Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Chairman Meow! Combines Quirky Attraction, Chinese Propaganda Artform.

Last September, I was struck by an image that I stumbled over by accident: Chairman Meow, “Great Leader.” Among other visualizations, it’s the invention of designer Kevin McCormick. Since I’m a fan of Soviet-era art and design it is quirkily attractive. Not to mention, the Chairman has an immense range of friends, from Whippets of Mass Destruction (dogs) to Lolruses (marine mammals)…all available on ObeythePureBreed.com.

This is McCormick’s site on Cafepress.com and I thought it would give me a chance to explore a booming etail operation.

This is all down to the “T-shirt economy,” so called by Clive Thompson of Wired because creative people can turn their ideas into businesses by developing clothing and other decorated apparel. On Cafepress, according to reported figures, all this was worth more than $100 million in 2007, with an average 20% in profit.

I think McCormick’s designs deliver imagination and parody at the same time. He himself says, “I started combining propaganda art with heroic portraits of dogs. The designs also allowed me to make social and political commentary.”

His emails filled in some blanks for me, first about his visuals: The designs do resonate with buyers. People are really passionate about their pets, and they think that their breed is the best. My style isn’t original, but I think the concept is. It flips the idea of obedience in relation to pets, and I think seeing a Chihuahua as a dictator definitely is seen as surprising and amusing.
How is Cafepress working out? As far as marketing, a lot of that is trial and error. I have to sometimes be creative, as selling t-shirts through Cafepress is convenient and great, but not high profit margins. To make advertising worthwhile, I really have to make sure I’m reaching the right niches.
Is Cafepress a viable sales mechanism? One thing that I’ve done lately is a sticker campaign, where I distribute free Chairman Meow stickers from the site for people to put in public. People have responded well, and I've sent them all over the world. Not sure if that will translate to sales, but it’s fun knowing that the stickers are on almost every continent! (And new 2009 stickers are now available, BTW.)

I’ve highlighted other examples of this sort of design, like the art of Laura Smith, here. There’s just something about Chairman Meow that tickles me big-time – perhaps because it feels right. At the same time, McCormick is following, even expanding on, the etailer’s creed (according to Thompson): Let your content roam freely online, so it generates as large an audience as possible.
Content wants to be free. But remember that it is fans that drive sales so don’t lock your fans out. This is hard to do for business-to-business marketers unless you get real lucky.

Something else going on right now: Soviet-era art continues to have an impact on the street...none more recently that the Shepard Fairey-designed Obama Inauguration Poster. Designer McCormick says he admires street artist Fairey. But I’ll take McCormick’s lighthearted approach over heavy propaganda every time. Support world domination. Obey the kitty!

Thanks to Kevin McCormick and Obeythepurebreed.com for the excellent material.


S. Reeves said...

My leaders... Obey the Westie. Obey the Cairn Terrier. Obey the Client?

Betty Wong said...

I love this – I want a sticker. Whippets of mass destruction is not so good. This moment of humor is just what I needed.

I’m crazied right now. Worried about making deadlines at all of them at a frantic pace.

I need to find time to talk to you about your thoughts on blogs as a marketing tool.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

An AP story today reported that Shepard Fairey lied about the Obama photo he used:


"Fairey himself admitted that he didn't use The Associated Press photo of Obama seated next to actor George Clooney he originally said his work was based on - which he claimed would have been covered under 'fair use,' the legal claim that copyrighted work can be used without having to pay for it."

Oddly, I am not surprised.