Last night, at the Royal Automobile Club on London’s Pall Mall, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to hear Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer of the Obama 2012 US presidential campaign speak candidly about how he helped get out the vote and keep the Democrats in the White House. Harper is ex-Threadless, the famous T-shirt company that lets users contribute their own designs, with the most popular becoming actual products sold the world over. It’s a democratic philosophy, one that understandably caught the attention of the campaign committee. It is also the kind of thinking that cities like New York and Chicago are starting to employ; actively gathering, analysing and distributing data to inform policy implications and help citizens. What follows is a brief summary of his thoughts and points that Zeitgeist found interesting.
Harper began the talk with the fundamentals, discussing how, when he arrived, the campaign seemingly already had much of the data gathering resources needed to achieve what he wanted. The trouble was it as all siloed. Putting all the data together was a major step in the right direction, toward cohesive data analysis. He elaborated, saying they went from having fifteen different numbers for doors that needed to be knocked on, to one. On hiring the right people for the task at hand, Harper was explicit in noting that they had hired tech people and taught them about politics, rather than the other way around. He riffed on the state of journalism, saying it was similarly important when hiring journalists that know about tech.
One of the more interesting insights Harper talked about involved the target demographics. Those most likely to vote are male or female 18-28, and women perhaps in her 50s. The younger group is adept and comfortable with all digital platforms, but still uses paper a fair amount. Paper, by contrast, is an essential medium for that middle-aged female voter. So the insight was about making paper use more efficient, given these groups’ use of it. Understandably this was a hard decision for a group of very tech-minded people to arrive at, but the acknowledgement showed they were willing to park their own pre-conceptions on how things ought to be done.
Like many startups, they were constantly trying to fail in order to create redundancies. This involved hosting hackathons where code was obsessively broken and then reconstructed, “ensuring things would break in ways we understood”, as Harper put it. They had the same approach with the content they published, aggressively testing every piece to make sure it was relevant and engaging for the intended audiences. What they failed to foresee was the Internet activist group Anonymous launching a DDOS attack the day before the election to coincide with Guy Fawkes day, which helped trigger a meltdown over at Amazon’s cloud servers, AWS. Harper made it sound like not too much trouble to switch the servers from the East Coast where they had been affected, to the West Coast, but the experience must have been a stressful one.
Lastly, he offered an opinion increasingly shared by many in the industry, which was a reluctance to talk of mobile device use as “second-screening”. Mobile devices, Harper pointed out quite rightly and obviously, are the first thing you look at when you wake up, the last thing you look at when you go to bed, and the thing you’re actually looking at when you’re supposed to be watching TV. Mobile first should always be the initial mindset.
In questions, Ruth Porter asked whether there were any pearls of wisdom that could be applied to those in UK politics and how they go about with their own strategy of getting out the vote. Harper conceded he had met that day with a party “whose name starts with ‘L’”, and believed that what was key was investment, commitment and belief from the very top in what social and data could do for the campaign. Without that, such efforts would amount to nothing. The lessons of the Obama 2012 campaign – and the pitfalls of Romney’s campaign – offer valuable lessons for political parties, but it seems any efforts at cherrypicking ideas or going in half-hearted would doom any prospect of leveraging what the Obama team were able to do.
“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”
- Anthony Trollope
It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production - must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?
In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: ”Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.
In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”. But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,
“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”
The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.
Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.
There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.
Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted with country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of there hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What history tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised as the following: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.
“Everything has become more experiential”
- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino
It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.
The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.
The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.
Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.
It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.
Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?
Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.
If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.
In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.
So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,
“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”
These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.
One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”
So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.
As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’, “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry, also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”- Robert Hughes, 1989
Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?
The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?
Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.
Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:
Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”
The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.
Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.
So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.
The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.
Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.
Whither the sage of a shop assistant? At a time when we as consumers have access to all the information we could want about a brand and its products via our smartphones, of what use is it to have someone tell me something that I am unlikely to take at face value, working as they are for said brand? Why even bother being in the store at all when I can be buying my item at home? The luxury goods company PPR (owners of Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Balenciaga et al.) could be said to have recently adopted a similar mindset. A new joint venture with e-tailer Yoox is sure to shake things up. Honcho Francois-Henri Pinault said recently, “While the whole industry has been resisting e-commerce for the last 15 years it’s now realising it’s inescapable”.
Not everyone believes such a move is inevitable. Chanel is steadfastly refusing to sell its principle collections – from ready to wear to handbags – online for the foreseeable future, according to a recent interview with the CEO. While this might strike some as akin to sticking one’s head in the sand, the reasoning the company gives centres around the unique experience of going into a store to buy a product, rather than sitting at home in one’s pajamas. From a strategic point of view, the idea is sound. Reducing avenues of purchase encourages a scarcity factor that high-end fashion must rely on. It also ensures that the products are seen in the best light possible, incredibly important when justifying such a premium. It’s interesting to note that though the thinking may be sound, it is certainly not appropriate for every luxury brand to be resisting the lures of online shopping in such a dramatic way. Chanel is – and always will be, in multiple ways – a very special company, an exceptional brand, in the literal sense. Like Apple though, it’s practices are to be emulated with caution, as a great paper by McKinsey Quarterly highlights. “Outliers are exactly that…”, the report states.
But what is the state of stores, and how important is service in these places? For luxury, we can assume a high priority of the physical shopping experience is connected to the person assisting you. Recent experiences at two different luxury goods stores highlighted jarring differences, monumentally affecting the way Zetigeist felt about the brand. Last month in New York, Zeitgeist visited Tiffany & Co. to find a Christening present. Without turning this article into a rambling letter of complaint, the section Zeitgeist found itself in was woefully understaffed, and when help was available, information turned out to be incorrect and, most importantly, not dispensed as if it were important to them. Zeitgeist left without buying anything. The experience was deflating enough to mention to the manager en route to leaving the store. Returning at the weekend to try again, the experience had not much improved. The item needed to be engraved. Taking it into one of the London stores upon returning home meant being greeted with the same mediocre level of service. No passion, no interest. This would be perfectly acceptable for somewhere such as Ernest Jones, but Tiffany is a massively, massively powerful brand. For many it is incredibly evocative, and speaks to nostalgia and deep-seated emotions with very personal connections. There is a dream that is Tiffany, that is replicated extremely well in their above-the-line marketing. It is completely absent in its physical embodiment, the store. Cartier, by comparison, manage to present a fantastical vision of their brand, while also maintaining a consistently excellent level of service in-store that brings cohesion to the image it evinces.
Louis Vuitton could not have presented a starker contrast to Tiffany. The brand had one brief flirtation with TV ads about four years ago. While also a powerful brand, it perhaps could not be said to elicit such powerful emotions as Tiffany, purely on the basis that Tiffany purchases might often be assumed to be gifts. Purchasing what is surely one of the cheapest things in the store, Zeitgeist was delighted to be led through the purchase process by an exceedingly-well trained woman, who was happy to go over the minutiae of the purchase, and knew answers to arcane questions when asked. It made the experience extremely pleasurable. Remarkably, the store went a step further, sending Zeitgeist a random act of kindness and imploring to get in touch if further assistance was required.
That kind of experience simply cannot be replicated online. If Amazon were to start selling Prada clothing anytime soon, the dissonance would be powerful. So while the luxury industry, and many in the retail sector at large, struggle with the idea of the shopper journey online, moreover how and where that connects with the physical journey, we cannot forget basics. The importance of good training, especially for demanding customer who are expecting a premium experience, cannot be overstated. Though smartphones and tablets may hold the data, it must be remembered that the purchase of a luxury product is often an irrational experience. The service and assistance received during purchase consideration may be an irrational influence, but it is an immensely powerful one. If a brand talks the talk, it must walk the walk, or face the consequences of failing to live up to its own promises.
Luxury brands have found it hard to come to terms with the shift in consumer shopping habits from retail to online. For several years they have dipped their toes in the water of digital, but with little commitment and much hesitation (until recently). This is understandable. Often for luxury products, the justification for higher prices is only evident upon seeing the item in real life, or it can sometimes be intangible. These assets are hard to replicate when seen on a computer screen. A store’s retail environment allows the company to control every aspect of the brand experience. Someone checking out the Louis Vuitton website could be using a slow computer in an old browser; the experience will suffer, and there is nothing the brand can do about it. Much more sensible then to invest in concept stores, such as the recent one in Selfridges. But there needs to be a focus still about managing the brand and courting attention beyond the four walls of the shop.
So it should be of little surprise to see that recently luxury has been looking to broaden its horizons in the physical space, aiming to brand experiences that seamlessly fit into the lifestyle that they think is associated with their brand. This was evident in no small part when Zeitgeist took a trip recently to St. Tropez. Before even entering the town, visitors were greeted with the sight of mega-yachts and enormous Gin Palaces, and – on one of the days Zeitgeist visited – evidence of the relatively recent collaboration between Gucci and Riva (see above picture). Such a partnership probably helps the former more than the latter. It certainly helps validate the clothing company’s brand, which sometimes fails to leverage its relatively strong heritage. Walking away the port – past the recycling collections strewn with empty bottles that had once contained vintage wine and champagne – toward the famous Place des Lices brings you face-to-face with the hotel White 1921. This is one of LVMH’s newest incarnations, an eight-room hotel.
It was a beautiful hotel to behold, and had just opened the week Zeitgeist was visiting. Though much in need of a lunchtime glass of champagne – the brand here makes the most of its ownership of several champagne labels – the dining area was sadly not open until the evening. White 1921 is not alone as a recent example of hospitality being managed by a luxury brand. LVMH’s first such hotel was back in 2010 in Courchevel, named Cheval Blanc. More recently, Bulgari have launched their own hotel in London’s Knightsbridge area, close to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The St. Regis hotel in New York now has a small collection of fashion-related suites, including the Dior Suite. All this is about embracing a certain idea, a crystallising of what it means to be living a particular lifestyle. The question for LVMH begins to arise as to whether, strategically speaking, having one arm of your company (Dior in this case) having a room owned by St. Regis creates any significant competition between the hotels you are opening elsewhere in the world. The more they open, and the more branded suites appear under competitor’s names, the stickier this situation could get.
Releasing products that compete for the same consumer type is never a good idea, and is a mistake General Motors made. A very good essay on this is available in Richard Rumelt’s ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. The market is becoming crowded. Hermès has side-stepped this by designing luxury apartments in Singapore. Some companies have thought at a more granular, perhaps relevant, level. Trunk-maker Moynat have teamed up with the famous Le Meurice hotel in Paris by providing French chef Yannick Alléno with a roll-in trunk so he could cook breakfast for guests in the comfort of their own room. It’s an inspired idea that retains the original idea of what makes the brand special and heightens it by creating a unique experience for the consumer. The New York Times reports,
The chef’s breakfast trunk is genuinely designed to travel, its porcelain plates held upright with leather straps and its cutlery in drawers. Mr. Alléno already has plans to send it to hotels where he has connections, first in Dubai in September, then to Courchevel in the ski season and on to Marrakech. At each destination, he will make a personal appearance and demonstration.
Similarly, Prada has thought about how best to showcase its ready-to-wear line, in this case including its clothing in the sumptuous film The Great Gatsby, due out next summer. The highlight of Zeitgeist’s time in St. Tropez was in visiting one particular boutique. Christian Dior, while not be a brand one immediately associates with good food, featured an open courtyard that hosted a cafe dedicated to indulgent delights. Mr Alleno was also responsible for the food here. It was an impressive exercise in brand management… and excellent profiteroles.
After an annual loss of $6.4bn in 2011, Sony has since seen a new CEO come to the fore in the form of Kazuo Hirai, who immediately made it clear that major changes were needed, including significant job cuts, and a renewed focus on, among other sectors, videogames.
Last week at Gamescom, the company fared extremely well, “after unveiling wildly inventive new games for the PS3 and PS Vita, and fleshing out the appeal of its Wonderbook”. The Wonderbook – which consumers in London will get to try out this bank holiday weekend - in particular is of interest as it is a wholly separate device that works with your gaming device, and one of the few platforms that has an proprietary deal with author J.K. Rowling.
Mobile is another one of the significant sectors that Sony will be focussing on. The end of the company’s partnership with Ericsson will only help with this focus. The company tried to integrate gaming and mobile before the end of the partnership in the iteration of Xperia Play, with limited success. Beyond creating their own handset with PlayStation capabilities, they are now branching out. In June, Geek ran an article saying HTC has been given the rights to produce a certified PlayStation phone. Secondly, a company called GameKlip now allows you to play games on your Android phone with a PlayStation controller.
The Geek article talks about the initiative being “part of their attempt to broaden the PlayStation brand and increase total market share”. But since when has PlayStation been suffering as a brand? If you look at the social media fan base, PS has far greater affinity than the Sony brand. Is Sony giving away one of its biggest advantages (be it proprietary content, IP) to its biggest competitors in the mobile space, or is the bigger picture about simply extending the PlayStation brand as far and wide as possible?