I witnessed civilized society almost collapse upon itself yesterday afternoon. On a mildly trafficked road about 30 minutes before evening rush hour, the flow of cars came to an immediate halt. For seemingly no reason at all, everybody stopped moving. What came next was predictable - HONK! HONK! ILLEGAL U-TURN! EXTENSION OF ARM, HAND AND MIDDLE FINGER! SLANDEROUS CHARACTERIZATION OF FELLOW DRIVERS’ PARENTAL PROVENANCE! - and only intensified, even when the cause of the logjam made itself evident.
Turns out that the local no-goodnik duck posse was taking its time crossing the road. Unlike the rest of us, who had laundry to fold and complex carbohydrates to synthesize, the ducks had nowhere to be. Now, I’ve had my issues with ducks in recent weeks, but I couldn’t get too worked up about their slo-mo mosey. They had the right of way, legally and morally. My takeaways from the episode, which concluded 15 minutes after it started when the ducks perambulated pond-ward: That people do not handle adversity well and that I should really get around to surrounding my property with that electrified moat.
I thus found myself needing something to help restore whatever little faith I had left in humankind’s fundamental rational-mindedness, and narrowed it down to self-medication or sleep (or, more accurately, self-medication and then sleep). So for today’s exercise: In this corner, beer! In that corner, mattresses! Let’s do this.
My problem with New Belgium Brewery has nothing to do with its branding (consistent and imaginative) or its products (assuming they don’t own a secret stake in the Lime-a-Rita franchise). Rather, it’s that for all the company’s efforts to distinguish itself, I still end up confusing New Belgium with the 65 other craft brewers vying for my not-Coors dollar. These companies have become increasingly bold and visible with their marketing; given the volume of messages and brand propositions flying hither and yon, I can barely discern which beverages are truly, authentically sub-micro-brewed in Brooklyn anymore.
New Belgium’s bit nowadays is “zagging” (where others zig, NB zags); it fancies itself the cult-of-personality ying to other brewers’ generic-craftsman yang. Nowhere does this branding present itself more forcefully than in two recent video series, the “Zag On” series of employee profiles and the “Zealots of Zag” featurette on some dude who “makes music out of found objects.”
Neither series is particularly thrilling or offensive. The profiles play up the earnest-socialist side of NB staffers, portraying them as fantastically decent and committed - and the type of people who will leave you cursing fate if you make the mistake of asking them, “So, what do you do for a living?” Judging from the first two “Zag On” profiles, New Belgium employees shop at J. Crew and watch lots of major-network crime procedurals. Ha ha no of course they don’t - they fix up their own houses and preach the virtue of water conservation and careen around town on the bikes that every NB worker receives on the occasion of his or her first anniversary with the company (which is wholly employee-owned, the clips remind us many, many times).
These staffers pop up in the “Zealots of Zag” videos as well, marveling over the musical ingenuity it takes to bang a wooden spoon against a fermentation tank. They don’t shoot the found-object symphonist with the “strange looks” he elicits elsewhere, which speaks to a strength of character that Nelson Mandela could only have wished to possess. The point of “Zealots of Zag” appears to be that inspiration is where you find it, but the series sure seems to try really, really hard to make the discovery process feel unforced and casual.
There’s no such contortionism in Beautyrest’s “The Curiously Awesome Life of Sarah Evans,” which was rolled out in four nugget-size parts earlier this summer. The series is as straightforward as they come: Person starts sleeping and going everywhere on a Beautyrest mattress, person’s life immediately improves in a most mirthfully whimsical manner. She gets promoted! She makes movies and writes a memoir! She bags a hunkthrob who doesn’t feel worthy of her!
Not exactly high-concept material, right? But “Sarah Evans” intermittently charms thanks to the actor cast in the title role. She’s super-game, injecting a manic energy that series of this sort rarely generate. It’s a good thing that she goes big, as her personality is the only aspect of “Sarah Evans” that has any life to it. Too, at less than four minutes in length, the entire operation feels dashed off, as if somebody identified an error in the calculation of the marketing budget and decided to spend the found money - roughly $800, by my estimate - on brand video.
That sounds harsher than intended. Really, how the hell else are you supposed to sell mattresses? Here’s how the average person goes about buying a mattress: 1. Enter mattress store. 2. Recline on mattress for enough time to get a sense of its cushioning but not long enough to become skeeved out by thoughts about previous mattress-testers’ hygienic comportment. 3. Buy mattress. 4. Cleanse self in hazmat tent.
“Sarah Evans,” then, passes as super-creative given the constraints of the product and category. As much as I’d like to see Beautyrest (or Serta, or whoever) create and support, say, the Mattress Football League (MFL), I recognize that letting people kick the snot out of each other using a company’s products may give rise to liability concerns. There are worse secondary options than airy comedy steered by feisty, knowing heroines, I guess.
So those are the respective cases of New Belgium and Beautyrest. Who’s the winner? Nobody! Both brands are trying new approaches and attempting to distinguish themselves in categories that, per the aforementioned reasons, defy easy self-definition. What, you’ve got a better plan? I don’t. Myrna, please prepare neatly inscribed “Meritorious Achievement in Participation” certificates for both New Belgium and Beautyrest. They’ll be in the mail tomorrow morning.