You see the TV spots on E! or A&E or CNN - visual monuments to Ernest Hemingway, the author, the man's man. Set to a pulsing African beat, the ads evoke Hemingway's spirit of adventure and rugged individuality, making you wonder immediately: What the hell are these guys selling? Then, the camera cuts to...furniture. And the voiceover announces: "The Ernest Hemingway Collection."
Is this for real?
As real as Papa's partiality to animal skins, and a hair more PETA-friendly. We think of celebrity-buoyed consumer products as something for a younger, more impulsive demographic: Nike and the hottest NBA stars, Maybelline and Sarah Michelle Gellar, Pepsi and whoever's "hot" three weeks ago. But two years ago, Thomasville Furniture inked a licensing deal with the Hemingway estate to go after a distinctly different group: America's bookish, aging, Sunday Times-ritualizing baby boomers.
"Ernest Hemingway: The Collection of a Lifetime" consists of five categories of classic, period furniture inspired by Hemingway's various bases of operations: Paris, Kenya, Havana, Key West, and Ketchum, Idaho. Check the Web site (thomasville. com/hemingway), and the furnishings look like nice, off-the-beaten-path pieces. But the killer idea here - one that may pay off handsomely for Thomasville - is to cast a face, a ghostly presence, on something as ho-hum as bedroom furniture.
Thomasville, in crafting an above-premium sub-brand, is hitting boomers where they live, literally. And it's established a connection to Hemingway at just the right time. According to consultancy G.A. Wright's 1999 Retail Trends report, consumers purchase their most expensive house at age 43, and take another three years to make it a home. With that tracking the baby boom's peak bubble, 1958 to 1963, Wright projects a big home-furnishings boom starting next year and running through 2009.
Consider also where the money lies for high-end purchases: 26 percent of America's 40-to-54-year-olds command a household income of $75,000 or more, compared with just 11 percent of the total U.S. population, according to Strategic Directions Group.
But there's also a more ethereal element at work here. "As we develop products, we're obviously keeping in mind building and housing trends," says Lisa Clark, general manager and director of brand development at Thomasville. "But with this, we're looking more at the experience of this furniture. It comes with a story behind it.
"In the '80s, we saw people very material-driven. It was all about material accumulation, people buying and buying to feel good about themselves," Clark says. "In the '90s, feeling good became more about experience, what countries you go to, or even climbing a mountain. It's not to say the Hemingway line is that, but it's about that mind-set. It's a story that gives us an emotional pull to the brand that it really hasn't had in the past."
Unconvinced? Recall the life-cycling of our affluent baby boomers. As their kids graduate and as their incomes grow with their slots on the corporate beanstalks, their "toy" expenditures have risen, but in more outward-bound permutations. They have traded in minivans for ostensibly rugged SUVs, fled the city in their own boats, and invested in second/vacation/weekend homes. Today, they may have scaled back on badges of the opulent - the Jaguars, the Rolexes - but they're buying name brands that assure them of a sort of quality of life and, notably, of environment. To wit, they've made Martha Stewart a contemporary demi-goddess, items like Eddie Bauer quilts and $40-per-gallon cans of Ralph Lauren house paint plausible, and Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma into Saturday shopping cynosures.
"Home" increasingly has taken on more estimable value in the lives of Americans in general, and more so for those with more money to spend on it. In 1998, Roper Starch Worldwide asked Americans their most desired status symbol. Home tied for the top spot with overseas travel. In 1990, tops on the list was "being a top executive at a large corporation," an attribute that rated ninth on this year's list. Even by 1996, when Roper asked Americans to list the one thing that says the most about them, the top response was a person's home (26 percent). Charities a person contributes to was next (19 percent), followed by what one wears (14 percent), and one's job (13 percent).
"In a time when lifetime employment is a thing of the past, and where home is becoming a place of business, the home becomes more of an anchor point in people's lives than ever," says Jon Berry, vice president at Roper. "It's not just a retreat, a family haven, but now it's social hub, entertainment center - with all the electronic stuff you can get now you couldn't before - a workplace, a home shopping mall, and even a health spa. It's only natural you're getting a lot of emotional investment in homes."
The "overseas travel" aspect also registers on the appeal of Hemingway. Strategic Directions Group breaks out this adventurous nature into a group it calls the Upbeat Enjoyers, a younger, more hedonistic segment of the baby boomers, who own more expensive homes - $146,000 the median value of their homes versus $125,561 for the 40-to-54 demo as a whole.
These Upbeat Enjoyers are a better traveled segment than the overall 40-to-54 group; more of them have visited France and the Caribbean, for example, in the past five years. On their next vacation, 34 percent of Enjoyers plan to "appreciate nature" (versus 27 percent of the total group), while 44 percent will go to a national or state park (compared with 40 percent), and 36 percent will take in "night life/entertainment" (versus 30 percent of their peers).
"Their interests reflect Hemingway's love of nature and also having a good time in a night club [a stereotypical Hemingway-type proclivity]," says Carol Morgan, president of SDG. "They perceive theirs as lives of activity, lives of creativity. These are people into carpe diem - live for today - and they really want to express themselves in what they buy."
The crossover between actual lifestyles and the concocted imagery of consumer products is not necessarily a visceral one - precious few slackers who Do the Dew have ever actually bungee-jumped into the Grand Canyon. But as these indicators go, Thomasville seems to have made a real connection. Clark reports retail sales for the first year of the Hemingway line are expected to hit $100 million, far beyond the company's initial expectations. One just hopes, as Generation X comes into its peak nesting years, we can avoid a Jay McInerney Collection.