We don’t do windows – but maybe we should

Tokujin Yoshioka’s window display for Maison Hermès in Tokyo (2009)

In any human endeavour practiced by a large number of people there will emerge a hierarchy of performance, ranging from multitudes of non-practitioners and dabblers, to numerous amateurs, to a select number of professionals, and finally to a handful of sublime geniuses.

So it is in the fields of music and sport, business and literature. And so it is with retail store window displays. Most stores – your local neighbourhood pet store, the barber, the bakery – will not bother with displays at all, using their windows simply to announce their offerings plainly and to let plenty of sunlight in. Others will take a stab at it: flowers to catch the eye, a couple of mannequins wearing this season’s styles.

Walk downtown, though, and the stakes go up. The major department stores and the higher-end boutiques in any big city all invest significant resources in keeping their window displays fresh and appealing year-round. Their in-house designers may do the job themselves, or they may commission visual display firms like Millington Associates to help them; either way the results are often beautiful, clever, and fun.

Once in a while, though, a retailer goes further. As Australian brand strategy firm Truly Deeply recently discussed on its fascinating blog, luxury goods-maker Hermès has been commissioning artists and international designers to produce window displays at their boutiques around the world. Probably the most arresting of these was at Maison Hermès in Tokyo during the 2009 Christmas season, when multidisciplinary designer Tokujin Yoshioka developed a concept at once astonishingly simple and overwhelmingly appealing: two large black-and-white video screens, each showing a beautiful young woman looking happily ahead at a Hermès silk scarf hanging several feet in front of each screen. Suddenly but gracefully, one of the women purses her lips and blows – and the scarf is wafted up on a gentle stream of air. The effect is technically simple but artistically breath-taking. (Go here to watch the video.)

Yoshioka’s window is not an example of thought leadership, of course – but it should serve as a reference point and a model for thought leaders. Hermès is taking a risk with each of its new displays and each artist it commissions. It is going off-brand at the visual level in favour of seeking a deeper message connected with leadership, confidence, aestheticism, taste, enthusiasm, surprise, and play. Its experiments don’t work every time, but even then there’s often a value to be picked up in the very boldness of the attempt. And when it does work, it soars.

The vast majority of thought leadership produced by modern organizations is professional, interesting, and safe. It is aimed at making its sponsor part of the conversation, and this is an important and valuable goal. But thought leadership – as leadership – has the potential to re-frame or change a conversation entirely. It can shape the future. But it will only do so to the extent that organizations are willing to stop putting flowers in the window, and start leading.