The Tiki Metric

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Kyle Bottoms, Strategic Lead, Critical Mass

Conjuring images of distant shores, hula skirts and sacred totems, Tiki is rooted in an enchanting mix of fumy libations and Polynesian-themed escapism. And it’s quite possible that no other cultural trend has risen and fallen so spectacularly over the past 100 years. Tiki was everwhere. Then it vanished.

And now, it’s on the rise again.

If you haven’t felt Tiki’s intoxicating pull, the new man in the White House may soon have you yearning for a Mai-Tai or Zombie.

Yes, this is an article for the age of Trump. But it’s also about the Great Depression, World War II, Eisenhower and Vietnam.

Let me explain. 

The Tiki trend is fueled by a desire for escape—using rum, some citrus and a big dose of imagination to help you forget about the outside world. 

While escapism is a common behavior, Tiki adoption is different. Tiki can be used as a metric to see just how good or bad we’re all feeling. A barometer of public sentiment: a Tiki Metric.

In short, the worse things get for people, the better it is for Tiki. And that’s something we can gauge, interpret, and put to use. A cultural data set. But to understand it, you have to understand Tiki’s past.

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, a “Tiki anthropologist” and owner of the restaurant and Tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans, is credited for rescuing many of the famous drinks that started Tiki culture. He took me through Tiki’s history.

It began in 1933, with a man named Don the Beachcomber and his Rhum Rhapsodies—combinations of rum, lime and sugar, with every element multiplied and blended in amazing ways. Sounds like “good times,” except that America was reeling from the Great Depression. But Don helped you forget about all that. Tiki was born, and by 1937, there were over 100 Tiki bars across the USA.

Fast forward to World War II. GI’s coming home via Hawaii from the South Pacific had tasted paradise and wanted more. They didn’t have to go far. Over 1000 Tiki bars had sprung up.

In the ‘50’s and ‘60s, we reached peak Tiki. The drink-driven trend had become a full-on cultural phenomenon. Tiki invaded all aspects of pop culture: music, movies and even home decor. But these weren’t happy days. Communist witch hunts, paranoia and strict religious morality were part and parcel of the Eisenhower administration. A pervasive, nuke-fed fear lingered behind the rum induced joy…

But the worse it got, the bigger Tiki bars became. Bigger waterfalls, bigger Tikis, more elaborate exotic vessels.

This was Tiki’s golden age. But it couldn’t last.

“If anything destroyed Tiki the first time around, it was the Vietnam war,” Jeff explained. “You weren't going to escape from the NBC nightly news watching people being zipped up in body bags as bombs destroyed palms and villages in colour by going to the Saigon Room.” The escapism became real. The place you were trying to escape to became too similar to what you wanted to escape from. Tiki collapsed.

A decade later, Tiki hit another problem: life got pretty good. Through the 80's and into the 90's, the Cold War ended, the West became increasingly secure, and America settled comfortably into its role as the world's sole superpower.

But all good things must come to an end. Today, the global scourge of terrorism, isolationist policies, and general mistrust has created a revival in cocktail culture, which has helped Tiki rise again globally. The UK only had a couple Tiki bars five years ago. Post BREXIT, there are 30 (and counting). Paris now has two. Same with Moscow. Global uncertainty means global growth in Tiki.

While most trends last 8 to 10 years, the first golden age of Tiki lasted 40. We burn through trends a lot faster now; our connectedness hastens their rise, spread and crash, but the quasi-mythical island paradise of Tiki remains timeless. I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.

Neither does Jeff Berry.

“No matter how cynical or worldly people get, they respond to that promise of escape, and they respond to it on an un-ironic level. And if our new presidential administration is any indication, Tiki will be around for at least another four years.” 

The Tiki Metric suggests people will begin to look for delight in an atmosphere that is different from what they are used to.

So if you have a have professional stake in predicting trends and behaivors, then take a momentary break from your data sets and field research and pay attention to that Tiki bar that popped up across town. Tiki is a trend, but it is also a metric, or barometer of other trends. By watching it closely, we can make assumptions about other trends emerging around us.

Consider this: successful trends over the coming years will be experiential ones. And if Tiki is to be believed (and it is) consumers and audiences will be drawn to experiences that transport them to some pleasurably carefree place—in a meaningful, immersive way. I would expect to see brands like Disney or AirBnB push “experiential escapism,” and to that end, there’s no better time to get into virtual reality.

At the end of our conversation, Jeff said “I’d like to have a safe and prosperous world, and have Tiki—but I guess I’m just greedy!” Until we find that Utopia, we can still escape to the ones we imagine.

For me, it will be in Tiki.

One last thing: if, for whatever reason, your find yourself in trying times, I also leave you with Jeff’s favourite drink. His take on the classic “Navy Grog.”

3/4 ounce Fresh Lime Juice

3/4 ounce White Grapefruit Juice

3/4 ounce Club Soda

1 ounce Demerara Rum

1 ounce Dark Jamaican Rum

1 ounce White Cuban or Puerto Rican Rum

1 ounce honey mix (heat equal parts honey and water till the honey dissolves, then cool it, bottle it, and store it in the fridge)

Place all ingredients in your shaker, shake with ice, then strain into a glass containing an ice cone.

About the Author

Kyle Bottoms is a Strategic Lead at Critical Mass. He’s spent 8 years capturing trends, data and customer desires and transforming them into creative, award-winning digital experiences. His Tiki mug collection currently sits at 14.