On a rainy late-September night, several hundred guests have gathered at a vast studio near downtown Vancouver for Western Living magazine’s Designers of the Year awards. Onstage as the event’s honorary chair is local author and artist Douglas Coupland.
As one wag in attendance notes, at 48, the grey-bearded Mr. Coupland has the air of a parish priest. That description proves apt when he steps to the microphone and the nattering crowd falls silent. In an off-the-cuff speech, Mr. Coupland tells a few yarns and riffs on one of his favourite themes – what’s next. “Right now, we’re in a weird position in Vancouver and Canada,” he says. “The rest of the world has lost its future. We – through a combination of luck, prudence, what have you – we still have a future here.”
As dubious as that statement may be, it’s vintage Coupland – original, thought-provoking and forward-looking. Mr. Coupland shot to fame in 1991 with his prescient book Generation X , but he’s much more than a novelist. He’s also a successful entrepreneur who churns out a panoply of other products in an astonishing variety of forms. Sculptor, painter, screenwriter, designer of a new Roots clothing line – the industrious Mr. Coupland is all of them, to a high standard. For two decades, he’s managed to extend his offerings in many directions without diluting the Coupland brand. How does Mr. Coupland do it? And what can businesses learn from this accomplishment?
Mr. Coupland’s breadth is his brand, according to Jeannette Hanna, vice-president of Toronto branding agency Trajectory. As Ms. Hanna explains, he’s adept at taking an idea he’s explored in one medium and applying it to another. For example, in the downtown Toronto park he recently co-designed, Mr. Coupland used the thinking behind his 2002 nonfiction book Terry: The Life of Canadian Terry Fox to create a half-mile track dedicated to the late Mr. Fox.
“It’s not what he does, but how he approaches what he does, how he thinks about it,” Ms. Hanna says. “And the fact that he’s able to do that in literature, in design, in fashion, in film – that’s the sign of a great artist.”
At the same time, she adds, Mr. Coupland is a populist in the best sense: He asks questions that resonate with people and examines them in an accessible way. Ms. Hannah reckons that the West Vancouver native – who studied art and design in his hometown and in Italy and Japan – is strategic about his choice of projects and collaborations.
Refusing to be pigeonholed is one thing, but he doesn’t exploit his ideas other. So says Bonne Zabolotney, dean of design and dynamic media at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where Mr. Coupland earned a BFA in 1984. As a young author, Ms. Zabolotney says, he must have turned down many opportunities to merchandise Generation X. If so, that wasn’t just gutsy – it was smart. “Some brands make that mistake when they push and they push…and after a while you start to dilute your brand,” Ms. Zabolotney warns. “You get all sorts of fatigue.”
Mr. Coupland’s curiosity about the world compels him to keep asking ‘What if?’ Ms. Zabolotney says. She thinks he built a successful brand by positioning himself deliberately and staying close to what he knows – while still leaving room to adapt. “Coupland doesn’t have to reinvent himself or constantly reapproach his brand because he understands how to tap into the creative process, and it can provide all these endless creative solutions for him.”
One of Mr. Coupland’s greatest strengths is that he’s an “uber-Canadian,” says Ms. Hanna, co-author of Ikonica: A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape. While researching their 2008 book, she and Alan Middleton – a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business – identified being international, chameleon-like and highly adaptable as key Canadian attributes.
“Coupland expresses that at the most extreme level, but in the best way,” Ms. Hanna says, putting Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil in the same camp.
Ms. Hanna, who also teaches at Schulich, says she’s sometimes shocked at how uninvolved students are with the trends driving their culture. Mr. Coupland’s genius is that he’s tuned into those things, she notes. In Ms. Hanna’s opinion, business has much to glean from him and other artists about recognizing cultural patterns and shifts that point the way forward.
“If culture and commerce aren’t really closed closely linked, that’s how businesses end up becoming dinosaurs,” she says. “Because they’re not keeping in touch with the zeitgeist – they’re not keeping in touch with the world around them and the values of the communities they’re involved with.”
In all of his work, Mr. Coupland is fundamentally a storyteller. Jake Chalmers, CEO of Vancouver branding firm Envisioning + Storytelling, says companies often overlook the importance of giving their brand a strong story. If Dell came out with a cellphone, Mr. Chalmers wagers, no one would buy it. On the other hand, the iPhone was an instant hit for Apple.
“That’s because they know how to tell the narrative story about innovation and design in our lives, to the extent that when Apple introduces something, we don’t make a purely rational decision,” Mr. Chalmers says. “We make a rational and emotional decision, because we believe in what they believe.”
Appealing to that duality gives Mr. Coupland an advantage, he argues. Mr. Chalmers says many firms have a hard time introducing new products and services because they can’t explain why they exist. Also lost on those businesses – but not on Mr. Coupland – is the idea that consumers must be able to write themselves into whatever story a company tells.
“They say, ‘Well, if I figure out my pricing matrix for my products and services – meaning the what – and I tell that to customers, they’ll just get it,” Mr. Chalmers says. “That’s basically sacrificing the emotional or magic part of the story for the rational. And I think companies do that at their peril these days.”
For Ms. Hanna, who counsels clients to diversify, the range and agility of the Coupland brand holds yet another lesson for entrepreneurs. “The strength of small business, first of all, is nimbleness – being very attuned to what’s out there as opposed to in the marketplace, as opposed to having a prescribed formula,” she says. “Every small business has to do that to survive.”
Special to The Globe and Mail