Insights of a Brand Tourist in New York
There's something about this city.
For me it has always been a balance between loving to come back, but not wanting to stay too long. Every other year I try to spend at least a couple of days in New York, usually on the way to somewhere, or coming from somewhere, but I always make it back.
There's this feeling that I will find whatever I'm looking for, even if I don't know exactly what it is I’m looking for.
Probably it’s the fact that nearly every single brand that Slash admires and follows has a base in New York, or because it’s where most of the new things start, it’s always a surprise and always a lesson.
Over the last few years, as Slash continues on the journey to improve our branding processes we’ve been studying a group of different brands, for different reasons, understanding them as case studies for the many different things that make a brand great.
Our admiration for this group of brands comes from the fact that they walk the talk and have really strong narratives. Yea, we find a lot of information about them online, we stalk them on instagram and we even order their products, but there are some touch-points that we can only see when we experience them in person.
So that’s what New York is - a chance to see the magic in real life.
Here’s the list, kicked off by a few that we’ve recently seen arrive in the UAE:
They just opened their first store in Dubai, but it's still a shop-in-a-shop. The same thing happened in Abu Dhabi and they’re much different than the ones we find in cities around the world. In the last few months we’ve visited Aesops in places like Auckland, Bangkok, Vienna, Zurich, Montreal, Boston, and a couple more, and honestly, we never get tired of going inside each and everyone of these stores. Not only because we can see the brand in action in all of them, but especially because of the coherence and consistency across all of the touch-points. Aesop is timeless, elegant and sophisticated, but above all it has a narrative, and one that every single member of the staff knows. It always surprises us how they jump from the back of the counter the moment we say we want to know the story behind that store (all of the stores have a different story, independent of if they are designed by a famous architect or the in-house team). Not only do they know that story, but they are proud of it, and they want to share it. Ah, and how does feel having a hot mint tea being offered when it's -6 outside in New York.
Has also opened a couple of stores recently in the UAE, but there's nothing like going to the one on 14th Street, just before entering the Meatpacking District, or even the "Cube" at 5th Avenue. There's not much more that can be said about Apple, but if I would choose one thing it would be the brand loyalty, not only of the customers, but especially the employees. I remember the days when having an Apple computer was "crazy", because nobody believed, or understood, what thinking different meant. They are probably one of the first brands where the purpose was seen across every single touch-point. Back in those days people would line up to work for Apple, because they not only understood the message, but above all they would believe in it, and wanted to be part of it. I can still see that today when I enter a store, especially in the US. They proudly represent that brand. They are part of it.
INTERSECT, BY LEXUS
One of our most recent case studies, with a location at DIFC in Dubai, it sits in a special place right in front of Apple on 14th Street that is always unique from any other. Maybe only Tokyo can compete with it.
Intersect is Lexus’ attempt to bring the brand out of that place where it was perceived as a "old people" brand. I visited the first Intersect store in Tokyo in 2013, and back then it was quite strange for me since I was just arriving to the UAE, and that was my first contact with Lexus (there was no Lexus in Portugal). And it was such a shock, because why would a car brand make such an effort to reach their customers? Car brands sell cars. Why come through all these other products and experiences? The truth is that it’s working, and more and more people that wouldn’t admire Lexus through the cars (not that they aren't great, but they were not for me), are now reached through Intersect, a cool concept store, with a cooler restaurant.
Even with a first location in Abu Dhabi, the shop between Little Italy and Noho, sided by Aesop, Buck Mason, Malin+Goetz or Claus Porto always delivers a different vibe, feeling like the original one. And to be honest my first perception of it was as a version of Aesop (sorry Le Labo...). When we visited our first shop in LA, at Silver Lake, right in front of Buck Mason, that was the feeling. But, the moment you enter and interact with the team, and go through all the scent customization, you understand the difference. Today Le Labo is one of the few scents that I recognize from afar, and it's not only because of the smell, but especially because of what memories activate in my mind. Good ones.
However, there a number of other brands that is almost impossible to find in the same city, as we find here, and that intensity allows us to immerse in the life of these brands, chat with the employees and continually bring new insights back home:
At 29th Street, is still one of my favorite places to stay. The mix between location (just enough to see almost all of NYC walking), good taste (the perfect balance between originals and new stuff) and offering everything you need in an urban stay (great bed, bathroom, fast internet) is spot on. It captures the local community vibe with the lobby packed from early morning to late evening. One of the best espresso shops in NYC (Stumptown Coffee) pumps out coffee and the restaurant hardly has room for walk-ins.
Ace is for us, and always will be, the hotel that started the change from the boring old school chain hotels that can't be more corporate, with zero focus on the customer, to the new narrative-based hospitality. And all of it is effortless. Everything seems so natural that it almost feels that it has been there forever. Community is the key word here: you just landed from a long flight, and immediately you feel part of the local vibe.
THE HIGH LINE
I clearly remember the first time we visited it. It was before Whitney opened, and it was still something new, with not many people checking it out.
Today it’s the most visited attraction in NYC, and a success case of how the community can generate change, without sitting on its hands just complaining about stuff. Maybe now The High Line is too packed for my taste, but choosing the right time of the day, nothing beats the view of the city from there. It's a perfect case of circular design, and we never get tired of it.
The Whitney is another serious case study in success that has contributed to the Meatpacking district becoming one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city. With a consistent art offering that brings the least art oriented to a museum, it was again completely packed, making it almost impossible to get in. As part of the "High Line Architecture Museum", right on the south end of the High Line, and designed by the unique Renzo Piano, the museum is a perfect example of how all the touch-points of a brand work well together, with the brands visual synthesis being a perfect representation of its narrative.
It’s probably one of the favourites of our favorite brands list. Everything is perfect! And entering a clubhouse, whatever city you’re in, is always a moment. It was my first time in the Soho store, during my previous visits to New York it was still in its original location in the Meatpacking District, very close to the Whitney. Rapha is special, and if we needed any extra argument just entering the shop and seeing all these people working and meeting in a... cycling apparel store, it's a proof that they did it right.
Was a place I wanted to visit since using Paula Cher's branding as a case study for a while. The dynamic use of typography brings that brand to life, and makes you want to see every single piece of Public Theater collateral, because you know it will be different, and great.
MADE BY WE (WEWORK)
We admire WeWork, and have visited many of its locations worldwide, but since we read about the new concept, where you don't need to be a member to access it, and at the same time you'll find everything you need to work on an as-needed-basis we wanted to try it. It was my office for two days, and I couldn't be happier. From the great coffee and fast internet, to the makers showcase (a store that sells products from members of WeWork), everything comes together into a winning concept and an inspiration for our future space.
The first time I met Warby Parker as a brand was during some workshops in NYC in 2015, as part of the PSFK conference. I remember the enthusiasm of our guide during the site visit to the Soho location, and the expression of happiness sharing it with all of us. For all these years I wanted to try the full experience and, for the wrong reasons (yes, I'm getting old...), I did it this time, buying my first WP frames. And it was great. It's not only the fact that they give a frame to someone in need for every frame sold, and the fact that even with that they are still extremely price competitive, but especially the positioning on disrupting an industry that has not been really customer oriented.
They’ve been a personal favorite forever, and I just wish I could collect them. We also recently started using Leica as a case study because of the way they reinvented themselves, when everybody was already preparing the funeral. After visiting their boutique Bangkok store several times it was my first trip to the Soho space, and it didn’t disappoint. The positioning is so clear in everything they do, not loosing the prominence of one of the most historical camera brands in the world, but keeping relevant by creating their own game rather than competing with the others.
I was very curious to visit them since the first time I went to the Soho store they were not on our radar of case studies. Recently we started using Acne Studios as a case study of layered branding, something they do so well. It’s quite unique the way they make the simple complex, through a perception that there is always something else to look for, all without loosing their minimal design approach.
MoMA DESIGN STORE
This was probably one of the only misses of the trip. I don’t know if it’s because over the last year we’ve started specifically studying museum concept stores and our critical sense has improved, or if it’s because MoMa in general has become more and more of a tourist destination, and to enjoy their incredible collection you need to fight for your space. It was probably also because I visited it this time on a Friday evening, a day when the entrance is free, sponsored by UNIQLO, and it was pure chaos. They are still the most successful museum store, and everybody looks at them, including ourselves, with admiration. Maybe next time...
Out of this list there are a couple that we really missed in NYC, that were there on previous trips but are now closed, which also allows us to think about why they closed, and how some brands have to always understand their positioning very clearly, and align that with the location. Freitag and Monocle are two of those examples.
This intensity of experiencing all these brands in action in such a short period of time is something that only New York can offer. And that's why we will be back.
P.S. Out of our favorite brands there's one that is not in New York, but it is in Boston: Tracksmith. What a great brand! What a great space! Just went all the way up to our top 5 brands!
By Nuno Abreu.