Giant balloon dogs & retail tensity

Many a giant creature has loomed over the streets of Manhattan, at least in celluloid form – most famously King Kong and Godzilla. And now a more benign (but equally huge) being has followed in their footsteps – a six-story metallic yellow balloon dog, which has suddenly appeared on a building on Fifth Avenue.

The dog is a piece of artwork by American artist Jeff Koons, and the building is the massive new H&M New York City flagship. Koons is “taking over” H&M for the store’s opening this Thursday; curating a mini-exhibition, to coincide with a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Shoppers will also be able to pick up a limited edition Balloon Dog bag for $49.50 (not a bad deal, as Forbes noted – because Koons’ real 12 foot (4 metre) high balloon dog sculpture sold for $58.4 million.) As a side-note, Koons is everywhere in Manhattan this summer – he also has a massive living sculpture called “Split-Rocker” on show outdoors at Rockefeller Center.

The theme of the takeover is “Fashion Loves Art” and it’s an amazing collaboration in a long line of value-retailer/designer partnerships that started with Target and Alessi design-guru Michael Graves in 1997, and that H&M picked up on in 1994, working over the years with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Beyonce.

The H&M/Koons tie-up to me is the most inventive collaboration yet. It’s the innate contradiction that makes it interesting – fast-fashion contrasted with fabulous (albeit populist) art.

This caught my attention this week, because I have been working with Michael Sussman, Chief of Y&R’s Brand Asset Valuator, on a presentation about “Retail Tensity”. As Sussman refers to it, the concept of “Tensity” is a “perceptual paradox”, combining things that don’t normally fit together. The most famous example is Target in the US, which has built its reputation on “cheap chic”. I think Tensity is a very powerful notion in retail, particularly at a time when the shopper has so many options, and we have to fight just to be considered.

Tensity is most evident in in value retail. As another example, Costco sells what they call “triggers” like bulk laundry detergent for a bargain price, but counterpoints the basics with “treasures” like $21,000 diamond rings. You also see Tensity in other retail propositions. Patagonia achieves its Tensity by asking shoppers to consume less (their famous ad was headlined “Don’t Buy This Jacket”), and they even merchandise “Worn Wear” – second-hand, restored Patagonia product. Online menswear retailer has “guide shops” where you can’t buy anything – come in, try on, then buy online in the store or afterwards. A caviar vending machine I saw in Westfield Topanga (an LA shopping mall) also embraced Tensity – it delivered a luxury item in a functional, but fun way.

Now more than ever, we can’t bore people into buying. There needs to be a level of tension, a Tensity, to make retail interesting and compelling. The six-story balloon dog on Fifth Avenue did it for me. What’s your Retail Tensity?

Jon Bird is Managing Director – Global of Labstore, Y&R’s worldwide retail and shopper marketing network. Email: Twitter: @thetweetailer. Blog:

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