How authenticity at scale drives desire
1. Mass rarity is the effect of seemingly bespoke products and services at scale.
2. Experience has always defined brand, but the method of product delivery impacts brand more than it has in the past.
3. Design matters because it is the first indicator of meaning.
4. To actually be innovative, make what you make real.
Here’s an obvious statement: the internet has shifted how products are made, experienced, and branded away from traditional systems of making. In turn, these factors have come to define products and services in ways that in the past have been less apparent, which is shifting our notions about what we find satisfying and fulfilling as consumers. New experience-focused brands are embracing craft to offer high quality but accessible products, representing a certain revival of vertical integration in which independent entrepreneurs can bring goods and services to market without relying on highly formal existing structures of production and distribution. Mass rarity, the effect of widely-accessible craft and bespoke experiences that feel unique, is setting a new standard for products and services that appeal to high design, personalization, and a concern for cultural substance. It is the phenomenon of everyday objects becoming objects of desire, consumed through complete lifestyle platforms designed to deepen the user experience but also to broadcast it into the world at large as an aesthetic message of authenticity and holistic rather than segmented value.
At its best, design is unselfconscious: not a mere image of thoughtfulness but as natural to an experience as clothes are on the body. When designed things fulfill our needs and desires, care shifts over time from the creative authorship of the designer to the unique appropriation of a user. Just as a building settles into its context, maturing as people and weather, wear and obsolescence settle in, design is never complete without users to demonstrate that something works, registering not just utility but meaning. Design does not stand virtuously alone. Instead, like fashion, it fades and, in CoCo Chanel’s words, “only style remains the same.”
Two decades ago, mixed perspectives considered whether the internet would impact capitalism as fashion or style. In less time than it takes to build a bridge, a new global network, purpose-built from the ground up to fundamentally reimagine connections, communication, and commerce arrived, completely subsumed staid assumptions about user and market behaviors, demonstrating capitalist flexibility even as traditional sectors like manufacturing struggled in the shadow of a totally novel economic infrastructure. One outcome among many is a still-emerging but massive shift in how gods are acquired and used, contrasting heavily to the conventional mantras of global free trade ideals that validated the big box economy of the Web’s early days. With the financial crisis and Great Recession still smoldering, the neoliberal promises that marked the second half of the 20th century now feel hollow. Even as products and services are driven by instantaneity, endurance matters again, and so does design. Two decades ago, these two ideals had less bearing, when the mass consumption of cheap things — from instant coffee to Dodge Neons — helped subordinate culture to instantaneity. It was all fashion, no style.
In the aura of the real
Instead, users increasingly buy goods based on identity and lifestyle preferences that haven’t existed before, uprooting conventional retail and brand delivery structures. When paired with other social evolutions in recent decades, the internet helped transform the relationship we have to materials and systems, allowing for a deeply individualized way to curate lifestyles once constrained to the standardized tastes offered on big box and dollar store shelves. Bottom-up networks built around new forms of social awareness helped pull back the curtain from late 20th century routine, allowing more deeply informed views of the world to instill new ideas of purpose built around individual preferences, actions, and potential. An anti-establishment ethos cemented the internet’s culture of open networks and participation at the outset, and helped to create a robust multiplicity of pathways for engagement. When music, for example, is distributed peer-to-peer, everybody simultaneously becomes a potential artist, since everybody has equal access to audiences and a distribution channel. When a commentator on YouTube has two million followers, she ascends from influencer to expert, and firms lose their controlling voice for how customers access and adopt brands.
In other words, quality and credibility are both democratized in a way that goes beyond a good reputation. The entire system of production, distribution, sales, and loyalty becomes open-source—even commoditized—in some cases into packages that anybody can access. In this context, the internet enabled outmoded ways of making and entrepreneurship to re-emerge, called back from the closet of things we gave up in the last century for the promises of hypermodernity. Arguably, this represents a partial revival of classical make-it-and-they-will-come capitalist grit. Millennials who boomeranged home after school might have done so in order to exhaustively look for a satisfying job, but they also focused on opportunities to create their own jobs — to start a company, an app, a cupcake blog, but also to make a really good axe, bike, or table leg. The internet provided a space and tools to create, market, and sell boutique brands. The most active period of tech in human history gave us a global cloud, but it also brought handmade back to everyday life.
You’ve already bought in
Mass rarity and the desire for uniqueness — scarcity plus personalization — makes products accessible to anybody at a price point and scale that is unprecedented. With this alignment of lifestyle and accessibility, entrepreneurs find themselves in a milieu in which everyday objects become objects of desire. The list of new vertically-integrated, DTC products driven by demand for authenticity, sold and marketed by direct-to-consumer online stores and lifestyle platforms, is extensive. Most famously, this includes Warby Parker (glasses), which set such a profound benchmark that it’s common to hear something described as “the Warby Parker of __,” and helped codify the business model for other markets: Capser (mattresses), Beckett Simonon (shoes), Baxter (grooming), Harry’s (razors), Nice Laundry (socks), Indochino (suiting), Graycork (furniture), and to nobody’s surprise, coffee — the first commodity to enter into the realm of ubiquitous craft through traditional retail channels. Even my hometown of Lansing, Michigan boasts more than one small batch roaster branded with the tropes of beautiful design. Even private jets are relatively accessible through AYCE monthly subscription models that many small businesses can afford.
How is it possible that craft and “bespoke” goods operating at large scales can so successfully yield actual or perceived customized experiences? A crucial part of the answer relies on a societal mood that is, in turn, abstract: a widespread backlash against inauthentic and unsustainably produced products is setting a higher standard for all producers. When that standard is met, it feels customized because user and product experience — that is, brand — is closed. In contrast to previous generations, many young and youngish people grew up revulsed by the generic and now crave the “authentic” in resistance to the legacies of industrialized life. Like the organic movement demonstrates in how food is produced and sold, authenticity is increasingly mass-market and mass appeal, despite not having any consistently clear definition or attributes. This helps describe why you feel good about your hand-ground artisanal coffee and your Moleskine. In part, their perceived authenticity comes from enabling an experience that resists the anonymity of corporate supply chains and factory processes. That connection is important because it isn’t a one-off; rather, users build meaning through repetition. Without this aspect, products would be expendable and generic, and replaceable without having anything to lose.
Users seek out the things they need, like eye glasses, preferring a well-designed total package that elevates everyday things and needs into a design-driven overall experience. For this reason, mass rarity can characterize objects and experiences of daily life at any scale that has potential to be something more purposeful and user friendly. Arguably, the what of the object is less important than the how and why. In other words, users help make these products meaningful because their very premise is to connect their use to multiple tiers of identity and desire. Value is generated through the perception of unique experience that results. In turn, the terms of scarcity are changing as more people adopt offerings which are special enough to offset the fact that they actually have no rarity.
Good design is a value loop
That is fact is, perhaps, beside the point. Design is personal. Mass rarity allows us to encounter a broader spectrum of possible identities and self-actualizations. Good design is a loop between delight, use, outcome, and meaning, and flexes by complementing contingencies and contexts. Mass rarity is nothing new to somebody thinking about the future of making, yet its ultimate power isn’t in a propensity to structurally change markets and business. Rather, it’s in the way that individuals connect to a sense of realness, authenticity, and the integrity of well-made things. The real point isn’t unlimited options, but that everything can be edited to the best outcome for each user. Only style remains.