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

MEET THE WALL DOGS (How advertising became street art)

At first everything seems to be exactly as you’d expect. New York is plastered with commercial images at every turn: on the sides of buses, in the subway, on cab doors and high up on the sides of buildings. But one advertising hoarding catches your eye. At first glance nothing looks unusual, but as you wait to cross the street you ponder it for a few seconds. Something about it has grabbed your attention and you’re not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s the gentle sheen or the way in which the image fits around the window frames? And then it dawns on you: it’s hand painted.

Sky High Murals has turned the everyday advertising hoarding into an art form. Not just by showcasing their tremendous skills as artists, but also as performers: sky high abseiling artists. Sky High HQs in Williamsburg, a couple of doors down from the Brooklyn Brewery, is where our band of artist-abseilers plan their attack before jumping astride their motorcycles. They are the special forces of the advertising world, an urban gang of artistic Navy Seals in paint spattered hoodies. They call themselves ‘wall dogs’ as they spend their working lives chained to a wall. This is not a job for artists of faint heart or delicate disposition. Walldogs endure long hours, high above the city streets in sub zero New York winters and crazy hot summers. But they love it. It’s clear by their swagger, as they head out to another big project, that they feel like an elite squadron of highly sought after soldiers. On the website their list of things ‘you’ll need to become a walldog’ includes ‘strength, positive attitude’ and a ‘good alarm clock’.

In an age where large scale digital printing has never been easier or cheaper it’s clear that picking up the phone to Sky High Murals must offer a brand some serious added value. The obvious answer is that it brings an extra artistic depth to an otherwise everyday image. A global Nike campaign, for example, will see its images reproduced in thousands of cities across the planet, translated into hundreds of languages, in different formats and across all types of media. And yet, Nike will happily invest in the skills of a small band of abseiling street artists because of the extra dimension it brings to the campaign. Hand painted images add artistic value, of course, and street cred, definitely, but there is a more powerful message that sings out behind every individual brushstroke. Namely, time.

I believe the real message is that our advertising images took extra time, dedication and phenomenal skill to come to your street, so please take time to appreciate them. Our message is not the background noise to your city or yet another thin layer of visual clutter spewed from an uncaring and cynical global corporation. Our images, as well as being art, clearly produced by artists, are integral to the city itself.

Yet again Brooklyn has soaked up contemporary culture and regurgitated it in its own likeness. Just like Brooklyn’s take on fast food it has slowed down the things we take for granted and made them more locally relevant, more considered. Like its take on everyday objects it has transformed the ordinary into the artisan. Like its take on all things retail it attempts to integrate it into the community and the fabric of the city, as opposed to simply landing on it from the great corporate heights of commercialism. Even advertising can be Brooklynized.

This article is an extract from the recently published Brooklynization. Click here for a preview.

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

  Howard Saunders   Mar 02, 2018   Brand, city, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SEE LIKE A SIX YEAR OLD

Back at art college, my life drawing tutor was none other than John Constable. I may be old, but this J Constable was the great, great, great grandson of the original, but nonetheless passionate about the world around him. Young JC was a fine draughtsman and appropriately eccentric too, as he paced among the easels in the chilly studio with a small hand towel wrapped around his neck. We never asked as to the reason for the towel, but as impressionable teenage art students I’m sure we all considered adopting it at some point.

Our favourite muse was the mighty Mrs Vincent, who stood no more than four feet something and weighed in at a good two hundred pounds. Her comely curves were indelibly etched onto each of our innocent minds. The shock of seeing a big, fat, naked granny never failed to titillate at first, but eventually JC taught us how to look past our infantile distractions and see what was really there: the shapes, textures and negative spaces that Mrs V created as she posed on her drafty podium.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when a friend called to unleash a tirade about some vile human being who’d apparently dumped an unwanted sofa on the pavement outside his house. In an attempt to ease his apoplexy, I gently asked what his six year old daughter thought of the matter. ‘What the hell are you on about??’ was his considered response, but I persevered to explain that, stripped of all its projected emotion (chain smoking, foul-mouthed, fly-tipping slag etc), all that really existed on the kerbside was a big, bouncy, squishy thing.

This technique, of seeing a problem through a child’s eyes, has been very useful over the years, particularly in retail. Ignore what you know about the brand, forget the footfall figures, the struggles you had with the head of merchandising, convincing the board and the fights with the shop-fitters…and just look. Stand there quietly for a few minutes, in short trousers if you wish, and simply see what your store really is, what it says, what it asks you to do, what it thinks it’s about. Becoming a six year old liberates us from all the warped preconceptions we learnt over the years, the limescale of experience that builds over time.

My final short tale begins at a meeting with a major department store. I arrived early, so decided to wait in their customer café, rather than in their dentist-like reception. With time to kill, I switched into six year old mode, and simply observed. What I saw was a bit of a revelation. This busy café, located alongside a mother & baby department, was a perfect pit stop for stressed mummies juggling push-chairs, shopping bags, screaming kids and social media. An experienced eye, one belonging to the manager for example, would see a bustling café with a healthy queue, a decent stack of pastries and enough free tables if only they could be cleared more swiftly.

But my six year old saw something very different. He saw long lines of agitated mothers balancing trays of boiling water on pram handles above their babies’ heads. He watched the four-point turns the buggies were forced to endure to negotiate the metal balustrade alongside the servery. And worse, he saw an army of staff avoiding eye contact as they lasered in on dirty saucers like robotic magpies.

(I’m pleased to say not long after my meeting, this café was replaced by a very nice restaurant with table service and a pram park)

Six year olds may be cute with button noses, but they are also beautifully equipped with fresh minds, untainted by convention and unburdened by experience. They will ask poignant questions like ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘why did you do that?’ If we can start to address some of these simple issues then we’re really onto something.

High street retail is in a quandary at the moment. It’s not quite sure what it is and where it’s going. So, the new year is the perfect time to slip on those shorts, stand at the entrance to your store for a few minutes, and ask yourself some innocent little questions. You might just get a glimpse of the future.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 11, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE DARK SIDE OF THE ME AGE

The heavenly choirs were at full pitch as the fallout from the global financial crisis became apparent. Suddenly, the sky parted and we were handed a slim, black, slab of glass and told we were now in charge, we were in control. No longer would we need to wait to see what the mainstream media had prepared for us at six o’clock every evening. No longer would we need to press our ears to the radio to discover which twenty tunes they’d lined up for us. The dawning of the ME Age really was this biblical. At precisely the time we lost our faith in governments, banks and authorities of all kinds, the smart-phone arrived to grant us uncharted access to anything and everything the planet has to offer. Little wonder it’s had such seismic impact on our high streets.

But there’s a dark and murky side to all this democracy. ME Agers have evolved into an army of super-entitled consumers, brimful with great expectations. Any semi-literate teen is a potential vlogging evangelist now, preaching how we should live, how we must better our lives. It’s not the porn you need to worry about. It’s the feeding frenzy of entitlement your children are locked into that will distort their view of life on earth. Remember, they are all beautiful now, no matter what, and all deserving of our undying respect, as well as a flawless complexion, of course.

The entitled generation is already percolating into our shopping centres, and you can expect them to become ever more demanding as they grow in number. Every mundane thing you take for granted, or haven’t thought much about, they will have an opinion on, passed to them, no doubt, by one of their teenage life coaches. Toothpaste, toilet paper, washing-up liquid, fruit juice, shampoo, aspirin…they’ll be keen to enlighten you as to how deadly these seemingly innocent products are to the health of you and the planet. Clearly, we must prepare for a mighty surge in demand for products and services that are specifically tailored to their highly individual tastes. And delivered within the hour, preferably. The ‘twas ever thus’ brigade won’t know what’s hit it.

It’s worth noting that ME culture is more bubble-up than trickle-down. The contemporary signals that scream desperately ‘I’M AN INDIVIDUAL!’ are sought much harder by those further down the socio-economic scale, perhaps for obvious reasons.

The rise in the number of obscure intolerances is also a by-product of the ME Age. What better way to signal our specialness than to decline an unsuspecting food type while eating amongst friends or colleagues? To date, brands have adapted pretty quickly to our mushrooming pickiness, but they will have to keep on their toes, as it’s unlikely the esteem, with which we now hold ourselves, will dampen anytime soon.

The current ‘pestminster’ scandal can be put down, in part, to our new-found self worth. Victimology, the science of actively seeking out victim status, is clearly on the rise as more of us feel special enough to demand retribution for every awkward, inappropriate sexual advance, or ham-fisted flirtation, dating back decades. Once upon a time, crude or tacky behavior would have been shrugged off as merely that. But today, our egos demand vengeance. No need for expensive lawyers or painful post-mortems. One tiny tweet can be quickly fashioned into an ugly-man destroying missile, and launched with the lightest index finger.

We are in the midst of a cultural upheaval. Back on the high street we are watching the demise of mass market generalists, mid market supermarkets and department stores, largely because they sell the same stuff as everyone else, to absolutely anyone. But very soon, we’ll arrive in a retail wonderland where artificial intelligence will tailor anything our little hearts desire (as well as plenty they had never even considered). In the meantime, we are fast approaching a clash of cultures that could destroy the traditional retail contract: great expectations vs commercial pragmatism. Whether it’s tinned soup or handmade shoes, retail’s unspoken trick is to sell us mass produced merchandise as if it were specially designed for us. As the ME Age gathers momentum, this may well be our biggest challenge yet.

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

  Howard Saunders   Nov 14, 2017   big data, Brand, me, me age, Retail, smartphone, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

MASTER-PLAN: MOSCOW

Moscow is a giant experiment: keep a city under a thick, dark blanket for seventy years, and then whip it away suddenly to see how it reacts to the daylight. That was almost thirty years ago, and the green shoots from the West have certainly found the Muscovite soil fertile. The whole gang is here, from H&M and McDonald’s through to Gucci, Prada and Chanel. The restaurants are appropriately dark and contemporary, with low-slung Tom Dixon lights or exposed Edison lamps. Furniture is on trend too, with plenty of jaunty 70s shapes, as if they watched MASH and Columbo like the rest of us. Except, of course, they didn’t. 1970s Moscow was a cold, grey silhouette of a city, illuminated by little more than a few fluorescent pharmacies and the erratic red trails of Lada tail lights.

Today, it’s a very different picture. Glass towers have snuggled next to the concrete ones. Citibank, BMW, Ford, Adidas, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and many of their contemporaries now have tall, black glass HQs here. Clustered around the feet of these giants, the swish restaurants congregate in anticipation of clocking off time. Each one is of such immaculate international style, you could pick it up and drop it into London, Los Angeles or Sydney without anyone noticing. Perhaps only the background rattle of Robbie Williams and George Michael hints at their slightly ‘wannabe’ status.

One aspect of urban life that’s unusual here, is that it is clearly a furiously female-first culture. Ambitious millennials, who grew up never knowing the iron curtain, hold down high-powered jobs, speak a handful of languages, and fill the fancy restaurants most evenings. I did my own, anecdotal, survey across the week, and I would say women make up 60-70% of the customers.

Yet there’s something missing, and its absence is a lesson for us in the entitled West. It’s hospitality. It’s here alright, but if you want it you’ll have to dig for it yourself. The default face for all taxi drivers, receptionists, concierges, greeters and shop assistants is deadpan zero. In the UK and US, we’re used to the eye-averter, the sulker and the utterly disengaged, but ours are born of discontent and cynicism. There are enough smilers in our day for us to surf across the lows and avoid getting dragged down. In Moscow, the blank expressions are born from innocence. They simply haven’t realised how vital hospitality is to city life.

Moscow has rushed headfirst into the 21st century, equipped with a master-plan, and the money, to double in size. Already a city of 11 million people, everywhere you look work is underway to improve, expand and refurbish: Renzo Piano is converting a power station into a cultural centre and art gallery, Rem Koolhaas has finished his polycarbonate clad art gallery in Gorky Park, and there are shiny new trams, a pedestrianised waterfront, ribbons of cycle lanes and a handful of new Metro stations. The early signs of hipsterdom have already introduced craft ale, which is doing a decent job of denting vodka sales for the first time in history. Everything is in place now for Moscow the Megacity, and mightily impressive it will surely be.

In this city, as in many others, ‘starchitects’ and designers are creating jaw-slackening spaces to lift our spirits and open our eyes to the glories humanity can achieve. Every tiny detail, every curve and juxtaposition will be prototyped, tested, argued over and redesigned, so that the spatial acoustics and sense of touch live in harmony with the overall vision. And then, at the front desk, at the very first point of customer contact, they place a young girl, vacuous and indifferent. All the uplifting design and intellectual intent comes crashing down in an instant.

For cities to function smoothly they need the lubricant of hospitality. The eye contact, the affirmation, empathy and human connection that turns the functional into the pleasurable. A happy city sees guests, visitors and customers as its lifeblood. Moscow has yet to notice the invisible mesh that binds everything together is missing from its master-plan, but it will.

There is an almighty untapped resource rumbling beneath Moscow, and it isn’t oil. For the time being, the milk of human kindness just lies in wait.

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

  Howard Saunders   Oct 04, 2017   Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More
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