Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Experience Pass

It's a bit alarming to think that I first went ski-ing 40 years ago. But maybe less alarming to think that I'm still keeping it up, with a trip or two almost every year. There have been huge changes, of course, in that time - with the equipment for a start. Skis are short and light and nippy these days, and boots warm and hi-tech and moulded to your feet if you so desire. It's difficult to spot someone without a helmet these days. And let's not get on to the fashions.

The lifts, too, have changed beyond recognition. When I started, there were drag lifts, single chairs or double (like the one above) if you were lucky, and a packed cable car to get everyone up from the valley. These days, chairlifts and gondolas have heated seats and probably Glühwein service.

In all this, we don't think much about the once-humble lift pass. These used to be a bit of card with your photo, which the lift operators checked manually to allow you on the lift, or not. But these days, the lift pass has evolved into more of an Experience Pass.

In combination with the SmartPhone, or even without, the lift pass can get you a printout at the end of the day about how many km you've skied, how many lifts you've used and many other metrics. If you wave the thing around at various photo locations, you don't even have to fumble around in gloveless hands for your camera or phone - holiday snaps will be delivered as though by magic.

All of this reminds me about how marketing people are talking about cities in the context of future mobility and urbanisation. Look at Urban-X (a MINI-backed start-up) for example who are 'Engineering the City as a Service' and whose Mission is:

We believe in a world of abundant, accessible technology that connects and empowers urban life. We believe every city will be a platform upon which the tools of the metropolis will be built. We are Engineering the City as a Service to meet the challenges of rapid global urbanization. We will achieve this via hardware and software that provide necessary infrastructure, technologies, products, and services.”


A ski-resort is, of course, a microcosm of a city, brimming with early adopters, be it for the latest ski equipment or the latest technology.

But in all of this connection and participation and technology, I wonder if something gets lost. I love the action and bonhomie of a ski holiday as much as the next one, but I also love the silence of the mountains.

It's telling that the strapline on the Ischgl website is almost portentous: Relax. If you can ...

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy Anniversary, Darling

In 2017, I will celebrate – if that is the right word – ten years with Facebook. No doubt Facebook will let me know about this in no uncertain terms when the momentous day arrives. A video with plinky-plink John Lewis commercial-type music will appear, showcasing my most-liked photos, statuses, posts, shares, my best friends, most important memories and maybe a few suggestions for new friends – other folk who joined Facebook on the very same day. Wow.

Ten years in the traditional anniversary calendar is the tin anniversary. In literature – children’s literature at least – tin is tied up with characters who appear human, or humanoid, but are found wanting in the emotion department. Or are they? There’s the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz who goes off in search of a heart. And the Steadfast Tin Soldier who yearns for the (similarly) one-legged ballerina and after a series of misadventures ends up cast into the fire, his melted remains forming the shape of a heart. The mystery of tin, the paradox of something non-human which nevertheless has the capacity for yearning seems central to my relationship with Facebook. But more of that later.

Do you remember the first time you went on Facebook? No, I don’t either, but then again I don’t remember the first time I went on the internet, sent an email or watched TV for that matter. It’s a different kind of thing to knowing where you were when you heard the news about Kennedy, or Princess Di, or your pick of the celebrities that have bitten the dust this year.

However, Facebook has an answer to all that in that I can easily look it up and see what I posted. Excuse me just a second while I hop into Safari and find out.


Well, it’s disappointing. My first status was as follows: ‘out all day researching and IKEA-ing.’ The second: ‘working at home: last day of school today!’ The third is an attempt at wittiness: ‘half watching Live earth, half watching Tour de France and half baking birthday cake! Too many halves don’t make a whole.’

My first year on Facebook contains all the social media behaviour I love to hate in others. The first photo gallery is a carefully edited collection of shots of a family holiday hiking in the Austrian Alps. There are humble brags (‘doing a 10km run/stagger today’), not so humble brags (‘off to documenta on Monday’) and vaguebooking (‘mortified’ – with no further explanation). And there are photos of homemade cakes. Lots of photos.

In my defence, I was just trying it all out. I had 38 friends, and they were all people I knew, face-to-face. We were early-ish adopters, and although it wasn’t quite as shiny and new as thefacebook in 2005 (‘an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges’), it felt like a private playpen for overgrown students. On my profile from the time, three lines seem to sum up the 2007 ethos of Facebook:
‘Send Susan a flower’
‘Write on my FunWall’
‘Susan has 3 beers.’

But perhaps the oddest aspect of 2007 Facebook is the complete absence of links to other websites.

I won’t deny that Facebook has been a huge boon to me socially. I’ve resumed contact with so many old school friends. I’ve become closer to pals in far-flung areas of the globe, to whom contact had previously been limited to the annual Christmas card. On top of that, using Facebook has enhanced my writing, through contact with other authors, promoting my books and maybe the most fun part: researching. I have joined all manner of obscure interest groups with gay abandon, from ‘The Gloster Meteor Appreciation Society’ to ‘RAF Steamer Point, Aden.’ It’s all there, at the click of a key.

Having said that, I do sometimes yearn (in a steadfast tin soldier type of way) for the early days of Facebook – or even the pre-Facebook days. Douglas Coupland ‘misses his pre-internet brain’ and I’m there, too. Not because of what Facebook is, but because of what it has become: an echo chamber where views and angles on stories are homogenous, exacerbated by an annoying recent development of inserting 'posts you may like' into my news feed. I presume this is the way Facebook want to cheat the ad blocker.

It goes back to the change in the way we use the internet. In the 90s, a few intrepid souls were surfing - adventurous, dangerous, even, and not for everyone. By the early 2000s, the pace had slowed down somewhat, from surfing to stumbling. The internet had become a giant, but rather jolly, obstacle course with people good-naturedly bumbling around and occasionally tripping up on something interesting.

And the last ten years? Sometimes it takes being away from something to notice changes that are, to the rest of us, imperceptible. Which is precisely what happened to blogger Hossein Derakhshan, author of a thought-provoking and very readable article: The Web We Have To Save

Derakhshan was imprisoned, in Iran, for his blogging among other things, between 2008 and 2014.  In the article, he points out a number of developments that have taken place on the internet during his incarceration, but that with the greatest impact is the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As he says, ‘lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there.’  Social media is characterised by what Derakhshan calls The Stream – ‘...getting fed a never-ending flow of information that's picked for them by complex - and secretive - algorithms.’ He adds: ‘... and not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we've already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.’

This is a fundamentally important point. People want an easy life and they want to be entertained. Nothing wrong in that except when it's to the exclusion of the way people used the internet, predominantly, ten or fifteen years ago: ‘The web was not envisaged as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.’

The very expression ‘newsfeed’ says it all – Facebook and other social media are feeding people a pre-determined (or is it pre-digested?) stream of pap and bile. Calling it ‘curated’ doesn't make it any better. When I look at my Facebook newsfeed with its fake news, ‘You Will Be Amazed’ and ‘People Are Sharing This Incredible Tweet’ articles, big shouty font, witch hunts, ill-informed opinions, rants, photos whose captions plainly don’t match the visuals (usually posted by people who should know better), strangely homogenised language and expressions (that most people wouldn’t dream of using in normal speech), angry outbursts and tantrums interspersed with unnaturally fluffy puppies and kittens and adverts that ‘Will Make You Cry,’ the bullying, the boasting, the boring and the begging – then I do sometimes wish I had never signed up for this. It takes me back to my university days and the idea of a homunculus.

A sensory or motor homunculus figure shows proportionately how much of the cortex area is taken up by various body parts. If you’ve ever seen one of these little characters, you’ll notice that it’s recognisable as a human figure (just) but some parts are distended or atrophied in comparison to reality. The overall effect is grotesque. This is, perhaps, the relationship that my Facebook newsfeed bears to what is really going on out there.

Derakhshan’s article is now 2 years old, and maybe it took the double-whammy of Brexit and Trump to punch his points, and the phrase ‘echo chamber’ into the public consciousness. I hope it will also prompt a return to proper journalism, rather than a lazy regurgitation of someone else’s digital diarrhoea (couldn’t resist that visceral mixed metaphor, sorry.)

And my answer to all this? Am I going to continue my relationship with Facebook? Well, yes and no. What I really want to do is change my attitude to Facebook.

I must stop anthropomorphizing Facebook. Facebook, as such, is inanimate. It has no heart and no soul, and never will have. It does not even yearn for a heart in a strange Tin Man sort of way. It does not annoy me deliberately, it does not spy on me, it does not tell me things, it does not manipulate the way I think. Nor does it know my innermost feelings.

Facebook is a digital platform. No more, no less. It’s a medium in the same way that the TV is a medium, or the radio. A medium that everyone in the world potentially has access to (except the countries that ban it, but that’s a whole other story.)

I can choose which people I connect with via Facebook, and if I don’t like their opinions, I can switch them off, in the same way we used to switch off the TV, or change channels.

If you’ll allow me one last anthropomorphic metaphor in relation to Facebook, I won’t be ending our relationship in 2017, but I’ll make sure I am the one wearing the trousers.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Hello, Piccadilly

The Piccadilly Lights have to be my all time favourite outdoor advertising site. As a teenager, the Claes Oldenburg picture above was one of my favourite art works, and possibly one influence that drew me into advertising as a career.

What I love about the Piccadilly Lights is the combination of tradition and innovation, and the way this advertising site reflects the changing social, cultural and technological landscape.

The first illuminated sign in the area appeared over a century ago - for Perrier, in 1908.

In the 1930s, neon technology took over, with signs for brands such as Bovril, Schweppes and the first appearance of the famous Guinness clock.

Coca Cola first appeared in 1954, and in the 1960s, brands such as BP, Skol, Players and Cinzano had their names in lights. Here's a picture from the early 70s.

By the 80s, tech brands had taken over largely from food and drink, although McDonald's first appeared in 1987. Here's a scene from 1985.
Not all these tech brands are still with us, and as their fortunes changed, so did technology itself. In the 1990s, the lights began to go digital, and in the new millennium,  LED displays came to the fore.

The Piccadilly Lights will relaunch in late 2017 as 'the largest single digital screen in Europe' aka 'The Curve.' Participating brands will include Coca Cola, Samsung and four more. The digital LED screen will be able to do all sorts of nifty stuff - real time, co-creation, social media and all the rest.

Any guesses for how it'll all look in 2117?

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas Cheers!

As my last post before Christmas, to get into the right spirit, I thought I'd show you a rather charming piece of branded content from bygone years - the spirit of Christmas Past, if you like.

The first excuse I need to make about Gordon's Recipes for Cocktails and other Mixed Drinks is that it refuses to go digital. The little booklet has a spine as stiff as a subaltern's upper lip, and I'm certainly not going to destroy it through flattening on the scanner. It has survived (I'd estimate) sixty odd years, so that doesn't seem quite right.

It may be a little book, but it has a Big Attitude, as we'd say these days. If anyone wants to learn anything about Brand Voice, look no further:

We should, therefore, like to emphasize the fact that, to obtain the desired results, GORDON'S LONDON GIN and no other products must be used where mentioned. No other brand would be 'just as good'

When calling for your favourite Cocktail or other Gin drinks at your Club, Hotel or Bar, always specify 'With GORDON'S GIN,' ...

The little book is full of recipes, should you wonder how to make the perfect Gimlet, Gin & It or Singapore Sling. In addition, there are some delightful pictures of the product range:

No-one could accuse Gordon's of not moving with the times, either. There is even a recipe for a 'Television Special'. I wonder if the company employed an army of Trend Scouts and Insight Miners to come up with this one?
I'll end, as the little Gordon's book does, with a toast:

"Here's a toast to all who are here,
No matter where you are from:
May the best day you have ever seen
Be worse than your worst to come"

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Internet Archaeology

Do you remember the first time you went on the internet, meaning the www? I was thinking about this the other day, and I came to the rather sad conclusion that I remember it no clearly than the first time I saw TV. Maybe there are people who recall exactly which site it was, and when they did it, and the sense of wow and awe and everything else, but for me it seems to have been something of a non-event. Ditto email. Here, I can only remember impossibly long and unmemorable email addresses composed mainly of digits. It all seemed a dreadful faff compared to picking up a phone.

This must have been mid-90s at some point, although I have no idea whether it was '95 or '96, or even '94. I suspect '95, as I'm pretty sure that by the time I came to Germany, I even had an email address on my business card. Anyway, it was over 20 years ago, that's for sure.

Although I was probably 'early majority' rather than 'early adopter', I do have a pang of nostalgia for those early days. From a design point of view, the last-century websites already have an Olde Worlde charm - just take a look at some of these, including TheFacebook, Ask Jeeves, AT&T and Yahoo!

Even more fascinating are the 'antiquated websites that still exist in their natural state' - for these, have a look at the wonderful collection on 404pagefound  . It's a great name for a great site, started in 2009 by Tim Katlic and dedicated to the survivors of Web 1.0 - news sites, games, graphics, academic sites, all in their blue hyperlink, Comic Sans, black background glory!

The number of websites leapt from around 100,000 in 1996 to around 1m in 1997, and I'm grateful to Mr Katlic for his work in excavating some of those still active.

I do wonder what websites will look like in 20 years, if they still exist. Will we be talking about a post-internet world already?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Black Christmas

It's been a while since I wrote about sausages, and every time I see my blog title it's a little reminder that I should find something sausagey. So here we are - a great British brand, the man behind it and a special message for Christmas.

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones bought his farm on the Devon/Cornwall borders in 1999, following a successful career as a TV producer and director. The locals who helped him while starting out inevitably referred to him as 'The Black Farmer,' so when Mr Emmanuel-Jones had an idea for a sausage brand for those with coeliac disease (and anyone else who fancied tasty gluten-free sausages, produced with the RSPCA's assurance), this was the natural choice for the brand name.

A brave brand name, which reflects the character of its founder. The TV ad above was a co-operation with the legendary Tony Kaye, and is quite unlike any sausage commercial ever seen before, with its mix of music, poetry, flamenco, Morris dancing - and bangers.

The product range has extended beyond sausages to meatballs, burgers, chicken, bacon, eggs and cheese. In addition, Emmanuel-Jones set up The Black Farmer Scholarship to encourage young people from inner cities and ethnic minorities into farming.

The Black Farmer has so many of the qualities of a great brand: uniqueness, integrity and attitude a-plenty: 'I am black, red, white and blue.' 'I will not be confined by race, convention or tradition.'

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones has had leukaemia in recent years. The treatment has - ironically - destroyed his skin pigmentation in places. But for this Christmas, he has produced another extraordinary TV ad, this time to help raise funds for the charity Hope for Tomorrow, who provide mobile chemotherapy so people can get treatment closer to home.

Coming to your TV screens - I believe - just after the Queen's speech.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The untrendy strike back

I was amused (and a little dismayed) to read Charles' Vallance's perceptive piece in Campaign recently - Trends aren't trendy any more. Starting with the story of the hipster trendspotter who wouldn't bother interviewing Brexit voters as they "... don’t set trends, they tend to be older. They’re less experimental and don’t live in London," the article examines the rather "untrendy" but clearly happening trend of social conservatism. This mass trend underlies movements in politics and society from the knitting revival to the election of Donald Trump. 

I've already blogged about why the polls got the Brexit vote so badly wrong, and I think exactly the same dynamic happened in the US election. We don't learn.

The article addressed a number of things that have been puzzling me recently:

1. The tendency for people who work with brands and in consultancies to put their heads in the sand (or ignore the elephant in the room - choose whichever overworked African wildlife cliche you prefer) when it comes to what really drives and motivates people - the majority of everyday people, mainstream people, if you like. Because it doesn't fit with their worldview. I am against Brexit, but that doesn't stop me wanting to find out why people think, feel and vote as they do.

2. Maybe worse than the first option is consultancies who recognise this trend, and then try and sugarcoat it so it does fit their worldview, which is exactly what Trendwatching have done. This consultancy, in their 5 Trends for 2017 has made the distinction between the 'New Global Citizens' and the 'Nation Nurturers'. This latter group, or trend (it's not really clear which) will 'favo(u)r a turn inwards, seeking solace in the familiar.' Which seems all very well, but brands are warned that 'branded displays of faux patriotism won't fool consumers for long.'

Not sure. It will depend on who is defining what 'faux' is.

3. Having been a bit sniffy about  Trendwatching and their slightly naive (or is it patronising?) attitude, I must say I enjoy reading their bulletins, and those from Springwise, as well as reading 1843 magazine. Here, I can step into a bright and shiny world of apps for everything, contactless payments, smart homes and reality in at least three variations on virtual. But then I go back to my car that's 10 years old and my 'new' iPhone which is an iPhone 5, and argue with my son about the pointlessness of Spotify for someone of my age who has as many CDs as I do.

4. When I started out in this business, we used to do Group Discussions (they weren't called  Focus Groups then) in people's homes. These tended to be in very untrendy towns and suburbs at addresses that were almost impossible to find in those pre SatNav days. And I must admit I would often feel uncomfortable in those homes. There was no one-way mirror and soundproofing to hide behind and make snidey comments. As a junior from the client or agency, it was easier - you'd be passed off as the researcher's assistant and could sit there and help with the tape-recorder. But more senior clients had to be instructed on how to behave - take off their tie, don't arrive late, don't interrupt, don't snigger. Needless to say, you often heard opinions you didn't like. Not just about your brand, but about the world in general. 

The move from Group Discussions in suburban homes and face-to-face street interviews to the internet via research studios and telephone has meant that we have lost touch with the people who buy our brands. Yes, of course we can analyse Tweets and Instagram posts to see what people are saying about a brand or a market, but this is all what they choose to project, not what's really there.

And if one thing has characterised this year in marketing for me, it's a leap forward in diversity and inclusion in some respects, but a huge step back in others.

It seems these days, in the world of advertising and the media, that diversity of opinion is not welcome.