Machine Dreams

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Fresh underwear helps to get the juices flowing -creative ones, that is. The Philly-based branding agency Machine gets excited about making a pair of undies a coveted object, and it doesn't even need a nice ass to do it.

Machine turned buyers on to sports clothing company Medalist's Tek-1 performance skivvies by packaging them in bright, splashy boxes that cheekily mimic the graphics of cereal and detergent box design, with bonus Japanese manga-like stylistic touches. The packages boast nutrition stats on the underwear's fortified fabric and even include a special prize, an eyedropper to test the material's absorption ability. The designs garnered a Package Design award at the 2000 Philly Gold Awards at the Art Director's Club of Philadelphia. The thinking behind the Tek-1 branding: "We were dealing with a broad demographic from 13-70," says Machine co-founder and creative director Aki Spicer. "It was a challenge to figure out what commonality all customers could share. The cereal box is one of the first things through which we all begin to understand branding, so we brought that to the mix."

Spicer founded Machine three years ago with principal/account executive Anthony Lukas. The two met when Spicer signed on as a director at the Philadelphia-based production company Picturetube, where Lukas was executive producer. Machine, which sprouted from Picturetube and now houses 12 twentysomething staffers, dubs itself a "branding+market-ing+imaging consultancy" that specializes in the urban youth demographic. In other words, Machine is an evolutionary step up from the advertising agency. Says Schultz, "We're an organization being built on the fringe of an industry that has atrophied quite horribly, and I think where we are and how we position our company makes us a good evolutionary change. I think there's a huge changeover from advertising to branding underway, and there won't be as much advertising in the future as branding. The ad agency won't be applicable."

At any rate, Machine focuses on all aspects of brand development and applies its various skills in design and marketing accordingly, to cozy a brand up to the consumer. "We're basically brand engineers," explains Spicer. "We don't agree that every problem is solved with an ad. It really comes down to who the market is."

Marshall McLuhan, Karl Marx, and Soviet propaganda have all influenced the company's own philosophy about brand-building, say the Machinists. "Brands have become our modern-day mythology, our cultural center, our spiritual totem, our social measure," goes the intro of its CD-ROM portfolio. "The great American melting pot is held together by a singular, common experience: brands." As ultimately depressing as such a capitalistic critique may be, it drives Machine's branding strategy, which attempts to rouse emotions over a logical response, never mind any notions of Gen X and Y's alleged resistance to traditional selling techniques. "On a rack full of like-minded quality products, I think that emotional response does a lot more than a logical response," opines Spicer. Specialty waters, Pokemon, and SUVs are all examples of things that have been become necessities through successful branding. "People actually have brand preferences with water, which isn't logical," he adds. "It's an emotional fantasy that we've developed for ourselves. I dig that twist that the brand itself is its own gratification. It's phenomenal what we've convinced people of."

LLike the packaging and printwork for Tek-1, Machine's designs for clothing lines demonstrate some of its most compelling efforts. A 1998 print campaign for the Senate skate clothing company tapped into the maniacal dedication of extreme sports enthusiasts while maintaining an underground vibe. The ads display zero duds and instead show X-rays of the broken bones of the line's skating team members. One black and white of a skater's fractured jawbone reads "Diagnosis: multiple fracture of mandible caused by involuntary response to inertia." Another photonegative of a busted knee states: "Diagnosis: Separation of tibia/femur/patella joint caused by sudden loss of inhibition."

Other 1998 print for Reebok/DMX athleticwear and shoes depict Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson in retro-graphics inspired by '60s Blue Note album covers, and ads for Pure Playaz hip-hop apparel feature flashback cultural references to '70s rebel icons like Jim Brown and Ron "Superfly" O'Neal.

Machine's clothing projects have branched out to grab new audiences for the firm. Currently it is revamping the image of the fuddy-duddy McGregor menswear line. The agency is buttoned-up about the motifs it has developed, but its strategy revolves around creating an "experience." Spicer divulges, "Stores aren't selling to the man. No wonder the middle-aged man is basically on a ball and chain at the mall. What we bring to the table really embraces male psychology, more so than another guy in a sweater in an ad. It's about how to make shopping not feel like shopping for the middle-aged man."

Machine is also about to relaunch the classic Billy the Kid clothing line, which was popular in the the '50s but faded out by the late '70s. Vibrant POP displays, clothing hangtags and magazine ads pull directly from the campaign of the brand's Eisenhower-era heyday and ressurect its innocent but mischievous tyke icon. Spicer says that in this age of adult designers scaling down for kids, there's still room on the rack for classic values and nostalgia.

TThe company is particularly proud of the ongoing Action Figure project, which is its own clothing line for extreme sports devotees. The designs and packaging are fresh as a freeze-dried daisy: minimalist instruction-manual graphics and faceless humanoid icons appear on promotional postcards, stickers, and T-shirts that are vacu-sealed in plastic, ready to freeze or boil.

Other print promos for both customers and retailers resemble violation notices - and at first glance could be mistaken for the real thing. The infraction slip lists the following charges: "Conspiring to sell and distribute Action Figure Action Adventure Wear" and "Attempting to produce large profits at the expense of the establishment." The notice also urges, "For your own good, heed this warning and forget that you have ever heard of Action Figure Action Adventure Wear." As that mock request implies, for its pet project Machine eschews the in-your-face sell. It's intentionally going at slow-seepage rate with Action Figure's launch, distributing the cryptic promotional materials through teen recruits at local hangouts: "We're trying to be very underground in terms of how a customer encounters the brand," Spicer explains. "Basically, we're trying to talk to teenagers, who are typically iconocasts. A skateboarder views himself as a rebel, a different breed. We play into that as far as brand idea is concerned. We help differentiate him from the cookie cutter person, give him sort of a badge of honor."

The campaign is experimental, a way to test Machine's branding strategy and its theory that brands are the glue that bonds American society. "There is no real culture in society," proclaims Spicer. "I don't think religion and fine art really define what our values are. I think Polo defines it. I think Action Figure defines it."

Marshall McLuhan wouldn't argue the point.