Category Archives: Marketing

Free to go shopping?

Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:

When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know?  I’m not entirely sure that we do.  I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism.  It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things.  Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got.  And in buying those things you will be happier.  Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.

To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected.  It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.

So, buying things is correlated to feeling better.  I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing.  It’s not even talked about.  It’s an unspoken narrative in our society.  It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it.  Like the sun coming up in the morning.

And to a degree that is, of course, true.  Having a new thing can be great.  You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.

But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new?  You don’t buy more or better stuff?  Typically this means you don’t have the means.  So, you’re either poor or unemployed.  Both of which are socially undesirable.  Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.

So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year.  Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.

How does that feel?  Well, pretty good.  Which isn’t supposed to be the case.  Right?  If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse.  Right?  I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?

Absolutely not.


So, what do I feel about not buying stuff?  Unburdened by the need to.  Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it.  Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got.  Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do.  Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’

But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.

 Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free?  The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’  I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money).  However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.

This is vitally important distinction.

So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping.  But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want?  I am free to choose the blue one or the red one.  Nike or adidas.  Apple or Sony.  Toyota or Honda.  And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.

Buy to make you happy.  I’m free to choose which one I do buy.

However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place.  Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?

This is not a question that is posed by our society.  At all.  Consider the evidence.  All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays.  They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options.  The Ultimate Driving Machine.  Washes Whiter.  Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach.  They are all pushing the same thing.  That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.

Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?

I can’t think of any.

So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom.  If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?

I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free.  We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option.  Buy to make you happy.

I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest.  That would be stupid.  Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier.  But does that sixth pair of jeans?  It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.

I think this is really fascinating.  We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.

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You are the most important person who has ever lived

Was talking to some students the other day and remembered that great John Berger quote about advertising – ‘Advertising sells you an unobtainable future’.  Just because Wayne Rooney wears Nike boots doesn’t mean that you’ll play like Wayne Rooney if you wear Nike boots.

Anyway, I’m currently doing some work with WWF around their ‘Think of me as evil?’ report and in it, it talks about the fact that a large amount of advertising appeals to ‘extrinsic’ values – namely it encourages us to be concerned with status and our outward appearance.  This is in opposition to ‘intrinsic’ values which are linked to being concerned with each other and the environment.  Broadly.  This makes intuitive sense, but what’s the reality?  So I decided to take a walk down the street and find out.  So, in a sort of GCSE Media Studies analysis, here’s what I saw.

There was a lot of, what can be regarded as ‘neutral’ messaging, just told you what’s available.  So, stuff like:

Okay, then I can buy that – it’s sort of ‘Just The Facts’ kind of work.  It’s public announcement advertising from the commercial world.  But, what about that extrinsic stuff?

As it turns out, there was quite a lot, so here’s just three:

Ummm, so, buy this hair colour and it ‘transforms’ you.  Really?  If I was being generous I could say that it’s true – it transforms your hair colour.  But, I think it’s fair to say that it’s trying to say a fair bit more than that.  But maybe it can.  Maybe changing your hair colour can transform you into a different person.

Next up is the end-line on a bus side for Pandora jewelry.  Buy Pandora and you are promised an Unforgettable Moment.  So, let’s be generous again.  Let’s say the most likely opportunity for that to be true is when someone buys it for someone else and in the act of giving it, it could be an Unforgettable Moment  i.e. the same strategy as a diamond ring when you ask for someone’s hand in marriage.  But, it’s not a diamond and it’s not asking a hand in marriage.  So, can that be true?   I think that Pandora is writing cheques it can’t cash (or at least guarantee) there.  It’s definitely closer to the ‘unobtainable future’ there, I’d say.

But, my personal favourite was this, for Venture portraits:

Run that by me again?  Your current family situation is the ‘most important story ever told’.   So, more important than ‘War and Peace’, the story of mankind, anything by Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran or the life story of Ghandi or Mandela or any other historically significant figure or even the person standing next to you?  Your family contains the ‘most important story ever told’.  Ever told.  If there was an Extrinsic Hall of Fame, this would be in it.


How to get more people to act sustainably? Don’t talk about sustainability.

Here’s a very good, clear articulation of how to get more people act in a more sustainable way.

Caroline Fiennes of GlobalCool breaks people into three groups (called Value Modes) based on their broad motivations:

First group. People who care about things that are quite proximate to them.   Their primary concern is the safety and security of myself, family and nation.  Like rules and big into community.

Second group.  Primarily driven by the esteem and respect of others and therefore need to demonstrate their success.  So, big into fashion and social networks.

Third group.  Primarily interested in their intellectual and ethical imprint.  Interested in ideas and others even if they’ve never met them or are never likely to meet them.

So, who does the existing sustainability narrative talk to?  The third group and the third group only, of course.  It’s effectively missing out two-thirds of the population.  Talking about glaciers melting and people on the other side of the world just doesn’t connect those in the other two groups based on what they value.  They don’t really listen.  So, what to do?  She goes onto to give a couple of great examples of health advertising – e.g. communicating that you shouldn’t take Crystal Meth because it ruins your teeth is more appealing for people for whom appearance is important (the second group) than talking about how addictive it is.

Her point, which is obvious but very well made, is that you need to talk to people about what they care about in a way that engages with them as a means to do what you want (the obliquity strategy).  The health people don’t care what they need to say in order to get you to not take Crystal Meth, just that you don’t start taking it.  They’re happy not to talk about health in order to get people to be more healthy.  As she puts it – the important thing isn’t why you act in the way they what you, just that you do act.

Taking this to sustainability  an example of an ‘Accidental Environmentalists’ are kids who want to go to school on their micro-scooters because this is more fun than being in a car.  This has lead to an appreciable drop in car journeys in some areas of London.  You would never say to them that what they are doing is ‘green’.  But it is.

Commercial marketers have known this forever – they never talk about their agenda (we want to make more money) they just talk about your agenda – ‘You want to be popular?  Buy our product’.  And in doing so, we make more money.

She gives a bunch more examples and there’s loads more good stuff on their website, but in summary – to get more people to act sustainably, don’t talk about sustainability.  Simple really.

I love recycling. Not yet, but maybe one day.

Went to meeting last week about how to get more people at work to recycle.  So, despite there being bins all over the place for paper, plastic, CD’s, batteries etc, we only recycle about two-thirds of the amount we could.  So, what to do?

There were lots of good ideas about how we could improve the situation – emails, posters, more bins, taglines and a crazy one about a sculpture but the thing that the discussion raised for me was how boring recycling is.

When you buy something you buy it for what’s inside the pack.  So, at work it’s likely to be sandwich, a drink or something from amazon.  It’s the food, the coffee or the book which is the thing you want – it’s like a present that you unwrap and enjoy.  The packaging is just the wrapping and has no value.  You discard it; you throw it away.  This is the direct opposite from what’s inside which you keep.  Even the physicality is interesting in that you hold or consume what’s inside and you throw the packaging away from you.  It’s a negative act.

I once heard a man talk about something similar – about getting people to stop chewing gum.  He was saying that the act of chewing gum is an act of rebellion (semiotically, I think).  It’s to do with movies and teenagers and a lot more probably knowing semiotics.  Anyway, his point was that in order to encourage people to stop chewing gum, you’re not going to have a lot of luck if you tell them to stop chewing gum.   This is because if the act of chewing is an act of rebellion, you’re hardly going to start conforming if someone tells you to stop.

Anyway, back to the point and if recycling is a negative act, the question for me is how do you turn it into a positive act?  How can you take it from being dull, boring and a chore for do-gooders into a fun, exciting thing to enjoy?  Now, maybe this is about getting points and prizes for who can recycle the most, or making the bins interesting and suprising so they play a tune or cheer or give you sweets or tell you a joke when you put something in them.  They’ll be hundreds of ideas to play with but I think the task is to make it the act of recycling the wrapping part of the experience of enjoying the total product – i.e. you enjoy the can of Coke AND you enjoy throwing it in the recycling, rather than one being ‘positive’ and the other being ‘negative’.

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“There’s no such thing as a sustainable business”

That’s not me talking but clothing company, Patagonia.

Their mission statement is ‘Build the best product and cause no unnecessary harm’.  ‘Unnecessary harm’ is an interesting choice of words because they understand that their actions will inescapably damage the environment, because they are a business.  It’s just that the harm that they cause is as limited as possible.   However, it is still harm.

With a mission statement like that, it’s clear that they care about the environment.  However, if they REALLY cared about the environment and to take it to it’s logical conclusion, then they would shut down as a business as this would cause no harm at all.

This taps into what seems to be a fundamental question in this whole sustainability debate.  If Patagonia happen to be right and there is no such thing as a sustainable business (are they right?) and we need to be living on the planet in a sustainable way, then can you have businesses?  Or rather, what form should a business take?

Okay, you can revert back to subsistence farming and living in villages, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  This is because that’s literally ‘living in the past’ and doesn’t take into consideration any positive progress that happened in the 20th Century.

So, how can you can you create businesses, en masse, that are sustainable?  For example, in the future we could all be driving about in electric cars, where the electricity is produced by renewable sources.  That all sounds fairly sustainable, but what about making the cars?  What about the material extraction, manufacture of parts and assembly?  Can that ever be sustainable?

If not, does that mean that we shouldn’t have cars?  Is that possible?  This, very quickly, makes my head hurt.

Without getting too deep into that rather huge debate, back to Patagonia.  The good news is that they do appear to be taking things seriously when they consider the impact that the production of their clothing has on the world.  With this in mind and in the name of transparency they’ve launched the footprint chronicles which show you the journey that different items of clothing take from design to delivery.

However and perhaps most interestingly (thanks David for this), is when you go into a Patagonia store, choose something and go to pay for it.  When you do this the sales assistant will ask you ‘Do you really need this item?’.  This, to me, is verging on the revolutionary as it strikes at the heart of consumerism.  The thought that a business, any business, would actively discourage a customer from buying something when they have their money out to pay seems remarkable.  On the one hand it’s very confrontational as you’re directly questioning the consumers ability to make the right decision.  Yet, on the other hand, it’s really naive in that it’s a really simple question that would hopefully get the consumer to think about the answer.  Now, how many people want to stand corrected and will put it back is an interesting question, but the sheer principle of asking the question is great.

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10:10’s ad that blew up in their face

Finally got round to seeing the banned 10:10 ad (10:10 being an organisation that encourages people and businesses to cut their carbon output by 10%).  It features a number of ‘real life’ scenes where people (school kids, office workers) are asked to commit to actions that will reduce their carbon footprint. Those that don’t, get blown up with blood-splattering effect. (It’s fairly gruesome, so don’t watch if you think you’ll get upset)

It was written by Richard Curtis and features a bevy of stars, so on paper, it was an easy thing to say ‘yes’ to.  Which is what I suspect happened.

Is it right or wrong though?  Should it have been banned?  It depends on what they were trying to do. If they subscribe to the ‘shock-charity-ad’ school of thought (e.g. babies shooting-up for Barnardo’s) then they’re right on the money.  It got banned and got loads of PR.  Well done.

But was this the right approach?  I doubt it.  I would have thought that they’re objective was to encourage people to change their behaviour and reduce their carbon footprint.  But the ad isn’t really about that.  It’s about people getting blown up and that’s what it will be remember it for.  (In comparison,  the shock in the Barnardo’s ad is directly linked to what the Barnardo’s are campaigning for – protecting children from a less than ideal future).

Again, it’s the thing I keep coming back to – that the Climate Change movement are framing themselves as the heroes (in the ad they all live) and those that don’t subscribe to their point of view as the villains (they literally die).  That is such a poor approach to get people to change – it basically says ‘you’re an idiot and deserve to die if don’t do what I say’.  Okay, the ad might just be able to get away with it if it was laced with black humour, but it’s not. It has no charm.  For those that aren’t buying the Climate Change argument, telling them that they’re stupid is only going to harden their point of view because they already disagree with you.

I think what you need to do is take the time to understand why people aren’t acting in a more sustainable way and work out what you need to say to encourage them to do so.  And what you come up with has to have a clear benefit above and beyond the current action that you are wanting to change.  My suspicion is that those who aren’t currently motivated to change by an environmental message will not be convinced by a environmentally-led message.  The Climate Change movement have run out of road on that one.  So, you’ll need to be more creative in the approach.  It’s back to the VW Fun Factory (on a previous post) for short-term tactical actions, but for more durable behaviour change it’s into the realms of social engineering like the 4-day week.

Whether they thought about any of this before they made the ad, who knows.  But it must have good fun at the shoot!

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Making Climate Change Fun

One of the things that strikes me about all this Climate Change stuff is that it’s all fairly dark.  It’s all about impending disaster, which all of our own doing, which can be avoided, if we only took the appropriate action, which we’re not.

Added to this, is the fact that the Green Movement and those around it frame the problem in the negative.  This is something that Antony Giddens (author of The Politics of Climate Change) talked about in a interview when discussing the difficulties in getting people to engage with the issue:

“Climate Change is essentially about abstract future risk and I think it’s quite hard for ordinary citizens to understand and appreciate that.  It maybe catastrophic, but it’s not there; it’s not visible in ones everyday life.  So I think that most people in the course of their everyday lives push it aside, they act as if it’s not happening.  It’s happening somewhere else, or it’s not something we can deal with and I think that’s a large amount of the answer to the question ‘If we’re not doing enough, why are we not doing enough?’…’I think we need a revolution to our attitudes to Climate Change because mostly it’s been getting people to be scared of catastrophe and I think we need a Gestalt switch – we need to have more positive motivation, we need to talk of opportunity, not just problem, we need to talk about benefit, not just cost … Martin Luther King didn’t start his speech with ‘I had a nightmare’.  Being negative is especially counter-productive when you’re dealing with a risk that isn’s visible.”

So, what to do?  Well, one way to do address this, could be the polar opposite.  If Climate Change is abstract, negative future why don’t we make the solutions concrete, positive and immediate?  This is what’s happening with VW’s Fun Theory, where they believe ‘that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better’.  The best example is the piano staircase to get people to take the stairs, rather than the escalator:

There are a bunch more on the site, but makes you realise that the Climate Change debate could do with an injection of fun in order to get people to engage with it.  Endless doom and gloom is perhaps not the best way to get people excited and involved.


The Future of Marketing? – The ‘Why Don’t You?’ Approach

In the 1980’s the opening title sequence of the children’s TV show ‘Why Don’t You?’ included the line ‘Why don’t you switch off your TV set and do something less boring instead?’

If the opening titles are a form of marketing, then the producers of the programme can be seen as taking a fairly suicidal approach – to actively encourage people to use less of what they have to offer.  Yet conversely, this approach maybe able to breathe life into the marketing function today as it struggles with the seemingly opposing forces of promoting business growth and sustainability.  One example that walks this line well is the current E.ON campaign as it claims that by signing with them, you’ll use less energy and pay less money.

As Jeremy Davies, E.ON’s Brand and Communications Director says:

“We genuinely want to engage with people about the energy issues that matter to them. We wanted to give consumers a clear, simple and honest answer: helping people use less energy, means they will have lower bills and lower bills mean happier customers who want to stay with us for longer.”

So, as you’d expect, it’s still about the £, but it’s about measuring Customer Lifetime Value, with the understanding that you’ll take a hit on the Average Revenue Per Customer per year, but you’ll keep them for more years.

As a result of E.ON promoting lower consumption and reduced bills, it should steal share from the competition.  If they are successful, then the total revenue from their growing customer base will be greater than the total loss of revenue from encouraging all customers to use less.  So the company will grow.

But, the marketing is interesting because it counters that fundamental belief in advertising and marketing – encourage consumers to consume more.  And (via research I bet) they have to use a long-copy ad to explain this different approach so consumers could get their head around it.

Thinking into the future, E.ON’s ‘Use us and use less’ philosophy could easily be transferable to categories where consumers are routinely encourage to consume in excess, in the same way that Virgin enters categories with poor customer service with its cheeky customer service/consumer champion attitude.

This maybe some way off for E.ON, but if the marketing community are looking for a way to reconcile their profession with the issue of sustainability, then they could do a lot worse that look at E.ON.  Can a clothing retailer promote that its items look better with age?  Or a consumer electronics company talk about the durability and longevity of their products for a change?

The question for marketers is if E.ON can do it – Why Don’t You?


This is interesting.  This was in Selfridges in London.  It was the in-store work to promote their Sale.  It’s telling consumers about the pointlessness of the purchases they are about to make.  It’s irony gone mad.  In a good way.

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