Brands & Outliers: Playing with (un)reality

Everything is malleable

Welcome to another episode of Brands & Outliers, where we survey all of the brands moving the culture of their categories forward, and point out the outliers that give us a signal of the future to come.

There were a lot of interesting brand names and developments this month, but they all pointed to one theme: brands are getting comfortable playing with (un)reality.

Our biggest discussion was around the grief tech brands that have been around for a while but are really starting to gain traction now that AI is an accepted force. 

Grief tech brands promise to never let our loved ones die, but they also rob us of the very grief that helps us grow. Experiencing death makes people more open to life and brings the living closer together. 

It begs the question, will we let the individual escape the pain of loss, even if it means potentially more pain for the group?

In the shallower end of the (un)reality pool, we have brands like J.Crew and AI Garage Sale test the limits of authenticity. 

And it's a good time for that, too, because being 'authentic' (this year's word of the year) once carried a moral charge in its meaning, but perhaps now has become detached from any moral connotation. Etymologists call that expansion of meaning semantic broadening, and it's been happening a lot in our language lately.

Here are some more highlights from our discussion:

00:26 Splintering Authenticity

  • The definition of the word "authenticity" is morphing yet again, and brands like J.Crew and AI Garage Sale are cleverly moving the line between real and unreal

13:31 Reshaping Ecosystems

26:00 Customized Self

  • Grief tech companies like Replika, HereAfter AI, StoryFile, and Seance are trying to get rid of the pain of death altogether, but we debate whether that's what society is really asking for right now

39:25 Chaotic Masculinity

  • On one side we see muscle dysmorphia and hunters who won't wear pink even if their lives depended on it, while on the other side people like Tony P. practice "Vibrant Masculinity". Masculinity is in its messy middle phase.

P.S. The short animated film I reference is 'World of Tomorrow'(2016). 

Skin Tight

Here's what we've been consuming.

Flesh: A Special Series (ReD Associates): "Sex is more ubiquitous and less taboo than ever. And yet we find ourselves in a sex recession... The forces and processes of nature – mold, fermentation, ecosystemic thinking, evolution – are creating excitement out of unpredictability in food, medicine, beauty, design, and media. And yet we are precision engineering our way to longevity. What does it all point towards?"

Baby's First Simulacra (Binchtopia): "How did the momfluencer come to be and why are we so obsessed with her? Can children ever meaningfully consent to being shared online? Did Jean Baudrillard predict our real life Truman Show with Simulacra and Simulation in 1981?"

‘Huberman Husbands,’ ‘Bro Diets’ and the ‘Masculine’ Branding of Fitness Culture (New York Times): "Women have long been the primary market for weight-loss advertising... being thin has been seen as an acceptable and worthy goal for generations. Because women were the main consumers of this kind of information, it’s not surprising that marketers would look for a different approach to attract men — and that appeal has often been couched in science and statistics, which is how Huberman frames his information."

In the Misinformation Age, Believing In Bigfoot Is Harder Than Ever (TexasMonthly): "When everything we see online is unbelievable, what future is there for a community built around the unbelievable?... Mayes introduces a question that has preoccupied investigators for decades but has become more complicated in recent years: What will it take for people to believe Bigfoot exists?"

The Dad Canon (New York Times): "There’s an argument to be made that the millennial father is trapped in an eternal adolescence. But that doesn’t feel right, at least to me, and certainly not to my knees, which feel every day of 38 years old. I happen to think the new dad culture reflects something positive, and even sweet: that the American father is expected, rightly, to share more of himself — his time, his feelings, and even his most childish hobbies — with his family."

Slow Motion

Quick hits of insight in socially acceptable places.

Cool Zones

Creative inspirations for the other side of your brain.

If you're hiring talent, here's something to think about:

It's hard for people to see into the future right now, and that's affecting how they respond to your employer brand.

Consider this...

  • High quality talent on the corporate ladder saw their friends get rich in the YOLO economy of crypto, trading, startups and social media influencing. Even though we’re in more sobering circumstances now, a certain mentality has stuck per Kevin Roose who called it, "a deeper, generational disillusionment, and a feeling that the economy is changing in ways that reward the crazy and punish the cautious." --> Belief systems are being upended.

  • US Treasury data via Axios shows that as peoples' perceptions of the economy's wellbeing continue to plummet, perceptions of their own financial wellbeing stay stable. --> Our sense of financial safety is decoupling from that of the nation's.

  • People are impulse spending, no matter how high interest rates and cost of living go. Per Rachel Wolfe, they don't fear regretting purchases. They fear regretting not making purchases. --> When we don't see a clear future, we can't assess if/ how to save for tomorrow.

  • AI's impact is still the biggest unknown on their careers.

All of this is screaming the fact that people simply cannot see very far into the future, and it’s forced them to take things into their own hands and really decide what matters to them right now.

Not tomorrow or 10 years from now. What can a manager, job, company give me today? 

We've created a lot of employer brands at Concept Bureau and I can tell you that in today's climate, world-changing visions, flashy CEOs and "culture" are great, but the real question is how do you validate people?

How do you allow employees to see their individual impact on the company? How do you avoid the burnout of being undervalued? How do you make sure your leaders don't hold talented people back?

It's opened up a huge opportunity for employers to just be honest. 

Instead of obscuring everything into “culture”, think hard about what people need and use your brand to show how you make sure they get it.


Jasmine Bina
Founder & CEO
Concept Bureau, Inc.