Friday, 16 February 2018

Is segregation progress?

Back in the last century, the sexes were segregated - certainly when it came to books and learning. There were boys' schools and girls' schools, and at universities, women's colleges and men's colleges. I considered myself lucky to be growing up when all that was changing, and even made a little bit of history myself as one of the first women undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Over the last few years, there seem to be increasing calls for segregation - in car parks, in railway carriages, and more in more in the way some products are sold and marketed. Maybe International Women's Day has brought out the worst in them, but here are just a couple of examples from the (UK) publishing industry.

Penguin are going to pop-up in Shoreditch with their "Like a woman bookshop" from 5th - 9th March. This bookshop will stock only books written by women. A Penguin spokeswoman is quoted as seeing this as a push for "women's voices being heard and taken seriously ..."

Meanwhile, there's the publisher And Other Stories who will only be publishing works by women in 2018.

In my admittedly limited (to children's books) experience of the UK publishing industry, I've noted that it seems, if anything, to be more female-orientated than male. It is rare to find a literary agent for children's books that's male.

Are these activities creating a problem where there is none? Fiction-writing, with its calls for empathy and communication skills seems to be one area, to me, where women might just have the upper hand.

Where there is a problem is in countries whose regimes and cultures still suppress women. This will not be solved by a pop-up shop in Shoreditch. It will only be solved by publishers actively seeking out authors from these countries (and I don't mean comfortable middle-class third-generation UK-based women) and taking on the risks and dangers involved, if they believe that strongly in "making these voices heard/insert next cliche."

Incidentally, I've been invited to join something called Trinity Women's Network and attend several events that they host. Having gone to a mixed college, why on earth would I entertain the idea of segregation now?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Circle of Life

So many years have passed since the word 'sustainability' entered the language of business that I believe many people have forgotten the difficulties they may have had in understanding exactly what that word means. Although I use the word, it's one I've always had misgivings about. It's a heavily-laden word,  weighed down by its own worthiness, implying a lot of hard graft for not a lot of reward. It has associations with endurance, with injury and suffering, but none with anything positive, be it people, purpose, planet or profit. It's a must-do rather than a want-to do.

I'm pleased that businesses have started talking about the 'circular economy.' Like the idea of the 'sharing economy', it's an idea you can understand intuitively. I'm surprised the term has been around since 1989 (raised by British environmental economists) as I have only been aware of it in the last two or three years.

Rather than a linear economy, with its produce - consume - dispose beginning, middle and end, the circular economy, as you see above is all about keeping resources going and giving value for as long as possible, and then re-cycling.

Incidentally, this ties in well with my abhorrence of the word 'consumer' - in this model, people are active participants, creating, selling-on, adapting, repairing and recycling as well as using the goods.

It's only a pity that many of the major tech companies with their in-built obsolescence don't seem to have got the hang of this just yet.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Funeral of a Computer

I've said before that one of the hazards of being a trend forecaster is that sometimes, you get it wrong.

But apart from the nuclear bomb and the new ice age, there's very little in the predictions of these teenagers, asked in 1966 by the BBC's Tomorrow's World what life might be like in the year 2000, that's so completely wrong, even if some of it took a little longer to start happening. I wonder what these people - now well into their 60s - think today of their predictions?

Robots and computer funerals, madmen and atomic bombs, overpopulation and radiation.
Automation and people out of work.
People will be regarded as statistics and not actual people.
Boredom, everything the same, people the same.
Housing problems, people squashed together and cramped - or living under the sea.
Battery farming, artificially-reared animals.
Rockets and sputniks interfering with the weather. The sea rising.
Black and white, rich and poor all living mixed together.

Very dull, no fun or anything.  And - cabbage pills.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Tack, Ingvar!

(Image via

Many of my readers will know that two brands have dominated my working life: Saatchi & Saatchi, and in the 21st century, IKEA. The sad news from Sweden this weekend is that the IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad has passed away in his sleep at the grand old age of 91

I have often pondered the factors behind the success of IKEA. The various press articles and books written on the subject cite everything from product names to meatballs. And they are all (partly) right.

Some of the factors I always come back to when thinking about IKEA are these:

Demographic Design and Vision: Long before it was fashionable to talk about such things, Ingvar Kamprad laid out the Idea and Purpose of IKEA: to create a better everyday life for the many people through affordable Home Furnishings. Those few words say so much and highlight the uniqueness of IKEA. You can copy a product or two, or the hot dogs. But the whole lot? Nah.

The original participative brand: At the risk of repetition, here's another factor that's been in the IKEA DNA long before it was fashionable. IKEA has always involved effort on the part of the customer. 'You do your part, we do ours, and together we save money.' It's well known ('The IKEA Effect' ) that you value more objects to which you've made a contribution.

Then there are a couple of paradoxes at the heart of IKEA which provide a healthy tension, and maybe the 'Marmite' nature of the brand that means it's rarely out of the conversation.

Universal and individual: yes, it's mass-market and yes, the stores look and feel the same. Everyone has collective stories and jokes about IKEA. But once you get BILLY into your home, and fill the bookcase with your stuff, it's uniquely yours.

Change and Ritual: In the same way that our lives at home follow a dynamic of familiar ritual and change, so it is with all aspects of the IKEA brand. The way through the store may be standardised, but there are surprising new products around every corner. 

As I write this, I'm looking at a table in my office. I bought it 22 years ago as a dining table when I first moved to Germany, expecting it to last a few years before we bought something more solid. It's been through three different homes now and although it's currently enjoying something of a holiday from dining (it's the winter indoor home for a couple of hibiscus plants), I suspect it will have a new lease of life in a few years, maybe as a dining table once more when my son moves out.

And maybe this will be Ingvar's legacy. A recycled, renewed IKEA for the 21st century.
'Most things still remain to be done. A glorious future!'  

Monday, 22 January 2018

Go, amazon, go!

It's  official, I think. The store of the future is here today. Well, not here in downtown Bruchköbel, but in - where else? - Seattle. Amazon have launched their first no queues, no check-outs Amazon Go grocery convenience store. To get into this cornucopia of convenience, all you have to do is scan your Amazon Go app and it's 'Open Sesame.'

In you go, pick stuff off the shelves, put it in your bag and out you go again. Change your mind? Dither? It's all covered, via the crafty technology (computer vision, sensor fusion, deep learning - as used in self-drive cars) There are loads more photos here.

Part of me is excited about this, but part is alarmed. Not so much by the shot in the link of that flock of cameras, but by seeing the Amazon branding all over those food products and meal ideas. Being a little behind the times, I still associate Amazon primarily with books and stuff.

I suppose the source of the alarm is the audacity of it - the assumption from the Amazon people that they have a right to infiltrate every area of my life, including those where their competence is questionable. What'll be next? Pharma?

I read another article this week, in The Economist, about Google, Facebook, Amazon and Co. These brands have such power in terms of data held that they do pose a threat to healthy competition. What is the solution? Difficult to say.

But I have a feeling that, in the end, people need something more than convenience alone. However fast and seamless 'shopping' (if I can call it that: it seems more like shop-lifting) at Amazon Go is, if those make-a-meal kits taste as bland as they look, people will vote with their stomachs and seek out fresh ingredients, or their friendly local bistro, or a greasy junk-food fix. At least for some of the time.

I do wonder at what point the tide of opinion will turn that Amazon has Gone Too Far?

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Baaaaad Brand!

Well, at least one that seems somewhat uncompromising. Stroh rum, known as The Spirit of Austria, is a brand that turns all the current 21st century must-dos of branding on their heads.

From its beginnings in 1832, back in the imperial days, Stroh has made a virtue of being inauthentic. So inauthentic that it's authentic, in fact. Austria is land-locked and didn't have many colonies so it was unlikely that anyone would be able to bring enough sugar cane back from the Caribbean for an authentic rum. So the strong spiced rum was concocted from sugar beet, plus aromas and colours.

It's available in 5 different strengths: 38, 40, 54, 60 and 80 and, yes, those are the ° proof. The two highest are described as "overproof" which is about as blunt as "overweight."

Devoid of stories about crafting and palm trees and pirates, the pack design is also uncompromising. In fact, it could be mistaken for something you'd put in your car engine, rather than your mouth. The whole thing is redolent of last century ski holidays, tin signs, dark wooden huts, smoky bars, paper bags from picture postcard newsagents, the whiff of Jagertee.

The only time Stroh gets slightly less disreputable is when it's used as an ingredient in cakes and desserts. But those aren't terribly good for your waistline.

Please keep the branding consultants away!

Friday, 5 January 2018

Especially for you

2018, the trend forecasters inform us, will see yet more leaps forward in brands getting close up and personal with their customers.

Right on cue, I received the flyer above a couple of days ago, through the good old post. It's not from a huge global brand, but from a local sports store, informing me of a loyalty bonus I've earned. I have to say that receiving something with my name literally on it made me feel quite special. Especially as I am about to set off to the slopes. I was flattered by this little surprise, a lot more so than if it had been sent via email.

But maybe that's the point. The surprise is that it combines what we used to call old (flyer) media with new (personalisation) technology. No-one would be surprised to receive something of this sort via their smart phone, for example.

This raises an interesting issue about people's expectations. We say again and again that people's expectations from brand communication are changing, but we seldom stop to think what that really means. What it does mean is that personalisation will become so commonplace that it won't be a surprise any more. It will become par for the course, expected, maybe not even noticed any more, in the way that people want Smart Home technology 'so seamless it's forgotten.'

We all have the same tools at our disposal. Being first to use these may win you a few temporary points for novelty value. But it's only when the tools are used in a fashion and to a purpose that is unique to your brand and what it stands for that will build lasting attachment.