PEAK STUFF?

It’s very fashionable at the moment to suggest we’ve reached peak stuff. The theory is, here in the mature West we no longer need any more things, that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was reached long ago and, frankly, the desire for any more possessions, can be nothing but greed.

One thing we certainly do have a lot more of these days is guilt. Currently, our guilty consciences are focused firmly on plastics, thanks to the rallying cry of David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series. But once this particular frenzy has subsided, all for the better of the planet of course, another is sure to take its place. Will it be the fashion and textile industry, for example, where poisonous waste products and multi billion ton landfill issues will upset us enough to demand action? Or might it be the waste in Hollywood film production, food waste in the restaurant business, or bottled drinks? There is no industry safe from the laser gaze of outrage our new found powers of moral judgment have given us.

It might be worth remembering our agrarian forefathers were dirt poor, hungry, over worked and with zero naval gazing time for any guilt. A hundred thousand years of poverty in preparation for a few decades of prosperity and already we’re complaining we can’t close our bathroom cabinets and have no space left in our crammed wardrobes.

So where has all this guilt and virtue suddenly appeared from? In a word, Sweden. First off we had H&M encouraging us to bring back our used T shirts. Next up we had the ‘climate friendly’ ReTuna shopping centre in Eskilstuna, whose fifteen stores specialize in refurbished second hand products. And now, not wishing to be out-virtued, Ikea is trialling a furniture rental and buy back scheme for our used Billy bookcases and any other Ikea furniture that has passed it useful-by-date. They call it ‘circularity’ and there’s no question it answers a number of difficult questions for a retail industry that is questioning its very existence right now.

Recycling, downcycling and upcycling are having their heyday. Circularity gives us the warm resonance that we’re doing the right thing, helping ease the burden on the planet, allowing us to sleep a little sounder in our beds perhaps. But realistically, the ecological benefit from buying a used coat, for example, as opposed to a new one, must surely be so miniscule as to be irrelevant. Even if we were somehow to persuade everyone in the UK never to buy a new coat ever again, any benefit to the ecosystem would be tiny compared to the loss of the coat making industry and all the jobs that it supports.

Part of the problem is that our guilty consciences have become detached from the process of manufacturing things. For most of us our working lives are spent writing emails. Every day we travel to work on crowded trains to arrive at a centrally located urban building where people busy themselves…writing electronic messages to other people in similar looking buildings across the globe. But however we frame what we do, if you follow an email thread to its logical conclusion, something, somewhere gets built or manufactured. No matter if you work in accounts, or in a public library, we are all complicit in the process of creating more stuff for consumption. And this, my friends, is how we all got so rich, and ultimately so discontented.

The smartphone is often held up as a shining example of technological convergence and a flag-bearer for the less stuff movement. Within barely a decade our little slab of black glass has replaced the: desk phone, diary, record player, camera, rolodex, fax machine, photograph album, tape recorder, encyclopaedia, newspaper, directory, road maps, radio, alarm, clock, stopwatch…the list is ever expanding. That’s an awful lot of plastic, metal, rubber and paper that no longer needs to be pulped, mined, moulded and manufactured at all, and can instead be used, presumably, for making more iPhones. Which we replace annually, by the way.

We are told that the very concept of owning stuff is outdated. As Gen Z enter the workforce they will apparently enlighten us oldies with a fresh approach to renting and sharing the things that furnish our lives.

I just don’t buy it, pun intended. While I’m not denying that Baby-boomers, Millennials and Gen Z are looking to de-clutter and simplify, I refuse to believe the desire for ownership has subsided. Treasuring something we own has been with us for at least a hundred thousand years, and it would be very unlikely indeed that in a period of less than a decade our disruptive youngsters could evolve themselves free of such a primal, territorial human instinct so swiftly. I suggest it’s much more likely to be a reaction to the difficulty in getting on the property ladder, so that in a fit of pique Gen Z have declared they don’t want to own ANYTHING! Throwing their toys out of the fully-paid-for pram, you might say.

Perhaps the dilemma we’re struggling with is partly a rejection of mass production. We don’t need any more stuff because our desires can be fulfilled so easily with cheap and accessible mass produced imports. The gap that’s left is an emotional one: the desire to own products and things with meaning and provenance, at least more meaning than what’s currently out there. Consider that now we have access to the sum of ALL human knowledge at the touch of our smartphone, we can learn about the history of denim, where to find the world’s best bagel, the rarest coffee bean etc (as well as the age, height and weight of the actor we’re watching). Turn away from the phone and how inspiring does your local department store look now? Ten years ago it was still a local mecca for ideas, treats, gifts, inspiration and perhaps a pot of tea. It would be hard to argue that today.

Desiring things may sometimes be greed, but more often than not we buy things that enrich our lives. We make an emotional contract with the products we select to say something about us. Buying something is an expression of commitment, a sign that we value having a product in our lives that says something positive about us. Renting something for show, on the other hand, whether it’s a dress or a Lamborghini, requires zero emotional commitment. If Gen Z simply want things for that Instagram moment, then they’re shallower than I thought.

The human condition will always be to want something better and that’s a good thing as it’s the very fuel of our ingenuity. But today, I believe we want, not just more stuff, but better, more worthy products that much of the high street has failed to deliver. So, let’s stop pretending we’re turning our backs on consumerism, when in reality, just like H&M and Ikea, we’re all in the business of producing more stuff. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact we’ve never had it so good and start producing, selling and, most importantly, demanding better stuff .

When we walk into a fast-fashion superstore and grimace in disgust at the show of blatant consumerism, we are judging others rather than ourselves. As Stephen Pinker says in his powerful new tome ‘Enlightenment Now’, consumerism is the other guy’s consumption.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 10, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SHIT SHOPS

London is infested with them: the tacky newsagent with the sponsored fascia that hasn’t seen a soapy sponge since 1987, the struggling hair salon with its camp wink-of-a-name painted in a 70s funk style font, the print shop with an illuminated logo big enough to be seen from the M25, the crappy café where coffee still comes in granules, the oddball ‘boutique’ with its deranged, contortionist mannequins, the downright dodgy mobile phone repair shop, the dour and dusty furniture store, its windows papered in fluorescent exclamations, and not forgetting the ubiquitous ‘convenience’ store, plastered with more stickers than the arse-end of a hippy’s camper van. If forced to enter one, we might catch ourselves chewing the fat with the owner, swaying our heads in synchronized dismay at the inevitable decline of local stores. We tut loudly in agreement that it’s the fault of the supermarkets, Amazon and Brexit, and yet we’d never dream of telling the truth, that their shop is dirty, scruffy, outdated, over-cluttered and utterly irrelevant. In short: shit.

We’ve become so used to living with shit shops that they’re almost invisible. Despite the fact that they must make up 90% of London’s retail, they barely get a mention in relation to the current crisis. Clearly, they are such an embarrassment to the press and the retail Twittersphere, that we’ve mentally vanished them, in order to concentrate on the woes of decent looking establishments.

Or perhaps you’re one of those inverted snobs that takes a perverse pride in your shitty environs. A country-lubber that revels in their beta post code by way of knocking the districts you can’t afford to live in. ‘No, Marylebone, Hampstead and Chelsea are not real enough for me,’ they whine, sitting in alpha post code pubs… for Sunday lunch only, you understand. These are the same folk who loudly bemoan the gentrification of their personal urban shithole, but you so know they are checking Rightmove.com twice a day to see if the artisan bakery has helped nudge up local property prices.

Oh, and don’t think the posh districts are exempt. There are plenty of shit shops snuggled in between the tasteful ones in the most salubrious parts of our city.

Londoners, take a good look around you on your way home tonight. The saggy, plastic canopies and filthy windows are the result of laziness and ignorance, not poverty. It wasn’t always like this. These stores are the rotting teeth in what was once a radiant parade of a smile. A century ago these shop-fronts would have been scrubbed every morning at 7am sharp, by a crisp-aproned shopkeeper with a sense of pride in his business and a long wooden mop handle. Today’s proprietor, by contrast, is a multi-tasker: one hand to point the card reader, the other to continue texting.

Independent they may be, but shop-fronts are the architecture of our environment, our community, and in that sense they belong to us all. Grubby, neglected shops may be moribund, but they are nonetheless busy sending us microscopic messages of misery every time we pass by. Every day they make us feel a tiny bit deflated, a little less good about the day ahead. A little bit shit.

But thankfully, middle class Millennials and hipstery types know good retail instinctively. That’s why their store designs hark back to Victorian ideals of shopkeeperdom. They know that a black fascia with a discrete gold font has far greater impact that the metre tall, yellow plastic letters it replaced. They know we are drawn to tidy entrances and well merchandised stalls. The harsh truth is that inside your local shit shop, there’s not an over-worked old lady struggling to keep up. No, it’s much more likely to be someone who doesn’t know one end of a broom from the other. Someone who thinks of a shop as a vessel for stuff that the public want, and little more.

I daydream about a hit TV series called ‘Shit Shop SOS’, where an undercover squad of retail enthusiasts wash, tidy, redesign and merchandise local stores, only to be paid in customers’ gasps of wonderment. I muse about kick-starting a hashtag campaign entitled #letsgiveashit to encourage our sad and grimy independents to spruce themselves up a bit.

Alas, there is barely any need. Shop by shop, street by street, the shit shops are dying. Waiting in the wings are hungry, stylish young innovators eager to take their place as soon as the rent and rates will allow. London is not just one of the world’s greatest cities, it is famous for its retail. Let’s encourage our local shit shops to clean up, sort their signs out and put something interesting in the window. In short: #letsgiveashit

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jun 25, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

A LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR

It’s second nature for me to intellectualize brands. I’ve worked with them all my life: deconstructing meaning, reconstructing a nuanced visual language that answers a series of strategic values aimed at convincing consumers of their worth. You know, all the stuff those of us in design deal with every day. Except, we also know that authentic brands, the ones that connect with us on a visceral, emotional level, cannot be constructed strategically or intellectually. Just like us, they take decades to mature and blossom, until they have tales to tell and experiences to share. Among these authentic brands there are a few that stop you in your tracks with a punch to the belly that leaves you wanting more. Ducati is one of these.

My lifelong love affair with this brand began in the late eighties when I set my eyes upon the thing I would treasure only marginally less than my own two, adorable children. Scratch beneath the obvious chromium plated, boyish lust for speed and there’s so much to fall for.

There’s no push button starter here. Instead, you must reach into the heart of the beast and take time coaxing him, priming him lovingly before you kick-start him into life. Once fired up, a glorious cacophony of guttural growls, whines and gasps unleash his story in an instant. Use your X-ray imagination to slice into his heaving chest and witness an unfathomable carnival of whirring cogs and spiraling spindles, each crafted for one task: to launch you at silly, silly speeds. Fear and vulnerability are fundamentals to Ducati. Not just the rider’s vulnerability, but the machine itself, for each integral element of this metallic monster was sculpted by a modern day, grease-monkey Michelangelo. German, American or Japanese machines are robustly engineered for practicality, longevity, endurance and cost. Italians don’t think like that. They are artists willing to shave every last micrometer off their work to ensure it is as light and as perfectly formed as possible. Fragility is fundamental here too.

Many years ago, one Ducatisti proudly showed me a large dent in his bike’s frame. This, he explained, was where they had to make a little extra room to squeeze the engine in. It’s these man-made imperfections, you see, that give art its value.

The divine yet dangerous dance that marries technology, engineering and art has propelled Ducati to the front of the starting grid and, more importantly, to the top of the list of the world’s most desirable brands. All that heritage, heartache and glory has been condensed into six little letters. Cast your eye across the curves of the silver back that bears its name, then tell me you’ve not fallen.

This article is taken from the recently published book: Brand Stories from Brand Champions devised & curated by david.roth@wpp.com Read more about it here

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   May 02, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

EUROPEAN GRAFFITI!

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. If you’re a polite, tax paying shopkeeper from Barcelona, Berlin, Milan or Madrid, you’ll have faced this dilemma one sunny morning when you opened your shutters to reveal freshly painted scrawlings up your pilasters and all around your corbels.

In some parts of Europe our major city centres have become little more than concrete sketchbooks for a kind of push-me pull-you politics, where the alt right, the loony left, the disgruntled and the dispossessed each contribute to a multi-layered cacophony of tangled anger.

I grew up at a time when graffiti belonged to very different artistic genre. In my day, walls were decorated with cartoon genitalia, delightfully captured in mid climax. The masterpieces that illustrated my boyhood were the desperate, pubescent cries of unrequited potency. Toilet cubicles became the private venting booths of the permanently pent up, where intense frescoes of either triangular or cylindrical simplicity were created, presumably as some sort of silent warning to the sex they were yet to encounter. Perhaps these explicit diagrams were a contemporary homage to the Da Vinci cartoons, none of which were that funny anyway, as Peter Cook famously observed.

Sadly, since the advent of free online pornography we’ve witnessed the demise of the cartoonist-gynecologist. Today’s vitriolic hieroglyphs have more of a political bent, and whether leftist or rightist they unite in their distrust of authority and so find harmony working together on the smooth render around an innocent shop-front.

In 2018, the shopkeeper’s dilemma is a tricky one. Should he reach for the bleach and expose himself as a defender of ‘the man’ and the likely retribution that may ensue? Or does he leave the solitary scribble alone and risk it spawning a crawling nest of irate expressionism, each vying for the attention of the passing shoppers?

With global politics in such a state of flux, it’s unlikely our rebellious artists will grow tired and head home for a gin and tonic anytime soon. Like ever increasing business rates, it seems graffiti is another tax our retailers will have to pay for access to play on our tough urban streets.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2018   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and please read more of my blogs and rants here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More
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