Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced

There’s never been so many ways for brands to get closer to their customers. Whether passive (e.g. viewing groups), active (e.g. accompanied interviewing), participative (e.g. co-creation) the outcome is similar: bringing the experience of others to the fore to inspire change.

The Third Age Suit is a compelling route to customer empathy. It limits the wearer’s mobility, helping them experience how ageing affects how people use products.

Guardian online has a useful 3 minute video of Josh Halliday trying one out, with interesting results.

It was originally developed to help Ford‘s design teams:

“UK life expectancy has nearly doubled in the last 100 years, and the motor industry has had to stay ahead of the game… Ford’s Third Age Suit, used by engineers to replicate physical constraints associated with growing older. The suit can simulate mobility issues, such as those caused by arthritis; eyesight conditions, thanks to specially designed glasses; and reduced tactile sensitivity, sometimes experienced due to age and/or skin conditions. By experiencing these limitations themselves, Ford’s engineers can help ensure Ford vehicles are accessible and easily useable.”

Ford's Third Age Suit

















Yours for a grand.

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Impressions from the MRS Conference 2014

Tote-bag-tasticAsk people about the most memorable moment from Impact 2014 was and I’ll wager the adolescent alliteration of a performance poet will be top of mind. Counter-scoring the orchestration of heavyweight keynote speakers, brassy agency methodologists and cutting-edge client organisations ensured Charlie Dupré, the posh boy from Barnes stood out. Different for the sake of being different? Perhaps, but no less effective.

As usual attending the full two days of the conference leave you seriously synapse-wilted, blinking into the bright light of condensed ideas.

A whistlestop tour of what made an impact:

Caroline Hayter ‘s Adventure into the unknown made me feel like us researchers really have an easy job:  child psychotherapist Valerie Sinason described working with a patient for 16 years before being told “I think I’m beginning to think I’m starting to trust you.” Trust to Sinason is a dangerous concept – to expect someone with a traumatised upbringing to trust you is delusional. She emphasised the importance of stepping outside your assumptions, and checking to see where your blind spots are. Dr James Thompson, senior lecturer in psychology at UCL talked about the effects of trauma, extrapolating the effects of the financial crisis to a societal level. A key point was that “Anger latches on to adventitious things” – suggesting anger that might well be directed at targets out of reach gets expressed closer to home.

Clare Gough from Waitrose took us through an innovative approach in getting Waitrose Partners closer to customers. Senior decision makers sponsor an investigation into a theme (e.g. affordability) and 20 or so colleagues spend a day:

  • Framing the problem – reviewing all existing knowledge (9-11am)
  • Spending time with customers – shopping, at home, online (11-3pm)
  • Action planning what they need to change as a result (3-5pm).

The main takeouts? The approach fits retail quick turnarounds, makes people challenge long-held assumptions about who the customer is, and energises them in a way a mere presentation cannot. Having a senior “route back in” for actions seems particularly apt. 

Psychologist Professor David Canter discussed his innovative spatial analysis of serial rapists in the 1980s in his keynote “Following in killers’ footsteps: secrets of geographical offender profiling.” Observing where offenders offend, he noted a wheel and spoke spatial progression. The role of proximity to their home, habit, and the need to vary locations within a known area he developed IT software to help predict future offending. Predictive analytics with a real world benefit.

Andy Hobsbawm, from tech company Evrythng explained “the internet of everything” in a way we could all understand which was no small feat.  His company produces software that connects products to the web bringing them closer to people. This creates vast opportunities – or as he put it “use cases”. Given a unique ID and a way to connect to th web (e.g. via smartphone) a product can note your behaviour passively then make suggestions – as well as the fridge ordering milk, your book can trigger an invitations to a book festival, and your guitar can suggest the right gauge of strings for playing Neil Young. Unintended consequences abound – but for Hobsbawn it is about a creative way to look at how things are made – challenging yourself to add new value – not harvesting data. The future made possible by this passive data collection is personalised, dynamic – where products adapt to the consumer.

Layla Northern (Boots), Olly Taylor (Innocent) and Sally Kirby (Swinton) gave us agencies some useful feedback in their fun interactive workshop Insider information: Inside the mind of the client. Tip: make sure your proposals have a summary page, a menu of costs and share your debrief decks 48 hours in advance…

Overall? The keynote speakers were of particular quality, and we came away with ideas and new contacts – which is what it’s all about isn’t it?

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Cigarette alternatives: the rise of the eCig and the return of snuff

The eCigarette market is enjoying a boom. Figures from Ash show sales exploding in 2012, going from £2.5m to £23.9m. The sight of users producing clouds of white vapour from their little plastic tubes is now commonplace. Demand is such that means they are bucking the high street trend and opening new stores: one opened near me a few weeks ago. Inside it is compact and pharmaceutical in feel, the flavour variants in neatly colour-coded lines.


A relatively new industry, eCigs are about to be regulated which may affect how sales develop.

Data isn’t available but I’m interested in the degree to which eCigs are either:

  • A substitute for tobacco smoking
  • A supplement to tobacco smoking
  • Attracting a new consumer of nicotine who didn’t previously smoke

It might be a combination of the three. With reference to the latter, a BBC report recently suggested out schoolchildren who hadn’t previously smoked were trying eCigs, seeing them as new, different – giving “vaping” a go for a laugh. From what I have read there is not a consensus on the health implications of the eCig: they are likely more healthy than cigarettes but not without risk.

Other commentators have noted the return of snuff – dried, powdered tobacco – another nicotine variant which sidesteps the smoking ban. Anecdotally I have noticed younger people (18-34 year old males) using it in the past few months. It is cheap (lower duty than cigarettes), comes in a variety of flavours, and seems to have an “old school” caché. I can’t find figures on penetration but anecdotally it is not just people who are trying to give up cigarettes giving it a go. Its novelty seems to encourage trial amongst non-tobacco consumers – though it’s an acquired taste.


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The consequences of being an ‘author by relocation’

Relocation_shutterstockFrankie Boyle made an interesting point about the nature of media on a recent chain reaction interview on Radio 4.

When he started stand up he’d tell a joke to a room of people, who would or wouldn’t like it. No matter. He was in charge of both the material and the intended audience.

As he became better known, his control over the intended audience disappeared – by merit of sharing online and journalists phoning the butt of a gag for a reaction and some cheap copy. In his own words:

“…there’s a concept that is called ‘author by relocation’, right. Now the idea is that if I screened a porn movie onto the wall of a local primary school they wouldn’t go and arrest Ron Jeremy for it….”

In short: spreaders become authors. If you take a message and change the audience or context, the responsibility lies with you.

Taking a step back from Frankie and the rights and wrongs of a comedian’s material, the notion of author by relocation is a profound idea with many implications.

There’s the point that Frankie is making – the responsibility inherent in sharing an idea.

There’s also a point about originality. A good proportion of social media – twitter, blogs, video – is merely a collection others’ work. Synthesis, rather than thesis.

Sharing is all well and good, but I wonder if some people unconsciously conflate sharing with creating, content to bask in the reflected glory of their source material, not considering how much of their time is spent consuming things other people have made as opposed to making their own.

Extending the notion further, there’s also a point about credit. Ideas entrepreneurs like Malcolm Gladwell essentially collate, simplify and profit. Taking obscure academic research to a wider audience and generating enthusiasm is hard to criticise, wilfully misrepresenting another’s work and making a far better living out of it than the originator perhaps less so. In his own words:

“If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!”

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UK supermarket retail in a single chart: Christmas like-for-like sales

Tesco and Morrisons released their Christmas trading figures today, cramming news reports.

I’ve combined all the recent like-for-like trading updates in the chart below for easy comparison. Briefly:

2013 Q4 LfL supermarket sales

1) Aldi and Lidl are forging ahead: whilst they don’t release sales figures, both have confirmed they are experiencing double digit growth. Kantar confirmed in December that for the first time the majority of UK households now shop at Aldi or Lidl.

2) With Waitrose (+4.1%) and M&S food (+3.1%) performing well, the top end of the market is buoyant – especially with people visiting these stores for a destination shop in the run up to Christmas.

3) The big four are caught in the middle and their fortunes are mixed;

  • JS is static (+0.2%);
  • Asda release their figures on February 20th;
  • Tesco is suffering: a 2.4% drop is severe, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Their convenience Express stores showed a huge 25% LfL increase and their online business was up 11% for Christmas. It could have been worse;
  • Morrison’s results (-5.6%) are catastrophic – without an online business (it launches tomorrow, 14 years after Tesco) they are fighting a war on fewer fronts than their competitors.

Looking at the results and thinking about what shoppers have been saying in the past few months, I see three underlying shopper trends:

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Knowledge frameworks in qual: Jon Chandler’s seven pillars of wisdom (IMJR 55/5)

shutterstock_123917302Jon Chandler’s article Seven pillars of wisdom: the idea of qualitative research made me pick up a copy of the IMJR for the first time. In a few thousand words Chandler defines and delineates seven different ‘knowledge frameworks’ within qualitative research. He articulates the underlying assumptions inherent in day-to-day quallie practice – teasing out how what we’re doing fits into what framework, what the benefits and limitations are. It’s one to ponder, ruminate. I can see it coming in useful come proposal time.

Chandler applies three comparisons to help define the frameworks:

  • Is ‘accessing data’ straightforward? Does the model assume people are self-aware, that they have easy access to their own motivations and drives?
  • Is the ‘meaning’ of the data unproblematic? Does the model assume people say what they mean and mean what they say?
  • Are all responses equally valid? Does the model assume all respondents are equally valuable and their responses equally valid, is representivity worthwhile?

These help define and delineate the seven frameworks. I’ve simplified them below:


Chandler doesn’t mention new methods like eyetracking or EEG, but these could fit into the behavioural framework… Seven’s a nice number after all.

All this helps to justify the way which research is used as an input for decision-making. Critics of market research often assume we’re all working in a reportage based, ask-answer world, but the truth is a little more complex. Interpretation is at the heart of what quallies are paid for, and why clients are loyal to their chosen agencies. The article serves as a timely reminder for users and doers of research why we use the methods we do, and is definitely worth a read.

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Noma: 7 lessons in excellence from the best restaurant in the world

Interns doing prep at NomaCopenhagen’s Noma is probably the best restaurant in the world. Chef René Redzepi has pioneered a new wave of Scandinavian cooking that focuses on local, natural foraged ingredients in unusual combinations. It is said over a million people apply for a reservation each year. There’s a lot of hype.

The compulsory 20 course tasting menu – more like 25 on the day we visited – changes daily and involves a succession of tasting plates; you are served by the chefs who explain the provenance, preparation and presentation with glee.

Noma is more sensory theme-park than restaurant. The dishes: mainly vegetarian variously surprise (deep fried moss with cep), entertain (blueberry and ants) and delight (chocolate covered pork scratching). The only thing I’d not try again is sea urchin: salty-cold slime that sticks to your teeth.

They’ve put such a huge amount of effort into the experience – from welcome, setting, service, food to souvenir menu – it warrants a separate post. Lunch clocked in at 3 1/2 hours. We were given a tour of the kitchen by an affable Kiwi sous chef called Hamish, and got to see the development areas where four experiment full-time with an alphabetised array of ingredients (dried meadowsweet, anyone?).

The question I was left with was how is such excellence developed and sustained? What can be learned?

Creative genius aside, I’d argue the success of this multimillion pound business relies on organisation and the resources to be utterly single-minded.


Numbers: with a ratio of around 1:1 there’s resource for all this attention to detail; 25 chefs & 20 interns to cater for 40 or so diners.

New blood: the 20 interns are drawn from across the globe & stay for 3 months, meaning around half of the staff are in flux at any time. By the time they’ve proven themselves soaking up the less glamorous parts of menu prep, it’s time to go.

Flat hierarchy: to the untrained eye 4 levels: boss/sous/chef/intern. Small enough to be cohesive.


Defined roles: 4 preparation stations each headed by a sous chef & a development kitchen with four full-time staff. Innovators are given free rein.


A clear goal: the mission is beacon-clear from the top. You join for a reason. Reassessing every ingredient & redefining what it can do.

Culture & expectations

Accountability: as a chef you forage for your ingredients, you prepare, you serve, introduce and answer customer questions. It’s your work and your responsibility.

Ethos: collegial, welcoming, chatty. As far removed from the clichéd alpha territoriality of Gordon Ramsay as you can imagine. After all, this is Scandinavia…

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Oversupply, overload and overconfidence: themes from this week’s reading

WELCOME-TO-THE-CREATIVE-AGEI’m a great fan of Amazon marketplace. It’s my default place to look for books now, with many second-hand titles at trifling prices.

Take Mark Earls’ first book Welcome to the Creative Age: twenty quid new, cost me two quid. Less than a cup of coffee.

The book – published in 2002 – has aged well. Whilst we’re yet to see the death of Marketing, themes are still resonant and predictions are still bearing fruit. Ideas which were more fully developed in Herd get their first airing and there are plenty of world-weary case studies from the coal-face of Marketingland.  

One issue Earls talks eloquently about is the oversupply we face in every category, and the impact it has on decision-making. We have too much of everything, and this is deadening:


“The fact is that we don’t need this amount of choice. It is bewildering. No wonder inertia (opting for what I chose last time) is such a strong force in determining what I do next.

There are very few products or services for which another cannot be substituted. The fact is consumers know this. They know it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

And that gives us consumers and customers a power that we never enjoyed in the early days of marketing. Previously we were grateful for things that we didn’t have. Now we know we have pretty much everything we need.” p62


Earls goes on discuss the consumer context for making decisions, quoting Alan Hedges, from 1974’s Testing to Destruction.

“To the consumer advertising is mainly just part of the background scene. Ads form part of the continual whirling mass of sense impressions which bombard the eye… just as we cannot take all our consuming decisions in discrete rational steps, so we cannot stop to evaluate and classify all the pieces of sensory input we receive… in order to navigate through the shoals and hazards of a day in a fast moving urban society it is necessary to be able to process a vast range of simultaneous sensory messages at low levels of consciousness. Conscious attention is reserved for a very narrow range of input which is selected in some way as being relevant to the business in hand.” p65


The frustration of working with clients is subtly conveyed. Evidencing campaign ROI using econometric modelling – prompts reflection on the act of measurement. Econometrics creates a model of reality – but it is not reality itself. Data feeds are merely a proxy:

“Just because we can measure it, it must be important. Anything that we can’t measure must by definition be unimportant. But the more we measure the things that we can measure, the further we get from the reality of things.” p66

“Sobering fact: what the company does is often not the most important influence on sales… Econometric modelling.. involves taking a significant period of sales data (say three years) and seeking to find the most sensible combination of factors that can explain – both statistically and to common sense – which factors caused what amount of sales…The central finding of all these studies is that is very rare for anything that a company does to be in the top three of key factors for sales. Common sense tells us why: unless a company has dominant share of the market, the majority of activity in its market will be done by its competitors – pricing, product design, distribution, advertising and promotion… this conclusion nearly always makes clients feel anxious; most would prefer to think the opposite to be the case.”  p158

 “As a character in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia puts it: ‘Real data is messy. It’s all very, very noisy out there. Very hard to spot the tune’.” p160

Shane Parrish at the ever-eclectic Farnham Street blog interviewed author Michael Mauboussin last week.  He picked up similar themes of executive overconfidence, and the cognitive biases inherent in them:

SP: You describe creeping determinism, the desire we have to give past events rational causes and thus make them inevitable. It is a myth of control. But we have a huge desire to see control. It seems preferable even to give control to someone else rather than to deny it existed at all. I’m not sure we are psychologically capable of saying that something in the past happened because of a conjunction of events and actions without any overriding intent or plan. What do you think?

 MM: This reminds me of something Victor Hugo said: “The mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum.” It is psychologically extremely difficult to attribute something to luck. The reason is that in the left hemisphere of our brains is a part that neuroscientists call the “interpreter.” The job of the interpreter is to create a cause for all the effects it sees. Now in most cases, the cause and effect relationships it comes up with make perfect sense. Throw a rock at a window and the window smashes. No problem.

 The key is that the interpreter doesn’t know anything about luck. It didn’t get the memo. So the interpreter creates a story to explain results that are attributable solely to luck. The key is to realize that the interpreter operates in all of our brains all of the time. Almost always, it’s on the mark. But when you’re dealing with realms filled with luck, you can be sure that the interpreter will create a narrative that is powerful and false.


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JD Power’s Vehicle Owner Satisfaction Survey 2013

JD Power’s Vehicle Owner Satisfaction Survey (VOSS) is the UK’s best known automotive survey. 2013’s results, based on a sample of 16,000 people, were published last month by Whatcar? magazine.

What Car? JD Power 2013 - Infographic

Whilst it is billed as being the ultimate guide to car ownership, for me it always poses more questions than answers. Small differences in performance from the top (83%) to bottom (70.2%) limit the survey’s usefulness.

If the worst car available on the market really gets 7 out of 10 from its owner, and the best 8 out of 10, you start asking questions about methodology. Overemphasis on the ephemerally termed “driver appeal” is perhaps to blame – it accounts for a third of the score.

I’d rely on expert reviews if I was buying a new motor.

Perhaps the main benefit of the survey is to encourage manufacturers to raise their game. Reliability niggles that might otherwise receive no publicity are flagged.

League table envy, now that focuses the mind.

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Confessions of an Advertising Man, 50 years on

“I believe in the Scottish proverb ‘Hard work never killed a man’, men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

OgilvyIt’s 50 years since David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man was published. Originally intended to promote his agency before it was floated on the stock market, it firmly established the Ogilvy legend. The book’s million plus sales must make it one of the most widely read marketing texts.

Whilst the world has changed and changed again in the past 50 years, Ogilvy’s crisp, vivid writing hasn’t suffered with age. For the modern reader it’s less a “how to” guide, rather a portrait of an indefatigable self-made man and the age he lived through. His journey “escaping from obscurity” from Gallup researcher to Agency chief (by way of Amish farmer) entertains. It also reveals a few leg ups from establishment connections along the way.

Reading it you get a sense of a man who knows what he thinks and why, but also someone who is defining himself with every arch turn of phrase. The book is a performance. The self-created man, self-creating. In his own words:

“…if you can’t advertise yourself, what hope have you of being able to advertise anything else?”

Worth a read.

The advice which resonates most 50 years on is his chapter on how to keep clients:

“I never tell one client that I cannot attend his sales conference because I have a previous engagement with another client; successful polygamy depends upon pretending to each spouse that she the only pebble on your beach.”

“The head of an agency has so much on his plate that he is apt to see his clients only at times of crisis. This is a mistake. If you get in the habit of seeing clients when the weather is calm, you will establish an easy relationship which may save your life when a storm brews up.”

“It is important to admit your mistakes, and do so before you are charged with them… I seize the earliest opportunity to assume the blame.”

 “If you make yourself indispensable to a client, you will never be fired.”

The chapter on what make a great campaign also remains potent:

“Most campaigns are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives, and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing. Their advertisements look like the minutes of a committee.”

“The function of your advertising is not to persuade people to try to buy your product, but to persuade them to use it more often than other brands in their repertoire.”

“Scores of good advertisements have been discarded before they lost their potency, largely because their sponsors get sick of seeing them…You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.. An advertisement is like a radar sweep, constantly hunting new prospects as they come into the market. Get a good radar and keep it sweeping.”

And finally, advice to the young.

“I still die a thousand deaths before every presentation…”

 “Most of the work you do in an agency will be routine maintenance. If you do it well, you will make gradual progress, but your golden opportunity will come when you rise to a great occasion. This trick is to recognise the great occasion when it presents itself.”

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