Household Name: Well-Known Brands, Well-Executed Stories

A good storyteller can use almost anything as an entry point into showing us how people change, how culture shifts, and how we understand or misunderstand each other. Almost all of my favorite podcasts do this in one way or another. But That’s Another Story asks what books changed people’s lives to begin the conversation, How I Built This tells the origin story of entrepreneurs who have made it big, and Avery Trufelman’s wonderful new series Articles of Interest on 99% Invisible uses clothing to tell stories of everything from how feminists made progress to what defines a punk.

Household Name is new podcast that uses brands as their entry point, to tell stories about what no one saw coming, what forces a culture to change, and how people define and redefine themselves. Brand  names may seem at first like a cold, capitalist theme for a podcast, but Household Name’s approach is funny, thorough, kind, and warm. Every interview, though tightly edited, feels expansive and fair, a spectrum of humor, grief, pride, and failure.

Host Dan Bobkoff is a curious, engaging guide through discovering everything from how much the real manager of the last Blockbuster really cares about his community to how basic bitches became synonymous with the pumpkin spice latte; there are stories of heartbreak and politics, dreams realized and deferred, cultural norms broken and reinvented behind every one of the familiar brands, and each episode is so seamlessly narrated and produced that you’re instantly absorbed in the story.

Here are three great episodes to start with if you’re new to the show:

“Basically Starbucks,” is a mini-Starbucks history, a dive into how the term “basic bitch” was appropriated from hip-hop and what it really means, how social media and the meteoric rise of the pumpkin spice latte are related, and how a brand can both earn and lose its place as a status symbol.

“TGI Fridays: the Tinder of the 1960’s” manages to weave together the stories of how cultural shifts in the 1960’s moved dating from the private to the public sphere, how an Upper East Side salesman with no restaurant or bar experience took over a bar and then redefined how men and women met each other, and how fast gender roles and expectations can shift.

“The Last Blockbuster” was a story I thought I knew, after seeing Last Week Tonight host John Oliver give away Russell Crowe’s jock strap to one of the last remaining Blockbusters, in Alaska. But this episode is the story of a beautiful, complicated town I’d never given much thought to, a manager who really cares about movies and his employees and whose voice was so full of longing, regret, and relentless optimism, and about that going-to-pick-out-a-movie ritual we all remember and will never do again. This episode reminded me in some ways of Stuart O’Nan’s wonderful novel, Last Night at the Lobster, which is on one level an account of one manager’s last night at a soon-to-be closed Red Lobster, but which, like this episode, is really about doing the right thing, being a good boss, knowing and loving your town even with all its faults, and showing up until the end of something. 

 

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