xrematon

May 17, 2020

Carpe diem under duress

For a considerable part of my professional career, I worked for an organisation that aimed to help clients unlock growth. A large part of this involved thinking about being dealing with change: anticipating it, responding to it and shaping it. In those projects, a lot of energy would focus on the ‘what’ (how should we innovate; what new direction should we take to survive or thrive in the future environment; what new products or services will best meet these new needs?). In the current pandemic, there is a lot of change going on but it is not really quite the same as those snazzy and exciting consultancy projects. Now it is all too clear what is needed (more hand sanitiser, more PPE, more testing kits, more resource to get things where they should be when freedom of movement is compromised, ways to keep people happy and secure at home etc).

There are endless stories appearing of how brands and businesses are responding to the need to support the Covid 19 effort. I don’t want to list them all here but it’s interesting to see the nitty gritty details behind these glowing stories of corporate resourcefulness. Beer producer Brewdog was one of the first to ‘pivot’ (note also the new vocab we are deploying in these testing times) its operations from drinks to hand sanitiser. A blog post provides a revealing insight into what’s actually involved. ‘Due to demand, there is a real shortage of suitable types of packaging so you will need to get creative here. So far we have filled 50ml glass bottles, 100ml glass bottles, 100ml plastic bottles, 200ml plastic bottles and larger containers too. We have even filled some 110ml mini beer bottles when no other type of packaging was available.’

And here is an example of a more straightforward ‘I see a gap in the market – ‘let’s go for it’ response. Supplydrop was ‘created to supply you with everything you might want/need to thrive under lockdown.’ It has a growing range of packages, from the pamper kit, the germ killer kit, the birthday kit and the survival kit.

In my household, we have our example of flexible thinking and making do. We were due to go on holiday to Cyprus. Instead, we went there ‘at home’. For two days, we drew and cut out local birds, dotted them around the house in various locations representing different habitats, and then rounded it off with a local meal, complete with Greek salad, fresh hummus, pitta bread and halloumi, all serenaded by Greek music and under a blue sky. Almost as good as the real thing – at least we didn’t have to negotiate Stansted airport to get there!

March 14, 2020

Getting up close and personal to a real brand story

As everyone in marketing knows, these days it’s all about developing brand stories and brands with genuine purpose and strong heritage. It’s not clear that it has to be completely ‘real’ – it just has to satisfy our current craving to buy something more meaningful. And some brands have got really good at it – think about the old stalwarts Ben & Jerry or innocent, both of which started small, but have since been bought up and mass produced, whilst still riding on their credentials of being a bit more ‘indie’ than say, Heinz.

On a holiday to Ecuador last year, I had the opportunity to visit a small-scale artisanal chocolate production site. It was really low key but let me show you the end product so that we are clear the brand could genuinely hold its head up high in terms of visual and taste appeal – you will have to trust me on the latter!

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I actually really like the down-to-earth more crafty and ‘ethnic’ look to the packaging. In the UK, we don’t really see that kind of thing in chocolate. Instead, the visual codes tend to be more refined and upmarket in non-mass market chocolate – recall the minimalist matt black and white of Hotel Chocolat, the more ornate gold, greens and pinks of Prestat or the more decorative Divine.

Being on site at Mashpi meant that I was able to see for myself how the on-pack and website claims were fulfilled in reality. Walking through the plantation we were shown plants that naturally protect the cocoa plants from pesticides and whose leaves fertilise the crop. There was also a resident goat as it turns out their manure is particularly effective.

Mashpi also grows many of the ingredients it uses to create the additional flavour variations. We were shown ginger plants, the inside of the cocoa bean whose pulp is boiled up with sugar to create a kind of jam filling as well as fragrant cardamom.

The actual manufacturing process was a quixotic combination of low-tech basic stages, such as spreading out the beans to dry and then effectively baking them, to the parts which need to comply with health and safety requirements. The latter meant the use of shiny steel equipment seemly very out of place in the midst of this rainforest environment.

Let me end with an image of the actual reason we went to visit Mashpi (coming across a chocolate production site was an unexpected happy bonus!): we were there to see a very reclusive forest bird. The owners of Mashpi have managed to sort of tame this bird to come out more into the open in response to calls and offerings of grubs and other insects. Meet the ant pitta.

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December 14, 2019

Polishing up my perspective on Poland

Over the past year, I have had the privilege to be involved in a deeply fascinating pan-European project with the objective of thinking about the future of the postal sector in 2030. I was working as a part of the team from a German foresight agency and participated by attending three workshops in Paris, Bonn and Warsaw.

The project was so interesting across a whole variety of dimensions: experiencing cultural differences in discussion and social dialogue between countries and generations; different attitudes towards worker rights and protection; the manifold challenges of working with translators; understanding the importance of universal service obligations (all you folk living out in the sticks be thankful for this).

And though I work on what are ostensibly ‘international projects’ as I need to investigate, explore and explain the difference between attitudes and behaviours across different markets, such projects are vicarious. I do not live the differences. Here I did – to a certain extent.

It was only to a certain extent as a number of the aspects of my experience at the workshops did not vary hugely across markets. We stayed in large hotels catering to business travellers and which therefore tended to offer identikit services and products. Take, for example, the buffets of breakfast food from everywhere: some eggs things, some sausage meat things, some cold meats, some bakery and other bread bits, fruit and cereals. Likewise for the lunches, though there were some intriguing local stand-outs of varying appeal. We were in Bonn at the start of October and every single meal (bar breakfast) included the seasonal offering of pumpkin in some form or other (soup, in ravioli, in stew etc), whilst in France, there were macaroons (better) and in Poland, well, it was lots of beetroot (fine but not in excess).

But perhaps the most interesting learning was a realisation that Poland, beyond the beetroot and the rather extraordinary socio-realist architecture, is really going places. I am so used to thinking about Europe as a mature market with very slow growth and that all the whizzy GDP growth rates belong to BRICS, CIVETS and their ilk. Well, it seems that Poland is not hitting double digit growth but certainly compared to other large EU markets, it is operating in a different gear.

The trigger moment was moment was during a presentation midst workshop, when as has been customary for each of the host countries, there is a chance to show off about how brilliant their postal business is. To be honest, it’s most often about how they are managing the commonly felt challenge of mail volumes falling off a cliff whilst trying to snatch up as much as they can of the growing but much more competitive parcels business. However, in Poland, there were pronouncements about doubling revenues and huge growth in activity. To make clear how extraordinary this is, a recent annual report from Royal Mail can only talk about small incremental gains of revenue rarely in double digits.

Yes, it seems that, now I have opened my eyes to it, that Poland is the tiger of Europe. Output growth reached 4.6 percent last year, compared with 2.5 percent for the European Union as a whole, unemployment has dropped to a record low of 4.4 percent. Many other EU states would envy this performance. Poland has reaped the fruits of opening up and liberalising its economy, as well as benefiting from its particular attributes of a large educated population (admittedly somewhat depleted by all those who disappeared off to the UK – probably on their way back now) and its location as being the first EU country Asia encounters as it moves West, and more.

However, some have concerns that this has come at a hidden cost and does not represent sustainable growth or wealth creation. In an interview in October last year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki commented, ‘We have sold pretty much all of our economy. Money is being sucked out of the country, “transferred every year in the form of dividends or interest on capital, interest on loans, deposits and current accounts.”

From now on, I shall make sure that I stay up to date with the next stage in Poland’s development.

PS Did I forget to mention the dumplings?!

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August 26, 2019

Choice or no choice – which path to take to make all the difference?

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I think we are used to the idea – in fact take it for granted – that we can make choices across many different aspects of our life, going from the routine, such as choice of breakfast cereal, to the more significant, such as choice of school or doctor.

In an earlier journal entry, I highlighted the extent of choice now available in the world of pensions. And what I wanted to emphasise was that this choice is full of complexity and very hard to navigate. There is, in fact, an argument for saying that, in certain situations, individuals and/or society might be better off if choice was removed and the default made the only option.

In the world of sustainability, which is another area full of difficult choices hard for the layman to accurately evaluate in terms of what is best for them or the planet, similar dynamics are at play. In some cases, it is ‘better’ all round to take choice away and put the ‘best option’ as the default. Free-range eggs are now sold in greater volumes than cage-farmed ones in the UK, in large part because major players, from retailers, such as Sainsburys, to food service operators and manufacturers, for example Hellmann’s mayonnaise from Unilever to MacDonalds, have gone free-range, reducing demand for caged eggs.

In pensions, both the share and absolute number of people saving into a pension has increased massively. This is not to do with more choice but a default option being brought in – namely auto-enrolment. And now there are plans to introduce ‘choice reduction’ in other elements of the retirement journey. As part of a recent extensive review of retirement outcomes, the FCA proposed that pension providers offer non-advised customers a choice of four investment pathways to best meet their retirement objectives – much simpler than having to work out if/how much money to take out now or later and what/how to save for later.

In other tricky markets, such as energy and other utilities where consumers can switch and choose but often don’t, other developments are afoot. In October 2018, Ofgem announced that it would be introducing price caps. This has meant that suppliers have to cut their prices to the level of or below the cap, forcing them to scrap excess charges for people on poor value default deals. https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/ofgem-proposes-price-cap-give-11-million-customers-fairer-deal-their-energy

In the face of increasing use of defaults and market intervention, strengthening the paternalistic perspective (‘we know best’), has peak choice had its moment?

 

June 22, 2019

Totemic objects

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Things are never just ‘things’, are they?

There are some objects that manage to transform daily life into something very different to what was happening before they appeared on the scene. Now it would be very tempting to call out the internet here but not only is that not really ‘a thing’ (it’s too big and messy to be that), I am not actually sure it has radically changed my everyday life experience. As someone who grew up with a childhood that was internet-free and only encountered email, web browsers and more in early adulthood, I have to point out that I still seem to be living in a house built with bricks with tiles on the roof, with a car in the drive, a fridge in the kitchen full of the same kind of foods etc. Perhaps I might feel differently in a couple of decades.

No, I was thinking more of the objects found in Tim Harford’s book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. The book starts with the plough, which is a particularly striking example of a catalyst for change: as the author claims, it was the plough that kick started civilisation in the first place. The plough made farming much more efficient, thereby freeing up a large proportion of the population to do other activities and specialise in these, whether baking bread, building houses, constructing bridges and roads – in other creating civilisation. In addition, the agricultural abundance that existed as a result (people were no longer foragers living at subsistence levels), meant powerful people could confiscate food and thus reinforce their power. This enabled the rise of kings and soldiers, bureaucrats and priests etc to live off the work of others.

The plough also changed domestic arrangements. Ploughing was awkward and required men’s strength, whilst the wheat and rice grown required more preparation than nuts and berries, which became women’s work at home. And as these women were no longer out and about foraging all day, they were more able to look after little children and thus had more frequent pregnancies. This was supported by the guaranteed good supply of food, helping to increase population size significantly.

And that’s not all – there are other impacts set in play which are perhaps less positive: switching from foraging to eating grain was actually less nutritious and average height dropped, whilst living more closely with many other people increased the chance of disease, parasites and other challenges to good health.

That’s a lot from just a plough.

There are other types of objects which are notable not for what they trigger but for what they represent. This came through very clearly in an interesting piece from Vox on the rise of granny panties and why this happened. It’s about a number of different things: the rejection of hypersexualisation, the rise of female empowerment (you can wear what you want and feel good), the advent of new garment technology permitting seamless underwear, reinvented granny panties can be also folded into the athleisure movement as women now look for comfortable clothes suitable for everything from working in an office to working. It’s about more than ‘just underwear’.

What totemic object would you want to put on a pedestal?

April 23, 2019

The future was present – at the V&A

Was it really? The above is a mangled abbreviation of a quote from sci-fi author William Gibson. The full version (“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”) is much beloved of people who work in ‘futures thinking’ (I’m avoiding the labels ‘futurists’ and ‘futurologists’).  Occasionally, yes, this statement does come through as a pretty good way of looking at the world.

My latest reinforcement of its validity came when I visited a recent exhibition at the V&A rather impressively titled ‘The Future Starts Here – 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow’. I record my impressions through a series of observations.

Firstly, I should acknowledge that it was a good excuse to go to the V&A and inspect the new entrance – a rather interesting mixture of textures with different shades of white stone, as well as some fine wood structures (but those was only temporary, I think).

Then there was the descent into the exhibition space itself – a dark area with no natural daylight – is that telling about what is envisioned for the future? But luckily there was lots of lighting and colour to bring out the exhibits around which you gradually wound your way.

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Unsurprisingly, there were the obligatory techie items – robots, AI, smart objects that capture and analysis data – but also, later on, objects which are low-tech versions of the technologies we now have come to rely on – phones and internet access. I applaud a view of the future which sees the need for regression as well as progression in innovation.

There were a fair number of objects which were familiar to me, either the items themselves or the core concepts behind them. Examples include a restaurant setting meant to be inviting to the increasing number likely to be living ‘single’ and thus wanting to be able to eat out alone without feeling uncomfortable. There was also a bottle of Soylent on the table too – not sure about that one.

There was also a special personal cleansing care range, designed in response to the fact we now go to considerable effort to stay very clean and effectively remove all bacteria and dirt from the skin, despite the fact, just like the inside of our bodies, our skin also relies on good bacteria to be healthy. Hence the need for Motherdirect, which uses special bacteria called AOB (Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria) to help convert the irritating components of sweat and turn them into beneficial byproducts like Nitrite and Nitric Oxide, which help to calm and soothe the skin.

Motherdirt was an item that is already being commercialised. There were some exhibits that have been in existence – conceptually at least – for many years but as a completed project, remain indefinitely in the future. See here a fabulous city – clean and smart – which uses the latest technologies and will be completely powered by the sun, or something like that.

dubai city

There were objects that are more about hope than rigorous assessments of what might be possible in the future. In contrast to the shiny technology devices, one case contained the pink ‘pussy hat’ which was developed to make a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity in support of women’s rights and against Trump, ideally to be worn at the Women’s Marches that have taken place in numerous countries in recent months. Yes, a symbol for hope because Trump is still around and who knows how much has actually changed for women?

My final observation is very simple – I have chosen it to illustrate the fact that looking ahead into the future, we have to recognise that actually lots of how we live we still be very similar. There are certain aspects of everyday living which are remarkably resistant to change, in particular what we eat and drink. There was an exhibit displaying a coffee machine designed by Lavazza to allow people in space to still be able to have a good cup of coffee. Probably quite important actually!

 

November 20, 2018

Get real!

Though almost one pound in every six is spent online in the UK and despite the fact I have already written a post lauding the internet, I think that engaging in consumer activity with real human interaction, face to face or on the phone, still has a lot going for it. Let me justify my perspective with three bits of evidence / recently experienced examples.

Firstly, the boring but perhaps surprising nugget of evidence. With the shift to the virtual world, many have proclaimed the end of all things physical. Whilst this may be happening with many forms of media, books are challenging these lazy assumptions. Sales of physical books are expected to grow modestly, by about 1 percent annually, every year. And it seems that ebooks, in whatever form, just aren’t so exciting any more. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-book sales in 2017 fell for the third consecutive year, off 4.7 percent from 2016, to $1.1 billion from $1.16 billion.

Second, let me tell you about my beloved oven, which recently broke down beyond repair. I did the necessary research online in order to get a sense of the different options out there and what kind of deals and promotions were available. Before I made the purchase, I did a quick call to the online retailer, ao, I had selected. Having worked through my various questions with the person at the end of the phone, instead of making the purchase online, I was identified as a repeat customer (my washing machine broke several months ago – not sure I can cope with any more domestic disaster), and without asking or prompting, I was offered a £15 discount. This unexpected bonus would not have been granted if I had gone online only.

My third example comes from a trip to the great extravaganza that is Bird Fair. As hinted in a previous post, I live in a household of keen birders and Bird Fair is the place to go for individuals of this inclination. Though there is obviously lots of activity online in the world of birding, including the indispensable Rare Bird Alert app to keep track of unexpected species appearing somewhere in the British Isles, as well as Whatsapp groups to keep communities of interest in the loop, going to the Fair brought particular advantages. It allowed us to visit stands and ask people the type of questions you ask when you are face to face – more informal, less structured, with immediate follow-up, more effective often than a time-symmetric drawn-out drip-flow of an email thread. You could look people in the eye to see if you trust them with lots of money for a Big Birding Trip. We managed to get binoculars repaired for free, something that would have been very unlikely to happen otherwise. And I haven’t even mentioned the lectures and talks on a whole variety of diverse topics, ranging from ‘Why birdwatching isn’t just a man’s world’ to ‘An introduction to the avian riches of North West Ecuador’ and ‘Why you should never ever write a field guide’ (surprisingly gripping).

Here’s an entertaining bonus photo: of all the different recycling bins at the Fair! But there still were some I felt to be lacking, namely for food. We’ll have to go back next year to see if that is addressed – amongst other pleasures.

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September 19, 2018

Change in the financial sector – three observations

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to dabble in numerous projects for FMCG clients. Recently, however, this pattern has shifted and I have worked on several projects in the financial services sector, giving me a chance to engage with the challenges and dynamics impacting this sector.

Across all areas of commercial activity, there is increasing focus on innovation. In mature markets, growth is slow and it seems that the best opportunities to deliver against revenue targets come from not simply tweaking the existing but taking a fresh approach. When it comes to the financial sector, innovation is undeniably taking place, but a lot of this is driven by the external context, rather than established players deciding for themselves to do things differently. How money is managed is changing rapidly – thanks to changes in technology and the accompanying shifts in consumer expectations and habits. What is most interesting of all is the way that this new of ‘doing things’ is most apparent in emerging and developing markets, with mature markets lagging often behind.

Think about mobile money – this initially got going in Kenya. And now look at where the most sophisticated mobile payment ecosystems exist – there are in China. In mature markets, we are hobbled by our legacy systems which make switching to quicker and more convenient processes hard. Moving to contactless payment didn’t require waiting for the technology to be invented (that was around a long while ago); the delay came from having enough retailers who had installed the pay points that could accept this payment method. In emerging markets, it has been possible to build the infrastructure from scratch, using only the latest and best, which can work seamlessly across all types of digital processes and systems.

Mature markets are not only behind the curve in innovation. Some might argue there is a backlash as well as momentum to maintain the status quo. In an article earlier this year, Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, mentioned that she does not use contactless payment cards for personal spending – in part because she is yet to trust the technology completely. In Sweden, though the country is making rapid progress towards becoming the world’s first completely cashless society, there are growing concerns it is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, as well as recognition that phasing out coins and notes could put the entire country at risk should Sweden encounter a serious crisis or war.

My final observation relates to how our relationship with money, and those organisations whom we talk to about money, is changing in the core fundamentals. In the UK, being able to buy a house is not a realistic aspiration for those in early adulthood. First-time buyers now wait longer – on average, they are seven years older than in 1960, and likely to be in their late thirties. In the face of this situation, some decide they will simply rent. Likewise, buying a car no longer seems such a critical entry milestone to adult life. Instead, there is great aspirational appeal in not being tied down, and instead taking the opportunity to experience life and work in a more flexible manner. I paint an extreme picture but only to bring out what challenges this presents for financial organisations.

If people are no longer buying houses or cars, gone is their opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with customers by providing them a mortgage or loan; if people are not slotting into standard regular jobs, gone is the opportunity to have salaries deposited in a nice and steady manner to build up bank capital; and with a desire to travel and focus on experiences, gone is the need for credit cards and other vehicles to facilitate spending.

It is a world for the brave, with the greatest innovation found not quite where and how you might expect it.

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April 21, 2018

Hairy business

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Futures,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:34 pm
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Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in the ‘personal care’ category – think all things hair, skin and other forms of beauty care.

Now, my first learning was actually that I had a lot to learn. Unlike food, where I not only have done many pieces of work over the years, but I am also deeply personally engaged given that I generally cook from scratch at least 10 meals a week, for personal care, I have limited exposure. I have bought the same brand of shampoo for the past 25 years and the same brand of facial cream for the past ten, and apart from other bare essentials (toothpaste and deodorant), I’m done. I have in effect opted out of some whole categories – make-up, more sophisticated hair care, treatments and styling and skin care (the latter, I realise now, is a particularly bit gap given that I am of the age when I should spending a good proportion of my disposable income on anti-ageing products. (For the record, I am currently relying on addressing wrinkles from within by eating lots of avocadoes).

But it turns out that personal care is a fascinating category which has some dynamics it shares with food and some which are quite specific to personal care. Let’s start with the similarity:

Personal care and food are both deeply influenced by the local cultural context. How and what we eat will, to a certain extent, vary depending on where we are: in the US, the UK and increasingly Europe, we shop from supermarkets and are happy to a certain amount of ready-made foods, going from dried pasta and bread all the way through to ready meals, and the food we eat will be quite diverse with many non-native items. In other countries, there are often stronger food cultures and more variety within that culture of food, for example think of all the different types of curry in Asia, but curry will still dominant, with fast food nibbling away at the edges.

In personal care too there are culturally-dependent preferences, for example beauty regimes in Asia are more complex and a lot of effort going into achieving fair skin. Interestingly one might argue, that just as with food, there is starting to be some globalisation/less variation across geographies. Think of the impact of social media on the convergence of aspirational aesthetics – everyone wants to look as lovely and beautiful as the Duchess of Cambridge or Meghan Markle etc.

However, there are important differences between the dynamics of food and personal care.

A key one is the direction of influence. In food, though we have ‘hot’ food cuisines, which become trendy for a year or two, for example it was Korean recently, but perhaps the crown has now gone to Scandi food, in general, food is becoming more ‘Westernised’. By this I mean that people are cooking less from scratch, there is greater consumption of processed and ready-prepared food, people’s food routines are changing with more snacking, whether to fill hunger gaps between meals or to replace meals entirely. And that’s not to mention the irresistible temptations of delights such as burgers, pasta and pizza.

In personal care, in particular beauty and skin care, the more interesting ‘stuff’ tends to be happening in the East first, in particular countries such as Korea and Japan, where people are willing to invest considerable time, money and effort into looking after their appearance. Fancy a 12-step skin-care regime anyone? It is from this region that the BB cream came, now a major staple in the beauty product world, as well as many other weird and wonderful products, such as syringe face-masks (not quite as dramatic as they sound!). So look East for beauty tips!

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March 21, 2018

Can graphic design save your life?

Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?

This is the arresting title of an exhibition I saw at the Wellcome Collection. It was a more interesting experience than I had expected, but I am not convinced I would answer ‘yes’ to the exhibition’s opening question.

Do you remember those iconic Silk Cut print adverts from the 1980s?

Silk cut

Well, that’s what the exhibition started with – adverts to be admired for the way in which creativity was used to circumvent restrictions on advertising. This, in effect, is graphic design that brings you closer to the end of your life.

However, after this, the exhibits were centred on communications from the world of healthcare, and not just for patients, but also for would-be medics. The latter was covered by excerpts from text books and teaching manuals which were closer to works of art than academic material, as the below images suggest.

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design body

What struck me most about the exhibits of medicines and other health products is the way in which they reflect the best in lowest common denominator communication approaches. The pill boxes below make it very clear what consumer need they are responding to. I have seen a similar approach used by smoothies and herbal infusions, which pitch specific products as the solution for a particular moment, whether it is the search for an invigorating uplift or a soothing experience.

design pill boxes

One area getting increasing interest as a way to increase public health is behavioural economics – for example making ‘good’ products easier to get hold of, whether this is about making them more visible or accessible on a shelf, or making the default option the ‘good’ one. Behavioural economics wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but graphic design could be used in partnership with behavioural design to up the ‘oomph’ factor of a piece of communication or instruction.

And finally, it’s worth noting that it was a refreshing experience to think about paper and packaging which didn’t come alive. If the exhibition was repeated in 10 years’ time, it would be about how augmented and virtual reality can save your life!

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