Thursday, January 6, 2011

Brand Essence: The Spirit of Christmas

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree...
and the real star of the show

It is now winter in New York City (and presumably the surrounding suburbs, but check with your local almanac to be sure), and this means it’s the time of year when you can count on certain things: you can sled down the snow-covered stairs into your neighborhood subway station; the WALK and DON'T WALK traffic icons, suffering from cold-induced dementia, appear simultaneously; and for some unknown reason your parent/guardian/spouse replaces your preferred breakfast with a rubbery grey substance known as "Quaker Oats."

This is also the season of holidays and their corresponding traditions—of eggnog, sugar cookies, and terrible, terrible Christmas songs played relentlessly over tinny speakers at Rite Aid. Preëminent among these traditions is the decorating of Christmas trees, and the most celebrated tree is at Rockefeller Center.

While the tradition of the “Rock Center” Christmas Tree dates back to the Great Depression, since 2004 there's been a new tradition: the Grand Swarovksi Crystal Company now puts a big sparkly object that looks like something salvaged from the ruins of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude on top of the tree.

(Fortunately that spiny object was not there when Lois Lane fell off that building a few years back.)

Now, each year, some generous individual or family donates a tree. The Rockefeller Center people may provide some token compensation (as detailed in this NYTimes article), but generally the people giving up their trees are not doing so for personal profit; and in fact while it must be rewarding to see your tree go on to brighten the lives of countless plaza visitors and TV viewers, there are certainly mixed feelings that come with permanently removing a massive and irreplaceable element of your daily landscape for such an ephemeral purpose. Swarovski, on the other hand, is in it for the money.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that they built this big star for all of us to ogle, but as a recent trip to Rockefeller Center made clear, there is no shortage of Swarovskian self interest involved. It was in the final days leading up to Christmas when I made my Pilgrimage to the Plaza, where I was able to slither through the crowds to view the fêted (not to be confused with “fetid”) tree and it’s glittering topper, and where I also discovered a great deal of advertising for the star itself, like this banner just a stone’s throw from the tree.

You would think that, with all its shimmery crystals and its conspicuous placement atop the world’s most famous Christmas tree, the star would already garner sufficient attention. But that kind of assumption would make you a giant ninny, like me. This isn’t about Good Will On Earth—this is the Miracle of Christmas Marketing.

As soon as you come within moderate proximity of the grand tree, you find yourself being conditioned with marketing materials. You see, it’s not just that Swarovski made the star on top of the tree. It is “The Swarovski Star.” Yes, this is, like, “a thing.” It's something you should know about, an attraction in its own right. And now, with the tendrils of Brand Awareness insinuating their way into your brain, you are beguiled by a second, more accessible Swarovski Star just another stone’s throw away across the plaza. (Don't worry if your arm is getting tired at this point—any further stone throwing will be entirely at your own discretion.)

This clone of the Swarovski Star allows you to witness the sparkling opulence in vivid detail.

When you sidle over to gander at the star, all up-close and personal-like, you’ll find some textual panels to help you understand how impressive this thing really is. It’s like you’re a tourist from small town America, and now you’re visiting a big-city museum and getting all cultured and whatnot!

Here's a sample:

“A striking combination of art, science and technology, the Swarovski Star required a team of 15 designers, engineers and lighting consultants in Austria, Germany and New York City. Taking more than 12 weeks to design, and over 2,500 hours to produce from creation to the final product, the Star represents Swarovski’s brand essence of cutting-edge design, precision, and innovation. It was created and assembled at Michael Hammers Studios in Germany and shipped in 20 crates to New York City to be displayed here, on top of the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.”

Not only does The Star possess a remarkable pedigree, but it “represents Swarovski’s brand essence of cutting-edge design, precision, and innovation.” I thought it represents the Christmas Star, but what do I know? (After all, I'm just a big ninny.) And besides, that "brand essence" stuff is much more impressive than a story about a bunch of smelly shepherds practicing amateur astronomy to locate a cowbarn.

And not only that, but Swarovski was so benevolent as to allow the Rock Center tree to be enriched by the presence of their star, for you see, "It is the largest and most precious star ever to grace the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree."

Impressed yet? Yes? No? Whatever—the inundation continues! Only now it subtly moves on to inculcate you with facts about the wondrous qualities of all the other shiny junk they produce.

"Swarovski is the world's leading producer and designer of precision-cut crystal for fashion, jewelry, home decor, gifts and objects d'art. ... The refined, design-driven collections celebrate crystal as a creative material: timelessly modern, rich in history and heritage, offering infinite possibilities."

So there's that. And to top it off, the company has even greater things in store for the future. Swarovski, you see, "has embarked on a mission to expand the possibilities of crystal, whilst preserving the independence and integrity of this company that has become a worldleader in its field."

And how do they go about the noble work of "preserving the independence and integrity" of their company? Well, naturally, by selling stuff.

That's right, now that you're all "learned" (that's pronounced with two syllables, folks) about the wonder and worth of the works of Swarovski, you can put your newfound knowledge to good use at the trinket booth right behind the star!

At this outbuilding, instead of noisy animals, filthy straw, and poor people having messianic babies, you'll find the fruits of cutting edge precision:

Indeedy, they gots Christmas stockings, candy canes, and other "innovative" cut-glass knickknacks, the likes of which you prob'ly never seen nor heard tell of before! Unless you happen to be one of those rare people who ever had a grandmother.

It would take a more sophisticated eye than mine to discern among these which are "home decor" and which are "objects d'art," but I certainly know quality when I see it. And I see it in spades in this "refined, design-driven collection" that I can only refer to as The Weebles of Distinction:

I mean look at that smile! That's a lot of holiday spirit for just half a C-note.

Now all of this is some pretty heady stuff. If you're like me (a tremendous ninny, as you may have heard), your head is spinning; but bear with me long enough to have your mind boggled one last time. We've seen a lot of superlative language describing the Star of Brand Essence and all of the other fine products of the luminous SwarCorp, but it would be no exaggeration to say that such fanciful language could well have been used to describe the wondrous personal grooming of company founder Daniel Swarovski.

His curled, playfully unkempt moustache and impressively tiny soul patch come together to form a striking Van Dyke that truly embodies “the poetry of precision.”

And that, my friends (and fellow ninnies), is what the Christmas spirit is really all about.

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