Okay so let's move on.

Brian: [00:31:34] Hold on. Well, this is back...

Phillip: [00:31:36] I had such a good segue, and you're ruining it.

Brian: [00:31:39] Dang it. Alright. Finish the segue.

Phillip: [00:31:41] No. I'm not coming back. I'm not coming back.

Brian: [00:31:42] No. I want to know what the segue was. Now, I'm actually curious.

Phillip: [00:31:45] No, no.

Brian: [00:31:48] Sheesh. Fine. I'll do my segue. Speaking of the death of DTC, we had an episode of Brian Goes Boogie a while back, but ever since that episode, I feel like I have gone the polar opposite. I stopped buying direct to consumer deodorant. And guess what my new deodorant brand of choice is?

Phillip: [00:32:16] Is it Arm and Hammer?

Brian: [00:32:17] No.

Phillip: [00:32:18] Oh.

Brian: [00:32:19] This is even better.

Phillip: [00:32:21] Is it like Smartly, is it whatever Target Brand is or whatever Walmart brand is?

Brian: [00:32:26] It is the Kroger knockoff.

Phillip: [00:32:29] Wow.

Brian: [00:32:30] It is the Kroger knockoff of Native. It's whatever their organic brand is. I tried it and I'm happy with it. It's good. It actually might be better than Native. I was using Native.

Phillip: [00:32:42] You know what? I'm so proud of you. You know, anyone who speaks ill of Yotpo does not deserve to be in my medicine cabinet. And I've subsequently thrown away all of my Native. I actually haven't used Native in many years. I'm proud of you. This is a big move for you. Actually, at the end of the day, deodorant doesn't matter. Your brand deodorant doesn't matter.

Brian: [00:33:10] No actually. It matters. 

Phillip: [00:33:10] It doesn't matter.

Brian: [00:33:11] Deodorant matters significantly. I did have a...

Phillip: [00:33:13] The brand doesn't matter.

Brian: [00:33:14] The brand doesn't matter. I had a very quick stepping stone between Native and Kroger.

Phillip: [00:33:22] The quality of the product matters. The brand does not matter.

Brian: [00:33:25] I attempted Harry's. Bad plan.

Phillip: [00:33:29] Oh sheesh.

Brian: [00:33:30] Oh, man. Did not work for me.

Phillip: [00:33:33] Harry's might be a wooly mammoth logo. They might have a wooly mammoth as a logo. Their deodorant is not strong enough for the wooly mammoth that is Brian Lange.

Brian: [00:33:43] No, did not cut it.

Phillip: [00:33:44] Could not overcome.

Brian: [00:33:44] But Kroger's native knockoff covered it really well. It was great.

Phillip: [00:33:50] Kroger. All right. Let's shift.

Brian: [00:33:54] This is the Brian goes anti-bougie episode is what it's going to come down to.

Phillip: [00:33:57] It's coming down to it, bro. I might be right behind you. I'm trimming. I'm trimming some stuff.

Brian: [00:34:05] Are you going from... Well, I mean, you're your candle collection. Are you going...

Phillip: [00:34:12] I'm stocked up. I'm stocked. I have enough stuff. I have enough stuff to last me for a long time.

Brian: [00:34:16] That's the thing. I'm in the same camp. There are things that I bought where I'm like, "You know what? I don't need anymore." I'm cutting myself off until I have depleted my stock.

Phillip: [00:34:25] That's right.

Brian: [00:34:25] I will not buy more of the good stuff.

Phillip: [00:34:30] Brian's just in there eating expired food. He's like, "I will not..." He's drinking expired milk. He's like, "I can't. I will not."

Brian: [00:34:38] That was a bad choice.

Phillip: [00:34:42] Triscuits, in the back of the pantry. He's like, "How long have these been here?"

Brian: [00:34:47] Bougie ramen just sitting back there.

Phillip: [00:34:50] We are almost, I think we are now, I think in 86 days from Black Friday/Cyber Monday. We are probably winding down here. It's coming real, real fast. I do want to do an episode in the coming weeks about Black Friday/Cyber Monday preparedness and some interesting tactical and strategic approaches that you can take. But thankfully, I don't have to think about what all those might be. Our friend and esteemed colleague, well, I mean, co-collaborator, frequent co-collaborator Alex Greifeld, who operates No Best Practices, put out an amazing Black Friday sort of preparedness guide and like the ultimate BFCM email, and she put that out not too long ago. I think it was about three days ago here, maybe a week and a half from the time you listen to it. The email was called Christmas in August. In it, we announced that we were doing a giveaway for our Visions swag kit. But if you want a copy of that email, you can get it by going to NoBestPractices.co. And you can sign up there or get on the newsletter. When you sign up for the website, you'll see Future Commerce. Let Alex know that you found the website and you got the BFCM guide from Future Commerce. And let her know that we sent you and get on that, get on it. Subscribe to Future Commerce. Subscribe to No Best Practices and that's how you get entered to win a Visions starter kit which has a tote, like the coolest tote bag ever, a t-shirt, sticker pack, a physical print book of Visions 2022 report, and an amazing water bottle, which I think Brian's probably trying to fish out right now to show you on video. If you're watching on the video feed. 

Brian: [00:36:48] No even better.

Phillip: [00:36:49] Oh, it's the tote. 

Brian: [00:36:51] I got the tote!

Phillip: [00:36:51] Yeah, it's good. It's good stuff. And then, of course... Yeah. You can get all that and more FutureCommerce.fm/Subscribe and over at NoBestPractices.co. You need to be on both lists by the end of September to be eligible.

Brian: [00:37:13] Also limited availability on that swag. This is Visions 2022 which also has a lifespan. Everything dies.

Phillip: [00:37:22] Gosh darn, Brian. Everything dies.

Brian: [00:37:27] This is the episode of death. I'm just bringing it back.

Phillip: [00:37:29] You know what? Actually, that's a great segue. Everything does die. I wrote some time ago in Future Commerce Insiders, which is a deep and insightful essay that we put out at least twice, three times a month if we're lucky that is well researched. Our point of view. It's usually Brian's foray into his love of philosophy.

Brian: [00:37:55] {laughter} That may be true.

Phillip: [00:37:57] We published a piece about something that I called Velebs. It was a piece that we published called Virtual Influencers Killed the Dead Celebrity. And this goes back, I think, to 2020? Yeah. November 2020.

Brian: [00:38:12] November 2020. Yeah.

Phillip: [00:38:13] Yeah, and in there I said one of the things that we were seeing with virtual influencers, virtual celebrities that were taking off primarily on Twitch at the time is video game streamers were using things like some software to rig characters and animated characters and perform and do some interesting voices, etc. One of the things that we saw that we subsequently reported on in the Visions Report in 2021 was opting for either a dead celebrity, which would have been the way that they did it when I was a kid, you know, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe being sort of your celebrity spokesperson posthumously. One way that brands might take off in the 2020s would be to adopt a virtual celebrity, a virtual influencer. And I said because they can never be canceled. This was my biggest takeaway in this piece. I said, "Virtual celebrities have an innate advantage in that they are the product of a marketing machine. And a marketing machine would make careful and considered decisions before putting the actions of a virtual celebrity out into the world that would bring repercussions back to the brand." This is me quoting myself, by the way. It turns out not entirely true. So a couple of instances which were contemporaneous...

Brian: [00:39:46] Marketing teams are fallible? What? 

Phillip: [00:39:48] {laughter} It turns out humans make mistakes. They don't have to be celebrities. They can be the puppet masters behind the celebrities. And we should have seen this coming. Before I get actually to the news story that's driving this, we should have seen this coming because the actual canonical example was Riot Games using Seraphine, which was one of their characters at the time to promote mental health awareness and received a tremendous amount of backlash on Mental Health Awareness Day. I think it's October 11th. And she was talking about fear and feeling like she had imposter syndrome. And people were like, "You're a made up character that's a tool of a corporate machine trying to get us to spend more money in your game." And so we should have seen it coming, but alas, we did not. So fast forward to today. This is a story in The New York Times. Capitol Records had announced just last week that they were bringing on a robot rapper called FN Meka. And that robot was apparently powered by artificial intelligence for some marketing purposes. So it was backed by a major label, backed by Capital Music Group, backed by Blue Note. And this project, the teaser went viral on TikTok and got 10 million followers, in the space of a week. But apparently, there was a backlash just after the preview where people were amounting... And you have to see the actual... We'll link it up in the show notes, this New York Times piece. But the virtual appearance of the rapper people were calling digital blackface and saying that there were tropes and appropriative tropes and maybe racist tropes therein of both the likeness, appearance, and the rap style, and all designed specifically to appropriate culturally that of real people. And I find this to be unbelievably fascinating. So even before they got started, we have to declare dead on arrival to virtual celebrities. Brian, two middle-aged white guys talking about digital blackface. This is going to be a minefield, but I find this to be a really interesting conundrum because when I think about the other virtual celebrity that made waves last week, it was Miquela, the queen of the metaverse, who is the new virtual celeb that is fronting for PACSUN. And we all love a good dunk on PACSUN. So I think that there's a really interesting challenge here in diversity and virtual celebrity. And there's this really... There's a debate that I didn't even know could exist about how far you go and where we draw a line on appropriation.

Brian: [00:43:20] There's opportunity to use any medium inappropriately. Velebs are a medium for storytelling and you can tell a story that's not appropriate.

Phillip: [00:43:32] Are you saying that Florida Water, the first hit single from FN Meka, was not appropriate?

Brian: [00:43:39] Having just come from Florida...

Phillip: [00:43:46] There's nothing appropriate about Florida water? Is that what you were going to say?

Brian: [00:43:51] The ocean is great, but the drinking water is terrible. Let's extract this into a bigger idea. [00:43:59] This feels like corporations want to take all of the artistry out of something and just turn it into something that they can control 100%. [00:44:09]

Phillip: [00:44:10] So the Backstreet Boys.

Brian: [00:44:12] Yes, exactly. It's exactly where I was headed. {laughter} No, I'm dead serious. That's exactly where I was headed. [00:44:19] They used to do this with people. They realize that... [00:44:23]

Phillip: [00:44:23] People are messy.

Brian: [00:44:25]  [00:44:25]People are messy. So why don't we do this with non-people? But it turns out that you have to have people behind something somewhere. [00:44:32] If it has anything interesting about it. It's going to come back to someone. I think the way that digital characters and creations are most effective is when they're actually part of a true story. I feel like if we are going to get into like digital characters, Gorillaz was the best example,  earliest and best example.

Phillip: [00:44:58] Some Beatles fans would be screaming at you right now saying, Sergeant Pepper's and the Yellow Submarine and all the Beatles films are good examples of that, too.

Brian: [00:45:07] Beatles fans can say that about every part of music or artistry. 

Phillip: [00:45:13] The Beatles did it first. The Beatles are the Simpsons of music.

Brian: [00:45:17] Right. Exactly. Yeah. The Simpsons did it first. Exactly. Right. You got it. I guess what I'm getting at is this...

Phillip: [00:45:22] But the Gorillaz didn't get canceled. Like Blur and then the Gorillaz, you know, are interesting art music projects that were collaborative in nature, to begin with, and also featured a middle-aged white guy paired up with black rappers. By the way.

Brian: [00:45:37] It did.

Phillip: [00:45:38] I find that to be... Let me quote something here. Industry Blackout, which is an activist nonprofit that was formed in 2020, sort of contemporaneous to the events of 2020, put out a statement saying, "We find fault in the lack of awareness and how offensive this caricature is. It is a direct insult to the black community and to our culture. It's an amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics." And I find that to be a fascinating human response to what is effectively a humanity test. This is an Isaac Asimov problem.

Brian: [00:46:17] This is a Nathan Fielder problem.

Phillip: [00:46:19] Or I mean, he has some sort of like personality disorder. It could be. How long has it been? Oh, gosh, I've never asked you this question. I feel like I'm setting us up here. Have you ever seen Blade Runner?

Brian: [00:46:36] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:46:37] Oh, okay. Thank God. How long has it been since you've seen Blade Runner?

Brian: [00:46:40] It's been a good probably ten years.

Phillip: [00:46:43] Ten years?

Brian: [00:46:44] Yeah.

Phillip: [00:46:44] So I saw it very recently. And the thing that stuck with me that I didn't catch when I was like 17 or 18 when I saw it last, is the test that is given to see if you are human is beginning to fail for people that are even theoretically human because all empathy is being lost in the world. It's an empathy test. The empathy test only works if you have any empathy left in you. What happens when the world is so devoid of empathy that we've lost our humanity? It's the thing that makes us human.

Brian: [00:47:20] Interesting, interesting point. I think I held off on tweeting this, but I did put it into The Senses. If the medium is the message, back to Marshall McLuhan, and AI is the ultimate media, what is actually the point? Like what is being said about humanity? And my viewpoint is this. If the medium is the message and AI is the ultimate media, then the message is that humanity is unnecessary.

Phillip: [00:47:57] You said this in the last podcast. We used it as a pull quote that was all over social media, and I didn't understand it then and I still don't understand it now. I don't know what you mean by the medium is the message. What does that mean?

Brian: [00:48:08] The medium is the message is to say that the content of the media is not actually what the point of it is. Basically, the medium itself is reflecting back to us ourselves.

Phillip: [00:48:26] Okay. So it's a mirror that we're holding up to ourselves.

Brian: [00:48:27] It is a mirror that we're holding up to ourselves. That's correct.

Phillip: [00:48:29] And by the way, you're referencing again Marshall McLuhan, right?

Brian: [00:48:33] Correct. Yeah.

Phillip: [00:48:34] All right. So okay, I understand it's a mirror. So our reaction...

Brian: [00:48:39] So by virtue of that, it's also an extension of humanity.

Phillip: [00:48:43] Okay. But so let's bring our two points together here. I'm concerned about the thing that you just said being in response to Industry Blackout's statement being misconstrued as this FN Meka is a mirror being held up in front of the consumer audience saying this is actually what you look like and we don't like that. So we're reacting to it. Is that what you're saying?

Brian: [00:49:09] No. So the content itself isn't necessarily the message. But what it is this like fake creator...

Phillip: [00:49:24] Oh, I see what you're saying. The fake artist.

Brian: [00:49:26] This fake artist is...

Phillip: [00:49:28] The fact that there is even a fake artist, to begin with, at all.

Brian: [00:49:32] Yes. Correct.

Phillip: [00:49:32] Right. It's not necessarily like an expression of creativity that is born out of something. It is devised purely out of novelty for the benefit of press.

Brian: [00:49:44] Correct.

Phillip: [00:49:44] And that is a commercial effort.

Brian: [00:49:46] Correct.

Phillip: [00:49:46] Well, thankfully, there's actually a statement here because, in the same piece, Anthony Martini had a quote in here. I don't know who Anthony Martini is, but I'm attributing it to him. Says, "What is an artist today? Not to get all philosophical, but think about the biggest stars in the world. How many of them are just vessels for commercial endeavors?"

Brian: [00:50:13] Yes.

Phillip: [00:50:13] And this comes back to a thing that I think you and I had said some time ago, or maybe we mused about privately, in particular in entertainment and media and in popular entertainment the generational change of what success looks like is very stark. Because when I was growing up, if you were too successful as a musician, you sold out. Like you were a sellout.

Brian: [00:50:48] Right. Right.

Phillip: [00:50:49] Nirvana sold out because they were commercial. Now, they're logos on T-shirts at Target, like they sold out. That was always a concern, especially if you were in the punk scene or if you were in grunge or alternative rock to some degree. It was like there were commercial successes of bands and everybody had that thing of "they were so much better before they sold out." Because selling out comes with making compromises which dilutes your artistry theoretically.

Brian: [00:51:22] Correct.

Phillip: [00:51:23]  [00:51:23]It seems that culturally today every medium exists so that you can sell out as fast as humanly possible. [00:51:32]

Phillip: [00:51:32] Right. Commercial.

Phillip: [00:51:33]  [00:51:33]To commercialize every single action and interaction you have. [00:51:37]

Brian: [00:51:37] Monetizing. Actually, I think you're on to something here. And I was reading...

Phillip: [00:51:43] I'm not on to anything. You said this. I'm just saying it back to you.

Brian: [00:51:45] I've been reading a short story and I'm going to butcher this, by Guy de Maupassant, who is a French author from the 19th century.

Phillip: [00:51:57] Respectable effort. 

Brian: [00:51:57] Yes, it was not a respectable effort. It was terrible. And the story is called Boule de Suif. Again, terrible. I cannot do it. Don't ever ask me to pronounce anything. I am terrible. But let me just explain to you this story. The story goes like this. French town is being invaded. French aristocracy wants to escape, even though it's already sort of been occupied. They get papers to leave.

Phillip: [00:52:30] It's during the revolution.

Brian: [00:52:32] Yeah, it's Napoleon or something. No, no, no. They're being invaded by Prussia. Napoleon era. Because they're like debating whether Napoleon is good or not at certain points. In the Napoleonic era. And a bunch of people escape in the stagecoach and they're all leaving and they're talking. There are different levels of like social statuses and so on. And there's this one woman who's on there and she is a madame and she is a very like respectable one. She had money and so on. And so they end up on this stagecoach together, but none of them, in their haste, remember, to bring any food with them on the stage coast, and they are all starving, starving, starving.

Phillip: [00:53:21] Let them eat cake, Brian.

Brian: [00:53:23] So eventually this madame, Boule de Suif, brought food with her. And so she shared her food with them. And they were all very happy about it. And they've sort of brought her into their social circle. And then they get stopped at this inn. And there's this officer from the invading country that keeps them there and says that they can't leave until this madame consents to sleep with him. And so she refuses because he's from the other country and she's a patriot, and she will not. But all of the other people are like, "Well, she should just do it. We should move on. She should just do it because that would make all of our lives better." That's what she does, after all. And so they all basically devised this whole scheme for how to kind of like make her feel okay about it and make her feel compelled and guilty to do it. And eventually, she does. And then they all get to leave and they won't have a thing to do with her. And then they all bring food with them. But she, in the haste of the situation, does not and they don't share anything with her on the way out because they all got what they wanted from her. And my point is sort of saying this is maybe we actually have a situation where commercially what we all said we wanted, we just discarded after we actually got it. And I'm not saying that in this situation that's true. I'm talking about more of like the commercialization of these velebs.

Phillip: [00:55:05] Yeah. No, it's powerful. Let us read between the lines. You don't have to hit us over the head. I get it. I think that that's really interesting. I'm going to have to think on that. That's a really interesting... The podcaster in me wants to fill in all the space but the actual part of me wants to like really muse on what on the story. Can you link up the... {laughter} Link it up in the show notes, Brian. Drop it into the chat.

Brian: [00:55:31] Don't try to find it based off my pronunciations because they were garbage.

Phillip: [00:55:33] Oh, gosh, no, no. We've been known to murder it here over the years. I do think that there is sort of a gross through line. I don't know if "gross..." Like, maybe it's a grotesque through line throughout this whole of the show, in which all of this fulfills some sort of need or desire or stokes some desire in some person, in some portion of the populace. And in the words of Ian Malcolm, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could. They never stopped to think about whether they should." And that's what it comes down to is, is, do we need $300 hoodies that we dig through dumpsters to fish out? And do we need AI...

Brian: [00:56:43] I know where you're going.

Phillip: [00:56:46] Yeah. None of this is necessary. Right?

Brian: [00:56:51] That's correct. Actually, that's really good... Like Costco and Walmart taking care of everything that's necessary.

Phillip: [00:56:56] Yeah, exactly.

Brian: [00:56:57] Everything else beyond Costco and Walmart is unnecessary.

Phillip: [00:57:01] None of this is necessary. At the end of the day, it all serves some sort of purpose to need to consume.

Brian: [00:57:13] And that's why I'm back to anti-bougie, baby.

Phillip: [00:57:15] You're anti-bougie now. Yeah. And [00:57:18] I'm also feeling, at the moment, like it's time to kind of rein it in a little bit. And that's not recessionary woes or worries or inflationary worries. There's a time to sow and a time to reap and there are seasons. And I feel like there's been a season of overconsumption in my circle of friends for years, and now we need to figure out how we live with less. [00:57:48]

Brian: [00:57:48] There is an exception to this and I think you will probably agree with this, but it's food. Once you go to good food, it's very, very hard to go back.

Phillip: [00:58:01] That's not true. I could live on the same two meals, three meals every day for the rest of my life, and it wouldn't bother me.

Brian: [00:58:08] Okay. Well, you are an exception. We already all knew that. Phillip Jackson is an exception. I think everyone else on our team would be like, "Nope."

Phillip: [00:58:18] For everybody else that's fine. Everybody else you can do you. I'll have my...

Brian: [00:58:23] Your peanut butter and jelly.

Phillip: [00:58:24] Peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch every day. I don't care. And I'll be very, very happy with it. And then, at least maybe one day you can buy your direct to consumer casket and that'll be the last thing that you consume in this world before the world eventually consumes you. Thank you for listening to Future Commerce.

Brian: [00:58:48] And that is death commerce.

Phillip: [00:58:50] That's our funereal commerce episode.

Brian: [00:58:53] Yes, that's right.

Phillip: [00:58:53] Thank you for listening to Future Commerce. You can find more episodes of this podcast and all other Future Commerce properties, including Decoded, for those of you who might be in engineering or tech wondering about how you can make your job work a little bit less siloed and in less conflict with those around you. And then we also have Infinite Shelf coming back. Really excited to announce that that's coming back. Ingrid and a new co-host, which I don't know if we can announce yet, but we're going to build the suspense. That's very exciting.

Brian: [00:59:25] That's a big teaser. Oof.

Phillip: [00:59:27] Big fat teaser. 

Brian: [00:59:27] If you stuck around through this episode to that...

Phillip: [00:59:30] Maybe we should reward them. If they're an hour in we should probably reward them. We won't tell you. We won't tell you. But one way that you could find out when that announcement happens officially is by subscribing to our newsletter. And that's called The Senses. You can get it at FutureCommerce.fm/Subscribe and yeah we would love to have you it comes into your inbox twice a week and we have some other goodies, including an upcoming salon. We are putting on a dinner in South Florida and that's coming up very soon. And the only way that you can get in is by getting an invite. How? From your subscription to Future Commerce, you can get it at FutureCommerce.fm/Subscribe and that's it. Thank you so much for listening to Future Commerce. Hey, commerce is a catalyst for change. In whose world? Your world. The world around you. And maybe if we all did that, we could change the world. Thanks for listening.

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