08/21/2012 04:27 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Are Ads More Valuable When They're Handbags?

Some of the hottest giveaways at this year's Sustainable Brands conference were Relan's iPad totes.

Made from jettisoned billboard vinyl, the colorful, playful bags grabbed eyeballs from across the room.

But there was more to these bags than meets the eye.

As Della Simpson, co-owner of Relan, said, "What we're doing is taking materials symptomatic of linear production thinking, and repurposing them to line up with new consumer values. The best part is, we're doing it with products that look cool and engage people."

It's no secret what those new consumer values are. Sustainability, innovation, and a healthy dose of irony, to name a few.

But I also think these bags answer a real need. And from real needs, futureproof insights are born.

Futureproof Insight One: We Want Control

For decades, advertising was a one-way street. The advertiser presented a glossy vision of their product, which the consumer passively absorbed.

If consumers thought an ad missed the mark, they grumbled at the water cooler. On the rare occasion where they complained en masse, they were either lulled by PR, or informed that the ad had been pulled. There was no avenue for collaborating with the brand to improve the message.

Social media upset that apple cart. Ads were crowdsourced. Citizen bloggers interpreted the brand for the masses. Consumer reviews became currency. Transparency and imperfection were lauded above airbrushed, sterile messages.

Relan is simply taking that control shift to the street. Carefully crafted ads are literally sliced apart, re-stitched, and presented in a way that was never envisioned by their makers.

Futureproof Insight Two: We Want To Create

Not long ago, we were happy to define ourselves by what we consumed. It was fine to be a Nike guy or a Harley guy. Self-expression took a back seat to fitting into the right crowd.

Today, that's changing. Thanks to an explosion of creative tools like Final Cut and GarageBand, and public forums like Pinterest and Instagram, we're defining ourselves increasingly by our own output.

Sadly, even the best tools do not an artist make. But everyone can buy unique. Antiquing is hot TV. The craft market is exploding, supported by sites like Etsy. And products like the Relan bag, each one unique, are capturing the eye.

Futureproof Insight Three: We Want Absolution

A few years ago, oil defined progress and prosperity. Today, it's regarded by many as some sort of fossil heroin: We hate it because we can't kick it, while acknowledging it's slowly killing us.

This sort of mixed response is increasingly common. We feel we're consuming things that simply aren't good for us or the planet, but dread the idea of doing without.

In this context, Relan is a small icon of absolution. We understand the luxury car we're driving was sold to us by an ad, but believe repurposing that ad as a handbag helps us reduce the bad. It's a tiny ray of hope in our anxious, self-critical existence.

Small Product, Big Insight

There are a number of elements that go into a futureproof brand. But the one piece that is absolutely essential is an insight into the needs of rapidly evolving consumers.

Relan is an example of a product that has tapped a number of those insights. It may be a humble bag, but its story perfectly positions it for success.