Where’ve You Bihn All My Life?
Note: This assignment calls for analysis of a media property; however, I rarely watch TV or movies and pay almost no attention to social media related to these. So, instead, I’d like to present an analysis of a company I support. I feel their social media strategies and content production offer rich analytical opportunities.
In 2012, I was listening to a podcast called “Cast On” when the host began talking about a knitting bag. No huge thing, except that I’ve had a particularly fraught relationship with knitting bags and luggage in general. All I’m saying is that you don’t want the stress of checking a bag that’s held together with duct tape and good wishes when you’re flying overseas. My ears perked when the host claimed that all types of bag-related stress—shoddy workmanship, design flaws, poor execution of good ideas—were not present in this bag, the Swift by luggage maker Tom Bihn (TB). I was curious, but truthfully, I thought the host sounded oddly overenthusiastic, so I didn’t pursue it any further.
I can’t pinpoint how many or what type of advertisements or mentions, spontaneous or planned, eventually goaded me into checking out the Tom Bihn website. But before I knew it, I had become enamored with the Swift, which ticks all the boxes of what a knitting bag really should be. Once it had found its way into my shopping cart, then to my house, I was hooked, becoming just as excited about the brand as the host of “Cast On” had been. It’s contagious.
It would be pretty easy to suggest that all of TB’s success is down to their excellent products, but part of the credit must surely go to their media strategies. Locating all of their media goals within the common paradigm of stickiness is tempting, but a closer inspection reveals a tendency toward spreadability, as discussed in Spreadable Media, by Jenkins, Green, and Ford. Certainly, the brains at TB want people to stay on the company’s website and forums, but they also encourage participation through the sharing of pictures, tips, and reviews. They skip what Jenkins et al. refer to as “the easiest way companies have found to conduct business online” by avoiding “‘destination’ viewing [that] often conflicts with both the dynamic browsing experience of individual Internet users and, more importantly, with the circulation of content through the social connections of audience members” (5). Sharing is the norm at TB, in other words, and in this way, the site is not about seeing but about creating an experience with the product.
This method of interaction goes one step further to make brand buyers feel like part owners in the experience and design, entering into the “continuous process of repurposing and recirculating [that] is eroding the perceived divides between production and consumption” (27). If Mr. Bihn designs the bags, users design methods for customizing, using, and living with them; they then create their own media products, which function somewhat as products: these show an individual’s creativity, social positioning, media prowess, design skills, and identity in the luggage and packing community (yes, that’s a thing).
If the company does well at showcasing their products and encouraging spreadability and participation, then they do equally well with customer service, understanding that there is a need to “think not just about how audiences might spread messages about a brand (and content from a brand) but also about how their own corporate presence might ‘spread’ to connect with the messages audiences are circulating about them” (27). This goes further than responding to issues fairly and adequately, although they surely do that. Little touches, such as handwritten post cards included with orders, personalized art on shipped boxes, and conversations through the forums push their audience (buyers) to spread positive messages.
Looking at this model for success, it’s natural to wonder how other companies might follow suit. Perhaps one way TB is able to remain positive and participatory is by remaining somewhat small. As such, it might not be a workable example for how bigger companies or even media properties can interact with fans; although it sidesteps the “deeply ambivalent” feelings of consumers towards participatory corporate culture that Jenkins et al. refer to, it does so by keeping production, social media, and products as consumer-centric. When businesses become overly large, this consumer-centric attitude often buckles under the weight of board members, demands for profit, corporate accountability, and maybe even plain, old-fashioned greed. Creators of media products, too, often have particular troubles in interacting with fans, not only because of size but also because of the drive to protect intellectual and creative property.
As Jenkins et al. note, however, there certain groups who “are strongly motivated to produce and circulate media materials as parts of their ongoing social interactions. . .[including] enthusiasts for particular brands that have become signposts for people’s identities and lifestyles” (29). Perhaps if TB becomes a larger signpost, its fans will continue to share their media materials, leading to a model of success that starts small but obtains big results. True, an expansive size takes away some of the brand’s cachet, since everyone has the product and it’s no longer “special.” In fact, the TB brand has already been subject to some knock-offs, so their aesthetic is entering the mainstream. Perhaps their fair and upstanding business practices will, too.
Jenkins, Henry, et al. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York University Press, 2013.