Advertising: With Literary Support, Xerox Asserts Its Modern Relevance

Advertising: With Literary Support, Xerox Asserts Its Modern Relevance

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“They had a cultural footprint as a brand that was pretty big and vivid,” said Kevin O’Neill, an advertising professor at Syracuse University.

But the company has had to reinvent itself as other tech companies have caught up. Xerox was looking for a way to reinforce its longtime role as an essential part of office life while producing something culturally significant.

“Speaking of Work,” which includes essays, short stories and a song, is a Xerox collaboration with the 92nd Street Y in New York.

The book, which will also be handed out in printed form to customers and clients, was the perfect tool for bridging the goals, said Toni Clayton-Hine, the company’s chief marketing officer.

“It was a logical connection to what you knew of Xerox so far,” she said. The company still provides copiers, printers and scanners, but it has branched out into cloud computing and translation software as well. “We wanted to show how Xerox is relevant to the workplace today.”

Xerox gave the writers little guidance, Ms. Clayton-Hine said.

“We took a leap of faith,” she said. “In many respects, we weren’t sure what we were going to get. What we got back was really fantastic.”

The works include the humorous (Mr. Shteyngart recalls his first job, advertising piano lessons on a sandwich board in Union Square, surrounded by drug dealers) and the musical (Ms. Mann and Mr. Coulton muse on working from home: “Tried to Skype with the background clutter / Printer, mug and comb”).

In his poem, Mr. Collins, a former national poet laureate, remembers his father’s downtown Manhattan office, calling it “an Avalon of supplies” with an “oasis of the water cooler.”

The 92nd Street Y, which hosts speakers, concerts and other events on the Upper East Side, recruited the artists. The writing was shepherded by Bernard Schwartz, director of the Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center.

“There is a unique thrill to coming to work and having in one’s inbox new work from artists such as these,” Mr. Schwartz said.

Corporations have long sponsored cultural institutions and events, but the Xerox project continues a more recent trend toward commissioning art.

“The opportunity to write about work was inviting,” Joyce Carol Oates said of the book, which is being released on Monday.

Credit
Kaitlin Parry

In 2014, the fast-food chain Chipotle announced that top writers, including Toni Morrison and George Saunders, would produce work for its cups and bags. That project was produced by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose work also appears in the Xerox book.

Classic literature has occasionally provided marketing opportunities as well. A 2012 Audi commercial, for example, adopted a “Moby Dick” theme to appeal to literary types.

Leaning on literature as a marketing tool shows that companies are eager to attract “the influentials,” Mr. O’Neill said. Commissioning works of art is far more significant than simply slapping a corporate name on someone else’s event, he said.

“A key thing with managing a corporate reputation is not what you say, but what you do,” said Mr. O’Neill, whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker. “I’m always much more impressed when I see a corporation doing something like this.”

Nostalgia was one of the reasons Mr. Shteyngart was drawn to the project.

“I always loved office equipment, even though I could never get it to work right,” said Mr. Shteyngart, who used a voice-activated Xerox printer while writing his essay. But, he added, the Y’s involvement in the anthology was crucial to his participation.

“I probably would have been a little more skeptical if it had been the corporation that approached me rather than the Y,” he said.

The corporate ties didn’t bother Ms. Oates, who said she viewed the book as just another anthology.

“I like to write,” said Ms. Oates, a Princeton University professor, whose short story explores an awkward relationship between teacher and student. “The opportunity to write about work was inviting.”

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