We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.
-Whole Earth Catalog, Purpose
My friend, Brandon, and his partner, Barrett, plan to build their own house. This is something you can do in rural Missouri. On the wall of their rented home, there are printed images, hand-drawn sketches, and notes to capture their ideals.
Their backyard is a lush garden, full of diverse plants, primarily native to our region. This is the product of just one growing season with them as tenants, and yet it seems like a natural feature of the home.
Recently, Brandon showed me a book from Lloyd Kahn called Home Work. It was filled with individuals who not only had their own unique sense of what “home” was, they built it too. Some owners built as they went, creating unusual homes with organic shapes and cave-like features. Others used geometry, sometimes sacred geometry, to guide their construction of timber-framed works of architecture. Each home was as unique as their owners.
One image showed a naked man carrying a large rock to his home. The stone served two purposes, as far as I could see. The first was structural stability for a new addition to his always-growing home. The second (a more temporary function) was a personal covering that kept the book from needing an explicit warning label on the cover.
For decades, Kahn’s Shelter Publications has produced books that educate shelter-makers and share with the world their adventures in crafting spaces for living. He writes these books in his own hand-built home and they make their way around the world to a savvy community of individualists.
Lloyd Kahn worked with Stewart Brand as the editor for the Shelter section of the Whole Earth Catalog. The Whole Earth Catalog’s self-described purpose was to help individuals to conduct their own education, find their own inspiration, shape their environment, and share their adventure.
We introduced our most recent report, Retail Rebirth, with an uncanny comparison between 1968 and 2020. The tumult of 1968 birthed The Whole Earth Catalog. A young generation welcomed the challenge Whole Earth Catalog offered:
Conduct your own education. Find your own inspiration. Shape your environment. Share your adventure.
This purpose is no less alluring in 2020. Where there is political and economic instability, there is a shift toward individualization and personal power.
Brands must be reminded that their story is not about themselves, it’s about their customers.
It’s about the life your customer is building.
Customers’ purchases reveal an answer to the question, “Who do I want to be and what kind of world do I want to live in?”
So what is the role of the brand?
Borrowing the purpose of The Whole Earth Catalog, it is to educate consumers on how quality of life can be improved for themselves and the world at large. It is to inspire consumers to act upon that vision. It is to equip the consumer with tools for improvement. It is to offer glimpses of this better world your brand (and its customers) are building.
Few (but still too many) companies start with the ambition of selling useless things to people who don’t need them.
At their worst, companies extract something from consumers, rather than make an honest exchange. In these cases, brands make the mistake of putting themselves at the center of the universe they exist in.
The reality is that brands are invited into the universes of their consumers to serve a purpose, and expelled once that purpose is not met or exhausted. Bye Pluto.
Shopify is a powerful vision of this philosophy of educating, inspiring, equipping, and sharing. They haven’t hinged their brand on low prices, cutting-edge technology, or beautiful design. It’s about providing the tools to build your own business.
They’ve oriented themselves around the ambitions of the entrepreneur and will continually provide whatever they can to service this.
Look at Airbnb. They don’t simply facilitate room and board. Airbnb invites travelers to new places and experiences. Whether it’s comfort or exhilaration you seek, Airbnb wants to be trusted as the place to find it.
For newcomers, there is Hilma. Rather than emphasizing broad preventative actions like vitamins or hyper-specific cures like medicine, Hilma uses the hashtag #getbetterfeeling. This phrase addresses “I don’t feel my best” and it’s inevitable culprits: stomach aches, headaches, allergies, and illness.
Their brand is not fixed on a set of supplements. Their mission is to help people feel better. They do this by helping consumers understand their bodies and immune systems, and offering solutions by means of their products and education.
While not all of us will strip down to our birthday suit and carry stones CrossFit-style to our hand-built homes, we’re all building something.
We are changing our style, re-arranging our home, getting into shape, or looking for a way to relax.
We invite brands into our personal construction projects because we need their help.
These brands provide us with the means to frame the house, wire, and route its internal systems, protect it, and bring beauty to it.
Sometimes we know exactly what we’ll want next, and sometimes it needs to be shown to us.
And when it’s all said and done, if it’s good or even just good enough, we’ll want to share it.