YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING

Kids ruin Christmas. It’s not their fault, of course, but as November drags to its drizzly demise the world inexplicably switches into kiddy mode. Every shop, every advert, every programme and every song addresses us as if we’ve just turned six: fully grown TV presenters grin toothily in tinsel covered pixie hats explaining things in over enunciated tones as if their audience is thumb-sucking and nodding in agreement. Even our much lauded Christmas ads have become unbearably cutesy as a parade of lovable fire-breathing dragons (John Lewis) animated carrots (Aldi) animated dogs (Costa) or simply Disney characters lifted directly from Frozen (Iceland) are splurged across our screens in a tidal wave of diabetes-inducing drivel. And as if to add insult to injury, our ‘leaders’, our pathetic politicians promise us an ever-lengthening list of things we’re as likely to witness as Santa’s fat arse in our fake fireplace.

So, partly to escape my homegrown Yuletide blues I hopped across to Salzburg for advent weekend in search of the true spirit of Christmas. (And even though I tweeted my intentions I had no idea that I would actually find it! More of that later.)

Salzburg old town is ridiculously cute too, but in a grown up, stein-clinking kinda way. The Christmas markets have not been plundered by filterless-fag smoking reprobates and street-hustlers, and are instead largely owned by local families. And they’re not all selling the same imported plastic shite either. Each stall has a respectful, symbiotic relationship with its neighbours. The bauble connoisseur is adjacent to the knick-knackery, the miniature figurine specialist is flanked by a lantern stall and a flavoured oil salesman. They segment by colour too, with one stand selling wares in shades of white to contrast with next door’s rich reds and golds. There’s also a fair slice of religious iconography, this being the historical centre of the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic Church turned up the volume on all that icon stuff. (The ‘Altstadt’ alone is home to 27 churches) I found this unusually refreshing, coming from an uber-secular city where religious iconography is avoided like, err, a religion.

Having browsed, nibbled and Gluhweined a good half dozen advent markets I decided to take a break from all the jollity and go for a Sunday walk, because well, it was Sunday. After half an hour’s staggering up the stupidly steep stone steps just across from the Mozartsteg Bridge, I seriously began to question my sanity. At each ‘landing’ where I paused to wheeze noisily, another stretch of stairs would appear as if I’d been trapped in some impossible Escher etching. Finally I reached, surprise surprise, yet another church, but I still felt Kapuzinerberg Hill remained uncharted, despite its managed pathways and clear signs. And so this huffing, puffing pioneer marched onward and upward. Very upward. 

Occasionally I came across another idiot coming downhill through the forest towards me, presumably from somewhere, so I pushed on. Heroically I parted bracken and bravely stepped over a few perilous boulders until finally, thank god, the slope softened into a level clearing. Snuggled into the crest of the hill sat a stone lodge with the spittle-rich name ‘Franziskischlossl’. I approached cautiously, pulling back a dark blue velvet curtain behind the weighty wooden door. I felt like one of the Wise Men arriving at the stable, for yes, I had just discovered the true spirit of Christmas! Below me, nestled in a courtyard way above the city, looking down along the majestic Salzach, was a small band of Christmas hunters just like me. A motley crew of walkers and respectful revellers were gathered around an open fire pit, drinking Sporer hot orange punch and Stiegl beer. I’m sure I‘d have heard the angels singing Halleluja, if ‘Last Christmas’ hadn’t been playing.

Here, my friends, is the real Christmas spirit. It’s not in the shimmering, shop windows, nor is it on the faces of those infantile TV presenters or even in the heartstring tugging supermarket ads . You won’t find it on Amazon, Twitter or Youtube, and you certainly won’t find it on Instagram. You can’t even Google it. No, the true spirit of Christmas is tucked away, often where you’d least expect it, in simple places where like-minded strangers gather around a fire to clink glasses and wish each other well.

Please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rantings and musings

  Howard Saunders   Dec 11, 2019   Brand, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE WOKE OLYMPICS

The race for brands to parade their PC credentials is well underway! Gillette dashed to the front of the pack by showing us it was more interested in curing toxic masculinity than selling razorblades, but dropped back suddenly after it lost $8 billion in sales. Turns out blokes don’t like being called misogynists. A close shave indeed.  

Surprisingly, the enthusiasm for hopping on the outrage bandwagon has lost none of its momentum. Just like the way poor Taylor Swift was bullied to come out for one side or the other, brands must now decide if they are left or right, right on or stuck in the mud, Democrat or Republican. Brands, like the rest of us, have been dragged into the bear pit of the Twittersphere and the landscape in which they can express themselves, their Overton window if you like, has shrunk to a pinhole. You’re either with us, or against us.

Stuff we bought to shave with, or wash our knickers with, has grown a twenty first century conscience. In a world in which we have everything we need, a brand cannot simply offer us more stuff. In fact, this misunderstanding is largely responsible for the demise of our high streets and shopping centres. They were built on the premise that we needed to buy things to keep our mundane lives trundling along. They made the aisles wide and linear so that we could grab and go once we’d located what we were looking for. Product categories were announced in fonts bolder than motorway signs, as if we were all moving at seventy miles per hour. And in a sense we were. We dashed in and rushed back to the car before the ticket expired and our people carrier was towed away for ransom. How simple life was back then.

Where was I? Ah yes. Brands have realised they cannot carry on as if it were 1985, and so have evolved from being smiley, helpful and value-for-money, into fully grown, cynical adults with issues, consciences and axes to grind. In short: woke. In the rush of revelation some have joined the outrage hunters, pushing to the front of the melee in a desperate search for things to be shocked by. This then, is the new landscape for brands and we can expect it to intensify over the next few years. 

But you do know they’re faking it right? You do realise their pretend outrage and loud baying noises are for the purpose of deflection, lest the mob turn on them? An orchestrated distraction to avoid the laser beam of outrage homing in on their own transgressions, whether they be plastic packaging, pollution, landfill, low wages or waste. Like teenage bullies, woke brands are eager to elbow to the front of the mob in the name of progressivism. And who is against progressivism?

The problem is, in its rush to kick at the wicked establishment patriarchy, the mob is forced to edge forward, becoming ever more outraged and angry with the status quo. Egged on by a mainstream media exercising its last gasp for glory, too many of society’s strongest, deepest foundations are getting damaged along the way, sometimes irreparably. 

The frenzy of the mob, you see, can bring out the worst in us. All of a sudden, those quiet, conventional, harmless types see their opportunity to exert a little control. Very quickly, what considered itself a libertarian movement finds itself fuelled by an authoritarian impulse, one that wants to close down, ban, censor and admonish. The impulse that fights for women’s rights, for instance, swiftly morphs into something that’s distinctly anti-male. The push for racial equality, likewise, can so easily become discriminatory. Logic would suggest that the same libertarian instinct that campaigned for gay marriage and sexual equality would be against censorious regulation, but the reverse is true. Libertarianism and authoritarianism, once at opposite ends of the spectrum, have become fused in a kind of Alice in Wonderland nightmare. A new puritanism has infected the liberal mindset and its effects are serious.

And so, armed with this newfound pc superpower, the Advertising Standards Authority has waded into the mire to ban images it deems un-woke, things it doesn’t want you to see. We’ve all read about it: with the aim of discouraging gender stereotypes, the ASA banned a Volkswagen ad showing a young mother, sitting on a park bench alongside a pram. Once upon a time ‘motherhood and apple pie’ represented all that was good and wholesome with the world. Today, the ASA finds motherhood demeaning, something that might hamper a girl’s ambition and life chances. Shrug all this off as a slice of summer madness whipped up creamy by Daily Mailers by all means, but I believe it deserves a serious pause for thought: our regulatory bodies have decided that motherhood is wrongthink. It’s pretty obvious that a society that finds motherhood embarrassing or demeaning won’t last very long.

It’s important we don’t add to the hysteria, but at the same time, we cannot pretend everything is just fine. It’s blindingly obvious that brands are tip-toeing around convention, sweating over showing a heterosexual nuclear family with clearly gendered offspring, or a sexually attractive female for fear of being labelled regressive or bigoted. Humour that pokes fun at anything cultural, gender-based, racial or religious has been off-limits for so long that we’ve grown used to advertising’s mediocre glumness. But the prohibition of gender stereotypes promises to make life considerably more treacherous for brands wanting to stand out from the crowd. Expect to see a lot more of the Alice in Wonderland world in which heroes, adventurers, scientists and scholars are exclusively female, where families are made up from across the sexual ‘spectrum’ and where the image of a smiling, white, middle class family is deemed harmful to society.

I know. We’re already there.

So, Mr Futurist, how does all this end, I hear you cry?

That’s easy: a mighty financial crash, obviously.

In the meantime, have a great week!

 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail musings

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2019   advertising, Brand, Future, overton, Retail, shopping   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 for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Mar 02, 2018   Brand, city, Retail, Uncategorized   1 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 for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

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

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 for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

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