Archive for February, 2011

Finding the future in the Oscar nominations

Alex Steer writes:

Did you know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

That’s the first line of The Social Network, one of two hotly-tipped films fighting it out for the Best Picture award at tonight’s Oscars, and it’s about change. I am writing this before the show begins, so before the post-match analysis begins (although by the time this is posted you will know the winners), here’s a thought about the two Best Picture frontrunners.

The other is The King’s Speech, and on the surface it couldn’t begin more differently. It starts with a radio announcement:

Good afternoon. This is the BBC National Programme and Empire Services taking you to Wembley Stadium for the Closing Ceremony of the Second and Final Season of the Empire Exhibition.

The Social Network begins with a look forward: a driver of change shaping the balance of power, pointing towards an uncertain future. The King’s Speech seems to offer us a look back to the reassuring institutions, technologies and fashions of the past. It’s been a criticism of the big movies of the last few years (as of contemporary fiction and science fiction) that it is focused on the rear view, and is losing a sense of the future. Is The King’s Speech part of that backward tendency?

I don’t think so. Look again at that opening line. A closing ceremony, a final season, a fading empire. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, begins with change. The film’s entire premise is based on the struggles of two men (King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue) to defend an ancient institution – Britain and the crown – against threatening forces of change. As in the most interesting and uncertain futures, the challenges are several: the abdication of Edward VIII, the rise of Hitler, the dawn of the era of mass radio communication, the declaration of war.

The Social Network is a story not of resilience but of disruption. Its creation mythology for Facebook involves a group of outsiders finding a way to beat the conventions of an elite social institution, the Harvard Final Clubs, through sheer ingenuity. In doing so they create a phenomenon that disrupts and reconfigures the social connections between people across the world.

So both this year’s frontrunners are films about finding new ways to communicate in times of disruptive change: one about a leader challenging itself, another about a challenger taking the lead. Whichever takes the statue (and by the time you read this, you’ll probably know), both reflect widespread mixed feelings of uncertainty and opportunity, and both have lessons for organizations, brands or individuals wondering how to take control of their futures.

28 February 2011 at 9:28 am Leave a comment

After bling

Alex Oliver writes:

There are some perks in being a consultant, and being invited to speak at a conference in Paris on managing change in consumer credit and debt behaviour, as I was last week, is one of them. The conference was organised by the European Financial Management and Marketing Association, and was hosted at the elegant Paris Concorde Opera hotel.  The two day conference  tackled a number of difficult credit management issues, including the best approach to sustainable and responsible lending in an environment still reeling from the shock of the global economic crisis, where regulation is increasingly restrictive and consumer demand remains sluggish.

Drawing on our Global Monitor international trends data, I explored the implications of the ‘New Normal’ for European consumers whose attitudes in relation to spending appear to have shifted permanently.  Aspirations have changed: the era of ‘bling’ and platinum credit cards is behind us and although consumers may still be willing to spend, they need to be able to justify doing so. They’re searching for reassurance around value and reduced risk.  And regardless of pressure from the regulators, consumers themselves are scrutinising choice in a way they may not have done before and looking for new tools to give them greater levels of control.

Other speakers also explored the attitudes and behaviours of the Millennial generation and whether this target is really attractive to credit providers or too fickle and costly to be of real value.  Our data suggests the challenge for financial services providers is to be authentic and transparent in their dealings with this group, offering regular communication through multiple channels and inviting, sharing and acting on honest feedback.

The potential prize, for those willing to invest in the relationship, could be a loyal base of young customers, who become brand advocates and – as illustrated a fellow speaker from FICO with reference to US trends – are also willing to prioritise repayments for those credit providers with whom they feel affinity above others – thus also reducing the credit risk for providers who get it right.

The photo is from Donald Townsend’s photostream, and is published under a Creative Commons licence. It is used here with thanks.

25 February 2011 at 9:06 am Leave a comment

Spreading the love

Pen Stuart writes:

We are in love. Or more precisely we were on Monday morning, soaking ourselves in the warmth of a topical subject that doesn’t always feature high on client priorities, even as it leads personal ones. And in true Futures Company fashion, we wanted to know what’s happening next in the heady world of love. So began a session mapping the trajectory of this ideal, trying to understand how core emotions have been shaped to construct the Hallmark ideas that are all around, especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.

Paradigms of love are often at odds with realities. Take for example the 1950s ‘golden age’ of housebound wives who expressed their love by presiding over a newly close family. In practice, with household consumerism an essential ingredient of this ideal home, it was possible only because women were entering the paid workforce.

Yet it was these (misleading) ideals that captured the public imagination, and became a crucial way for brands to connect with consumers. In turn this was overthrown by a new ideal that fitted better with people’s hopes and dreams for equality of opportunity, providing new zeitgeisty opportunities for brands. Many commentators say that love today is in crisis, pointing to family dissolutions and the rise of single-parent households, but a narrow focus on demographic trends misses out the continuity of love, warmth and feeling within shifting families. And millennials, who will shape the future, are increasingly interested in the pursuit of happiness, which they associate strongly with, you’ve guessed it, “love”. If love isn’t dead, it’s worth mapping how meanings of this might change.

So we delved through themes such as the joys and sorrows of work, which has been re-interpreted and re-negotiated as women come to influence it more strongly, as a place of emotional fulfilment. The broader economic context looks set to make divorce – said to cost £25,000 – a luxury consumer good.

Add to this a pinch of escalating expectations, a dash of ageing populations, and a liberal sprinkling of new scientific claims and technological possibilities and we came to a few scenarios for the new shape of love. Ranging from ‘pursued perfection’ to new spaces of tolerance and ‘flexi-ships’, the heartening thing was the hope and exciting possibilities that remained. But enough! I must go and spread the love.

The image at the top is ‘A love for the arts by Delacor‘, published here under a Wikimedia Commons licence.

17 February 2011 at 9:03 am Leave a comment

If you’re not paying, you’re being sold

Andy Stubbings writes:

One trend we’ve been monitoring for a while, as readers of this blog will know, is the rising level of concerns over data privacy and security to do with social networking.

We recently came across this chart (and shown above: it’s US data) which suggest  astonishingly low levels of trust in the ability of social networks to look after personal data. They are trusted less on this than banks, credit agencies, or government departments.

This is consistent with other data we’ve seen on the topic, such as this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which also finds that technology is the most trusted industry, and media the least trusted. It would seem from this that, although social networks such as Facebook occupy a blurry position in consumers’ minds, we are probably more likely to think of them as media rather than technology brands.

As it turns out that makes a big difference. There is a saying in media that “if you’re not paying for content, you’re the product being sold”. I think consumers know this viscerally, and therefore expect that social media sites which are free to use are going to play fast and loose with their personal data, particularly those that are thought more of as corporations rather than associations or amateur networks. It is difficult to position yourself as a tech company and benefit from the associated halo of trust if you are actually in the business of selling your audience.

14 February 2011 at 9:08 am 1 comment

Pride and confidence

Will Galgey writes:

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the launch of the WPP BrandZ report on the Top 50 Chinese Brands, which Oliver blogged about here, and I wanted to add some thoughts to his post.

When I was last in China a few months ago, I came back from breakfast to find my hotel room being cleaned. The maid, who spoke no English, beamed a broad smile and immediately started trying to tell me something, gesticulating with her fingers to make the number ‘two’ and pointing at the television, which she had tuned to CNN. My Mandarin was no better than her English, and it was only after she left that I saw the news that China had just overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world.

The story exemplifies for me the intense pride the Chinese have in their country and its achievements, which we also see in our proprietary Global MONITOR data. (How many Britons, or Italians, or Canadians, would know or care about their country’s ranking in the world economic league table?).

Many commentators conclude that this national pride will increasingly lead the Chinese to turn inwards, and favour domestic brands over their western counterparts. But this is wrong. The reality is that the Chinese are sufficiently self-confident in what it means to be Chinese, and their ability to choose selectively from other cultures, that they are actually very open to other cultural influences and don’t bristle at the idea of accepting western brands. In our Global MONITOR survey, the Chinese (along with Saudis) are the least likely to feel that ‘our society is too Americanised’.

But simply playing to notions of status and elitism through an association with the West is no longer enough for western brands looking to succeed in China. Chinese consumers are now far more savvy about price and value and are adopting a much more sophisticated attitude to brands – both foreign and domestic.

It sounds obvious, but both foreign and local brands must remember the difference between what it takes to claim the indoors and the outdoors. Haier and Lenovo do well in China because their products are kept in the home, while Nokia and Chanel do well because they’re on public display. Of course, this is a crude division – and becoming more so every day. To cross it requires a much deeper analysis of the underlying values and attitudes that are driving consumer needs and wants in China, something we are currently helping a number of clients to get to grips with.

The picture at the top of this post comes from an article on Chinese brands in Business World, and is used with thanks.

9 February 2011 at 12:58 pm Leave a comment

Chrysler at the Superbowl

Leslie Koster writes:

In his ‘winners and sinners‘ post yesterday, Alex Steer mentioned that Chrysler’s Superbowl ad split opinions in our US offices. It’s worth pulling some of those different views – which have been circulating on email – out of the mix.

On the upside, Chrysler’s 2-minute spot for its new 200 sedan tugs at heartstrings. Its film-like quality captivates—as it started we sat up and took notice, and when it ended we wanted more. The piece oozed authenticity, mixing up older aesthetics and symbols (Diego Rivera mural, Joe Louis, and even the American flag that stands alone in the park that the great Tiger Stadium once stood) with the modern, luxury-oriented aesthetic.

It was made with Detroiters in mind, not just Americans, using phrasing like “That’s who we are”, “That’s our story” mixed with imagery and tone that is recognizable only to Detroit natives. It is poetic, using clever casting to mirror Detroit’s fall and hoped-for rise with Eminem’s recovery from near ruin.

But the ad triggered negative feelings too. Chrysler’s survival as a business is mainly down to taxpayer dollars, so is it irresponsible to use nearly $9 million to produce and air the longest Superbowl ad in history? Its CEO, Sergio Marchionne, is negotiating with the government for more loans, on better terms, which might make the ad simply an expensive sales presentation. Taxpayers could be forgiven for thinking, “Our money saved a car company from bankruptcy and all we got was this lousy Superbowl commercial.”

On top of that, there was a set of questions about whether the ad was better at promoting Detroit than Chrysler – which might make Ford and GM the beneficiaries of Chrysler’s investment merely by accident of geography.

Finally, there were strong feelings about the story the ad told in romanticizing Detroit and its history. Of course ads aren’t documentaries, but when they get too detached from the world the cracks start to show. Detroit fell because it refused to change, holding steadfast as it got passed by, feeling entitled to a way of life that was clearly being eroded. It built its economy and workforce on newspapers and automobiles but failed to innovate, tied up in hierarchy and tradition, as other companies lapped them by being nimble. These days, Detroit is a poster child for urban farming rather than the emblematic Motor City. It makes you wonder if Chrysler is  prepared for the future, or living in the past. Comments are open; your call.

Thanks to Sean Kernick and Chris Hloros.

8 February 2011 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

Winners and sinners in the Superbowl ads

Alex Steer writes:

I’ve been in the US a few months now, and still know nothing about American football. So when I watched the Superbowl last night, I watched the advertising. I was looking for ads that showed some insight into how consumers here are thinking and feeling in the recovery. There were some clear hits and some obvious mis-steps. Here’s my (personal) take on the most expensive 30-second slots in the advertising year.

Some winners

Everybody was talking about Volkswagen’s Passat commercial before the game, and with good reason. On the surface this endearing spot about a small child in a Darth Vader costume does no more than use some human interest to sell a minor product feature (remote engine start), it tapped into an insight about our desire for technology to fit around our lives in subtle, even ‘magical’ ways. Its gentle tone hit a sweet spot for consumers who are seeking more humanity in the marketplace.

The insight behind Best Buy’s ‘Buy Back’ offer was really smart. They recognized that if consumers are no longer in recessionary lock-down, they’re weighing up their spending (especially on big-ticket items) much more carefully. Best Buy is helping its consumers feel more futureproof, and that matters. The ad, with Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber, was one of the most catchphrase-worthy of the night. (‘How many bloody Gs are there?’)

Verizon kicked off its ad with an almost-too-close parody of an iPhone 4 commercial – ultra close-up, heroing the product, a little overblown – before getting to the point: ‘Does your network work?’ Demand for utility is really strong in the US marketplace at the moment, and Verizon deftly exploited a gap between consumers’ opinions of the iPhone and the AT&T network, often criticized for poor call quality.

The real winner for me in terms of insight was Chrysler, with its ‘Imported from Detroit’ ad. It wasn’t the only car marque to run with a ‘made in the US’ message, but it was the only one to explore what that means in the United States now. More an ad about Detroit than Chrysler, it was one of the few spots of the night that showed foresight as well as insight, using Detroit (and the car) as shorthand for a recovering nation’s sense of injury, self-reliance and determination. There’s a lot of discussion – and divided opinions – about this ad in our US offices today.

Some sinners

We’re a bit divided, too, over the Motorola Xoom piece, which tried to do to Apple exactly what Apple did to Microsoft in its famous ‘1984’ ad. I don’t think it reflects a genuine insight into how people think about the iPad. For that reason it’s less strong than Windows Phone’s amazing ‘Season of the Witch’ and ‘Really’, which tapped into exactly how a lot of us feel about smartphones.

Like the VW spot, Chevy’s ‘Status’ commercial was a fairly human take on a minor product feature, but it the feature was baffling. A voice that reads your Facebook status updates as you drive feels like an awkward attempt by a car to borrow the brand halo of a social network, but just when enthusiasm for ‘always on, always sharing’ feels like it’s waning.

My worst offender, by far, was Groupon, whose campaign idea, ‘Save the Money’, is based on the idea of treating money like it’s a precious resource. The insight’s not bad, but their three ads badly misjudged US consumers. By making light of the threats to whales, Tibet and forestation, they seemed shallow and self-obsessed, and worse, prompted an immediate backlash online. Even if consumers find environmental concerns slipping down their list of immediate priorities, it doesn’t mean they want to mock them.

In all, it feels like the most-loved ads were those which had a powerful and durable insight behind them. The Superbowl’s the one night of the year when we pay real attention to the ads, but we expect those ads to be paying attention to us, too.

7 February 2011 at 9:26 pm 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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