what happens products outgrown brands (i swear this is probably more interesting than that description sounds)
|Dec 1, 2020|
Last week was Black Friday (although Black Friday is basically all of October and November now) and I was feeling impulsive and I bought an NVMe M2 hard drive, because I had an open slot on my motherboard and why not. It's the size of a stick of gum and I don't think it's made my computer or games appreciably faster than the old SSD I was using.
If I were lazy and respected myself, I would have just cloned my Windows installation from my old SSD to my NVMe and called it a day. As a reader of BNet, you probably already know that I do not respect myself, and do not value my own time. The FAQ on the Samsung website recommended a fresh Windows install on the NVMe, because of the registry or something, and so I did that instead, which required reinstalling a bunch of stuffand babysitting some processes over four or five hours. (During that time, I also watched the Saved By The Bell reboot even though I have never seen the original and I enjoyed it. Just throwing that out there.)
One of the pieces of software I had to install was a keyboard management program for a 60% mechanical keyboard I'd treated myself to on a whim called the Anne Pro 2. It's wireless and lights up and the keys go clicky clacky and makes me feel like a real writer banging out hit after hit. I bought it after seeing it in a TikTok video and then watching some YouTube reviews from keyboard freaks and reading a Wirecutter post that said it was good.
Upon receipt, it’s immediately clear that the Anne Pro 2 was made in China. I’m talking less about the product itself and more about the box. Which clarifies that the keyboard was designed by a company called Obins, more formally known as Taicang Zhigengniao information technology Co., Ltd.
Because of its smaller size, many keys on the board have multiple functions depending on how long you press it or the combination of keys. The keys in the lower-right corner behave as arrow keys if you tap them and modifier keys (like Shift) if you hold them down. Here’s how this is described on the back of the box:
Tap Key: Press and release the same modify key without other key, will triggle the custom function, that make we can input the up down left and right key on 60% keyboard directly without Fn.
I don’t mean to make fun of the Engrish here. I only mean to point out that, before I’d even opened the box, I’d realized that this product that was not merely manufactured in China, but also conceptualized and documented there. (Which, to be clear, is perfectly fine! Keep reading.)
Back to my Windows install. So I'm looking for the installer for the Windows app that will let me change the ways the keys light up and update the firmware and whatnot. Being too lazy to fish the instructions out of the box that tell me where to download the software, and forgetting the name Obins, I just googled "anne pro 2" and was met with a curious collection of domains among the results:
None of these are official websites for this keyboard. They are all dropshipping operations. Dropshippers act as middlemen -- they take your money and shipping address, and then place an order with the actual supplier, skimming some money for themselves off the top. Dropshipping lets people set up online storefronts without having to deal with pesky issues like "supply" and "shipping" and "customer service." Perhaps the best encapsulation of the grift is Jenny Odell's look at Instagram watches from a few years ago.
“At Anne Pro, we provide you with an excellent shopping experience as our customer's satisfaction matter a lot,” the About section of
annepro.net tells me, even though Anne Pro is the name of the model, and not the company.
Also derived from an e-commerce template,
annepro2.com has valuable domain real estate and is using it to hawk a number of mechanical keyboards. The site’s footer indicates that the business is located in Denmark. Crucially, the dropshippers here have also claimed handles on Instagram and Facebook.
The products sold on
annepro2.com boast endorsements from developer Mila Kunis(?), designer Adam Sendler(?), and e-sports (…?) Mike Sendler. Dunno if Mike is related to Adam.
“Is AnnePro.net legit?” one Redditor asked on the brand’s subreddit. “Is it safe to buy from annepro2.com ?” another asked the group. The skepticism is warranted. Not that dropshipping is particularly risky but once you learn to suss them out, your purchase feels a lot more unstable. What if you need to return it? Are you paying an inflated price? And so then you end up on Newegg or Amazon instead.
getannepro.com is clearly set up with a template for dropshipping, and yet I think it’s actually run by Obins? “We, Taicang Zhigengniao Information Technology Co., Ltd (ZGN) is specializing in creating a unique mechanical keyboard with the best performance of Lighting, customizability, durability, Multiple Layouts, and programmability, etc.” the About page states. The same page also features a photo of an office that, based on multiple reverse-image searches on multiple engines, is completely unique.
And yet, this official manufacturer is using a Shopify template indistinguishable from ones used by dropshippers all over the place.
The situation around the Anne Pro 2 makes me feel like I’m vibrating at a different frequency than everyone else on earth. It’s a product that has been branded, and has a not-insignificant online footprint — countless videos of reviews, modding advice, and gameplay featuring the small keyboard abound on YouTube, the Wirecutter liked it, most large online tech retailers carry it — and yet until I dug a little deeper than usual, it seemed to have no actual origin. It’s a brand-name product without an actual brand. Yes, it’s made by Obins, but until one actually buys the thing, one could easily be forgiven for not easily figuring that out.
The Anne Pro 2 is a phantom product almost, sold exclusively through third-party vendors and via word-of-mouth. It’s like if the maker of the iPod were some beside-the-point mystery. In a world (at least, the Western world) where tech-product branding is almost essential, the enthusiasm for the Anne Pro 2 feels bizarre when you stand it up against its unconventional origins.
It’s also the future of commerce.
I have a feeling that what I’m seeing with the Anne Pro 2 — a decent product that develops a cult following with almost no marketing spend, distributed by dropshippers — is the future of commerce.
I think Walmart knows this too. Remember back in the fall when the president banned TikTok, but only kinda, and then maybe Walmart was going to buy it? That probably made a lot of people chuckle and scratch their heads, but it made sense to me, because I know about the Good Thing accounts.
If you scroll through TikTok’s For You page long enough, you’ll eventually hit upon a video from a Good Thing account. Usually it’s a product demo for something, in fast-motion. The first half is someone acting out a problem like you’d see in an informercial that starts with “Has this ever happened to you?” and then they fix it with a magic trinket.
Consider this problem, which I’ve seen reenacted a bazilion different ways (at least 8) on TikTok. A couch can’t sit flush against the wall, because there’s a charger plugged in behind it. What on earth is one to do? Answer: buy this outlet flattener/extender thing.
A lot of the Good Thing videos (I call them that because a lot of them use the hashtag #goodthing) follow this structure, and if the non-U.S. outlet didn’t tip you off, they usually come from overseas. They’re sidetracked with whatever popular track is all over TikTok. BLACKPINK, Jason DeRulo, Redfoo, whatever really.
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re trying to
remove a blockage from a clogged drain with chopsticks
, but it’s not working? Get this drain snake!
Has this ever happened to you?
Your hand is covered in mud or shit, so you ask your girlfriend for help? Luckily, she has some sort of
single-use dehydrate sponge in her purse
with an identical premise.)
Has this ever happened to you?
Bag too small? Check out
bag that expands
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re lying across the backseat of a car and you fall onto the floor? Buy
so that doesn’t happen.
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re mopping and you are somehow so bad at it that you fall over? Check out these
slippers that act as mops
It seems impossible to spend more than a preliminary amount of time on TikTok without running into a Good Thing account, which leads me to suspect that a significant chunk of TikTok is operating as a sort of new-century QVC. Numbers wise it’s tough to estimate how many accounts there are or what proportion of Tiktok is dedicated to this purpose, but I feel comfortable saying: enough that it warrants this coverage.
These aren’t accounts fronted by influencer or popular brands, they’re run by seemingly anonymous people hocking mass-produced goods with no consistency or coherence (a caption on the muddy hand video: “What were George Washington's false teeth made from?” To which I say:❓❓❓). And people seem to like it! A lot of these accounts, which often have names like @easylife0007 or @goodthings.share or @happylife336, have hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of views. What’s weird is that TikTok is a terrible platform for selling stuff. It has no built-in functionality, other than a link in bio, just like Instagram. It’s great for advertising stuff, but selling stuff? Not so much.
I clicked on a link in the bio of an account that was hocking back braces for improving posture, and landed on
4us.shop. The site, branded as BestLife, seems to only sell jewelry and keepsake trinkets, but lo and behold, here’s the back brace. BestLife has all of the hallmarks of a dropshipping operation. The item has a significant price cut, which is almost certainly permanent and artificial. It has a counter of other people viewing it, also faked, to make it seem like stock is dwindling. It has a timer for an additional discount — the timer is set to more than an hour so you’ll never know what happens if it runs out. It has an addiitonal discount if you order multiple. Most of the reviews (I’m not sure if they’re legit) are in Russian and the informational graphic describes the product “Orthopedic shaping getting rid of the troubles of the hunchback,” if there were any ambiguity about whether or not this product was being sold or purchased mostly by people in the Western hemisphere.
This type of salesmanship is happening all over the web at an immense scale. And even without programmatic ad buying like you’d see on Instagram, there’s clearly an audience for accounts that are selling cheap, mildly useful — but more importantly: cheap — trinkets, displayed in virtual storefront facades that are probably just AliBaba on the backend.
These products have no brand. They have no company ownership, they have no identity other than that they look useful, or cool, or like something that might momentarily spark joy when it arrives in the mail and you use it once. The manufacturers fon’t need to market them, because there’s already an ecosystem of dropshippers and resellers doing the work for you.
A few months ago, in the throes of quarantine boredom, a few friends and I all bought Nebula Lights from a janky online store run by a company allegedly located in Irvine California. A nearly identical light is available on AliExpress for less than 13 bucks, 80% less than what I paid for mine (though I still contend it was worth every penny). The Anne Pro 2 is also there, though not for any less than I paid for it. Good Thing is like the internet’s Futian Market.
More than influencer marketing, which feels to me like a very Western creation borne of celebrity worship, the Good Thing sector feels like the actual global future of e-commerce. Everyone thinks they can be an influencer, but literally anyone can actually be a Good Think hawker, producing 10-second videos depicting nonsensical hypothetical scenarios and then directing the viewer to an online storefront set up yesterday afternoon to buy cheap mass-produced goods from shenzhen. If you can’t think of any solid ideas for your Good Things shop, well, just copy what the other accounts are doing.
Good Things salespeople sell products appealing in their slight novelty and supposed usefulness and they sell them on TikTok because you don’t even have a large devoted following to get in front of a lot of eyeballs. The Good Thing future is one completely devoid of branding or endorsements or any cohesive marketing vision of any kind. It’s just lightning fast infomercials pumped into your eyeballs from all across the globe.
Eventually, one of them is going to work on you. The Thing is Good — what more do you need to know?