Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How is Starbucks like the Kardashians?

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Kendall Jenner

Last month, it was announced that Kendall Jenner, one of the two youngest Kardashian girls, would become the new face of Estée Lauder. I expect that this surprised many viewers, like me, who were used to regarding Kendall and her sister Kylie as bit players in the ongoing Kardashian saga. Yet it’s only the culmination of a strategy that the show—and the family—has consciously pursued from the start, and the shrewdness it exhibits is part of the reason I find them so weirdly compelling. I should confess that I’ve kept only sporadic tabs on the Kardashians; I watched much of the first four seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians with one eye, usually while doing something else, but dropped it after it disappeared from Netflix. But I’m also married to a lovely, intelligent woman who has worked as a business journalist for more than a decade, and she’ll readily admit that she’s oddly obsessed by them, both as human beings and for the unexpected lessons they provide. At a time when cultural impact has been increasingly abstracted from the idea of any real content, the Kardashians are the ultimate case study: a purified model, like the Game of Life, of how faces and personalities can spread to all corners of the globe with minimal underlying substance.

And even that isn’t entirely fair to the Kardashians. To complain that Kim, for instance, became famous for doing nothing is to ignore the fact that we’ve always had celebrities who offered up little but their own attractiveness, and she brings plenty of assets to the table. Even more to the point is the fact that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an exemplary work of its genre; after you spend an hour watching a really awful reality show, like I Wanna Marry Harry, you start to appreciate a series that at least cares enough to provide a slick, professional product. It’s often derided as a series about nothing, but that’s precisely the point: it’s an empty vessel that can accommodate whatever its subjects feel like highlighting or promoting at the time. These days, television is only one of many tubes through which people and products can enter our lives, but it remains the largest, at least in terms of the psychic space it colonizes, and the Kardashians recognize this, using their flagship show to introduce elements that will pay off in other media. In the past, this might have been a new fragrance or a book; now it’s a pair of human beings who are rapidly moving from the background into leading roles, with data indicating that Kylie now ranks as the most influential member of her family among teenage girls.

Kim Kardashian in Paper Magazine

The case of Kendall and Kylie is particularly interesting, because it shows how good the Kardashians are at leveraging their own familiarity. It reminds me a little of Starbucks, which has long embraced a model centered on its role as a third place, a location outside the home or office where customers naturally meet and converge. As soon as people are coming in for the coffee, the store’s physical location becomes a showroom where the company can unobtrusively push whatever else it likes—food, music, merchandise—to a captive, existing audience. Amazon and Uber follow much the same strategy, albeit at radically different stages in their development: once a customer base and distribution network exist, they can be used to deliver products or services that might have seemed unimaginable when the company began. In the case of the Kardashians, viewers may have tuned in initially for Kim, but over time, they’ve come to know Kendall and Kylie, who have become valuable properties in themselves by entering our awareness before we even knew it. Television is our real third place, as well as a distribution network of uncanny power, and the Kardashians have proven highly adept at using it.

This idea—that you can use an existing circle of awareness, whether it’s a store, a website, or a television show, to expand the range of the possible—feels like the fundamental branding insight of our time. You see it at work in the Marvel cinematic universe, which cleverly uses its established properties to introduce supporting characters, like Black Widow, who might later carry a franchise of their own. (At one point, there was a rumor that the third installment of The Avengers might feature only Iron Man and an entirely new cast, and the fact that it turned out to be unfounded doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked.) It’s a process that functions best when it feels organic, with elements incorporated, emphasized, or discarded by trial and error, an approach to which the Starbucks model is especially suited; when it’s more calculated, as with DC’s belated attempt to create a comparable universe, it’s harder to pull it off. I don’t know if the Kardashians intended to put Kendall and Kylie front and center all along; my guess is the they probably didn’t. But once the pieces fell into place, they were more than ready to run with it. The Kardashians know, like Machiavelli, that to have a reputation for guile is really to have no guile at all, and they seem happy to be underestimated. And it’s no surprise if we see them, like Starbucks, on every corner.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

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