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<p>Fred Mossler, who oversees various Zappos departments including merchandising, emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in business.</p>

Fred Mossler, who oversees various Zappos departments including merchandising, emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in business.

Fremont East is filled with interesting logos—many for enterprises whose time is well past. One way to view the revitalization that the Downtown Project is now trying to encourage is the influx of new logos, and all the energy and dreams they represent.

Dec. 19, Stitch Factory, in partnership with the Downtown Project, presented a speaker’s event at The Learning Village called Behind the Seams, focusing on entrepreneurship in fragrance and fashion. Many aspiring young business people were in the audience—exactly the kind of folks the Downtown Project is hoping to attract in their bid to create fertile ground for start-ups.

Brand-scent stylist Lori Smith of Perfume Culture kicked off with a presentation entitled “Catch a Whiff of the Future.” We all know how powerful our sense of smell is. It can whisk us back down memory lane or sometimes launch a new romance. Smith’s educational talk expanded the usual reference frame of fragrance (women’s perfume and men’s cologne) to the larger field of scent and its multifaceted role in life today.

She spoke about how specialists in the fragrance industry humanize the myriad chemical elements involved with carefully developed design briefs that utilize down to earth, emotive words and phrases based on things like foods, spices, color and mood.

What was of particular interest was how widespread scent design is today, even though we may not be aware of it. Keds shoes smell like Keds for a reason. From explicitly scented products purchased primarily for that reason, to the more complex and subtle arenas of merchandising and event environments, hopeful fragrance designers in attendance came away with both an exciting commercial and psychological overview of the great potential in this field.

For any of us who think scent in commercial terms is only about enhancing our individuality through personal fragrance choice—or manipulating us to want certain things (the aromas of food), Smith’s presentation wafted in a range of new ideas and directions, not the least of which is how the field can connect and collaborate with a broad spectrum of other kinds of designers.

Next up was John Campbell, the principal of Matuse, a company he very briefly described as a “maker of premium quality wetsuits.” This was in fact all that was heard about what the company actually does. What followed was a video profiling Campbell’s artist mentor’s life and philosophy, heavily dashed with affirmative quotations from George Bernard Shaw.

There was “amazing” and “awesome” to go around, as more company lingo flowed.

“Confident but humble.”

“Savvy yet spiritual.”

“Matuse represents an ongoing path to achieving the synergy of art plus function.”

“Nature and industry.”

“Passion with method.”

“The mission is to deliver premium (the ichiban) game that’s focused on the next level.”

“Leader of innovation.”

“Follower of compassion.”

“Our logo is an ancient Taoist symbol. It signifies ‘Heaven and Earth’.”

Matuse not only has a logo, a mission statement (about solution-specific innovations),

and any number of mottoes—they also have a crest, which “represents the company’s roots in the ocean and its hustle out of it.” Apparently, the phrase E COSI DESIO ME MENA is taken from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, written circa 1342. It means “And so desire carries me along.”

To many in the audience, this seemed like an onslaught of inspirational marketing speak without any real substance. All brand, no product or service. To be fair, much of the thinking behind Matuse does come into focus when you visit their website. You do in fact learn something about the geoprene technology behind their wetsuits. What’s more, you learn they offer not just wetsuits, but a range of clothing and accessories—even books.

What they’re really trying to sell is a “brand vision” that’s supported by certain product lines. Clearly, their goal is not to be limited by any current product lines, but to be in the business of a particular take on fashion and culture.

However, a fair number of people in attendance would’ve liked to learn more about the creation of their products—how they’ve developed their distribution channels. Practical nuts and bolts questions about building a business. The buzzword whirlwind of a brand as some kind of lifestyle and worldview is all very exciting, but it’s important to remember that in order to fund the dream, you have to be selling something that people want to buy.

The link between brand image and practical business success emerged more fully out of the keynote speaker Fred Mossler, who was interviewed by his fellow Zappos colleague Zach Ware. Mossler, as many people around town would know, joined Zappos at the same time that Tony Hsieh invested in the company, coming out of a traditional retailing background at Nordstrom.

He now oversees a variety of departments at Zappos, including merchandising, marketing, creative services, product presentation, Zappos University, help desk, and outlet operations.

Mossler is a “shoe man.” He spoke of his love of shoes from childhood—particularly a neon green pair of Adidas he lost on a beach as a kid. He’s also an example of the mature, old school approach to business that may underlie Zapppos new technological delivery platforms.

His emphasis, and undoubtedly the most important message to young entrepreneurs, is the importance of personal relationships. Protect and nurture relationships with suppliers and customers. Relationships are what your business really is. This was both a traditional and refreshing message to counterpoint the well-intentioned visionary sermonizing of Matuse, and was the right way to round out the event.

It remains disconcerting that Zappos continually feels the need to promote the company ethos in feel-good mutual admiration sponsored occasions such as this, but Mossler’s message at least touched on what may be the most important factor in deciding whether or not the Downtown Project’s incubation of start-up enterprises doesn’t end up becoming an idealistic entrepreneurial graveyard. CL