In a new book about the state of the global economy, Financial Times chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman coins an apt phrase to summarize the current consumer zeitgeist: the Age of Anxiety. Up until the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, consumer optimism - characterized by faith in free markets and liberal individualism - ruled the day. Now, however, we have entered a period of ideological confusion and general trepidation about the future.
What does this have to do with branding + design? Everything, it turns out. Brands speak to consumers where they live, in the context of their frame of mind and their emotional state. And nothing transforms your emotional state quicker than losing money. Or going to war. At the moment, we are doing both.
So the current consumer fascination with the dark underbelly of life should come as no surprise. Skulls are everywhere in fashion, from Ed Hardy to Alexander McQueen. Paul Frank even makes cheeky skull-and-crossbone onesies for wee ones as part of their Skurvy line. Vampire and zombie films abound, most notably the Twilight series, which has grossed roughly $2 billion to date and has set ticket sale records all over the place. Taxidermy-inspired interior design and fine art is enjoying a somewhat disturbing renaissance. And we haven’t even mentioned the bubbling fascination with creatures of the night, like owls and extraterrestrials.
But what is it exactly about the undead and suchlike that speaks to consumers so compellingly? Is it simply a morbid fascination that appeals to the stressed and depressed darkness of our souls? Or is there a more redeeming interpretation, one that brands might leverage to engender meaningful bonds with their consumers? Can a brand, like a friend, help you through a rough patch, talk you down off the ledge, point out the silver lining in the cloud and the light at the end of the tunnel?
The most inspiring interpretation of the skull image we have come across was penned by jewelry designers Me&Ro. In decoding the symbolism of the design elements in their line, they explain, “The skull is a reminder that all things will pass, there is wisdom in living in the face of such mortality, and we should always live fully and mindfully.” Elsewhere, in describing a particular ring in the collection, the skull is described as “signifying rebirth and celebrating good things to come our way.” What a beautiful description of how being reminded of death helps us celebrate life. Exactly what a good friend might tell you to boost your spirits in the face of adversity. Of course now we want to own that skull ring.
There is, in fact, feel-good poetry throughout Me&Ro’s consumer-facing language. Their thoughtfully designed objects and the way they speak about them immediately create a personal connection with their consumer. And at a time when people are feeling angsty and wallowy but could do with some optimism, their inspiring, non-chirpy tone of voice and intelligent visual language hit just the right note.
In the coming months, we will examine other ways in which symbols from the dark side are finding their way into the consumer vernacular. And of course we will offer our hypotheses as to what this might mean for the future of branding, innovation + design in the Age of Anxiety.