Archive for December, 2011

Holiday collection #3

Joe Ballantyne  Lightning Field

This October, I spent 24 hours with Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field artwork. It’s miles from anywhere, in the high desert of New Mexico about 3 hours outside of Albuquerque: a one mile by one kilometre grid of 400 stainless steel rods, averaging 20ft in height, which attract lightning. You have to stay the night (a little cabin sleeps six) which is just as well because when you first get there, there’s not a lot going on. In the early afternoon when the sun is high, the rods are almost invisible and so spread out it seems there’s little to see or do. And then, gradually, as the light changes, you realise you’re in the grip of an experience which needs time as well as space. I highly recommend it.

Andre Furstenberg, on untranslatable words

The Oxford English Dictionary claims there are at least a quarter of a million distinct English words in use. It estimates that English probably has more words than any other comparable world language. So, it struck me that when it comes to the most personal, our closest interactions with others, English still sometimes fail us.

How many times have we experienced Mamihlapinatapei, but failed to verbalise it? Nor have we one word for that hesitating look when you both know you want to initiate something but are reluctant to take the first step. Or cafune; tenderly running our fingers through someone’s hair?

It’s good to be reminded that in our media swamped world, our languages still sometimes come up short.

Andrew Curry, Don Paterson’s Rain

Sometimes consultancy has its privileges. So it was for me this year, when, delivering a keynote to the UK Independent Publishers’ Guild, the IPG, I was also able to hear their after-dinner speaker, the Scottish poet Don Paterson. Most of it was a light affair, as custom dictates, and he started with the conceit that he had forgotten which organisation he was speaking to, reminiscing about the chequered history of the fictitious International Paintballing Group. But Paterson is one of Britain’s finest poets, and this was an audience of publishers, so we were also treated to a reading of ‘Rain‘, the title poem of his best collection. It is dark and cinematographic, as this extract conveys:

I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face;

His reading sent me back to the collection. As it should.

30 December 2011 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Holiday collection #2

Andy Stubbings,  The Toaster Project

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology this year, with the writing of our Technology 2020 report amongst other things, and more specifically about the amount of technology embedded in everyday objects. So I was delighted when I heard about The Toaster Project, a short description of an attempt (originally an MA project) to construct a toaster, from scratch, without recourse to industrial technologies. There seems to be a tradition of using toasters as the archetypical everyday object that appears simple but is in fact tremendously complex when unpacked and deconstructed: from Harvey Moloch’s tremendous study of the design of everyday objects Where Stuff Comes From, to the story this year of toaster patent trolling in an episode of This American Life, to the character of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, who, when stranded on a prehistoric alien planet “left to his own devices..couldn’t build a toaster” (he can make sandwiches though). The Toaster Project doesn’t disappoint, and is cutely pieced together as a kind of cento of email exchanges with professors and oil company executives, with travelogue and photos. It’s more of a study of materials by way of metallurgy than electronics or computing technology per se, but no less entertaining for that. I guarantee that you won’t look the same way at a toaster again after reading it.

Eleanor Cooksey,  Turner Contemporary, Margate

I was brought up in Kent, not the wealthy commuter-belt part, but the more depressed heel of  Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet. The arrival of the Turner Contemporary this year in Margate had the opportunity to be very exciting. We now expect architecture to be spectacular – new buildings should be strange, wonderful, otherworldly, possibly distracting us far too much from thinking about what they are meant to house. Turner Contemporary isn’t one of those; it is a modest affair, probably linked to its pretty modest budget. Having visited it, I was ready to head back to London singing its praises, but for a small hitch. It is a habit of mine to get a postcard wbever I visit a gallery – and the Turner Contemporary failed the ‘postcard test’. The building doesn’t lend itself to the iconic view by which it can impress itself upon our memories. Instead, we have a view of what looks like some big warehouses on the seafront. Other angles were no better. David Chipperfield (he’s the architect) – don’t forget the postcard shot!

The image of Turner Contemporary comes from ArtRabbit, the picture of the toaster from The Toaster Project. Both are used with thanks.

28 December 2011 at 8:33 am Leave a comment

Holiday collection #1

To mark the end of the year – as is now traditional on the blog – we asked people across the company to share something they’d found interesting this year. We’ll be publishing the responses on the blog between now and New Year’s Day.

Anita Beveridge, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother

The most touching book I have read this year was Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by the journalist and author Xinran. In it she extends her exploration into the implications of the one child policy first touched upon in her seminal work The Good Women of China (also a ‘must-read’). The tales Xinran recounts are heart wrenching and enchanting in equal measure, and remind us of the emotional implications of the Chinese social policies which are too often only viewed through an economic lens. It is a wonderful read, but have a box of tissues to hand.

Tom Morley and Ann Clurman on layaway angels

‘Layaway’ is a way in which Americans can purchase an item without paying the entire cost at once. But the item stays in the store until it’s completely paid off. We’ve noticed several articles about strangers paying off layaway bills anonymously on behalf of people who can’t afford to do this themselves. It’s a tangible example of the growing economic divide in the United States, this country; the story speaks to the fact that people recognize the divide (it’s not just the economists, demographers and market researchers) and want to help. And it’s not about approbation and  applause. One of our MONITOR themes this year, “Small Is Getting Bigger” is about avoiding grand, sweeping gestures, to stay clear of the grandiose. These good samaritans already know that.

The image above comes from the First Preston HT blog, and is used with thanks.

26 December 2011 at 8:36 am Leave a comment

Looking back on Looking Up

Walker Smith writes: For the past three years, since the economic crisis ballooned, I’ve been writing a regular column called Looking Up, on the ways for businesses to manage through recession and tough markets; I wrote the last one in the series earlier this month.

I wrote the first Looking Up in October, 2008, just over a month after the global financial system went to the edge of collapse.  (I’m not being melodramatic here; if you need a stark reminder of just how close we came to financial meltdown during the eight days from September 12 to September 19, 2008, James Stewart’s New Yorker essay “Eight Days” is still chilling).

The column had three purposes.  It translated financial concepts, to help people navigate the macro-economic news. It provided evidence and examples, to show that there were still opportunities in the market. And the third, and most important, purpose of Looking Up was to offer insights and guidance about how to reach consumers effectively during the Great Recession and subsequent stagnant recovery.  Over three years, Looking Up focused on delivering insight and inspiration to our clients.

And looking back on something like a hundred issues, I see that three themes repeated themselves over and over again. They’re worth repeating here.

Innovation.  The single most effective way to thrive in a downturn is to innovate. Reams of academic research have demonstrated this across past downturns and across geographies.  There are hundreds of examples of successful innovations introduced during the depths of past recessions, along with hundreds of examples of defunct companies that went bust waiting out a recession while competitors innovated. The logic is simple: innovation sparks new demand, creates new jobs and advances the overall productivity of the economy, which is the key to prosperity.

No other theme has been mentioned in Looking Up as often as innovation, one of the core practice areas of The Futures Company. If you had to take just one thing away from Looking Up, it would be: innovate!

Sourcing growth.  The biggest challenge facing companies at the moment is sourcing growth.  Unemployment, stock market volatility, cuts in government benefits, deleveraging and housing price declines all mean that household budgets remain tight. But there are pockets of strength in the consumer marketplace; more can be found through close scrutiny and shrewd analysis.  A number of MONITOR methods, such as Dynamax, have been developed to identify this enduring spending potential.

Practice optimism.  Consumers take their cue from businesses.  Optimism is contagious (as research has shown time after time).  If you want consumers to be buoyant again, you need to help. Conversely, if your marketing echoes their worst fears, don’t expect them to be cheerful. There’s a virtuous circle here: if businesses look up, then your customers will too.

Global MONITOR is an innovative, strategic, future-focused Global Insights programme for clients and agencies. It identifies the key dynamics shaping the world and the consumer marketplace, as well as potential implications for your clients’ businesses. If you want to know more about Global MONITOR, please call Simon Kaplan in the United States, or Deniz Erdem in Europe.

The picture at the top of this post was originally published by Global Envision – well worth a visit – and is used with thanks. 

23 December 2011 at 8:40 am Leave a comment

Ten notes on the future of retail

Phil Soanes writes:

I spoke earlier this week at a WPP workshop run by The Store on the future of retail , and the form was a series of short sharp presentations (for example, by Kantar Retail, Fitch, and Ecommera) with discussion. My theme was the future of consumer segmentation in the age of austerity, but what I wanted to do here was to share – unattributably, unfortunately – the ten big things I heard during the day from the different presentations.

  1. Retailers are moving away from their traditional segmentation models.  The classic segmentation combines a ‘Why’ (need-state) on one axis with a ‘What’ (value or attitude) on the other. Now retailers are segmenting occasions and missions. As one speaker said, there are fewer missions than consumer types so it’s easier to segment that way. For me this feels like the easiest way to segment, and closest to point of purchase, but it doesn’t negate the need to understand what’s driving the consumer.
  2. Retailing is now about data. There’s lots of it and the winners will be the ones who can collate and understand it to their advantage. Getting to a ‘single customer view’ (with integrated data sources) is the holy grail, but it’s a massive task and most retailers won’t achieve it. Retailers are reluctant to hand their data over, but may need to if they’re to make the most of it. One other implication of this: less market research. People will have less need to collect survey data.
  3. The discount noise in the market is deafening. This isn’t surprising given the economic climate. But when you look at who is doing well (or less badly) it shows that the secret of good retail is still having a great proposition at the heart of the business, and this defines the ‘value for money’ test. This also means that brand really matters, probably more than before.
  4. Consumer motivation to buy and shop for different categories differs widely. so working this out is important. Close up, motivation by category looks different, while there is a repertoire of behaviour within categories. It is also clear that making shopping easy is the tipping point in some categories. And the need to deliver ‘easy’ is replacing the need to optimise customer satisfaction.
  5. Trust and transparency matter more than ever. It was true before austerity struck. It keeps on getting more true because in tough times consumers expect, more than ever, that brands won’t take advantage. They’re less concerned with the ‘fluffy’ idea of ‘on your side’ as with a ‘fair deal’. Getting found out has more severe consequences for brands than it used to.
  6. The future will be multi-channel. But not in the way people sometimes think. The purchase path is increasingly complex, with consumers jumping between online and offline as they go. But offline retailers need to understand better why their customers are there instead of in front of a screen.
  7. The value exchange on a shopping mission is critical. What do consumers need to get out of a shopping ‘trip’, actual or virtual, to make it worthwhile for them?
  8. Shopping mind states fall into three groups. One contributor conceived shopping ‘mind-states’ as falling into three types: locate, explore, dream. For another this division was more operational, via stages of a shopper journey: plan, search, select, and buy. Consumers switch between offline and online within many of these stages,  so understanding the role that each plays at different time is crucial draw out. I think we’d say there’s more work to be done here, in particular in understanding the role of ‘reviewing’ and who’s involved in that, and also to map how these behaviours apply to different categories. And conventional shopper journeys also tend to neglect the shopper relationship after purchase, from service to sharing to word of mouth. One more thought on mind-states: what is the potential to offer ‘dreaming’ online?
  9. Online retailers have to get everything right to be successful. Contrary to the received wisdom, online retail is a less forgiving environment than physical; ‘everything’ includes vision and planning as well as ‘enablers’ and delivery. Amazon are the only one to hit all the numbers and this is partly down to a relentless focus on what they can control.
  10. There are some important questions where we don’t really know the answers yet. For example:
  • Does impulse exist?
  • How do you measure loyalty?
  • What categories will and won’t work online? I know; after more than a decade you’d have thought we’d have cracked this, but it seems we haven’t.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Peter Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved. If you’d like to see a copy of Phil’s slides from the conference, please contact him.

2 December 2011 at 9:53 am 3 comments


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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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