Archive for July, 2009

Hiding out in the coffee wars

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Alex Steer writes:

Starbucks hasn’t had it easy, at least for the past decade. But whether being attacked by Naomi Klein for alleged anti-competitiveness in No Logo in 2001, or more literally attacked by demonstrators during a rally in London in January, Starbucks has always toughed it out. Until the recession, that is.

In late 2008, McDonald’s set up a giant billboard outside Starbucks HQ in its home town of Seattle. Proclaiming that ‘Four Bucks Is Dumb’, it advertised McDonald’s new line of (less expensive) espresso coffees. It was a well-timed campaign, and to judge from its share price, Starbucks spent three months in shock.

Its new strategy, announced last week, suggests that the coffee giant still has the caffeine jitters. It has opened three new outlets in Seattle – without any Starbucks branding. 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea and its sisters look and feel like independents. The muted press release from Starbucks says that the unbranded stores offer ‘new opportunities for discovery, a high level of interaction and a deep connection to the local community’.

But these things – experience, interaction, community – are central to Starbucks’s brand. Hiding the brand suggests a company with an identity crisis. Perhaps Starbucks has been told that, in a recession, consumers retrench to the familiar and local. This may be true, but research from the US and elsewhere suggests that reports of a ‘bonfire of the brands’ are somewhat exaggerated.

The fuller story is that, for American consumers, price matters more. It’s no longer the poor relation to quality and convenience. But price isn’t everything. The brands that thrive in the downturn will be those that offer quality and experience at a fair price and give consumers what they want – for example, acting on the recessionary trend towards going out for breakfast, not dinner (good news for coffee houses).

So four bucks may not be bad – if they come with a little bit more of a bang. Starbucks needs to show its consumers that it understands this. But to build this trust, it needs to keep on being Starbucks.

The picture at the top is of Rob Brandt’s ‘Crushed Coffee Cup’ design, and is used with thanks.

28 July 2009 at 10:01 am 1 comment

Advertising or bust

Andrew Curry writes:

I’ve been watching quite a lot of ITV4 this month, because of its Tour de France coverage, which means I’ve seen a lot of the current ad for the VW Passat. It’s a curiosity for two reasons; first, it’s clearly been made, inexpensively, for the British market, rather than being a ‘Euro-ad’ with English voiceover, and second, because it has a clear ‘recession’ storyline. Man leaves large bank-type building with his work things in a cardboard box, which promptly sheds its contents onto the pavement, leading to a little cameo story along a closure-laden high street before (at last) he gets to his car, singing all the way (more than a nod to Morecambe and Wise) about the power of positive thinking.

There seems to be a sting in the tail; the cheery sheep, nodding along to the song through the bars of their truck are clearly on their way to the slaughterhouse. With the implication, of course, that our hero might also be on the way to the knacker’s yard.

Strongbow has also been having fun with the financial crash, and has buried a treat or two on the internet. You’ve probably caught their Henry V pastiche in which a Kenneth Branagh lookalike makes a rousing speech to the assembled tradesmen of England (gasfitters, dishfitters, etc). We recently came across a second version in which Henry’s gaze alights on a group of bankers – and he is lost for words. You can see here what happens next.

23 July 2009 at 9:02 am Leave a comment

Some good things we’ve seen #3

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Compiled by Tom Ding

Discussed around the London office lately were:

  • A powerful, and contemporary, example of graphic design from an unexpected source (you may care to compare the production quality of this and this recent Party Political Broadcast from the BNP in the UK)
  • The new Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican Centre – an exploration of the different ways in which artists have tackled the natural environment over the last forty years
  • Tongue-in-cheek corporate poetry and (less?) tongue-in-cheek corporate music
  • A great post on the reasons why economics models often underestimate social activism and its effect on innovation
  • A lively-looking digital instrument created by an Italian interaction design student
  • A thought-provoking glance at what might change and what might be lost when everything is connected in an ‘internet of things’.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from the Chelsea Art Museum

10 July 2009 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment

Irish as an endangered language

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Russ Wilson writes:

I wrote a post last year on the attempts to promote the use of Gaelic across Ireland, so it’s interesting to note the closure of two Irish language newspapers in the last year, one in the last few days. Foinse closed down at the end of June, following the demise of La Nua at the turn of the year, despite the existence of Foras na Gaeilge, which is responsible for promoting Irish throughout the whole island of Ireland.

This raises interesting questions about reasons why ‘endangered’ languages are promoted and protected.  The Endangered Languages Project, based at SOAS, argues that every lost language or word is a lost insight into how people view their environment and that ‘every last word means another lost world’.  The Irish Government may be attempting to promote a view of Irish history and heritage that is, in part, dependent on the notion of a thriving national language.  With language forming such a strong part of concepts of identity, it is easy to see how they reach this conclusion. The Irish Government might not appreciate Irish being called an endangered language, but according to the UNESCO taxonomy, it is.

Those close to the newspapers say that more could have been done at a higher level to support them and blame Foras na Gaeilge.  There have been protests. However, the closure of these two Irish language papers suggests that even with strong political support, languages need to embedded in everyday life and culture if they are to survive in the long term.

The photograph, from the Foinse website, shows the paper’s newsroom after its closure was announced.

7 July 2009 at 8:47 am 1 comment

Bits (or bytes) of the future

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Tom Ding writes:

You may have noticed that Wired, the ‘magazine about what’s next’, recently re-launched in the UK after a twelve year hiatus. We’ve held off rushing to judgment, but after three issues it’s possible to more reflective.

The editorial from the first (re)- issue explained: ‘Whatever may be happening in today’s economy, the pace of change in business, science and culture is not slowing – which is why, unreconstructed optimists that we are, we believe there’s no better time to launch an exciting, inspiring magazine.’ The time has come, apparently, to ‘Subscribe to the future.’

But of course, Wired is itself a contradiction: everyone knows that there will be no magazines in the future; everything will be digital. Bytes, or bits, will have replaced atoms. As one reader tweeted, Wired is ‘the mag that cuts down trees to write about the paperless office’, and the editors also seem to struggle with an existential tension: in the third issue there are reviews of the latest e-books and a ‘how to’ guide about turning the magazine into a snack bowl or a picture frame.

There are many brands that manage to exploit internal tensions – American Apparel, for example, maintains its cool by combining pioneering ethical production with a reputation for sexual controversy – but instead Wired seems trapped by its own status, by its format. For all its engaging content, the magazine is caught uncomfortably between the lads’ mags and the blogosphere, between the mainstream and the cutting-edge, between the past and the future.

Yet whilst subscribing to Wired may never truly feel like subscribing to the future, it would be a mistake to think the most exciting alternatives are all found behind a screen. Stack is a new service that delivers a different independent magazine each month to its online subscribers (shades here of Rough Trade’s music subscription service), and Russell Davies (who also writes for Wired) recently helped print a ground-breaking newspaper called ‘Things our friends have written on the internet’. Perhaps the key for true magazines of the future will be to embrace the tension between paper and screen, and make more of the benefits of both.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from magculture.

6 July 2009 at 8:46 am 1 comment


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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.


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