NYC’s Image Economy: A Conversation with Xander Tran

New York City. A place where the people never sleep, businesses are always charged, and the sights, sounds, and smells are enough to take your breath away. We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Xander Tran, one of the creatives behind the projects* on the Image Economy—whereby the photograph becomes more than a memory, it becomes perceived reality—from a NYC perspective, and we think it’s pretty powerful. The Sydney-founded NYC-headquartered projects* works with iconic brands like Target (as Influencer AOR) and COACH to create fresh, functional identities which help them break out from 21st-century noise.

Q: What does “Image Economy” mean?

A: In the late ’90s, Joseph Pines wrote about the Experience Economy, the idea that brands need to orchestrate meaningful experiences for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product. Thanks to Instagram (or perhaps blame is the better word), we’ve “selfied” ourselves into a new era where the image takes precedence over our actual experiences. Although “pics or it didn’t happen” started as a harmless meme, it has subconsciously become a cultural mantra.

From Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room to floral backdrops at Coachella, our surroundings have become stages for our projected, digital identities. Instead of using these tools to exchange fresh or provocative ideas, we’re all busy selling a false image of ourselves, and in turn, brands are scrambling to feed us shallow experiences in order to inflate our virtual egos. In the Image Economy, the photograph becomes more than a memory; it’s straight-up (perceived) reality.

Q: Why is the Image Economy particularly important to marketers? 

A: As marketers, it’s critical to think in terms of the image, but at the same time, not be boxed in by the ‘gram. It’s disheartening to realize that our lofty ideas and strategy often live between Flat Tummy Tea #ads and dog videos, but that vision should free us to provoke new perspectives and to be bolder in our thinking. Look no further for inspiration than from Solange or Childish Gambino, both of whom use visuals to communicate powerful ideas that actually shape mainstream conversation. I’m sure it helps to have proximity to Beyoncé, but as creative consultants, we should encourage our brands to add to the conversation, not conform to the clutter.

Q: How would you characterize New York City’s Image Economy? 

A: New York is the traditional industry of image, largely powering the production and distribution of the mainstream image across fashion, art and advertising. From fashion billboards to mattress subway ads, New Yorkers are inundated with a wider spectrum of advertising on a daily basis, and social media only adds to the ubiquity and influence of visuals.

Interestingly though, most social content–images of bikini-clad influencers laying poolside are manufactured in Los Angeles, where the idyllic weather and lower cost of living create a paradise for content creators. From a New Yorker’s perspective, these glossy #OOTDs read somewhat “inauthentic,” too manicured and far from the grittier reality that is NYC. Suddenly, the pixelated iPhone shot, or blurry Instagram story feels much more real and honest. To the New York audience, messthetics, an unfiltered presentation of reality, is the aspiration.

Q: What business/mainstream culture trends are fueling the Image Economy?

A: The rise of the “Instagrammable” Museum. In 2015, when Refinery29 cleverly decided to produce 29 Rooms, a physical playground purely for social media capture, they gave customers and brands permission to be shameless in pursuit of the image. Since then, the fun-house meets art-exhibit concept has been retooled in countless iterations and our feeds have never been more colorful. In the mainstreaming of these content farms, we’ve normalized a selfie-centric mindset and behavior amongst the masses, which perpetuates this obsession with the image.

Q: What are the opportunities for New York City marketers in terms of the Image Economy?

A: New York brands have a tendency to be self-referential and pull visual inspiration from their immediate surroundings: a subway-inspired campaign, the Bodega brand activation or laundromat pop-up. While these references are easily understood by a wider audience, the real opportunity for marketers and creatives is to go off-the-grid and explore ideas that aren’t already floating in the city’s zeitgeist. Take Alessandro Michele, for example. As Gucci’s creative director, he has successfully pulled maximalism back into trendland by drawing references from Renaissance Italy, Medieval France and even the prehistoric era. As a result, Gucci now has the street cred all brands are chasing.

Q: Any recommendations you can share?

A: A good experience or idea is more shareable than an image. It’s our job as marketers to make our clients believe in this and move away from the fleeting Instagram moment. With all movements, our cultural obsession with the image will eventually evolve into something else, but in the meantime, let’s not compromise our brave ideas in favor of playing it safe. Design campaigns, experiences and content with a sense of empathy and always with a view to stretch our collective creativity.

More about the projects*

The Sydney-founded NYC-headquartered wonder team which is the projects* works with iconic brands like Target as Influencer AOR, to create fresh, functional identities which help them break out from 21st-century noise. As an independent brand consultancy specializing in experiential events that go beyond pop-ups and one-off installations, the team doesn’t focus on eye candy or Instagram-friendly quick hits, but experiences which get at the root of who we are—tying into everything from generational wants/wishes/desires to spirituality and wellness. Founded in 2008 by Aussie former international events producer, Jack Bedwani, CEO and global business director, the projects* works globally with clients that are wanting culturally relevant solutions grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior.

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