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Commodity Couture

Opinion, 21 September 2011

If there were any sleep-plaguing doubts that designers matter, the recent crash of Target’s website as it debuted its collaboration with Missoni should help you rest easy. Yes, the real-world votes are tallied, and designers seized the day and took the web platform with them.

The bigger question is why, of course. It’s easy to look out over the retail landscape and report that everything the couture sun touches is in its kingdom. But Missoni is no Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. This is an Italian brand founded in 1953, and while highly respected among those that lunch as a living, it is hardly a household name. So what was it that drove a niche luxury brand to crash a sturdy mass retailer’s website?

To sum it up in a word: meaning.

A brand is a product, service, concept, or even a person, that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, concepts, or people by meaning. And sometimes two meanings can be put together and not be simple addition, but have a multiplication effect. Not always, and not often even, but sometimes.

Such as when Target, differentiated from other mass retailers by its central mission of “design for all,” connected to Missoni, a luxury brand known for, well, its design. The very recognizable zig-zag pattern of Missoni is both retro and modern at once and, importantly, that design is at the very core of the brand. Ask someone about Missoni and they talk about the design.

With this hook up, luxury truly did become design for all, with a real happy ending: A very nice retailer married a very beautiful brand and had little babies born on ebay within hours, at three-times their size (aka cost) at birth. So proud.

Meaning is what matters when it comes to brands. And successful brands know that the meaning has to matter to consumers if it’s going to make offspring like that.

About the author

From contributing to Military Review ("The Droning of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy", Sept/Oct 2009), Joint Force Quarterly magazines ("Ambassadors to the World", Jan 2010), to speaking to the USG Intragency Committee of Strategic Communications (published in Vital Speeches of the Day, December 2009) to portraying a college professor in a McDonald's commercial, cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch breaks the mould.

The founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells (, Boston, MA, Bob has worked in the primeval forest and on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues.  His focus, since the mid-'70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been to understand how leading ideas take hold in cultures.

Since opening Brain Sells, in 1990, he has applied this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances.  He is fond of saying, "Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue.  The brain evolved to act, NOT to think." Brain Sells' retail clients include: TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Home Goods, Radio Shack, Sephora, Verizon stores, McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.

You can count on the good Dr. for one to two posts monthly.

You can link to his website He should soon have a blog to link to as well.