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Rob Maigret

6 min


I Can Hear The Piano

This must be the place

by Rob Maigret

Influence is in the wrong hands. The kids want more. They deserve better.

I Can Hear The Piano | This must be the place

I’m sitting a vendor booth in the Berlin convention center with couches, turntables, and headphones. The booth is hosted by Audio-Technica — makers of accessible, yet affordable audio goods. Products that one would consider purchasing while aspiring to someday own the insanely amazing Sennheiser Orpheus system I’d listened to earlier that day.

While I’m listening to the record that is currently playing, the White Album, a group of Euro-teens enters and grabs the couch across from me. I suspect they’ll think this is silly: the manual, archaic listening ritual from a much less tech-savvy past. The teen I deem the leader puts on a set of headphones and begins to listen to the same Beatles track I’m listening to. And just when I expect him to lose interest, I see the beginnings of a tear. He lifts the left side of the headphone his friend is wearing and says, “… I can hear the piano!”

I think to myself, “Influence is in the wrong hands. The kids want more. They deserve better.”

My love affair with beautiful things started very young. I belong to the last generation that remembers what it was like before the internet. I had the first Sony Walkman, an Atari 2600, a Hutch BMX, and X-Men #94. One of the first records I ever purchased was The Beatles’ White Album, and I played the hell out of it. I listened to the album on many different stereos over the years. On every media type. I learned that the better the listening experience, the more I heard and felt in those same songs I’d been listening to my entire life.

I’ve cracked open the White Album hundreds of times and yet the experience has constantly changed because the variables of the experience have changed. Listening companions, whereabouts, age, mood, mental state — there are infinite factors that can make the experience unique. And that is the key thing I learned early on: a product isn’t something you just buy. A product is an experience. And a great experience is designed to be memorable. And I wanted to build great experiences for the world to enjoy.

Fast forward the story a bit to September 2015, and the world sees the birth of the Sphero BB-8 (as in, Star Wars). I’m freaking the hell out, as this is the first mainstream physical product I’ve ever really been a part of; on a global stage we’re testing every theory concocted and/or learned about a consumer’s relationship to a product. So, as my teammates and I watch the press hit the internet like a shotgun blast, and the orders start coming in like crazy, my worldview changes slightly. Now I’ve really seen how the sausage is made. In fact, this time I’ve helped make the sausage.

My pre-Sphero career had mainly transpired in the digital entertainment arena. Over the course of my 20-something year run, I’ve been an IT guy, an engineer, a marketer, a creative, and an executive. I’ve co-founded a company and had an exit. I’ve worked at small and large companies, and held fancy-schmancy titles. I’ve been either lucky or smart, or maybe a little of both. But until my time in Boulder with Sphero, I’d never personally helped oversee and launch a physical product. That was new ground.

As Sphero’s chief creative, my focus was on the brand and vision, and determining how these translate directly into a consumer product. I passionately believed, and still do, that the brand must transcend all. I learned a great deal about this concept while working at Disney. Through the years I’ve advised many companies on brand and what it means, including my favorite brand of all — Porsche. I feel very strongly that when a brand is designed properly, it can yield an infinitely influential, previously untapped power.

Creating a great brand is an art form, and the relationship between brand and product is symbiotic. Every single touchpoint with the brand is a chance to say something about its core values through execution, not just through the words of a marketer. These touchpoints can be as broad as the entire product or as granular as a font, the material of the box, the folds in the cardboard packaging, the way it smells, feels, tastes. We live in a world where all of this means something, even if we, as creators of products and experiences, did not intend it to. Our world is one where every single design choice is pondered, examined, critiqued and criticized — consciously or subconsciously.

Back to my story. Things worked out extremely well. With the launch of BB-8, customers reinforced each of these beliefs a thousand times over. Our goal was to build a robot, an actual BB-8 Droid — not a toy. If you’ve experienced one in the wild, you’ve seen the detail the team put into creating the illusion that what you just purchased is right out of the Star Wars universe. From the box within a box that resembles a space-ready shipping container, to the new droid smell (a little like a new Audi), to when you first turn it on, to its “reaction” when it first becomes “aware” that it’s no longer in the factory. None of these experiences was accidental, and each of them resonated with the consumer. As a result, the Sphero BB-8 went on to garner great critical and financial success for the talented Boulder startup, and solidified Sphero’s brand on the map.

Maybe The Beatles were right all along. The White Album taught me something very valuable: the experience is the key. Creating something unique that inspires and engages a consumer should be the driving force behind making a great product.

But it’s typically not. Instead, I find myself living in a very different world. One in which consumers don’t know what a piano really sounds like, and youngsters with lots of Instagram followers recommend which kitchen appliances and automobiles to buy. Say what?

I’d like to believe that my experience has made me a little smarter and maybe a little more self-aware. I’ve become quite adept at grooming brands and products for other people. I’ve created enough experiences now to understand how and why they work, and enjoyed enough products to hopefully know what good design is and why. After those years of creating experiences, I can get on board for the right motivators, I guess, but I long to be driven by something deeper and more significant.

What I really want is for everyone to know what something good is and enjoy the fuck out of it. I want us all to demand only the best from our brands.

I want more Beatles and more Porsches. And Spheros too.

And I want stories, not ads nor sponsored entertainment. I don’t want reviews; I want real people to tell me about their experiences in which products have played starring roles. I want to hear and learn and harness this knowledge.

By the way, I am not the only person who recognizes this. There are many Appreciators Of Great Products in the world who share my passion. This universal desire, which is larger than one man, has become something called Popularium.

Many inhabitants of Popularium have sought out communities online and offline to share our love and criticisms of modern products, revealing the intimate relationship that we as a culture have with our stuff.

However, searching for a similarly smitten online community is like putting together a puzzle. We find ourselves looking all over the place and yet hardly ever finding the missing pieces.

Online communities for people sharing their appreciation of genuinely great products are lacking, and the ones that do exist are small and scattered. Worse, there are separate, fragmented communities around each product vertical — I love vinyl and comics, but I have to interact with multiple separate communities in order to share my love for each.

My fellow inhabitants aren’t being given the platform to have their voices heard by other consumers who can benefit from the insight. Instead, we’re being bombarded with confusingly disguised advertisements that look like real content, and with unsolicited paid influencer promos across our social feeds.

Granted, it would be hypocritical to say that we are not highly influenced by media, popular culture, friends, celebrities, heroes, upbringing, favorite movies, places, nostalgia, memories, and dreams; we are absolutely influenced and shaped by each of these.

Influence is a powerful tool. And it is being abused in our new digital world. The influence wielded by brands, celebrities, and our heroes is being used to generate advertisements that flood digital content with untruths. It is being used to create false perceptions within the trusting consumer.

We need to empower these consumers, these citizens of our Popularium, with the truth — not false perception. A confident brand isn’t afraid of the truth, it longs for it.

What the aforementioned Euro-teens experienced was the truth. Before their experience in that Audio-Technica booth, they might have had the perception that a $200 set of Beats by Dre were the best headphones in the market, a perception engineered by brilliant marketing and celebrity endorsements. But after that experience, they knew the truth. There are headphones out there that could transform the way they experience music — and Beats by Dre was not that messiah. We’d like to think that day was the start of a lifelong journey for those kids — a journey that would lead them to discover many more Products of Quality. Products that would let them experience the pure, ever-changing joy of music. Products that would help spawn a hundred different experiences from a single copy of The White Album.

And in turn, they would turn into evangelists who transform their friends, parents, partners, and children into Lovers of Quality who can appreciate the joy of opening the record, setting the vinyl on the turntable, carefully placing the needle on the record and opening themselves up to something beautiful. For Lovers Of Quality, this same ritual and appreciation can exist across many activities and products: Automobiles, motorcycles, games, television and movies, food and drink, etc.

Lovers Of Quality are Lovers Of Life.

We want to take every single person on this beautiful journey. Great products inspire powerful emotional experiences. Great products have beauty, design, and personalities that exist both within the products and amongst the people who enjoy them. And when these consumers relate their experiences, sharing valuable information about these great products, everyone wins.

This is what Popularium provides us: a place to harness our collective consumer knowledge by generating riveting and authentic stories about our experiences with great products. Our platform ensures that this amazing content is shared with others who want to learn about and aspire to experience these products firsthand someday.

Popularium will grow to become an organized and democratized platform that provides truth about products, not from brands, but from the customers and connoisseurs of those products. We will help millions of consumers make better decisions on where and how they spend their hard-earned dollars. We will level the barrier to entry on premium verticals. We will ensure that the next generation of buyers knows what quality in build, design, and experience really means.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Popularium.

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As we age, comics — like music, like movies, like every pleasant diversion — become one more thing we slot into the open cracks of free time where we can find them. Gone are the days when it was possible to just sit and read for hours without anything on our minds besides What Happens Next? But memories of those times linger. We look for ways to recapture them when and where we can. For an increasing number of us, that means devouring comic book-based movies, video games, and the shared experience of attending one of the many comic book conventions.

The stories in the digital pages of Popularium is all about that same recapturing. About the moments we reserve to experience our favorite art, media, and products — and the momentous life events that are indelibly marked by those things we love.

Chris Ryall
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