Brand Mythology


In a rare appearance, Marcel Mauer himself takes us on a journey of critical thinking and logical deductions. The investigation begins in Florence with suitably glamorous encounters at the Pitti Fashion Show. The magnifying glass then hovers onto the harsh data of the decline of the High Street and the camera zooms out to encompass the riveting scenarios of an experience based market and the zero marginal cost society. Marcel makes a compelling case for purpose driven story telling and supply chain empathy. In conclusion, Marcel’s Assistants’ design and strategy work proves apt material to highlight the astounding benefits of the Brand Mythology method.

Reading time approximately 20 minutes.

Pitti Immagine Uomo SS 19

A hot summer day in Florence

It was the last day of the summer ’19 edition of Pitti Immagine Uomo, one of the world largest and best attended fashion trade show in the world. My assistants did a marvellous job with the design for Save the Duck stand and I took some time to explore the various fashion houses’ latest collections. It is common knowledge – for anyone in the industry – for the summer edition to be slightly worse attended than the winter one but, talking to various friends met around the pavilions scattered around the Medici’s Fortezza da Basso, I sensed something deeper and more far reaching than the standard seasonal variation. A significant number of brands were expecting larger order volumes from Asian buyers, themselves seen as the next great opportunity. The smaller fashion labels lamented they had only one good day, typically it is Wednesday, and a somewhat disappointing footfall for the rest of the week. Left, right and center I felt a tip of discontent, suitably disguised among the generic self-reassuring comments on year on year market growth.

It was only when I met Francesca, an energetic leader of a medium sized family-run fashion house from Turin, Italy, that my feelings were confirmed with the hard facts of real life. “Things are going well” Francesca told me over coffee, “we can’t really complain, but we don’t see the massive increase in sales that the market analysis forecast. From a demographic point of view we know that the our position is spot on and our product receives endless praise but our buyers are extremely cautious with their orders. It is like everyone is waiting for things to go slightly wrong. Online competition has a part to play, but I think it is deeper than that, it’s like… fewer people like to go shopping nowadays…”

Photo by Richard Bell 

High street running low

My conversation with Francesca and other young, energetic and talented fashion entrepreneurs from Italy, UK, France and Canada instilled in me enough curiosity to investigate the matter a little further and once again, the initial feeling was right: the relationship between consumers and shopping is facing a paradigm shift. In a report quoted by the Guardian (1) based on UK data it emerges that the number of new shops, restaurants, pubs and other retail opening slipped by 4.4% with net closures increased by 37%. Retail openings have fallen every year in the UK since 2015 when they were overtaken by closures. It would seem that big chains got hit the hardest with New Look, Debenhams and Topshop all forced to seek approval from landlords to close dozens of stores. Marks and Spencer alone is in the process of closing 100 shops by 2022. According to the Financial Times (2), after the big crash of 2009, online and offline shopping grew steadily and in parallel from 2012 until 2016, after 2016 the relationship seems to reverse with online shopping booming at the expense of high street retail. Behind this trend, is a complex variety of reasons with convenience and perceived discount scoring the highest. For the younger generation online shopping is the seamless continuation of a gamified digital lifestyle: simple choices, rewarding graphics and instant gratification. Also price plays a role, Nick Carroll, senior retail analyst at Mintel says that many consumers perceive online to be cheaper “even thought that’s not always the case” (3). Some argue that the portion of online market share will plateau at 25% and that there will always be place for high street retail… yet, looking at the unstoppable rise of Amazon The Terrible, I feel that we are entitled to some degree of skepticism. As the globalised, digital market economy throws in the towel and declares defeat against the rise of winner-takes-all monopolies such as Asos and Amazon the (comparatively) little guy of high street tries to repackage their products gasping for oxygen from new markets.

Photo by Craig Whitehead

The Experience Business

For many players, the more or less conscious strategy is to catapult the transaction of fashion goods into the staging of memorable experiences. In a report by the Harvard Business Review (4), Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore argue that progression of economic value follows an incremental trend from commodities to goods, from goods to services and from services to experiences. As an example, the same product – let’s say a birthday cake – was first cooked at home from flour, sugar, butter and eggs in the 1950s, then put together using pre mixed ingredients in the 1980s, then bought from an independent organic bakery in the 2000s and nowadays included in the packaged deal of a birthday party planner, free of charge along various bolt-on features such as bouncy castle, face painting and free booze for overworked parents. Could we draw a similar evolutionary path with the market for women’s skirts or men’s shirts? Fashion giants like Nike have, long ago, ring fenced their market leadership adding experiences to the solid core of goods market with a number of successful initiatives such as Niketown or NikeLab. Yet in those instances experiential marketing is used to increase the sales of goods and, as such, it does not classify as a true experience economy. Pine and Gilmore argue that using experiences along the marketing of goods and services is a transitional phase, which will eventually lead to an entirely experience based economy as a logical evolution of a mature capitalist market. Companies, they say, should charge customers for premium, unique experiences on top or instead of the sale price of the goods… a bit like paying for the ticket to enter a trade show… like Pitti, for instance!

Photo by Gonz DDL

Zero Marginal Cost

The idea of a linearly growing trend that travels undisturbed through centuries and gayly hops from on stepping stone to the next from commodities to goods, services and experiences is very clear, reassuring and typically modern. Just because of that I think we should temporarily ditch it. Reality is more messy than that and definitively more prone to change than what humans tend to believe (5). I therefore close my copy of the Harvard Business Review, which was a great companion for my coffee break, and move slowly towards the library to find once again, central shelf, one of the most interesting authors discovered in recent years… ladies and gentlemen, meet Jeremy Rifkin, economist, social theorist and special advisor to German Councellor Angela Merkel. Even Chinese Premiere Li Kenqiang is a keen fan of Jeremy. Where Pine and Gilmore might see the downwards trend of high street retail as the rising evidence of an incumbent experience economy revolution, Jeremy Rifkin’s theories may lead us a little bit further into the mechanics of capitalism to explore some pretty controversial ideas. In his book, the Third Industrial Revolution (6), Rifkin argues that capitalism is reaching a point where productivity is so mature that the marginal cost (in essence the added cost for additional unit not considering the initial investment necessary to own the machines) will plummet to zero. Beyond that, as automation rises, not only goods will be produced at no marginal cost but also the cost for the manufacturing of the machines will decrease. If we combine this peculiarly positive scenario with the prospect of a fully renewable energy grid and an ultra efficient waste industry, we basically reach the utopian Land of Plenty dreamed of at the beginning of last centuries by great thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes (incidentally we might also avoid the climate triggered extinction of homo sapiens). Following Rifkin’s compelling arguments, we may be led to think that the rise of big monopolies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook is the dramatic proof of the market’s distorted response to the threat of plummeting prices. Sounds iffy? Check this out. In the 1990s digitally streamed music and films, combined with cheaper and cheaper recording and editing equipment created a short lived marketplace for free stuff. Napster and other P2P platforms have been either shut down or made illegal. At the same time, other initially free sharing platforms such as YouTube or Netflix are imposing monopoly style membership fees. According to Rifkin such monopolies should and will be regulated, giving birth to new shared platforms for an unlimited supply of free stuff and free energy. This will also transform the relationship between consumers and producers creating a complex and interconnected web of pro-sumers (as the hybrid combination of a producer and a consumer at once.) The long awaited universal basic income will have to descend from the Empyrean to top up household’s finances and people will work substantially less with lots of spare time on their hands. You may say that I am dreamer, sung John Lennon, but Jeremy Rifkin is not the only one and certainly not the first one advocating for a better functioning free market economy.

Roman marble bust of Epicurus.

In Praise of Idleness

In 1935 philosopher, mathematician and Nobel prize winner Bertrand Russell highlighted the inherent dysfunctional patterns of run away capitalism with the recurring cycles of peaked productivity, over production and recession. In his essay In Praise of Idleness he makes a compelling case for a 4 hours long workday along with a better use of automation and a pinch of economic planning. The same call rings true today when economic inequality is slowing the market down and stress related mental health issues are on the rise due to a wasteful market labour and the proliferation of what David Graeber mercilessly labels “bullshit jobs” (7). Hundred years ago Russell sought in leisure time the opportunity for the entirety of mankind to invest their time in truly humanistic pursuits such as art, culture, music and social relationships. For an avid lover of the classics like me, such idillic picture is reminiscent of the ancient Roman habit of otium, which only the gentry pursued in their countryside retreats, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Otium was not just idleness but rather the investment of time in truly humanistic interests and as such it was an important part of the noblemen and noblewomen lifestyle. Otium was starkly opposed to the negotium, in essence the trade, the degrading habit of working all day long that poor people seemed obsessed with. Interestingly the word negotium is still alive in modern day English in the verb to negotiate whilst we can’t find traces of otium in the word leisure. It seems today exquisitely timely that a long forgotten social habit linked to an economic system based on free labour, such as was the classic reliance on slavery, could emerge once more today as robots , automation and renewable energy promise to deliver free stuff to all. Should otium be back in fashion, the pursuit of truly humanistic interests would shift once again society’s interests from goods – beyond experience – bang on onto purpose. Where a well staged experience may prove a commercial success for one or two years (think of Punch Drunk immersive theatre productions), a product might enchant the market for a decade (think of the Ipod) and a commodity could steer economic trends for a century (salt, oil or potatoes), purpose influences social behaviours for millennia. Monopolies seems unaware of the power of purpose yet monotheisms have made a religion out of it. Individuals who actively seek purpose in life are drawn towards religion, culture, activism or various monastic lifestyles such as travelling, sport or music. At the end of the day none of us has a convincing explanation of what we could possibly be doing, crammed onto this blue vessel called Earth, spinning endlessly around an energetic yet rather monotonously burning star, so that a daily practice lenient towards obsessive compulsive behaviours seems to me a perfectly good way to avoid the disappointing truth that the ultimate question has no answer. I realise that I have probably spent too long in the library and, at once, I move back to the study with renewed zeal.

Marcel Mauer and SpaceUp for co-living / co-working development for Alive.

The empathic network

The conversation with Francesca in Florence on the changing habits of retail customers triggered a wider reflection on the character of the change that society, at least the western one, is experiencing. The slowdown could be the sole effect of new and better performing marketplaces (online trade), the evolution of products beyond goods (experience economy) or the blossoming of a new economic paradigm (zero marginal cost society). As I reach my chair at the study’s desk after the exhausting trek from the library, I find myself floating in the alpine sunset light coming through the window, suitably lost, missing key data required to resolve the above mentioned puzzle. What seems to me valid across the three options is the importance to care for relationships, specifically in this case the relationship between brand and customers. Regardless of the specific tack that the market economy might take in the near future, only the strong and genuine bonds between supply and demand, the ones built on trust and values, will stand the stormy change bubbling up on the horizon. Caring for relationships means developing an empathic understanding among different players along the supply chain. Caring for relationship means exposing proudly, openly and transparently the core values behind the brand even if this means running the risk of alienating a potential new market. Caring for relationships means looking after the health of the web rather than squeezing performance out of its individual nodes. Ultimately it means taking into account emotions. As Harari (8), Kahnemann (9) and Taleb (10) argue for various different purposes, emotions are at the core of evolution as they allow more effective storage and sharing of information across members of a community. Emotions are faster and more powerful than thoughts and closely linked both to innate instincts, such as surviving or procreating, as well as to more profound desires , such as existence and purpose. Brands investing in the emotional reverberation of their representation build long term relationships an overtake competitors whilst shifting the debate from the What? to the Why? Because everybody, CEOs, marketing directors, agents, customers, monks, musicians and sportswomen… need a purpose (salespeople are actually different. They only need to sell.) Creating a bridge between a brand and a purpose is not easy: fake purposes will quickly be debunked and commercially unviable ideals won’t last long in the market.

Marcel Mauer Stand for Save the Duck at Pitti Immagine Uomo SS19

Saving Ducks

Because it is hard, it needs better ideas and better implementation. Over the last eight years, honoured with the responsibility to inspire my assistants in their great work across the disciplines of masterplanning, architectural and interior design as well as brand strategy I came across a number of interesting clients. Very few triggered my attention as much as the Italian fashion brand Save the Duck. The positioning is clear: fashionable synthetic down jackets made out of an ever increasing proportion of recycled plastic (some of the collections are already 100% recycled) marketed precisely in the segment where, historically, animal down has been for centuries the go-to product. It takes guts, let’s admit it. Style aside, which is inherently subjective and changes as fast as fashion does, the main bridge between brand and customers is ethical. The brand message is something like “choose us because we are functionally just as good, aesthetically on the dot and as our unique selling point, we don’t kill animals”. So the core of the relationship between supply and demand is ethical as much as aesthetic. As a result, the brand is flying.

Marcel Mauer Story Telling Reconstruction of Save The Duck Brand

We can be heroes

I am led to believe that even a small part of their success is down to my assistants’ work. Their winning pitch was a narrative re-construction of the brand itself set in a visionary alter-reality and communicated through a radio show and a comic book. In the narrative reconstruction of the brand, the brand had soon evolved from manufacturers of garments into a fully fledged, Marvel style, secret, cospirative and uber-cool fashion and animal activists movement. The products gained a whole new level of magic growing from mere garmets to fully equipped super suits. And since the stores are secret outposts in disguise, customers can only be super-heroines and super-heroes. My assistants’ work struck at the core of the brand unique selling point evolving what would normally be approached as a story telling exercise into the unfolding of a mythology. Just one year after the winning pitch, the power of the narrative construct is stronger then ever and ensures ultimate coherence across the densely packed rollout of stores, shop in shop and pop-up across three continents. The narrative framework of the secret activists movement is sufficiently strong to keep its coherence across a multiplicity of applications (such as interior design, campaigns and visual merchandise) but also conveniently flexible to incorporate specific topics such as partnerships and themed capsules.  

Marcel Mauer Strategic Brand Design for Superfood Italia

Narratives and purpose

Narratives built on purpose can mobilise entire generations, trigger social change and inspire innovation. As Dutch historian Rutger Bregman argues in his book Utopia for Realists, in a time where humans have never been closer to abundance, health and freedom, humanity find itself unhappy, stressed and missing the purpose of an all encompassing vision. My assistants’ work seeks to question the distance between our society and that greater vision. In another project, this time a brand strategy consultancy for startup SuperFood Italia, purpose driven story telling was used to structure the internal management and operations framework of the baby born brand. Using the narrative device of three fictional characters, a chef, a farmer and a scientist, the story telling scenario highlighted opportunities to transform operations into real-life marketing practice. SuperFood Italia is focused on organic, healthy food and drinks designed for athletes. Regenerative, organic agriculture and farming are essential features of their supply chain. Sustainability and marketing are combined in the delivery strategy which is designed as a piece of urban lifestyle performance. The tradition and the quality of Italian cuisine meets the innovation of science driven and training programme specific nutrition. Once again my assistants’ purpose driven narrative framed the CEO intuition within the critical awareness of the most pressing issues of this day and age.

“My assistants’ work seeks to question the distance between our society and a greater vision for humanity.” – Marcel Mauer

Marcel Mauer site specific installation for the Sherlock Holmes Hotel London.

Narratives and art

Or, moving to another piece of work, sometimes the purpose of narrative is to indulge in the pure pleasure of art without a specific ethical or functionalist agenda. As much as most of my assistance’s work is focused on the understanding of the environmental and social impact of strategic design, their practice is ultimately artistic. And sometimes art is just for art’s sake. In their research work for hospitality group PPHE narrative story telling was used to re-think the entire hospitality experience re defining the spatial pre-judgement related to the format of entrance, reception, corridors, rooms and break out areas. Their vision was first applied for the unbuilt re-design of art’otel Amsterdam and then calibrated for a site specific art installation for the Sherlock Holmes hotel in Baker Street, London. Whilst the hotel previous fit out projects leveraged the powerful evocative reference to Sherlock Holmes merely as an inspiration for furniture and decoration, my assistant’s design sought to trigger in the hotel guests and visitors Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning methods through a two stages site specific art installation.

As the sun hides behind the Swiss mountain peaks, I find once again the comforting uncertainty of the dusk hours. We don’t have enough data to predict the future but enough wisdom to guess where to go.  In the troubled times of techno-oblivious climate triggered mass migration at the brink of ecological collapse, we must remember to be human, we must nurture relationships and we must mobilise business and society alike to foster a powerful new narrative. 

Sincerely yours, 

Marcel Mauer

Marcel Mauer is non executive artistic director, patron and spiritual theorist of Marcel Mauer Architecture. If you would like to know more about Brand Mythology don’t ask Marcel but get in touch NOW with Marcel’s assistants Antonio Pisanò for the United Kingdom, Lorenzo Baldini for France and Andrea Salonia for Italy. 


United Kingdom

Antonio Pisano


(1) The Guardian, 2 May 2019

(2) The Financial Times,

(3) The Financial Times,

(4) The Harvard Business Review,

(5) On this topic, for good measure I would recommend Nassin Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, Penguin Press.

(6) J. Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

(7) D. Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

(8) Y. N. Harari, Sapiens, Harper, 2014 and Homo Deus, Harvill Secker, 2015.

(9) D. Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

(10) N. N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Random House, 2007.

(2) The Financial Times,

(3) The Financial Times,

(4) The Harvard Business Review,

(5) On this topic, for good measure I would recommend Nassin Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, Penguin Press. 

(6) J. Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 

(7) D. Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

(8) Y. N. Harari, Sapiens, Harper, 2014 and Homo Deus, Harvill Secker, 2015.

(9) D. Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 

(10) N. N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Random House, 2007.