Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The most popular reenactment I’ve ever seen

I’ve never been to Gettysburg during a reenactment event. I know this is a tragedy, and one that I must remedy soon, but I am mentioning it now not to get an invite, but to state right off the bat that this is not a post about that sort of reenactment. I’m not talking about an event with tons of participants, but an ongoing experiment in historical marketing that has become the darling of New York City, and of the media elite. And one that I admire very much

Beekman 1802 is a farm, that two men --Josh and Dr. Brent as they are referred to in their blog-- bought, restored, revitalized, and are now marketing to the world through sales of goat milk soap and other farm or local artisan products. Two things intrigue me about Beekman 1802: the way that it is a historical reenactment, and the fact that they are a marketing phenomenon.

Living the Historical Reenactment
I don’t consider house museums to be living history, because they do not seem alive. Of course a house can seem alive, when it is lived in, when there is action in the house. To me, you can call a historical house living history when it is used as it was when it was lived in. I think a hearth cooking demonstration can be living history, and living in a restored house, especially restored to evoke a certain time and story is definitely living history. Did Josh and Brent restore the Beekman farm to the year 1802 exactly? the web page photos indicate to me they did a pretty good restoration. Do they live in it as a reenactment? well, not exactly, they’ve got a modern kitchen, use electricity, they are not living their lives as a reenactment, but they are bringing history to life in the way they are running an active farm, selling products with historical roots, and most importantly to me, they are using the history of the farm as an incredibly effective marketing tool.

Marketing the Historical Reenactment
I stumbled across the web page Beekman1802.com by following a link to a nifty holiday decoration. Once on the site I surfed around and discovered a restored farmhouse, a herd of goats, some blog entries, and some soap. At first I didn’t get it. How could these guys support this gorgeous farmhouse and themselves (Dr. Brent had recently given up a professorship in New York City) on just soap? I know tons of people selling hand made soaps at farmer’s markets, artisan galleries, and fancy boutiques, but it is not a lucrative business. In my opinion the market is rather flooded with fancy soap; and I have a hard time justifying the purchase of fancy soaps when I’ve been using the same brand most of my life and it works just fine. Since subscribing to their RSS feed I have been able to discern two success factors: An astute marketing of history, and notice by the elite media.

Some of the blog entries on Beekman 1802 are stories from the perspective of a little girl living in the Beekman house in 1802. I don’t think they are written particularly well, but they connect Josh and Brent to those who built the house. Much better written are the entries about the products they are selling under the Beekman 1802 brand. Every entry connects the specific product to that product’s history and to the region. Especially well connected are the stories of their blacksmith friend, who is using old methods, working with his hands to create something authentic. As the authors of the book Authencity and the authors of the Museum Audience Insight Blog at Reach Advisors have written: authenticity sells. And one of the most authentic things out there is history.

While I’m sure their soaps are great and their cheeses are fantastic (anyone who wants to gift me some I’d be happy to find out for you) those products are not really what they are selling. They are selling the authentic historical experience, and I say, bravo Josh and Brent.

The other entries that shed light on Beekman 1802’s success are the media mentions. When I started reading their blog I found the entry written after Josh and Brent had been photographed and interviewed for an article in Vanity Fair. They’ve made it on the Martha Stewart Show, and I heard mention of Oprah, but now can not find it again. A recent entry included a New York Times photo slideshow that included a photo of soap, but mostly concentrated on the old house, looking so charming with a layer of new white snow. I don’t know how Josh and Brent did it, but they’ve made it in the elite media, they are a marketing success. To top it off, I hear rumors of a 10 episode show on the Discovery channel about Josh and Brent. It makes me sad that I will not have cable by the new year, I'll have to wait for DVD.

These media outlets are not covering traditional reenactors in any large numbers, so what it is about Josh and Brent? They are articulate and good looking, they have very 21st century sensibilities. They play up the history, but they do not obsess, they concentrate on the product and on their lifestyle, not so much on the lives of the dead and gone. They’ve got a good story to tell, and they tell it very well.

If Josh and Brent write a book, a beautiful picture book like the Tasha Tudor ones, I will keep a copy beside my bed, to prove that it can be done, that you can successfully be living history.

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