THE DEATH OF NUANCE

The good, the bad, and the nothing in between

Futurists and soothsayers of all varieties predict so many deaths of cultures, eras and fashions that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Death makes a much more striking headline than to warn of demise, so I make no apology here for announcing the death of subtlety and adding another corpse to our ever expanding cultural obituary.

I blame politics. Nuance has been looking sickly for a number of years but rigor mortis really set in some time mid 2016, just before the dreaded elections. Over the course of the summer and pushing into late Autumn the western world turned fully binary. You were either in or out, either on the left or the right, there was no in between. Politics has always been adversarial, with its two party bias whipped up by the media, but something was different this time. Each of us set up camp firmly in one territory or the other and hunkered down, right through into the new year…and there’s no sign of things easing yet.

I blame the media. The BBC and CNN, in fact all of them, talk to us like Blue Peter presenters. In gently lilting tones they simplify things for us to digest, like Mummy cutting up our food. The relentless drip, drip, drip of reassuring reasonableness has taken its toll. We have become infantilized. Everyone is either a goodie or a baddie.

If you are good you vote left. That’s the caring, sharing thing to do. You distrust big business, love the European Union and relish every dystopian warning on climate change you read. If you are bad you vote right. You love big business (since it probably made you rich) hate foreigners and believe climate change is a conspiracy. Surely, even the oikiest of oiks amongst us knows these polar positions could not bear the gentlest scrutiny, and yet this is precisely where we increasingly feel most comfortable.

I blame Facebook. It’s the most powerful forum ever invented but it’s no place for nuance. Our silly social avatars must only be seen faking the thrill of being alive, clinking glasses, peace-signing and mugging to camera. Every tiny, insignificant event in our friends’ lives is offered up as something we must like, heart or cry over. If we fail to decorate our page with the flag of the nation of the latest victim of terrorism, we may ourselves slip into the bad category, amongst the ‘friends’ best avoided. And when they poke fun at a ‘bad’ politician or celebrity we have a thumbprint’s chance to join them and show the world that we are good, not bad like the bad man. This isn’t debate, it’s whack-a-mole politics. We’ve become babies.

I blame Twitter. How can an argument be constructed in 140 little letters? It’s a terrific tool for missile shaped comment and observation but these staccato sound bites can hardly be expected to encourage fluid debate. They merely offer themselves up for us to love or ignore. You’re either with me or against me. Snap decisions force us to go binary and sucker us into joining the consensus. After all, it saves so much time.

But we’ve recently entered a much more dangerous binary phase. In the rush to be outraged and signal our universal goodness we are picking on dull, bird shit spattered statues and demanding they be removed for representing bad deeds. Even lonely old Nelson high above Trafalgar Square, who hasn’t been bothered for 180 years (unless you include John Noakes in 1977) has suddenly become a target.

This binary frenzy threatens our biggest brands too: Secretive Apple, censorious Google and tax dodging Amazon must learn to live on a cliff’s edge, knowing that at any minute the tide may turn against them. These three money making monsters are not just big business, they supply us with the tools for modern life and yet, as crucial as they are, they are more vulnerable than perhaps any of us realize. If, say, we turn against Google for being too manipulative, it might just find itself in the bad column. If it does, it will surely crash to earth as swiftly and as heavily as General Robert E Lee bit the Virginia dust.

Even lower profile brands cannot hide from the Outrage Hunters. Let’s scan a few high street names: Tesco, Sports Direct, John Lewis, Rapha, Walmart. Lululemon, JC Penney, Burger King, T Mobile….don’t be shy. You know which camps they fall into.

I am not normally one to fret over the domination of social media. I believe the planet has just opened up for all of us and the benefits of the digital age are only just becoming clear. I do hope, however, that the fashion for binary opinion on everything and anything is just that, a fashion.

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

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2017   Apple, Brand, Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BOTS CAN’T DANCE

It’s official. 2017 is the year we went mad. All of us here in the UK, anyway. On the one hand we are resigned to the fact it will probably take twenty years to unravel a few trade agreements with the EU, and yet, on the other hand, we fully expect a driverless car to be whisking us off to work within a few months. We mutter endlessly about the naivety of our political leaders, but will happily recount the news that Elon Musk and Matt Damon will shortly be starting a colony on Mars. And in the pub on a Friday night we can be heard thanking god for the robots that will replace us at work, so that finally we’ll have the time to make home-brew, do the gardening and enjoy life on the UBI (Universal Basic Income).

We’re told that shopping will radically change too, when the supermarket shelf stackers are replaced by little Star Wars droids that work through the night, at considerably less than the minimum wage. During the day, of course, those shelves will sing with Minority Report style promotions, designed especially for us.

Dinner party conversation is of home-robot chefs, exactly as predicted by the Jetsons in the sixties. Sillier still, we grin like schoolchildren at talk of sex bots with hyper-realistic latex skin and randomly blinking eyes, that will keep us company and a lot more besides.

The future has never looked so puffed up and swaggeringly arrogant as it does right now. Drone deliveries, telepathically controlled computers, flying cars, homes that talk back to us, 3D printed organs, lab grown meat and brands that know what we want before we do. It’s all very scary.

Oh come on. The future may be racing towards us faster than ever but it’s probably not a bad idea to hang on to some sense of reality a tad longer. It’s as if the mundanity of ordinary life has become so mind-numbing that we reserve our optimism exclusively for fantastical visions of the future, the ones that will probably never happen. Call me Mr D. Squib if you must, but a little injection of practical, down to earth common sense may help put things into some sort of context, so that we’re not so desperately disappointed when the future finally arrives. Which, of course, it never does.

Firstly, we will not be washing our driverless cars on a Sunday morning. A vehicle that can take us to work as we read our tablets already exists. It’s called a train. Or a bus, for that matter. Our roads are clogged already thanks, and they’re unlikely to free up when we each own an autonomous vehicle. And what does it do once it’s deposited us at work? There won’t be room for it to park up and wait for us to finish. No, what our techno-boffins are promising here is a sophisticated new mode of public transport, charged by the mile no doubt.

Drones are more than ready and able to deliver to your door, but reality will kick in when drone delivery goes mass market. There is no way governments will allow swarms of electronic bats to hover above our homes all hours of the day and night, awaiting a thumbprint signature. Not least because they’ll get in the way of their own surveillance drones. Oh yes, that’s sure to happen.

Connected home technology has already become mainstream, if not mass market, but the benefits are limited, simply because our homes are old, often very old, stock. Besides, the opportunity to control the heating remotely was solved decades ago by a simple timer.

The exhilarating vision of talking shelves and shelf-stacking bots can be crushed in one fell swoop, I’m afraid. Supermarkets are already being replaced by local, smaller, more artisan producers. We won’t be wheeling our trolleys past holographic shelf ads because we won’t be wheeling trolleys, full stop. Not because the technology isn’t ready.

Home robots that do the cooking and cleaning are still a very long way off, simply because comprehensive, sensory dexterity is bloody difficult, as well as ridiculously expensive. Rest assured that by the time they’re available you certainly won’t be able to afford one. Not on your UBI anyway! And for the record, Universal Basic Income will be a disaster: another debilitating measure to make us even more state dependent…and utterly useless for the economy.

And saving the juiciest until last, I mean, really? You think a sex bot will ever replace human intimacy? Maybe for a few psychopaths it will, but it’s worth remembering that bots can’t dance yet. And when they do, it just won’t be sexy.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jul 19, 2017   Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

RETAIL TURNS 180º

You remember how we used to get ‘stuff’ back in the day? We’d head out in the car, drive to the supermarket or shopping centre, park the car, pick up a trolley or a basket, walk up and down every aisle in every department, find the stuff we wanted, queue at the checkout, pay, then take the stuff to the car, not forgetting to return the trolley and pay the parking fees before heading home. Doddle.

Today, of course, we chortle at the ridiculousness of the weekly shop, as we open our front doors to the Amazon delivery it predicted we would want at precisely this hour. So, two thousand years of mankind venturing out in the quest for stuff has come to an abrupt end.

Except, as we now know, shopping was never just about accessing stuff. This may be blindingly obvious to those of you reading this, but believe me, there are plenty of retailers out there who are still obsessed with sales per square foot and in lubricating real world shopping to replicate the efficiency of the online experience.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the retailers who believe that everything must be ‘experiential’ and that ultimately customers are children that demand constant entertainment. Well, maybe we are, but the thought of the high street slowly morphing into one giant theme park makes my back teeth itch.

In the 90s and 2000s the term ‘retail theatre’ was similarly embraced and then misinterpreted to become little more than layers of cut-out cardboard stuck to a gondola end. Please god, let’s not go there again.

The problem with the term ‘experiential’ is that everything is an experience. Queuing for forty five minutes at the Post Office is an experience, and a memorable one to boot, but it’s probably not something to be held up as an example of best practice. I prefer to use the term ‘brand playground’ and this, let’s say, more immersive, route is perfect for a Samsung, Adidas or a Nike that wants to show off how clever and wealthy it is. But surely, shoppers want engaging spaces that they can relate to, that make them feel a part of a community, that show them some respect…and that may well be a convenience store or a local hair salon. Genuine hospitality you might call it, and it should certainly be at the very top of every retailer’s list of priorities.

Robots may be whirring away frantically in the back office, working on logistics, accounts and stock control but it will be a fair while before we actually want to connect emotionally with a machine. For some reason it seems that COOs are happier to talk of investing in an army of human replacements than in training real humans already armed with natural charisma, charm and social appeal.

Today’s retail landscape has an enormous, all encompassing, ever-expanding web of data laid across it like a giant digital blanket. Stores have been turned from isolated boxes of goodies into brands that extend from our mobiles into the store and beyond. Everyone with a smartphone in their pocket understands this and the dialogue between customer and brand has been fully embraced and has become wholly expected these days. Whether we like it or not, as we head out every day we are wading through an invisible blanket of data that ripples and twists in response to each of our turns and choices.

Retail brands are desperate to get involved in our leisure lives and this is already bubbling up from beneath the surface with Samsung’s fitness programs, Lululemon’s Sweatlife Festivals and Nike’s running clubs. The next genesis of this, however, is likely to be game changing. When brands work together to manage and curate our lives, things are set to get truly exciting. The technology is already in place and it’s only a matter of time before a Westfield or a Visa or an independent start up uses algorithms creatively, stitching together concepts and brands and firing off amazing, bespoke offers to each of us that weave together products with community events and leisure activities that include our friends and our families.

Poor, inundated, bombarded customers will need filtering systems that help manage this but don’t fret, that’s happening too. As machine learning gets smarter Alexa, Siri, Echo, Cortana and the AI gang will begin to negotiate on our behalf. Imagine, just like the stock exchange, billions of incremental negotiations will ping-pong away as we sleep to bring us more exciting, personally tailored, better value deals than ever before when we click on our phones first thing in the morning. In an instant, the retail contract will have been reversed. Brands that hold their exclusivity dear will be sorely tempted to cut a few dollars off the price to complete the deal for Fear Of Missing Out. That’s role reversal and, ultimately, real consumer power.

Join me in the Twittersphere @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jun 20, 2017   big data, Future, Retail, shopping, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SKIP AD: Beyond the Death of Advertising

Advertising is dead. It’s game over I’m afraid and it’s all our fault. As soon as we’re empowered to switch it off, we do. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Our petulant Gen Z’ers are apparently the worst offenders as a recent study revealed that 69% of them block ads altogether as well as ‘skipping’ three seconds sooner than those in their thirties and forties. Don’t you think the very concept of being gently seduced by a glossy sixty second production, to buy a pair of jeans or a bottle of perfume, all seems rather quaint and nostalgic now? A throwback to the days when we awaited the ads between Cheers and The News. The heyday of advertising coincided with the heyday of TV and for obvious reasons. TV watching was a family sport and squeezed together on the Draylon sofa we would laugh, coo, sing-along or take the Michael out of every single image the bulky cathode ray tube delivered. The Guinness surfing horses, the Oxo Mum, the Hamlet cigar man, the Cadbury’s Smash tin aliens, the Levi’s launderette strip and the Lloyd’s Bank slo-mo horse were central to our evening’s entertainment. Yes, there were a lot of horses back then but we loved it. We were force fed a regular diet across three and a bit channels and we were happy.

Today an entire universe of entertainment has opened up for us and the freedom to block or skip advertising is part of the deal. Advertisers have a couple of seconds, max, to grab us before we skip on our way. The creative art of storytelling has been replaced by shouty and intrusive snippets. Building an emotional connection to a character or creating any sense of irony, subtlety, nuanced symbolism or artistic reference has been jettisoned for split second gags and slapstick visuals. Hands up all those who don’t hover above the countdown to exit the Youtube ads. Precisely.

Our attention spans are shrinking in direct response too, demanding faster and faster access to our personal choices, skipping past intro theme tunes and credits, surfing across content to get a gist, because a gist is enough now. As audiences shrink along with their attention spans, so too have the budgets. The slo-mo horses have been put out to pasture, replaced by dancing typography and hurried sound-bites. If we so much as click on, say, a new camera we know we’ll be incessantly drip fed Nikon ads for the next month in the vain hope we’ll succumb just for the irritation to cease.

Today’s ad execs hang out with a bad crowd, the freak show, click-bait salesmen who beckon us behind the marquee to witness ‘celebrity facelift disasters’ and ‘top ten red carpet fails’. Flashing boxes masquerading as ‘next’ buttons lead us down yet another dirty cul-de-sac to show us rude pictures. How on earth did it come to this?

Back at the West End ad agency the turtle-necked creatives are jittery and water cooler talk is of jumping ship and opening bars to test their skills in the real world. They know they missed the heyday by a generation or so, and it wrangles. They sense the sadness at the annual Webby awards, knowing their stiff grins and fleeting accolades are no match for the pride and status of their predecessors. They may as well be at a TUC conference. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some very clever stuff to be seen at the Webbys, it’s just that so very few of us could spare the ten seconds to watch.

Meanwhile, on the high street, retail CEOs lead posses that march the aisles in search of something that will turn their tankers around. A gaggle of merchandisers and marketing managers frantically scribble down the words of wisdom on product density like it’s the sermon on the mount. ‘Increase the size of the ticketing and re-merchandise that back wall.’ Everyone nods in agreement way too vigorously, but no one believes it will change a damn thing.

Are we to simply stand back and allow the high street to wither and die too, then return home and live the rest of our lives via Amazon and Deliveroo?

The answer is obvious. We must round up our army of frustrated ad creatives and let them loose in the centre of town where they can unleash their powers of persuasion in the stores that have forgotten how to engage us. The good news is that a new high street is emerging. ‘Stores’ as we know them are dying because they ‘store’ things and we have little interest anymore in wandering around neat and tidy warehouses. Brands, on the other hand, know they must keep us interested, entertained, educate and surprise us in order to stay on our radar and make us feel a part of something. Creatives need to focus on the exciting real world revolution that is happening out there. I call it the rise of the ‘brand playground’ and this is exactly where our bored ad execs should be playing today.

Join me in the Twittersphere @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 22, 2017   advertising, Blog, clickbait, Future, Levi's, Retail, shopping   0 Comment   Read More
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