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AVM Consulting · Looking Forward - 021 - The Role of Curation

The role of curation

In the months that preceded launching the website for AVM Consulting, I found myself sending articles and podcast links to friends, and clients, often on a weekly basis.

It wasn't a 'curated' e-mail, as such, more like: ‘Hey, I thought you might enjoy this article; see link below. Much love!’

By then, I’d made a ritual of reading every morning, at length, after coffee and meditation. I’d always been a big reader; however, I’d never managed to carve out that much time for this activity before. I felt guilty at first, thinking of other more ‘productive work’ I could be doing. But I stuck with it. And the more I read, the more podcasts I listened to, the more I found myself wanting to share them. Reading and research have become a meaningful portion of my work week. What used to feel like a luxury 'add-on' to my identity as a brand consultant is now a vital part of who I am.

I now come with a depth of experience and the benefit of being well-versed on topics ranging from tech, communication, retail, digital, HR, DEI, future of work, etc. The breadth of human experience in and around work is what captivates me, so the next step came quite naturally: to put together an email digest of the good stuff that’s caught my attention and that I feel motivated to share.
Naming it ‘weekly’, not a very conscious choice at the time, pushed me not to procrastinate behind the ‘could do better’ approach, a perfectionist trait I am leaving behind. That’s how I manage to show up every seven days or so in your inbox, despite my fear around shipping/emailing.
So here we are: I’m the curator of a weekly digest. If you’d told me that a couple of years ago, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

CURARE, FROM THE LATIN, TO CARE

Curation and creative pursuits have been on my mind for a couple of reasons. It started thanks to the excellent article published this week in The Sociology of Business, by writer Ana Andjelic, with the headline-grabbing title: ‘Creativity is dead, long live curation.’
Her subtitle? ‘Curation as a preferential strategy for brand differentiation, relevance, and equity gain.’ I highly recommend this read.

So, creativity is dead, long live curation. What does this mean? In quick succession, several companies decided to pull me further down this rabbit hole.

First, MatchesFashion emailed to tell me about a new series in their Art.Matches.Fashion world, called ‘Great Minds’. The first interview is with Italian art collector and patron Valeria Napoleone. She is asked about why art matters, her general inspiration, fashion, and her dream dinner party and guests. Two thumbs up for Napoleone’s answer to this last question as she chose none other than the Pink Panther, John Travolta and art historian Linda Nochlin to join her for a trattoria dinner in Positano. I’d join that table.

Peppered around the interview is a gallery of images and art pieces curated by the guest. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find both a ‘share’ button and ‘shop art.matches.fashion’ button. Curated art to inspire us, and a curated selection of arty clothes for us to feel like we are part of the story? The tribe? Or make us feel closer to the curator’s world? Maybe all of the above.

Almost simultaneously, Bottega Veneta emailed-released an art-filled Issue 2 of their digital magazine, which, on this occasion, failed to grab my attention for more than a couple of seconds. I’ve gone off them a bit. Too much hype kills the hype.

Despite my reaction, the relationship between brand, designer and artists and curators is blossoming, becoming more and more attractive to businesses wanting to find their footing and express themselves, or make a mark on their audience. A hard feat in this complicated, pandemic world.

Finally another email, this time penned by David Fischer, founder of Highsnobiety, proudly announcing the debut of Highsnobiety’s first keynote film at Cannes’ Lions Live event. Dubbed the Festival of Creativity, the event is, as I understand it, a celebration of advertising (they call it creative marketing - potato, potato) in its most powerful form. And there, in the second paragraph, he announces:

‘As cultural institutions in their own right, the brands of tomorrow will become curators of stories and products, incubators of next-gen creators, and museums memorializing key moments.’

Huh. Brands as curators? Brands as museums? There’s really something afoot this week. Do I want brands to become museums? It’s not that I’m against it, but when announced like this, I’m not sure. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so generous.

CURATION AS WORLD BUILDING

Brands have long been creating experiential journeys for customers in a bid to foster loyalty. These experiences might include curating art on the walls of a gallery-like boutique, working with interesting architects, inviting musicians to create a playlist or DJ for your store party, curating exhibitions in stores during art fairs, as well as working with intriguing mixologists, restaurateurs and performers.

The offer of immersive, money-can’t-quite-buy experiences, unless one is uber-rich, is something I know a thing or two about. I’ve enjoyed developing a few of these myself for Christian Louboutin (the hyper-curious designer himself is a great curator) and also for other brands and designers over the years. It was all, at least in my view, expertly curated. Whether you’d want to call it that or not, depended very much on your own personal taste or relationship with the word itself: it has been overused.

Luxury brand’s artistic directors have an affinity for great creativity - and great creatives. So of course, their careful selection of artists and curators brings together a creative tribe that can promote the brand’s values, in a way that may feel less commercial to the eyes of the consumer. What Fischer and Andjelic are telling us, each at their level, is that this technique is becoming much more widespread: everyone seems to be ‘curating’ as a means to build a world around their brands.

Historically, multi brand stores, or in certain countries department stores, were the great curators, the selectors of the worthy and the new. They had events, food and wine and celebrities abound. I remember the excitement when Amy Winehouse came to Harvey Nichols for her personal shopping appointments and she’d selected some white Louboutin heels.

Many of these aren’t in such great shape today, if they are open to business at all, but they need to be acknowledged; it would be doing them a disservice not to note that they paved the way for brands as we know them. However, these aforementioned stores (sadly or not) are losing market share in a world increasingly focused on DTC, for margins, profits and yes, immersive, loyalty-enhancing world-building. No wonder Gucci and co are focusing their efforts on the metaverse. From world to universe.

CUSTOMER JOURNEYS

Fittingly, this week I was editing, and hopefully by the time you read this, launching the latest interview of Out of the Clouds, with Helen Baynes, customer experience consultant. Baynes paved the way for luxury online customer care, personal shopping for the likes of Net-a-porter, and Cult Beauty and is a specialist in experience design, building journeys for brands that want to become intentional about how they treat their clients: from the first purchase and far beyond.

If you, a brand, are going to create a ‘world’, someone should help you curate a journey through it, right?

When you talk to Helen, it all sounds like it’s simple but she’s very clear: simple doesn’t mean easy. The lengthy work process generally entails looking at the potholes first, the part where we let customers down. We need to smooth this out before we can pave the way for the rest of the customer journey.

And to those of you with the bottom line in mind, money is a slower form of reward we get for curating customer rituals and customer journeys that are worth our clients’ loyalty. Before it pays off, it often takes time. The investment of time, coupled with manpower, is often scary. Putting dollars into a new program, not knowing where or how the ROI will manifest, can be very tricky. Couldn’t we put our time towards something with more immediate returns? Well, not if you want to create lasting connection. That’s where both Helen and I have experienced tension, in our various roles. But we both believe in long-term customer development over immediate sales. Maybe we are the romantics of retail?

SCALING INTIMACY

Reaching the right people: that’s often what we talk about here, in my office, on Zoom and in this newsletter. Brands that have kept this in check know that leveraging all touch points is a means to invite customers into a world they are making up as they go. And yes, tapping into all our senses helps, in multi-sensorial experiences we get to surprise, delight, and maybe even challenge, open up our clients to think of us differently.

Hence the rise of experiential marketing and experience design: turning into an art form this multi-pronged immersive approach. It must be mutating rapidly too, whether in the phygital (physical/digital hybrid) world or in the multiverse. Interested as I am in building the right story for brands, I’ve explored a few courses, some which I finished, others which I left behind. And as I write this, I’m thinking I should go back to ‘Transmedia storytelling’, on Coursera. The notion of borrowing from the gaming world to understand how to make our stories touchpoints richer sounds… timely.

Because the kind of narratives we construct for our clients, our audiences, to express who we are, evolve, as our society does, though sometimes not in perfect sync.

Artists (and younger generations) tend to be the early adopters so naturally they are the ones we look to as a guiding light: they dare try things before most of us do, great explorers that they are.

Curators become the connectors between artists, audience, institutions, and now brands.

Curation takes center stage and I like how Ana Anjelic explains this in her post:

‘When brands moved from manufacturing products to manufacturing culture, design, luxury and art, curation zoomed onto taste, aesthetics, identity and social status.

Curation became the fuel of modern culture: it is indispensable in the cultural landscape where products, people and experiences are all comparable in value: a concert can be equally desirable as a bottle of vintage bourbon as a pair of rare sneakers.

It is not hard to see how this crowded cultural landscape can lead to the consumer choice overload, and why curation gained prominence as the obvious way out of it.

The role of a curator is to sort through culture and show us what we need to know and why.’

ART, DESIGN, FASHION ARE WORLDS OF IDEAS

Brands and stores who curate gallery-like spaces, offer a dream escape, a hint of magic, something valuable and hard to quantify. Case in point: Browns Fashion, with their brand new Mayfair boutique, designed by Dimore Studio, or even more recently department store La Rinascente with their Milan flagship on the ladies shoe floor, designed by Studio Pepe.

Curation from key opinion leaders in their field, who have a foot in culture and a great reputation with the right tribe, signals a brand’s taste levels and creates an aspirational ideal that customers can tap into. Building an identity around curation lends itself naturally to evolution, we can build on the world of curation, move it around as you’d move art around in a gallery. And rather than taking the risk to boldly create themselves, the creative directors-curators joyfully rest upon the talent and expertise of the artists. Effectively borrowing someone else’s voice.

And why shouldn’t they?

We get to make this up as we go. We make up stories, layer them to create shape, form our (brand) identities, and then test them around others, for enrollment, for sales, for pleasure. Quoting, once more, my favourite book of the moment, ‘The Art of Possibility’: ‘It’s all invented.’

SO WHAT’S A DIGEST FOR?

Back to this email.

Curation of small bits are easy to … digest. Hence the name, and kudos to whoever coined the term. You get to pick what works for you, what you are attracted to, on the day, as an easy to grab menu.

It’s culturally relevant, sufficiently disposable in email form, as such, excellent for our short attention spans.

Now, one more thing to add to this topic of curation, which feels important and comes courtesy of Tara Mohr. In her book, ‘Playing Big’, Mohr calls out women for often ‘hiding’ their voices and opinions behind tactics that appeal to their (our) rational minds and which effectively stop us from ‘playing bigger’.

One of those is when we collect and curate other people’s ideas: captivated by a subject which we feel deserves attention, many of us create projects around other people’s ideas instead of getting into the conversation and expressing our own views. Mohr recognizes that curating is perhaps a first step, and she explains:

‘Sometimes a woman’s true calling includes “gathering of the voices” on a topic. Other times, collecting others’ perspectives serves as a needed stepping-stone that helps her discover her own. But far more often, brilliant women feature others’ ideas to sidestep claiming their own thought leadership. Turning outward to “gather the voices” is often a fear-based but good-looking escape from taking the simple, scary step of sharing one’s own voice.’

I guess the podcast (in its interview format) was probably my stepping stone. The second was the AVM Weekly Digest. And right on the heels of that, the ‘Looking Forward’ blog emerged. An idea-coming-out of sorts, where instead of solely curating, I take the leap to share my own voice.

So why do I curate? Will I continue curating?

Maybe I chose curation for relevance, establishing myself in my new consulting identity - as implied in Ana Andjelic’s email. Perhaps, too, in order to establish aesthetic, cultural and intellectual pertinence? But also has to do with generosity: I’m sharing my worldview, because what I curate is what I care about.

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