Monday, 18 January 2021

Whatever happened to the inno-net?


I've remarked before how the relationship to the internet has changed over the last few decades - from the intrepid surfing and exploring of the early days, to amiable stumbling through to passive feeding. Well, of course, it was never going to stop there. The last couple of weeks have made me wonder if a better analogy for" being fed" could be "unwittingly poisoned".

And I'm also wondering if, these days, it's less Brave New World and more 1984.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, with the advent of Web 2.0, an optimistic and idealistic mood prevailed -  how wonderful that each and every member of the human race could communicate with anyone else they pleased - across and beyond borders. Could social media be the instrument of world peace?

But the realities of what human beings are actually like are now all too apparent, and the answer is: Not Bloody Likely. I'd love to know how often the word "toxic" is used in on- and offline conversations today compared to even twenty years ago.

Human beings don't like other human beings disagreeing with them. Neither do they like to be ignored.

And it's well known that nothing pleases human beings better than having their own opinions confirmed and amplified by others of a similar view. Hence the efforts built into the algorithms to keep people "inside the corral", as Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian, puts it: "the algorithms feed us incrementally more lurid notions of our own dispositions." And this, of course, is in the platform's interest, to sell more advertising space.

I'm not on Twitter, but I did experience the diffusion of an online forum for writers a few years ago. The forum was run on some fairly shaky technology, and in the early days was a convivial and collegial sort of place. Of course we had differences of opinion, but we were all writers, right?

But at some point it started to go sour. A few righteous souls started stamping around and policing the place, which naturally led to individuals of a loud and rebellious nature taking a few pot shots back. Entertaining at first, but inevitably it all got rather tiresome, and writing took a second place. There were even accusations of fixing competition results - a microcosm of what's happening across the pond, if you like. Then at some point the shaky old software finally gave up the ghost.

New groups formed - a big shiny commercial one from the original hosts, as well as others created by individuals of one hue or another. It's accepted we'll never be the big happy friendly cloud crowd we were ten years ago - although maybe that was an illusion, too.

This brings me to this article by Aris Roussinos which suggests that maybe Europe needs to get out of the information and (Big) tech stranglehold as well as China's industrial and economic stranglehold. Could this be the beginning of the deglobalisation of the Internet? A European, civilisational internet?

Or maybe just civilised would be a start.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Scale of economies

 I never studied Economics, which probably accounts for a lot - it's something I've sort of muddled through and picked up as I've gone along. We touched on socialism and capitalism as systems for how production, distribution and consumption work at school, in History, and since then I've become aware of the various variants on and hybrids of these basic models. Overall, how resources are managed and value, in terms of goods, services and quality of life is produced.

Throughout my working life, various expressions including the word "economy" have come in and out of vogue. When I started work, in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about how we were moving from a production economy to a service economy, and as we moved into the 1990s, chatter about the information economy and the attention economy was all the rage. There's still plenty of chit-chat about the latter.

Moving on to the next millennium and, in the wake of advertising agencies re-inventing themselves, up popped the ideas economy and the experience economy. Whether "economy" was exactly the right word for these concepts, or whether "current obsession" might have been more honest, is debatable. 

In the last few years, I've been aware of the ideas of the circular economy (sensible), the gig economy (euphemism) and the purpose economy (hmmm).

What's interesting is that many of these ideas are still circulating, and I think it's yet another example of less neat and tidy "from - to" and more cumulative, with everything piling on top of each other.

My prediction for this year is for two more economies to join the merry band. There's the wellness economy for starters. I thought we'd done and dusted wellness fifteen years ago, but it's back with a Covid-propelled vengeance, fanned by the flutterings of self-care, it seems. 

And the other rising star is the identity economy (I can hear the groans from here). There's all sorts of self-improvement and personal growth gubbins attached to this one - "brand me", "being the best version of yourself" (I've often wondered - in whose eyes?), "authentic self-discovery" and "life as an identity project."

But maybe the part brands can play in the super shiny identity economy is not so new. If it's all about the question "who can X brand help me to become?",  then my thoughts go all the way back to saving up my money aged 13 to buy a Ben Sherman shirt.

Brands have always been expressions of status and identity, even if what we mean by those terms may change.


Thursday, 24 December 2020

Comfort and Joy


A Christmas Story by Charles Rebel Stanton

Comfort and joy may have been in short supply this year, despite many of us forced back into our own comfort zones for rather too long. It's been clear that for brands, too, communications have been created with something of a "walking on eggshells" mentality, with concern over tone-deafness and misreading the mood of the nation. 

This somewhat restrictive approach, worrying about getting it wrong rather than determination to get it right, has led to a lot of bland, joyless and strangely soulless advertising and other communications.

Maybe it's time to stop thinking about advertising's role to reflect the world as it is, and start thinking about its role to entertain and present the world as it could be. Or another world completely.

Joy is a good start, but joy always feels a little bit sanitised and homogenised, like a choir of over-zealous evangelists. Especially when it pops up in a marketing plan which eulogises over making each touchpoint a "joyful connection".

I hope next year, advertising can dust down its entertainer's glad rags. Not merely joyful, but bringing us belly-laughs, mischief and mirth. Witty repartee, farce, a subversive smile. Whimsy, euphoria, glee and giggles. 

That's how to sell stuff, in the end.

Monday, 14 December 2020

What's Swedish for Goodbye?


Last week, it was announced, amid much over-use of the word "iconic", that the IKEA Catalogue was going into retirement after 70 years' sterling service. I thought I'd take the opportunity to dig out my collection which probably isn't quite iconic, but does span four decades - and sits in an IKEA box upstairs in my IKEA-furnished office.

The first catalogue I have is from 1990:

This pre-dates my arrival in Germany, but I saw plenty of the black, deep blue and purple look for interiors in my first few years here. Check out this black leathery office:

The first catalogue that came legitimately into my postbox (I suspect I saved the 1990 deep blue horror from a clear-out at the IKEA offices at some point) was the 1997 edition - still in DM, note.

 Many items from this catalogue featured in my first flat here in Germany - and some survive, handed down to my son, who set up his first flat a year ago. Think they call that "circular economy" these days. The catalogue also featured what I think was the first PS Collection:

Bauhaus, eat your heart out! Moving into the 21st century, and the year we set up house - 2004:

I bought several items from this Kingdom of Children collection - note: no pink Princesses:

In 2010, the catalogue shrank a little in overall dimensions, but the cover took an expansive approach:

Which brings me to the latest example I have - behind the times as ever, I only have the 2020 edition, not the very last one:

I am sure there will be people who will be pleased to see the back of the IKEA catalogue. Well, here you are. Note the LACK table's decrease in price from 1997 (DM) to 2007 to 2010. 

As they say in Sweden:

 Hej då!

Monday, 7 December 2020

A brand with a view

 I've always been a little queasy about the idea of brand loyalty, for reasons outlined in this post from 2013. Relationships, loyalty, Lovemarks - the whole tra-la-la. Interesting enough as an analogy, maybe, to kick off thinking, but in the end, brands ain't people. You don't get much back for your investment of faithfulness and duty.

Amazon demonstrate this again and again, despite all their claims to be the most customer-centric company in the solar system, or whatever it is. I've been writing book reviews for at least a decade and a half, and once reached the dizzy heights of being a Top 1000 reviewer, which I mistakenly took for recognition from my book-loving chums at Amazon. This year I was brought down to earth. My reviews, in English, of English language books, are no longer accepted by the UK or US sites. 

Why? It's transactional - and illogical. I spend buckets of money (yes, I know, I'm not proud) for Kindle books, but this all goes over the German site. So I can only post my reviews there. OK, not the end of the world, in the great scheme of things, but it makes me feel a touch miffed. 

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, the brand-as-human business isn't going away. In the last couple of years, it's taken on another form, which is possibly more alarming than all the brand-as-best-friend, brand-as-enabling-partner tosh.

Call it brand activism, purpose campaigning, venturing into the social and cultural space (why is everything a space these days?), taking a stance, having a point of view - brands are turning up the righteousness level on the virtual latter-day sandwich board of what should surely be re-named "political media".

This is bad enough, and of course you can ignore most of this guff, but the alternative is presented as "staying silent" or "bland corporate statements" - an implication of "if you're not with us, you're against us."

Well, I'd say this isn't the alternative. For me the alternative is to put the creative and media money and effort into creating distinctive, entertaining, useful or informative communications that sell the brand and grow the business.

Brand values are one thing, although whether these are distinctive is up for debate. Who doesn't want to have integrity and honesty? But a point of view? A human being has a point of view. A brand is not a human being, despite all the useful analogies. And as for the people who work for that brand - well, they are likely as not going to have different points of view. And this is a good thing. 

Insisting on a party line for a brand is absurd - and will only serve to make the world a dull place indeed.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Lockdown Liebling


After nearly nine months of on-and-off lockdown, and all those brands doing amazing pivoting while being there for me personally every minute of the day, which one has stood out for me as my own Covid champion?

Although it may not have been good for my liver, Jacques' Wein Depot has definitely been good for my soul. 

I'm wary of pushing the "brands are like human beings" analogy too far, but this is surely one brand where I'll admit to having a relationship (and my husband is well-aware of the fact). 

While I'm aware that, like many other brands, I could go online with Jacques', part of the appeal is that the relationship is 90% analogue, real life, or whatever you like to call it. Yes, they do gather data about what I've bought which results in freebies and birthday bottle and suchlike, but I don't have any permanent, alarming reminder whizzing around on my iPhone. The newsletter is paper and comes through the post, and I can read it at my leisure.

I love the combination of dependability, knowledge and little surprises. I've collected a lot of freebies over the years. Some I use, while some sit in their boxes looking pretty. They are always appreciated.

Of course, I buy plonk at the local supermarket, too. Sometimes even good bottles of wine from a trip away (what's that?) or another wine warehouse - but I always come back to Jacques'. Even though there's no tasting there at the moment, and you have to shuffle around in masks.

And perhaps, the strongest connections with a brand are through personal experience. An event at which the brand played a small, but important part. Earlier in the year, having had a Weinwanderung cancelled, I had the madcap idea of a Eurovision Wein Grand Prix - a stagger around local countryside with wine from six different European countries - Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France.

Without doubt, it was one of the best days of the year so far. (Italy won, by the way).

It's cheers to my lockdown hero brand, and happy first Advent Sunday to all!  

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Email Mayhem


The past couple of weeks have been pretty packed as far as work goes. I'm certainly not complaining, but the focus on getting stuff thought through and done made me realise just how much time I've spent in hungrier days reading other people's stuff rather than doing my own.

I started a sorting and culling action for the email newsletters that I've subscribed to over the past couple of decades and it has been liberating - like the feeling of clearing your wardrobe and realising a few weeks or months down the line that no, you don't miss any of that stuff or regret giving it away.

I'm not sure how many marketing/brand-type newsletters I was signed up for (in addition to all those from retailers, publishing services and other hobbies-related stuff). But it's certainly multiples more than the 5 or so I had back in 2009 when records on the current laptop begin. Back then, I was getting, say, one work-related email newsletter per day of the working week, which seems quaintly handleable. 

My culling criteria were completely unscientific. I decided anything that appears on or near the weekend in my inbox is bad manners and likely written by workaholic desperados I don't want to know anyway - the sort of lost souls who haunt LinkedIn at the weekend. So sorry, any US-based companies who think they're hitting the Friday morning spot when in fact it's late afternoon here. 

Then I used gut reaction. Is this a newsletter that causes a sinking feeling when it flops into the inbox, or one I'm keen to open? 

The sinking feeling can be caused by design (difficult to read), too much content (those newsletters that link to 8 or 10 or more articles are out), clickbait headlines, or re-hashed and repetitive content (some words are simply a huge yawn).

If I had to name two favourites, they'd have to be Contagious - whose newsletter was one of the five I received in 2009 - and Good Business' Friday5. Both of these have a handleable number of items - someone has made choices over what to put in and what to leave out. The newsletters have a distinct house style and the topics covered have a clear focus. 

I'll leave you with a screen shot of the Contagious newsletter from 11 years ago - 24th November, 2009. Unfortunately the links don't link any more, but it's fascinating to see what topics marketing people were mulling over back then: reports are offered on Mobile Apps, Branded Utility, Goodvertising (which must have morphed into purpose-driven brand communications at some point), Social Media (what that?) and Branded Entertainment. 

But nothing on email newsletters - were they missing a trick?