Friday 27 January 2017

Plastic Fantastic

As a manufacturer or retailer intent on doing Good as well as making a profit, you could do worse than using the UN's 17 sustainable development goals (aka 'Goals to transform our world') as a framework for action.

Announced recently at the World Economic Forum at Davos is an initiative from P&G that hopefully will have some impact on goals:

3. Good health and well-being
12. Responsible consumption and production
14. Life below water

... and maybe a few more besides.

Head & Shoulders in the '1st recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic' will be available at Carrefour in France this summer. The bottle is made with up to 25% recycled beach plastic, (PCR = post-consumer recycled ) and P&G have developed this with recycling experts TerraCycle and SUEZ.  Numerous technical problems had to be overcome such as UV exposure and degrading of plastic.

Now, yes, it's 'up to 25%' and, yes, it's only going to be available in a limited run in France, and, yes, P&G haven't got the cleanest slate in other areas of responsible production (record on animal testing),  but I do think this is a great step in the direction 'part of the solution instead of part of the problem.' Hats off to P&G (which I can happily do if I use Head & Shoulders.)

Using beach plastic has also inspired adidas, who are co-operating with the organisation Parley for the Oceans to produce trainers using the recycled waste from the seas and beaches.

And, while P&G are claiming their 'first', there's a small but great brand who have been doing this for a while - Method.

If I was working at Method, I'd have a slight sly smile on my face about all P&G's ta-raaing about their Head & Shoulders bottle. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Friday 20 January 2017

The Age of Paradox?

Polarities, opposites, tensions, contrasts, paradoxes - whatever you call them, it's my belief that these are the key to a strong brand. I have blogged about how being able to synthesise apparent contractions in human needs and desires (the need for individuality and to belong to something bigger, the need to be effective without causing harm, the need for the familiar and the new and surprising) is vital to being a successful brand - here, here, here, here and here (!)

Nice to know I'm not the only one harping on about this. The 5th Trend Report of IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group) is entitled The Uncompromising Customer: Addressing the Paradoxes of the Age of I.

The main theme of the report is, especially in this day and age, people don't want either/or - they want the best of both worlds: 'the best trade-off is no trade-off.'

I'm not sure whether this is particular to the age we live in: I can remember endless arguments about Health vs. Taste/Indulgence and Effectiveness vs. Care from my advertising days in the last century. But the authors of the report describe 'The Age of I' as reflecting one huge human paradox - the desire for inclusion in a meaningful group while protecting and expressing one's individuality.

Within this mega-paradox, the authors have defined 4 sort-of-mega paradoxes:

1. The Paradox of Separate but Connected: The new definition of connection
2. The Paradox of Abundant Rarity: The changing definition of luxury
3. The Paradox of Seeking a Better Me and a Better We: Responsible Individualism
4. The Paradox of Do It Myself and Do It For Me in My Way: Rethinking Consumer Control.

These are not a bad place to start in terms of positioning your brand. Think about which tensions or paradoxes exist within human needs, wants and desires associated with your product, service, market or territory. And what is the unique energy within your brand that you can use to resolve that paradox?

That's all folks!

Oh, sorry. Wrong cartoon.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Inventing and reinventing drinks

I've turned up rather late at the party for a new-ish drinks brand called Andalö, presumably because I don't attend enough hip events. However, a friend brought me a bottle to a 'Brexit Blues Party' - long story - and I was intrigued.

Drinks marketing these days is a subtle game. People want something new, but they must have the feeling that they've discovered or rediscovered something authentic. Maybe this is why one of the few survivors from the cocktail craze of the 1980s is Malibu. Amid all those faux brands (remember Shakers?), Malibu could at least claim a Caribbean heritage going back to the 19th century.

Andalö also claims to have its origins in the 19th century. The brand is described as a 'Swedish-inspired Liqueur' based on Sanddorn. (Common Sea-Buckthorn in English.)

I've noticed Sanddorn creeping into a variety of food and drink products here in Germany over the last few years, from yoghurts to tea. Apparently, the plant is a rich source of Vitamin C - and that takes us to the brand story.

A Swedish smuggler by the name of Carl Petter Andersson, whose boat was named the Andalö, got into trouble in a storm while smuggling alcohol from Germany, back in 1889. He mixed the smuggled alcohol with the fresh Sanddorn juice he had on board (presumably to prevent scurvy) and so the liqueur was born. I have sampled it and it's quite tasty.

So far, so good. However, other elements of the marketing don't really seem to tie in with this story or supposed heritage. There's an association with Swedish Midsummer, which is rather sub-IKEA in its portrayal. And then there is the bizarre choice of a brand ambassador, Pamela Anderson. Well, yes, she's blonde, called Anderson, and has Scandinavian roots, but they are not Swedish. And I have a feeling she doesn't drink.

I suspect that the (German) makers of Andalö have looked at the success of Aperol, on the back of the  Prosecco craze, and done the logic that Sweden is the Italy of the North for Germans.

There's even a cocktail recipe for Andalö and Jägermeister, mixed.

But it's a bit too early in the morning for that. Sounds like a recipe for sea-sickness.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Experience Pass

It's a bit alarming to think that I first went ski-ing 40 years ago. But maybe less alarming to think that I'm still keeping it up, with a trip or two almost every year. There have been huge changes, of course, in that time - with the equipment for a start. Skis are short and light and nippy these days, and boots warm and hi-tech and moulded to your feet if you so desire. It's difficult to spot someone without a helmet these days. And let's not get on to the fashions.

The lifts, too, have changed beyond recognition. When I started, there were drag lifts, single chairs or double (like the one above) if you were lucky, and a packed cable car to get everyone up from the valley. These days, chairlifts and gondolas have heated seats and probably Glühwein service.

In all this, we don't think much about the once-humble lift pass. These used to be a bit of card with your photo, which the lift operators checked manually to allow you on the lift, or not. But these days, the lift pass has evolved into more of an Experience Pass.

In combination with the SmartPhone, or even without, the lift pass can get you a printout at the end of the day about how many km you've skied, how many lifts you've used and many other metrics. If you wave the thing around at various photo locations, you don't even have to fumble around in gloveless hands for your camera or phone - holiday snaps will be delivered as though by magic.

All of this reminds me about how marketing people are talking about cities in the context of future mobility and urbanisation. Look at Urban-X (a MINI-backed start-up) for example who are 'Engineering the City as a Service' and whose Mission is:

We believe in a world of abundant, accessible technology that connects and empowers urban life. We believe every city will be a platform upon which the tools of the metropolis will be built. We are Engineering the City as a Service to meet the challenges of rapid global urbanization. We will achieve this via hardware and software that provide necessary infrastructure, technologies, products, and services.”


A ski-resort is, of course, a microcosm of a city, brimming with early adopters, be it for the latest ski equipment or the latest technology.

But in all of this connection and participation and technology, I wonder if something gets lost. I love the action and bonhomie of a ski holiday as much as the next one, but I also love the silence of the mountains.

It's telling that the strapline on the Ischgl website is almost portentous: Relax. If you can ...

Sunday 1 January 2017

Happy Anniversary, Darling

In 2017, I will celebrate – if that is the right word – ten years with Facebook. No doubt Facebook will let me know about this in no uncertain terms when the momentous day arrives. A video with plinky-plink John Lewis commercial-type music will appear, showcasing my most-liked photos, statuses, posts, shares, my best friends, most important memories and maybe a few suggestions for new friends – other folk who joined Facebook on the very same day. Wow.

Ten years in the traditional anniversary calendar is the tin anniversary. In literature – children’s literature at least – tin is tied up with characters who appear human, or humanoid, but are found wanting in the emotion department. Or are they? There’s the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz who goes off in search of a heart. And the Steadfast Tin Soldier who yearns for the (similarly) one-legged ballerina and after a series of misadventures ends up cast into the fire, his melted remains forming the shape of a heart. The mystery of tin, the paradox of something non-human which nevertheless has the capacity for yearning seems central to my relationship with Facebook. But more of that later.

Do you remember the first time you went on Facebook? No, I don’t either, but then again I don’t remember the first time I went on the internet, sent an email or watched TV for that matter. It’s a different kind of thing to knowing where you were when you heard the news about Kennedy, or Princess Di, or your pick of the celebrities that have bitten the dust this year.

However, Facebook has an answer to all that in that I can easily look it up and see what I posted. Excuse me just a second while I hop into Safari and find out.


Well, it’s disappointing. My first status was as follows: ‘out all day researching and IKEA-ing.’ The second: ‘working at home: last day of school today!’ The third is an attempt at wittiness: ‘half watching Live earth, half watching Tour de France and half baking birthday cake! Too many halves don’t make a whole.’

My first year on Facebook contains all the social media behaviour I love to hate in others. The first photo gallery is a carefully edited collection of shots of a family holiday hiking in the Austrian Alps. There are humble brags (‘doing a 10km run/stagger today’), not so humble brags (‘off to documenta on Monday’) and vaguebooking (‘mortified’ – with no further explanation). And there are photos of homemade cakes. Lots of photos.

In my defence, I was just trying it all out. I had 38 friends, and they were all people I knew, face-to-face. We were early-ish adopters, and although it wasn’t quite as shiny and new as thefacebook in 2005 (‘an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges’), it felt like a private playpen for overgrown students. On my profile from the time, three lines seem to sum up the 2007 ethos of Facebook:
‘Send Susan a flower’
‘Write on my FunWall’
‘Susan has 3 beers.’

But perhaps the oddest aspect of 2007 Facebook is the complete absence of links to other websites.

I won’t deny that Facebook has been a huge boon to me socially. I’ve resumed contact with so many old school friends. I’ve become closer to pals in far-flung areas of the globe, to whom contact had previously been limited to the annual Christmas card. On top of that, using Facebook has enhanced my writing, through contact with other authors, promoting my books and maybe the most fun part: researching. I have joined all manner of obscure interest groups with gay abandon, from ‘The Gloster Meteor Appreciation Society’ to ‘RAF Steamer Point, Aden.’ It’s all there, at the click of a key.

Having said that, I do sometimes yearn (in a steadfast tin soldier type of way) for the early days of Facebook – or even the pre-Facebook days. Douglas Coupland ‘misses his pre-internet brain’ and I’m there, too. Not because of what Facebook is, but because of what it has become: an echo chamber where views and angles on stories are homogenous, exacerbated by an annoying recent development of inserting 'posts you may like' into my news feed. I presume this is the way Facebook want to cheat the ad blocker.

It goes back to the change in the way we use the internet. In the 90s, a few intrepid souls were surfing - adventurous, dangerous, even, and not for everyone. By the early 2000s, the pace had slowed down somewhat, from surfing to stumbling. The internet had become a giant, but rather jolly, obstacle course with people good-naturedly bumbling around and occasionally tripping up on something interesting.

And the last ten years? Sometimes it takes being away from something to notice changes that are, to the rest of us, imperceptible. Which is precisely what happened to blogger Hossein Derakhshan, author of a thought-provoking and very readable article: The Web We Have To Save

Derakhshan was imprisoned, in Iran, for his blogging among other things, between 2008 and 2014.  In the article, he points out a number of developments that have taken place on the internet during his incarceration, but that with the greatest impact is the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As he says, ‘lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there.’  Social media is characterised by what Derakhshan calls The Stream – ‘...getting fed a never-ending flow of information that's picked for them by complex - and secretive - algorithms.’ He adds: ‘... and not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we've already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.’

This is a fundamentally important point. People want an easy life and they want to be entertained. Nothing wrong in that except when it's to the exclusion of the way people used the internet, predominantly, ten or fifteen years ago: ‘The web was not envisaged as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.’

The very expression ‘newsfeed’ says it all – Facebook and other social media are feeding people a pre-determined (or is it pre-digested?) stream of pap and bile. Calling it ‘curated’ doesn't make it any better. When I look at my Facebook newsfeed with its fake news, ‘You Will Be Amazed’ and ‘People Are Sharing This Incredible Tweet’ articles, big shouty font, witch hunts, ill-informed opinions, rants, photos whose captions plainly don’t match the visuals (usually posted by people who should know better), strangely homogenised language and expressions (that most people wouldn’t dream of using in normal speech), angry outbursts and tantrums interspersed with unnaturally fluffy puppies and kittens and adverts that ‘Will Make You Cry,’ the bullying, the boasting, the boring and the begging – then I do sometimes wish I had never signed up for this. It takes me back to my university days and the idea of a homunculus.

A sensory or motor homunculus figure shows proportionately how much of the cortex area is taken up by various body parts. If you’ve ever seen one of these little characters, you’ll notice that it’s recognisable as a human figure (just) but some parts are distended or atrophied in comparison to reality. The overall effect is grotesque. This is, perhaps, the relationship that my Facebook newsfeed bears to what is really going on out there.

Derakhshan’s article is now 2 years old, and maybe it took the double-whammy of Brexit and Trump to punch his points, and the phrase ‘echo chamber’ into the public consciousness. I hope it will also prompt a return to proper journalism, rather than a lazy regurgitation of someone else’s digital diarrhoea (couldn’t resist that visceral mixed metaphor, sorry.)

And my answer to all this? Am I going to continue my relationship with Facebook? Well, yes and no. What I really want to do is change my attitude to Facebook.

I must stop anthropomorphizing Facebook. Facebook, as such, is inanimate. It has no heart and no soul, and never will have. It does not even yearn for a heart in a strange Tin Man sort of way. It does not annoy me deliberately, it does not spy on me, it does not tell me things, it does not manipulate the way I think. Nor does it know my innermost feelings.

Facebook is a digital platform. No more, no less. It’s a medium in the same way that the TV is a medium, or the radio. A medium that everyone in the world potentially has access to (except the countries that ban it, but that’s a whole other story.)

I can choose which people I connect with via Facebook, and if I don’t like their opinions, I can switch them off, in the same way we used to switch off the TV, or change channels.

If you’ll allow me one last anthropomorphic metaphor in relation to Facebook, I won’t be ending our relationship in 2017, but I’ll make sure I am the one wearing the trousers.