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Crafty communication

By Ian Hembrow
October 13, 2016

‘Craft’ has become one of the most used (and abused) words in contemporary product marketing. Senior Consultant Ian Hembrow considers what it means, and how businesses can best express their craft.

You used to know where you were with ‘craft’. It summoned up mental images of dedicated artisans, perfecting their trade over decades of quiet, loving and patient application, in search of something unique and perfect. It sounded echoes from a simpler and more innocent, handmade age, where people did stuff with pride, principally for the love of it, with profit a distant second.

But walk through any large supermarket or local fair now and you’ll be swamped with goods proclaiming their ‘craft’ origins and credentials. Beer, bread, crisps, vinegar, cheese, meat and even craft cosmetics and clothes – it seems that manufacturers and retailers are desperate to make us focus on the provenance and process behind products as much as the goods themselves.

Maybe it’s a good thing – after all, recent history is littered with food and other scandals where consumers have lost touch with and faith in the source and trace-ability of what they’re buying. Think horsemeat and Third World sweatshops. Not feel-good brand experiences…

Craft seems like a conscious reaction against this, and an appeal to a far finer and nobler status. It’s a lexicographical quest for reassurance that someone with real expertise has created something that at least looks and feels like it’s a limited edition. And ideally they’ve done it all by hand, somewhere nearby.

Nothing wrong with that, and if it genuinely tastes better, is nicer to use or lasts longer than the mass-produced alternatives, and people are happy to pay a premium price, then so much the better.

The downside though is that, as the craft tag marches across an ever-wider range of products and services, by definition it starts to lose its endearing whiff of the exclusive, and potentially becomes meaningless. And what about industries and professions who could rightfully claim to be true craftspeople in what they do, but who don’t yet display the craft mark?

The word’s etymology is interesting – from the Old English cræft or creft meaning power, might or physical strength. Go even further back into Old High German or Old Norse and you’ll find similar-sounding words linked to skill, dexterity and virtue. No surprise then that crafts became so closely associated with arts, through the movement inspired by William Morris, John Ruskin and friends at the end of the 19th century. And let’s not forget Kraftwerk – the 1970s electronic music innovators who genuinely were one of a kind.

The true essence of craft is something that’s both fashioned with care and really good. But in a modern, industrial and digital age, this shouldn’t just be the preserve of sawdust-soaked and oak-smoked traditional commodities. What about high-tech companies who create their products to fantastic quality tolerances, housebuilders who construct amazing homes, financiers who stitch together seemingly impossible deals or providers of personal support who satisfy individuals’ most diverse and intimate needs? Are they all ‘craft’ too?

I think what really matters is the (usually unspoken) emotional contract between producer and customer. If it’s an authentic, honest and open relationship where one understands what the other wants, and is upfront and transparent about how they do it, then there’s surely an element of craft in there. But inject the tiniest amount of doubt, opacity or cynicism into the deal, then the craft is gone. If you have to go searching for craft in your enterprise, then you probably don’t have it. So don’t claim it.

The very best craft products don’t need to be shouting about it and telling you they’re craft, because they just are superior. Their homespun qualifications come shining through in everything about them, softly propelled by a warm and fragrant, golden-hued gust from a more utopian yesteryear.

Is it unfair to single out ‘craft’? It’s only the latest in a long line of faddish buzzwords to gain traction then descend into throwaway futility. ‘Wild’, ‘pan-fried’, ‘vintage’, ‘slow-cooked’ and ‘hand-torn’ have all gone through the mill. But don’t get me started on the mindless, dreaded catch-all ‘solutions’…

Like it or not, right now we’re living and working in the craft age, but it’s a potent concept to be used selectively and with discretion. If you genuinely feel your business has earned the right to be out and proud craftwise, then go for it.

But a craftier route for the majority who aren’t quite in this niche, is to delve into the rich treasury of the English language and find words that properly describe and do justice to your work with greater precision.

That’s crafty communication.