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Can Instagram Survive in the End of Perfectionism?

As Dr. Seuss once said, “be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." As life affirming as that message may be, it’s a message applied all too rarely in the  age of Instagram; especially by Millennials, a generation who has only ever wanted to conform. However, Gen-Z rejects this paradigm—rather than perpetuating notions of perfectionism, Gen-Z instead embraces uniqueness and equality. As brands shift their focus from Millennials to Gen-Z, it provides us marketers with a pressing implication. While in the past a brand came up with a ‘look’ and expected everyone to follow; to capture the attention of this new generation, brands need to embrace their unique traits.  

Reflecting on these trends, I find myself wondering what the impact on Instagram will be. This is a platform whose success was built upon vignettes of the sweet life and the idolization of the unattainable. Is Instagram sustainable or will it have to adapt? And should brands continue to care to make a moment ‘Instagrammable?’

 
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Perfect Is the Expectation 

In a study published in 2017, Thomas Curran, PhD and Andrew Hill, PhD, examined socially prescribed perfectionism, which the duo defines as "an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” The study found that since 1989 there has been a 33% increase in socially prescribed perfectionism. According to Curran “the raw data suggests that social media use pressures young adults to perfect themselves in comparison to [their peers].” Social media today sets our expectation for what is acceptable within our social fabric. 

Indeed expectation is everything, so much so that in his Tedx talk in Klagenfurt Nat Ware, founder and CEO of 180 Degrees Consulting, attributes expectations as the reason for why we are unhappy. Ware postulates that we are unhappy because of the expectation gap—when expectation of reality exceeds our experiences of reality. He then offers three different types of expectation gaps: imagination, interpersonal, and inter-temporal gap.

    • Imagination Gap: when our imagination exceeds reality

    • Interpersonal Gap: where we compare our reality to the reality of others

    • Inter-temporal Gap: when our past reality is better than our present reality

 
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Source: New York Times
 

As Ware offers, in regards to the imagination gap, technology and social media have only exacerbated this. For example, through tools like photoshop and airbrushing, we’ve come to “romanticize travel and [it] makes us come up with fantastical ideas about places that reality simply can’t live up to.” We expect more than what reality can provide. In Improving Ourselves to Death Alexandra Schwartz cites the work of British journalist Will Storr which reveals that “adolescent girls are increasingly unhappy with their bodies, and that a growing number of men are suffering from muscle dysmorphia.” His work also makes note of the epidemic that is the “perfectionist presentation—the tendency, especially on social media, to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs.” Social media is today’s reality TV, and like reality TV, it “frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval.”

 
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Despite all the wonders technological innovation has provided us with, it has also produced a culture of non-stop improvement through the gift of metrics. As Schwartz offers,“it’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.” Metrics that have fully incinerated work life balance, and yet we are only so eager to share online


Perfectionism is Unhealthy and Gen Z is Not Having It.

 
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But “perfect” is unsustainable, and the impact of trying to achieve it is damaging to the mind, body, and soul; so much so that Storr blames the alarming rates of suicide in the United States and Britain on “the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves.” People are dying because they are failing to achieve something that is impossible to achieve, or by the same token achieve to hide their struggles by painting the perfect image online


But there is a light at the end of the tunnel; thanks to Gen Z the perfectionist presentation phenomenon along with its toxic ramifications may be coming to an end. Unlike their Millennial counterparts, Gen-Z has no interest in the perfect look or being ‘on brand.’ This new generation insteads propels forward the notion that you should be comfortable in your own skin and be yourself. As 22-year-old influencer Reese Blutstein offers, “for my generation, people are more willing to be who they are and not make up a fake identity,” she says. “We are trying to show a real person doing cool things as a real person, not trying to create a persona that isn’t actually you.” The question now is, what does this mean for Instagram and social media strategies that often revolve around it?


Instagram Pivots, TikTok Rises

 
 

In 2016 Facebook launched Instagram Stories—its response to the perfectionist presentation phenomenon. You see, the aspirational only worked for Instagram for a while, but in time that backfired. Among the sea of perfection, users were not posting on Instagram everyday—believing that their content was just not ‘Insta-worthy.’ With their short lifespan, stories allow users’ spontaneity to shine and be themselves—changing the way we create and consume content on line. I must admit, as a Millennial who grew up curating an ‘image’ online, this was an incredible feat to overcome and yet one of the most liberating things I have ever done. Being yourself in this world after all is one of the bravest things you can do.

In a further attempt to minimize the negative impact that it has had on society through the perfectionist presentation, Instagram is experimenting with getting rid of likes altogether. Indeed if users are not measuring themselves by the amount of likes they receive, they may reconsider the content that they are posting all together, from one that seeks approval to one that brings to life their real values.   

And then there is TikTok: an app that can be best described by their hashtag #ImaDoMe —a call to action to not fit in and instead stand out. Given the pressure that the perfectionist presentation has imposed on our culture, it’s easy to see why TikTok can be an attractive platform—you are given the gift to let loose and not care for even a second. In this way it’s the opposite of Instagram where everything seems to be perfected; it is “an endless unspooling of material that people, many very young, might be too self-conscious to post on Instagram, or that they never would have come up with in the first place without a nudge.”


Content That Matters, Freedom At Last

 
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What does this mean for brands? The end of the perfectionist presentation challenges the idea of what a brand is all together. How does a brand balance telling an audience to be themselves, and at the same time request of them to subscribe to its values and ‘universe’? If conjuring an aspirational world ceases to be relevant, what are the images that will take over our feeds? What makes a moment “Instagrammable” and will audiences care? I think so. Instagram’s decision to remove likes means that comments will become that much more important and provides an opportunity for more authentic connections between brands and their audience. Instead of posting content for likes, brands will post content with their loyal followers in mind. 

One thing is for sure —escaping from the tyranny of perfectionist presentation offers one a refreshing source of freedom. Like my friend Valentina always says “uno tiene que sacar partido a lo que uno tiene,” meaning “one must take advantage of one’s intricacies.” That mindset is a source of freedom to which I very much look forward to.




The Extinction of the Politician

 
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When we don’t like something we’ve purchased what do we do? We return it. If a sales associate doesn’t provide the service ‘you deserve’, what do you do? You ask to speak to the manager. And when a CEO isn’t creating results? The board tells them “You are fired!” This is why it is so perplexing that we voters have become so complacent with Washington’s inability to get anything done. Why don’t we treat our government and politicians like brands, and hold them accountable, just like we would a brand that we patronize and enrich with our hard earned dollars? Their blatant inability to meet the tasks at hand, is not only what makes CEOs such an attractive option for presidential candidates, but what will ultimately lead to the extinction of the politician all together, unless they switch course and take a page from the brands we so admire.


Howard Schultz: Problem Solving and Human Connection

 
 

The latest CEO to contemplate a presidential candidacy is Howard Schultz–– former CEO of Starbucks. In his new book From the Ground Up Schultz offers a message that viscerally resonated with me. He offers “I have come to believe that people must not stand by in the face of human distress and broken systems. And if these two predicaments are intertwined––if human suffering is the result of others abdicating their responsibilities, or showing a lack of respect for another person––it becomes what can only be described as an injustice. In me, injustice sparks a restlessness I have tried to combat with the tools and resources I have at that time.”

This feeling of restlessness to fix things around oneself is one that I share with Shultz, and why I deeply admire him. His impetus permeates through the Starbucks brand and it is the reason why I choose to grab my daily coffee from the chain every morning. This need to problem solve, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, is also among the reasons why I think I decided to pursue a career in brand strategy––one that I hope to fuse with my other passion: Urban Planning and Community Development. Mastering how to properly communicate a message, change perception, and shape human behavior I thought was an imperative first step if I wanted shape the world around me.

Naturally, this sparks an interest of the role of strategy (or lack thereof) in politics, and is the reason why I am fascinated by the possibility of Schultz’s run for the presidency. At his very core, he is a strategist and he has built a multi-billion dollar brand understanding that Starbucks doesn’t just sell you coffee. It provides a space (a third space) to satisfy one, if not the most important of human needs: connection. This is what brings me (I am sitting at a Starbucks as I write this), to my local Starbucks everyday.

To believe in human connection doesn’t necessarily mean that I spark a conversation with every person at Starbucks––I am not much of a chatter box––but that I believe that we all have a responsibility to each other. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks, I feel like I have an impact on those around me through the various initiatives the brand has implemented. As Schultz notes in his book, Starbucks “is in the business of investing In people.” At the end of the day we all want to become better versions of ourselves, we all want the reassurance that someone believes in us, and that we aren’t weaving through the world alone. I believe Starbucks evokes this. For some, human connection might in fact be materialized by Starbucks offering a third space to spark a conversation. For others like me, it is conjured up through the comfort of knowing that through the purchase of every cup of coffee, we are investing in people.


The Golden Circle

 
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Human connection is Starbucks’ why in what Simon Sinek calls the ‘Golden Circle’––a three layered circle that postulates the differentiating way that all inspiring leaders and organizations think, act, and communicate from the competition. Sinek suggest that every leader or organization knows what they do, some know how they do it, but very few know why they do what they do. Very few can communicate why they get out of bed every morning or why should others care. The why is the most important message that a brand on a path to success must communicate. This is because like the ‘Golden Circle,’ our brain is layered into three parts. Unlike the what which correlates to the neocortex of our brain––responsible for all rational and analytical thought and language––the why correlates to the innermost layer of our limbic brain, which is responsible for our feelings like trust and loyalty, for human behavior, and decision making. Thus, when we communicate our why to others we are targeting the part of the brain that controls behavior. Simply put, people don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Successfully communicating why, is what builds trust between brands and consumers. The why is something you don’t hear politicians communicating very often anymore, but you hear from the most inspiring brands of today; and it is the biggest take away that a politician can learn from a great brand like Starbucks.


The Impact

Starbucks in many ways has become my second home, and through an experience––I also think Starbucks is among the top echelons in the experiential economy––and a very strong sense of why, guests have developed and incredible attachment to the brand. The type of attachment that many politicians could only dream of––isn’t it the ultimate goal of politicians to ignite desire among their customers (voters) for their brand (their platform)?

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Yet, in a recent 2018 Gallup poll, 42% of voters identified as independents in 2017 (up from 39% in 2016), meaning that most voters aren’t very loyal to politicians. But people are loyal and trust brands, which is why these entities and those who lead them will continue to play a more prevalent role in government. I know what you are thinking: they already do, they lobby the shit out of Washington, and are the source of many of our current predicaments. However, the role that I envision brands playing in government, is one where they replace it in its entirety.

Below are some the best examples of CEOs and brands cutting the middleman—the politician—out and responding to the issues that plague their audiences. Their leadership is evident by choosing social conscientiousness over profit and by taking the right side––that of the consumer. Foremost, they demonstrate a strong sense of why, anchored in holding themselves accountable to the values they’ve promised to deliver, and on finding new ways of adding value and improving the lives of the people that patronize them.

1. B Strong by Skinny Girl CEO Bethenny Frankel

 
 

Perplexed by everyone telling her she could not go to Puerto Rico following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the entrepreneur's innate response was “well, isn’t that why I have to go?” This sense of urgency to help others was at odds with that of the Trump administration, which came under fire for its slow response and the lack of resources it provided the United States territory. Frankel had no time to partake in the political feuding, and showed more interest than those who voters commissioned to lead; noting that “planning a dinner party is probably as complicated as this.” Ultimately her no-nonsense take-charge attitude led to one of the largest private relief efforts amounting to $40 Million.

2. Delta:

 
 

In early 2018, CEO Ed Bastian issued a company-wide memo announcing an end to Delta’s discount program for NRA members; this amidst a swarm of petitions urging companies to cut ties with the group following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. This decision led Georgia politicians to revoke a $40 Million tax break on fuel, but as Bastian noted in his memo, “our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale.” Like Shultz, Bastian understands that Delta doesn’t just sell flights, it sells values that customers expect the airline to uphold. However, the biggest take away for politicians from Delta was offered by Bastian when speaking to Fortune Magazine, where he expressed that in trying to run the best airline on the planet “we have a responsibility to our customers, employees, and community partners to do the right thing.”

3. Nike:

 
 

Last September, the sportswear company released a spot narrated and starring Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who sparked controversy for protesting the NFL National Anthem. In the spot Kaepernick goes on to say “believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything,” cementing Nike on the right side of history––one where the spectacle and profit of football does not trump racial justice. While not without backlash, the move by Nike led to a 31% increase in their online sales the week following their spot’s debut. Not only was Nike on the right side of history, but on the side of their customers.

4. Patagonia:

 
 

Patagonia’s efforts to protect the environment are well documented. For thirty years the brand has propelled efforts to protect public lands; and since 1986 it has donated either one percent of sales or 10 percent of profits––whichever is greater––to such causes. Two years ago, however, Patagonia raised the bar even further by going head to head with the Trump administration. In December of 2017, the brand used its website and social channels to display the message "The President Stole Your Land," ––in response to the administration’s decision to roll back protections to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments––and  pledged that they would pursue legal action against Trump’s decision: “Patagonia, together with a coalition of Native American, conservation and historic preservation organizations, officially filed its complaint against President Trump and four members of his administration in federal court in Washington, D.C.” As Patagonia has learned over the last decade, “its business continues to grow every time it takes a stand. For Patagonia, a brand that still relies most heavily on outdoors enthusiasts for business despite its newfound fashion cache, that means recognizing that fighting to keep wild lands wild isn't likely to alienate core customers.” The result? In the last decade the brand has seen its most successful years in terms of business.


Disruption: Brands Take Over

The extinction of the politician is near, unless of course they follow the footsteps of today’s most inspiring brands. But what would a world where brands begin to meet the needs that politicians can’t look like? Apple can create a school of engineering, no brand has more legitimacy to provide us with healthcare than Equinox, and Patagonia will continue to protect our lands. What is the need for brands to lobby when they can just cut the middle man out and meet the needs of voters all on their own? As reflected by the examples above, brands have a track record of listening to their customers better than politicians.

As for Howard Schultz, he is just disrupting a system that vastly needs it. Isn’t that  exactly what every brand––from Amazon to Uber––that we glorify today has done? Government is in need of major disruption, and Schultz is just here to allow us to visualize it, and perhaps even realize it. You know how he’ll do it? By sharing his why.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the parties quoted.






What is a Collaboration for?

 
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What is collaboration for? At its finest it is the coming together of values. At its worse, it is a luxury brand’s attempt to crawl back into relevancy—riding on the coattails of the latest streetwear craze. Sadly the former is less common than the latter. While through well crafted collaborations brands have the ability to cast their story and magic to a wider audience and catapult two brands into power-couple status, they come with inherent risk. Poorly conceived collaborations can lead a luxury brand to lose its untouchable mysticism, its recognition for creative influence, and most dangerous of all: lose its core loyal audience.


Why Brands Collaborate

As the Business of Fashion offers, “the [collaborations] move comes as more and more luxury brands are tapping the cultural energy and business model of streetwear to stay relevant with millennial customers, who drove 85 percent of luxury growth last year and increasingly demand newness and novelty.”

At first glance this may seem as a genius strategy, as Gen-Z and Millennials will account for 45% of the global luxury market (Bain & Company) by 2025, but as another Bain report offers, Baby Boomers today continue to drive the demand for luxury consumption.

 
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And while Millennials and Gen-Z’s demand for street-wear brands like Kith and Supreme are important to recognize, the average age of an individual in the Gen-Z cohort is that of fourteen. Since when has it been so important for a luxury brand to be relevant to a fourteen year old? Are your thoughts today at all aligned with the thoughts of your fourteen year old self? At fourteen you haven’t developed strong enough of a palate to understand luxury. Luxury brands should of course create a strategy to ensure they remain among Gen-Z’s evoked set, but this strategy should not revolve around their seal of approval.

To the contrary of comments by David Fisher (founder of Highsnobiety), that “it is the luxury brands that are the ones that need credibility in the streetwear space, not the other way around,” true luxury brands do not waver through the trends. Their main goal is to remain influential and to elevate the customer at all times. It is a dual source of aspiration and achievement. This is why luxury is something that you grow into as you develop a strong sense of self and a point of view—an acquired taste. If luxury brands are irrelevant to teenagers today, it is not because they are doing something wrong, they simply haven’t acquired that taste.


A Temporary Rush

However, some brands have moved full speed ahead with a Gen-Z strategy— Balenciaga and Gucci to name a few. But at what cost? Demma Gvasalia may have made Balenciaga “cool”, but seems to have burned all of the brand’s archives and rich heritage along the way. As J N Kapferer and V Bastien offer in The Luxury Strategy; heritage (a unique know-how and culture) is one of the six criteria in defining luxury.

 
Source: Highsnobiety

Source: Highsnobiety

 

The end result? Like every other trendy brand before it, from Givenchy to Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Gucci’s coolness and temporary profits will wear off. But they will be left with a bigger issue on hand. They will have corrupted their heritage and diluted their brand value; but most pressing of all: by the time this consumer reaches adulthood, and has the discerning point of view and the financial wherewithal to buy into luxury, the brand will be old news.  Luxury is about progress and achievement, it is about becoming a better version of ourselves. When that time comes for the young consumer of today, they will seek brands with rich histories that embody that rite of passage.


Risking Creative Influence

Then there are those who are argue that collaborations are necessary to keep things fresh and desirable. But true luxury companies have been doing this for decades without collaborations. And then there is the argument of nostalgia, that collaborations satisfy this yearning to go back to the past—the past does always seem more simple and romantic doesn’t it? But once again luxury companies have been revisiting the past and re-imagining iconic house codes without collaborations. Think of when CHANEL reissued the 2.55, or when Frida Giannini re-imagined the Jackie and Bamboo bags for Gucci. In these instances re-issuing a look or piece wasn’t simply bringing something back. It was a celebration of how an iconic item had changed a generation, and an exemplar way to show a brand’s stability through time.

 
Source: KITH

Source: KITH

 

The collaborations that inundate us today do neither of the aforementioned. They don’t raise the bar of craft or creativity— providing a vision of what could be—nor do they re-interpret the past. All that collaborations do is smash logos together, from Louis Vuitton and Supreme, Kith and Tommy Hilfiger, to Ralph Lauren and Prime. At times, this smashing of logos comes from companies that don’t even make any sense—I am still trying to wrap my head around the Coca-Cola and Kith collaboration.

 
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Once again I ask, at what cost? Luxury fashion used to be looked upon for continuously pushing the boundaries, and leading the way. Think of CHANEL and the little black jacket, Yves Saint Laurent and Le Smoking, or Marc Jacobs and grunge. But with a single collaboration, Ralph Lauren which for decades was the truest symbol of a lifestyle luxury brand, has corrupted decades of a perfected dream. 


Risking Core Loyal Audience

 
 

As Jacobs notes in an article by Cathy Horyn, discussing his then infamous grunge show, these collections had an impact because they didn’t seek to cater to the desires and understanding of the masses. Unlike those of today, collections like Jacob’s were intended for a special group, “a very specific and special group that understands the vocabulary, the irony, the perversity, and the content of it. So, it’s almost by definition not something that most people should see.”

While not intended for everyone, they did make you stop and think, adding to the brand value. Today in pursue to cater to all and drive sales, designers create a couple of good sneakers for the kids to post about and call it a day. But a lack of provocation remains, and when the earnings-rush dissipates, that legitimacy for clairvoyant creation will too have faded.

 
Source: WWD

Source: WWD

 

But that’s not all. Once a brand has lost its raison d’être, the social-fabric that connects those who Jacob’s refers to as a “special group” is gone. Take Supreme as an example, its collaboration with Louis Vuitton may have been a commercial success, only to have alienated those who truly understood the brand’s essence. As a skater in the Lower East Side told WWD  “I think [the collaboration] it’s stupid as s–t,” adding that “it solidifies Supreme’s place in fashion, which is so stupid. They started the brand as a f–k you to fashion, and now they’ve become it.”

Skaters were the subculture that kept the Supreme flame on. As Ana Andjelic offers in Brands Must Hack Culture, “a subculture is made up of people who are more informed and passionate about a topic than anyone else. They are likely to be beta-testers, source material, and advocates for a new product or service.” When a brand loses those who are spreading its message with such gravitas, the brand is done. 

So then, what’s a collaboration for?


Collaborations Done Right x The Ultimate Collaboration

In its most basic form a collaboration should be about the coming together of values between collaborator and luxury brand. It is an opportunity to share a brand’s voice to another audience, but both brands must individually have a strong sense of self. It creates the ultimate power-couple and lifts both brands. Such is the Apple Watch collaboration with Hermès. Both brands were able to touch consumers that previously seemed unreachable, and both retained their essence and legitimacy.

As for my vision of the ultimate collaboration, I vote CHANEL X Patagonia. Neither brand needs the other insofar brand relevance is concerned. But each individually is propelled by a strong set of values—values from which they will not waver for temporary profits—that when combined could catapult them to power-couple status. Moreover they both have incredibly discerning subcultures, both which are willing to pay a premium to amplify the brand’s mission. Through a collaboration both could spread their missions even further. 

Source: USA Today

Source: USA Today

Source: Patagonia

Source: Patagonia

And while a dichotomy between both does exist—no one would offer that Patagonia is the most fashionable, nor that CHANEL is the most environmentally cautious—this is exactly why both ensemble could strengthen their brands. The luxury consumer is increasingly altruistically inclined, and spreading Patagonia’s message to CHANEL’s vast consumer base would be a huge step. Furthermore, this collaboration would provide CHANEL’s audience with that provocation they so yearn for. From The President Stole Your Land, to Don’t Buy This Jacket, Patagonia has proven time and time again that it is an expert in provoking thought through its communication efforts.

Some may cry sacrilege, that a CHANEL X Patagonia collaboration would destroy a dream. However this move would not risk CHANEL’s untouchable mysticism, its recognition for creativity influence, nor alienate its core loyal audience. If anything, this collaboration would give us something grander to dream about, and that is what a collaboration is for.