Walmart, often seen as a business “in power” in some way in the US is closing 269 stores.
For awhile, high-end retailers were seen as doing better in the new economic reality, but now they are also struggling.
OK, we know the economy ain’t what it used to be, and I think end-state capitalism is eating itself alive. But I think there’s something else at work too, and this is what I’d like to talk about: the “don’t give a shit principle” and how it affects brands.
Over the last 100 years, and especially over the last 50, we’ve gone from a society eager to consume new information and products to society overloaded with new information and products. Even in the last 20 years, the change has been big. Remember the days when you went into a store eager for products jump out at you because, to a large extent, that’s how you found out about products? Yes, it’s hard to remember, but, for example, I would go into a book or record store hoping to find something interesting. If you wanted to find out about records, you had to listen to the radio, talk to friends, read Rolling Stone, thumb through the Trowser Press Record Guide or just look at what was in stores. That was “giving a shit.”
When people get overloaded with something, they get hostile and disdainful about it. This is human nature. For example, when a business has a critical position to fill and receives only a few resumes, the HR manager will be looking for the best in each one, hoping that there is potential there. Compromises in terms of degree, experience, and so on can likely be made. If, on the other hand, the same business is flooded with thousands of resumes, the manager will be establishing arbitrary criteria by which to toss resumes wholesale into the trash.
And so it is with consumption. Not too long ago, famed sales guru Zig Ziglar made a living selling pots and pans door to door. Pots and pans. There was enough hunger after WWII for just about any kind of product that people took an interest. Nowadays, cookware is that stuff you buy wherever for cheap when the nonstick coating wears off the frying pan (or you’re into cooking and are buying cast iron or copper and giving a shit, but the point still stands).
In such a world, advertising really works, and brands are sales dynamite. And the whole theory of branding was coming into being just as that huge post-War consumption and giving-a-shit wave was peaking. Brands attracted the eye and interest of people entering that valuable source of information, the store.
Yet… as soon as brands really became big, they started dying (IMHO). Branding bloviation seemed to peak in the early 2000s. Here’s a book I read soon after it came out in 2002: [Managing the Customer Experience: Turning customers into advocates](Managing the Customer Experience: Turning customers into advocates). The twats who wrote this even went so far as to register a trademark for “Branded Customer Experience.” Lulz. They waxed poetic about how a bunch of businesses were doing the right thing, such Virgin Atlantic, a company that is doing shithouse the last time I checked. Like the book In Search of Excellence back in the 80s, I’m sure if one were to look at all the companies they praise, most wouldn’t be doing that great or at least would not be seen as paragons of the customer experience these days.
The book is going on 14 years old, but it already seems like something from a different world. Why? Because it’s about roping in people who give a shit. Do this, do that, and people will be ADVOCATES! Who even thinks like that any more?
If anything, businesses are stripping away brands to give people cheaper stuff. Forever 21 and H+M are popular with “the kids” and are pretty much as un-brand as it gets. Meanwhile, Ambercrombie and Fitch is going down the shitter (good fucking riddance). Fast cuisine has been replacing mid-level sit-down restaurants. Bulk foods have eaten away at the profits of packaged foods. Private label has been big since the 90s and isn’t going away; rather, businesses like Trader Joe’s have taken it to the next level. And so on.
A couple caveats. When I say people don’t give a shit about brands, I do not mean that they no longer use the names of producers as a way to access the same fit, flavor, quality, etc. Of course they do. What I mean is that brands are much less effective at getting people’s attention, and people are much less apt to form any kind of emotional attachment to them.
The other caveat concerns luxury brands and conspicuous consumption. I think that this is only superficially related to the 90s-style branding guruhood, which was all about encouraging mass consumption. Yet my guess is that the “don’t give a shit” principle will have a negative effect on luxury brands as well, though I can’t back that up beyond citing the downturn in luxury retail, per above (and untangling that from economic reasons would be exceedingly difficult).
I’m an MBA and work in advertising, though I write 95% for Japanese companies. I’m not a guru and hate the guru pose, so this is just what I see from my perspective. Obviously, these are generalizations across the whole population (I’m mainly thinking of the US, but this probably applies to most developed countries). Some is also extremely obvious, but here goes:
• People are overloaded with information and their filters are constantly up. They already feel they know what they want and need and are extremely selective about letting anyone in to tell them otherwise. I.e., they don’t give a shit about your product or your pitch.
• When people do want further information, they will go out and read reviews on Amazon, Yelp, etc. They take a more objective approach than people used to and can’t easily be swayed by advertisements or even a really nice branding package.
• True excellence is the only thing that counts and people will only take the best that you have to give. E.g., they won’t buy into the brand of your restaurant; they will only order the things from the menu that they truly love and get other stuff elsewhere. The atmosphere of a restaurant also counts as excellence, however, so I’m not saying that people don’t love specific places overall.
• People will drop any “brand” like a hot potato if that potato has, well, E. coli! E.g., Chipotle. That is, it’s all about “what have you done for me lately”; there is no loyalty whatsoever.
• People are price-conscious as never before, and that’s never going away again, no matter how well the economy does going forward (snirk).
So suppose you have a product–what is one to do in 2016? How do you impress people, reach people, etc.? Well, it’s extremely difficult. Here’s my take:
• Make your product life-changingly excellent, extremely cheap, or best: life-changingly excellent and cheap but not so cheap as to seem cheap. I.e., hit the sweet spot of value. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, when I’ve done networking events (a trend that seemed to die here in Indy around 2008–fun while it lasted), the unspoken assumption always seemed to be you could sell anything if you could just sell it. But how many people had a product that really blew people away? Very few. Is hard to make a truly excellent product? Abso-fuckin’-lutely. And by “life-changingly excellent” I mean a product that makes even a small difference in someone’s life. E.g., the average person will by the cheap non-stick pan at the supermarket instead of the truly excellent copper pan because the different the copper pan makes won’t make a difference to them. But your amateur and pro chefs will buy the copper if it is truly excellent.
Example of success: I’ve gone to restaurant Black Market in Indy after a bit of a hiatus, and I am really impressed. Great food they make from scratch, great drinks, servers who actually seem into their jobs, great atmosphere, and the kicker is that it isn’t even that expensive. It’s trendy without being an asshole about it. I’d take this place over 95% of the high-end joints in NYC (and I love dining out in NYC). The place is pretty packed at night and on the weekends. We all know places like this that do everything right. And we go back. Most restaurants and businesses for that matter don’t really even try.
• Advertise first and foremost to the people who already care deeply. People enjoy reading marketing literature when they are into something. Get that content up online and talk to people in a non-fake, non-corporate way. People will come to your content. Note: This doesn’t apply to a whole bunch of products. I.e., no one’s going to read a blog or social media posts about toilet paper. Put ads where people are going to be eager to see them. E.g., if you make high-end camera lenses, (some) people will read your ad if it’s in a camera magazine. Does even this kind of advertising work very well? Probably not, but it’s about all there is left.
Example of success: Vine and Table in Indy sends out a good newsletter with products they get in that are truly curated by knowledgeable people and written about well. I’ve ordered three things based on their emails. It’s useful content, not spam.
• If you can truly do interactive stuff like online communities or social media in an organic (i.e., related to the product, not just tacked on) way, do so. How often is this effective? Probably not very much.
Example of success: Beer Advocate has a good site where you can rate beer and read ratings, etc. It’s not run by a beer company (that I know of), but it’s an example of getting people who give a shit about a product category to come together and, in essence, advertise to each other.
The above is long but I felt like getting my thoughts down on the matter. Thanks for reading, and I eagerly await your own insights!