Do you want a knife? Yes, I’m talking to you. Would you like a knife?
It might sound like an odd question but it’s one I’ve been testing on my audiences for a couple of years now as it’s a really simple example as to how brands can make their products more desirable. The test is very straightforward: I show examples of different retailers selling knives. There are images from a supermarket with its long runs of coloured blister packs, varying in price (and some on 2 for 1 offers). Then there are the department stores where the posher ranges hide safely behind locked glass doors.
If it’s a small session I’m running, then maybe the perky guy at the back wearing the psychedelic tie might shout ‘what sort of knife are you selling mate?’ but if there’s a big crowd you can bet that no-one will answer me at all. It’s clear, no-one needs or indeed, wants a knife.
So then I introduce Joel. Joel Bukiewicz is a knife maker (it says so on his card) and he fits his title perfectly. He’s a bearded, burly, bear of a man that carries just enough weight to be called ‘artisan’ (no-one wants a skinny knifemaker) and he moves with gentle, respectful purpose around his dangerous whirring machinery. He has a mellow, distant air about him as if his mind is elsewhere. Joel explains that he trained as a writer but when he couldn’t get his first novel published he decided to focus his creative energy on making something useful, something that would last a lifetime. The growth of New York’s restaurant culture gave him the idea of making high quality kitchen knives, and so he tried one and then another, and then another. A video tells the tale in grainy black and white, punctuated with a few emphatic f words, how hard it was to learn and how many times he cut or burnt himself before he got any good. His voice has a light sprinkling of Brooklyn gravel about it and as he slowly turns a new blade into the light, you’re hooked. This is rock star as knifemaker.
Click on his blog and he’ll apologise for not being around on Wednesday due to the weather but he did manage to produce two knives: 1. a Journeyman 240 in 52100 carbon steel with brass and white mosaic pins ($650) and 2. a Journeyman 120 in 1095 carbon steel and spalted maple with brass mosaic pins ($350).
So, now I ask the audience who wants a knife and a good three quarters of the hands go up. No exaggeration. The rest are probably tapping his web address into their iPhones. (cutbrooklyn.com)
The second character in this tale is my good friend Christian. In his early 40’s Christian works for a big private equity company and spends most of his life in the air somewhere between Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong with regular trips to New York where we meet for manly steak dinners. Christian is not a man with much spare time so he needs to know what’s cool and where he can get it. I knew the Joel story appealed to him when he first saw me present it but last week he turned up at my door with a Cut Brooklyn masterpiece as a gift.
When you present someone with a handmade knife it’s not like giving them a tie rack or a pair of pyjamas. A proper knife carries a primaeval weight that demands respect; you offer it with both hands outstretched. And when you receive a handmade knife you don’t tear open the wrapping and shout ‘thanks a million!’. No, a knife that has been hand cut from carbon steel and honed for hours takes on a spiritual significance. You take it slowly and silently, settling it down gently on the worksurface where you will get to know each other over the years, where it will decide if you are man enough to handle it. Then you lovingly flatten the brown paper it came wrapped in with the palm of your hand, and fold it together with the string that bound it.
Joel Bukiewicz is a retail genius. He understands that we no longer need any more stuff, knives included. But to own a handcrafted tool of dangerous beauty, that we will use daily, that will last a lifetime and that tells its own story, well we all want one. Now when it comes to chopping the veg for dinner, instead of rushing at it so I can get back to my computer, I slowly unroll the square of sackcloth I found for it, balance the ten inch blade reverentially in my hand before sacrificing my onions with religious choreography.
I can hear you cynics out there saying this is all very well, but it’s not real retail and it’s not scaleable (whatever that means). Oh how wrong you are my friends. Come hold my knife and then tell me our lives are not enriched by owning things that tell their own tale.