Ron Pompei can’t be obvious.

19/11/2009 11h29

Pompei’s work for Anthropologie’s stores has become a reference. In the world of management, it has been recognized as a genius’ marketing deed: a proof that commerce can go pretty well without advertising. His ideas have contributed to Anthropologie’s sales growth of 40% in the last five years, in what has been, in many ways, a harsh time for retail.

Pompei is an architect, a designer, an artist with a very peculiar intent in mind: create environments that provide transformational experiences. This means that his business is culture.

In fact, Pompei A.D. proposes an integration of three “C”s, as he says: Commerce, Culture and Community. Presto! That’s what he’s done for Anthropologie, by developing its brand environments and experience. The company sells distinctive merchandise to women between the ages of 25 and 40 years. Pompei has given each store site-specific designs and sensual atmospheres. He has infused work of installation artists with the merchandise, preparing the context for Anthropologie’s salespeople to disavow direct selling and help shoppers define what they see in creative, personal terms. No aisles control a customer’s way around the store, people are invited to explore it. As a result, women now relate to the stores as social destinations and may go there just to hang out or socialize. Anthropologie’s sales are driven by its own customers, as they talk to each other, as they invest their imagination in the experiences they’ve had there. Anthropologie is, therefore, co-created by the people who visit it. All of this has become fundamental to the company’s marketing strategy. As Anthropologie’s president, Glenn Senk, puts it, “We believe that highly visible store locations, creative store design, broad merchandise selection and visual presentation are key enticements to customers and we rely on these rather than traditional forms of advertising such as print, radio and television media.”

When interviewed about his outstanding design conception, Pompei shows a trend vision: he understands that people evaluate themselves and others mostly based on “what they have”, “what they do” or “who they are”. The mainstream, he says, focuses on “what they have”. Recently, though, “what they do” has become more important. Yet, Pompei realized he could anticipate one more step, if he let people deal with “who they are”. He discovered that he could make them prove their own originality and promote personal changes through design.

He’s found a way to touch people’s identity using objects and environment – so would say Jorge Forbes, psychoanalyst – by means of dealing with his own identity, and this is not obvious at all.

If he wanted to reach people by “what they have”, he would probably reproduce the traditional sales model, in which salespeople recognize categories of customers by clothes, by behavior or by their credit cards, and treat them under standards of what to say, what to offer, how to talk about quality and prices. The almost mechanical procedures of this kind of sale is not attractive, though, because it submits the public to the task of responding under standards too. It obliges people to play the exhausting role of a customer.

If he wanted to reach people by “what they do”, his job would already be more interesting. When surfboards and tattoos are sold close to the beach, Internet access and tennis are sold close to colleges, baseball caps are sold close to baseball fields and popcorn is sold at the movie theaters, buying isn’t such a bore: people are already playing a role in which the purchase can smoothly take place.

But Pompei’s creativity is outstanding. Community, as he promotes it, is based on more than social identity of activities; it is based on the experiences people go through as they are exposed to someone else’s ideas and inventions, somewhat like the experience of art itself. Ron Pompei has cultural influence. He can reach people’s affection and attract them intellectually: he’s not calling them together because of what they already have or do in common, but because of what they have of singular. He provides people the opportunity to sense their own taste and maybe enrich it, or change it. He has past beyond the repetitive discourse of advertising, sales and institutional identity, which submits the public to a preprogrammed dialogue of offer and demand. A person is not supposed to play a role in Pompei’s environments, and that’s what people are starting to ask for. That’s a trend he grasped.

From this point of view, Pompei’s work is more than a great marketing maneuver, it’s brilliant for its ethics. It’s more than the proof of existence of sales without advertising; it’s the proof that when we search for a more diversified kind of human contact, we shall have much more contact and richer, more interesting, more efficient, more profitable kinds of businesses.

Then, some traditional marketers come to the conclusion that Pompei is so good because he stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain. On that, we should hold on a second. They understand that when offer is based on the technical quality of the product, its price, its convenience and so on, traditional business models appeal to the left, more rational, side of the brain. The traditional buyer who makes fully informed purchases, must be able explain his choices, and that’s why he uses the counting and speaking side of the brain.

Pompei’s success, in their opinion, would come from the fact that he uses sensorial, affective, non-discursive resources to lead the customer to the purchase, and that would mean he’s exploring marketing based on the right side of the brain. Moreover, they propose that the reproduction of Pompei’s commercial principles, based on neurological knowledge, could reverse the declining efficacy of consumer research.

Well, we think this conception is a rationalization that reduces Pompei’s discovery to common knowledge. First of all, because there are many conservative business models that use sensorial and emotional gimmicks, like the casino and the tobacco industry, or the traditional leisure and luxury industry. Aren’t these industry segments also having trouble with consumer research on the recent years?

In our opinion, traditional businesses are losing touch of the customer exactly because the role of ‘customer’ is disappearing, as is the possibility of customer categorization even when categorization justifies itself all the way to the brain structures. We are tired of playing common social roles. We now have mixed concepts of ourselves. That’s an effect of cultural globalization, as Jorge Forbes emphasizes.

So, Pompei’s work is getting to people precisely because he doesn’t treat them like customers. He gave up understanding them through any collective references that would conceive everyone like anyone. Pompei has permitted each one to be each one, and that’s not something people “have”, not even in their brains. That’s something they “are”.

Nowadays, even the kind of commerce that, as these marketers say, provoke the right hemisphere of the brain, has to change to succeed. Tourism, for example, has always been a cultural, free activity, full of sensorial and emotional stimuli. The money someone spends on tourism is never all controlled. Options are not always based on rational comparison. The novelty, today, is that people who travel are starting to demand more than customized experiences: it is not just about getting to a small island in the Pacific alone with a girlfriend and drinking some German beer on the arrival. It’s not just a logistic geniality. High-end tourism companies are now able to help people choose whether to go to a hot island in the Pacific or to Finland, not only by offering personalized “roteiros”, but by commenting and sharing impressions. That’s what Matueté – an exclusive travel production company – does in Brazil. Just what Anthropologie’s salespeople do about merchandise and art.

That’s why knowing the human brain won’t reproduce Pompei’s success. The brain’s knowledge can only account for repetitive behavior and Pompei allows people to experience transformation. The brain’s knowledge is based on common structures and Pompei has snatched what each person has of uncommon. Not of irrational, we must notice, but of culturally singular.

He doesn’t treat Anthropologie’s public as simple sensorial guided beings. Instead, he is curious about their intelligence, inviting them to be creative and have pleasure in a cultural, social environment. And that’s possible because he has employed his culture and his own taste, not a universal knowledge, in a very personal way, to surprise Anthropologie’s public, to give them what to think and speak about.

Had he applied the thought of an economist, he would probably have chosen the “what they have” approach to the public. Had he thought as a psychologist, he would have tried to induce moods and motivate people to buy through standard stimuli, identifying them by psychological clusters, as now has been in vogue, and that would induce him to project stores all similarly, or maybe with some difference based only upon local inspiration. That would have made the stores convenient to people, but convenience is exactly what spares us the thinking and commenting.

So, Pompei has had the courage to stand in front of corporate executives and say: “I’ll do what I think is best”, not as an economist, not as a neurologist, not as a psychologist, not even as an architect or an artist, because these professions don’t have the pretension to transform retail models. He spoke on his own name.

The essence of his brilliance was giving up any science that would intermediate his relationship to the public and giving up the comfort of hiding himself in any social role.

That’s why Pompei’s experience inspires not only brain-concerned marketers, but is a reference for a very different kind of thought, non-scientific: the psychoanalytical one. He has achieved the kind of creative success that disposes of concepts and bets on personal responsibility, that’s exactly what psychoanalysis has to produce in the clinics and in company consultancy.

ToF Consultoria is a firm that intervenes in companies, by psychoanalysis, to generate the same kind of courage Pompei has had. As a very simple example, once ToF had to help a multinational in a hiring process. When ToF was called, they had already settled the process in several stages: newspaper advertising, résumé selection, psychological tests, group dynamics, individual interviews and knowledge tests. Obviously, at the end of this technical marathon, they had gathered tons of incongruent data about each candidate. ToF’s accomplishment, in a few hours, was to promote a meeting with the best candidates, break the conventions of the conversation between them, and expose these people personally to the company’s executives to choose. Then, the choice became quite easy.

A more Pompei-like kind of employer is the executive who says: “I know who I should hire by having lunch together with the candidate, by making the person talk to me. I have never had problems on hiring. I get my candidates by indication”.

Now, Ron Pompei is Ron Pompei because he gave up being a brain scientist, an economist, a psychologist and, in some sense, even an artist and an architect – as he has extended his job to other fields. The first person to be liberated from social roles was himself. That’s why his creativity is open to other people’s creativity. Knowledge can confirm he’s right, as economic measurement can, but it can never transmit the courage to do what he does.

São Paulo, August, 3rd, 2004.

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