Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Consumption gap

Most people now live in cities where the commodities and products consumed come from all over the world. Especially evident with food; what we eat in our homes, at work, at restaurants or from vendors often comes from across the world. The gap between where we consume and where those goods and their constituents were taken from the earth has grown to the extent that we aren't able to gauge our direct impact on the environment. The natural mechanisms for us to respond to our environments have been dulled. The environment which supports an individual is now a global web of places rather than their immediate environment. Perhaps relying on environments from which we are detached is one of the drivers of the over consumption and inefficient use of resources we see all over the world today.

Working on a tree plantation or paper mill would give someone a good idea of what our consumption of paper requires. The same for a cattle farmer and understanding what our consumption of beef costs the world, but most people live in towns or cities that are only the end of the line for consumables. Someone in NYC may eat an apple from Chile, and drink a bottle of water which was bottled in another state, using plastic from Canada which was made from raw material imported from Asia. So really in NYC this person is only finishing the consumption of the apple which began in Chile and the same with the bottle of water.

Much of the global large scale farming, manufacturing and trading that takes place today is a result of people and firms seeking economies of scale from mass production which lowers unit costs to achieve greater revenues and profits. Modern logistics also plays its part in the shape our world has taken. Cities will always need to import certain things and draw on distant resources but perhaps we can find a more efficient balance.

Reducing the distance between where an apple is grown and where it is eaten (possibly with approaches like vertical farming) wont only reduce the resources needed for the apple to travel but could also re-sensitise us to the real cost of our consumption. Producing more of what we need in our own environments opposed to consuming from such a vast global web of places would not only make populations more self sufficient and sustainable but would partially close the gap that hides our over consumption.

Dealing with our waste closer to home too would cycle our resources, creating micro ecologies which would be easier to manage and read compared to the global complex ecological systems that we are currently failing to manage. Households and communities that produce some of their own food and deal with some of their own waste could become micro ecologies that form the building blocks of more efficient and sustainable global ecologies and populations.

Externalities: brands stick us with the bill for waste

An externality is when one party's actions affects another party that was not involved in the decision to take that action. For example, if a factory releases pollution into the atmosphere, that is a negative externality for the people living around the factory. To nullify this externality the factory would have to compensate the residents with a share of their profits equal to what the residents' air has been devalued by.

The accepted norm until recently was to focus only on the financial transactions of the factory, they only had to pay their suppliers for materials or pay their landlord rent but the neighbouring residents were left to fend for themselves. More externalities are being taxed and even though the taxes aren't always accurately directed back to those negatively affected, social and environmental measures are more regularly being used along with financial measures to determine value.

The waste from packaging of consumables is a massive negative externality. Global brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's are responsible for a large portion of the world's waste like soda cans, burger wrappers, paper cups, paper bags, plastic cutlery and boxes. The customers of these brands are jointly responsible for producing the waste although one could argue they sometimes have limited choice as to the amount and type of packaging of the products they consume.

Companies use packaging as an advert for their brands. Their packaging is carefully designed to strengthen the market presence of their brand and to promote their products. This graphic branding that many products have is an important asset to the brands but it also makes it easier to pin the responsibility of certain waste on the people responsible. A large percentage of the waste in the world bears the Coca-Cola logo. Surely a company whose name is on waste should be partly responsible for the effects of that waste. Compensation for waste that is already in our environments could be hard to achieve but taxing brands for waste with their name on it in the future might generate revenue that could be put to good use but more importantly it might force companies rethink the amount and type of packaging their products are sold in.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Survivalism vs Environmentalism

Many of the worlds most outspoken green advocates come from most green-friendly developed places. In contrast the developing world where fewer green practices take place often seems to lack environmental advocacy even though these countries are so strongly affected by their ecological state. I could go as far as to say that often in poor third world environments there seems to be very little concern for the environment at all. Taking care of ones environment is an attitude that is free so why do poor populations seem to ignore environmentalism? Perhaps the answer lies in studying your situation as you read this: you are most likely at a comfortable temperature, not really hungry, clothed, sitting safely in front your computer at home. In this state you have the privilege like me to remove your thoughts from your immediate situation and think about what's happening in the world.

The renowned psychologist Maslow, suggested that we have a hierarchy of needs starting with our most basic and primal needs like breathing and eating at the base moving up to needs like shelter and working all the way up to our more complex personal and social needs such as a sense of achievement.

Only when the base needs are met do we shift our focus to the next level and the next until, if your are very fortunate, your needs at all levels of the hierarchy are met. If you your basic needs such as nourishment aren't met this will dominate your every thought and your more complex needs such as social standing will not feature.

So many people in developing nations are simply too preoccupied with survival to get to a state where they can focus on the bigger picture. Developing nations contain the most natural resources. Being less developed they have the opportunity to learn from developed nation's mistakes and develop their own countries using their natural resources more wisely and responsibly. But while their people aren't adequately looked after they can't look after their natural resources properly. In trying to save the environment and conserve nature, we must be aware that effective global conservation cannot be achieved while we have neglected populations of people. In a sense our people crises must be addressed before or in conjunction with our environmental crises.

Social anthrax

Anthrax is a deadly bacterium. Found naturally in much of Africa, it waits patiently for decades embedded safely in its environment, until that environment comes under enough stress. A severe drought for example may trigger its release. When unleashed, anthrax attacks and kills weak animals entering their bodies through any sores or wounds, thereby ensuring only uninjured animals are spared. With the weaker animals culled, those remaining are left with more resources and a greater chance of survival. It's a desperate yet devastatingly effective mechanism to relieve strain on an environment in order to save it from collapse.

In the aftermath of the frenzied xenophobic violence that recently shook South Africa a critical question looks at what sparked this nationwide disaster. After the first attacks flared up more followed from all over the country as if spread by wildfire. Although there have been allegations of coordination in some of the attacks, these have only been at a local level for coordinating the attacks in specific townships and even then no substantial leadership has been identified. In searching for the method of coordination, the press and media conducted the story country wide but surely didn't drive people to attack, this might have activated their motivation that was already there.

Much like anthrax the attackers needed no coordinators. Their reaction was triggered by the dire circumstances of South African townships. Most South Africans are poor and have a daily struggle for food, shelter, clothes and medical treatment; the basic elements of survival. Living on the brink of existence they form a volatile society. When that system is pushed to a point where large numbers of people feel they are on their way to their demise, social mechanisms much like anthrax set it, in this case xenophobic and ethnic attacks. All it may take to get to this point is a sharp rise in food prices and the continued influx of foreigners and rural South Africans toward urban areas.

A desperate person is capable of dangerous action but when there are thousands of desperate people crammed together the unthinkable can happen and it has. Mobs flared up to do battle with their circumstances. They looted, killed and chased away foreigners to ease the strain on their economically drought stricken environments. Although the large number of foreigners have added to the economic strain of townships, they are not the cause, but still they were identified as the enemy by mobs that really didn't need much of an excuse to find a frail target that would leave them with fewer mouths to feed, more beds to sleep in, less competition and simply less strain in their immediate situation.

The global increase in food prices has left people all over the world fighting for resources. Since the prices of many staple foods have risen sharply Italy has experienced new xenophobic attacks against Romanian immigrants and in Kenya eleven people were murdered by a mob accusing them of witchcraft, which may be unrelated to food shortages but perhaps people there too have been pushed to a point where mobs look for an excuse to attack and kill people to ultimately alleviate the strain on their system.

South Africa's xenophobic attacks were particularly violent and widespread in part due to the large populations that occupy the environments that flared up but also partly because we have such great prosperity. Our dual economy has a sick outcome on our nation's overall health. The well manicured suburbs, fully stocked malls and luxury vehicles that are like an oasis for some allow us to forget the desperation that is only ever minutes away. South Africa hosts two worlds separated by language, culture and wealth. Even though this relationship is intrinsically unhealthy there is another problem. The two world's vital statistics are often blurred and averaged into one, not only by statisticians but through our own eyes and everyday experiences. Even though the statistic are still poor, they don't seem quite as dire as they would if they accurately reflected how most people in South Africa Live.

In poor townships people eat the cheapest meats if any, from heads and feet to entrails. On street corners you can find vendors cooking pots of gray offal boiling on fires stoked with twigs, old furniture and anything that will burn. Plastic crates are burnt as fuel for warmth. Sicknesses and injury that are easily treatable with modern medicine often go untreated to become chronic or even terminal. Crimes like rape, kidnap, murder, assault and theft are common with very low conviction rates, but perhaps the area where the two worlds of South Africa contrast the most is options.

The options of township folk are stripped down to the most basic. They spend much of their lives trying to fulfill their primal survival needs. This is an environment where people struggle at the best of times. When a strong external force such as global price increases suddenly lowers the standard of living there even further, their reaction is almost like a primal mechanism. Urged by their instincts and common suffering they form mobs. Then a whole new psychology comes into play. The nature of a mob is one that is like an organism with its own will that sucks the participants into behavior that is driven by the group. Some of the recent attacks were so gruesome, one wonders what kind of person could do such a thing but it wasn't a person it was group of people frenzied as if drunk on primal urges. Having said that the individuals in the mobs perpetrating the attacks cannot be excused and they must be held accountable and prosecuted if possible.

Their reactions were to alleviate the strain on their environments but also to take control. Many of the attacks involved resettlement of RDP homes thought to be allocated unfairly and theft of possessions. Their circumstances usually don't allow them to to take control of their wealth or be empowered to guide their own destiny, they are more often observers as outside forces shape their futures. Not in the mob though, in the mob they had the power to achieve an immediate redistribution of goods (as they thought fair). To a large extent the mobs succeeded in their task. Tens of thousands of immigrants have returned to their home countries or fled to refugee camps, leaving thousands of jobs unoccupied, tens of thousands less to feed, clothe and shelter.

These drastic results are an indictment on the South African government that has failed to deliver results for their empoverished electorate in 14 years. The social anthrax that we have seen recently is a symptom of South Africa's most pressing problem: poverty. Much like a response to the xenophobic attacks the South African citizens waiting eagerly on our government, are met by the absence of our leaders and vacuous approaches to solving our problems, like quiet diplomacy. Xenophobia is just one symptom of poverty but we experience others daily and will continue to do so as long as the underlying problem is not treated. For now the violence has subsided but still most South African's fight to meet their most basic needs and when people's primal needs aren't met we can expect primal action.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Waiting for the Green Robot

Recently I was at Thambo International Airport. At the exit of the parking lot I saw a sign that read "Spiked Barrier Wait for Green Robot". At first I paid little attention, then I did a double take, after replaying it in my head I relised that waiting for a green robot is quite a normal for South Africans because a traffic light here is referred to as a robot. Essentially the sign means, "There are spikes on the road, when the light's green it's safe to drive" I can only imagine what some foreigners fresh off the plane must think when they see the sign...

Asking people to wait for the Green Robot is an example of insensitive planning and design. An international airport serves a very mixed client base and they should implement the most generic and simple English.

In an age of information where we understand things as never before I cant help but feel that we are left waiting for the Green Robot too often.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Brand abstinence

Recently I was in NYC and operated near and passed through Time Square a number of times, after the novelty and awe had passed (again), walking through time square was a laborious mission and afterward I felt like taking a bath to wash some of the brand-coating off me.

It’s very obvious in Time Square but so much of where we move has become a media space and along with all the electronic media we are being bombarded by messages and brands. In NYC you notice how the New Yorkers are completely unphased by messages and action; they have kicked their selective exposure and selective awareness into overdrive, simply so they don’t go mad from everything that’s being thrown at them.

Most of world isn’t quite at this volume of media but it is on the up everywhere. People are becoming more discerning consumers, they want less clutter. This ties in with peoples’ need for more holistic brands that deliver across the board not only visually or in presentation. Brands are measured on all senses, sight, sound, touch, smell and even more importantly these days consumers want to know that they aren’t helping to chop forests down, they want to know that no one was taken advantage of to make the product, the want the product to be locally made, they want a neat carbon footprint.

An interesting brand that may be leveraging brand clutter is Bottega they have opted for a high luxury clothing brand with minimal branding as we know it but they have rather chosen to have the quality of their garments as the ‘mark’ of their brand.

Our sight has been overwhelmed by marketing messages, vision is surely a brilliant place to hook people but more discerning consumers of messages prefer succinct imagery with meaningful stories to back it all up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The brand endorsement

Global brands have different delivery and meanings in the various markets and areas they operate in. This is often what we in branding are striving to curtail. It’s almost impossible for a brand to have a perfectly aligned international offering.

Coke may have a pretty similar meaning around the globe but due to local conditions such as advertising and promotion its meaning and consumer perceptions will differ from place to place. Perhaps in a small town that has a bottling plant certain perception of the local employer will creep into the brand. But with that said Coke must have of the best if not the best alignment considering the size of the brand and spread of its market but coke is an example of a fairly uncomplicated product.

What about brands that offer complicated, intricate products that require more information in purchasing decisions and more after sales service such as support, repairs or replacements? These products form part of offerings that are largely made up of personal interaction and service. This is surely where it really becomes a challenge to achieve global alignment of a brands offering and market perceptions. Infinite personal and cultural factors influence these offerings in ways that we are still striving understand.

For this type of brand to achieve a single meaning in a virtually infinite world is unattainable but it can have certain standards in place to create a greater congruency in its offering across the profoundly different regions of the world. I really don’t mean standards such as: “Hi welcome to happy burger home of the happiest…” but rather real deliverables that no matter what language they are carried out in or whether they were carried out by a customer service genius or a fumbling trainee they will secure a certain intrinsic benefit for the consumer.

Variation of standards
Did you know if you buy an HP notebook in the USA with the optional extra “international warranty” and take that notebook to South Africa and it is found to be faulty (from manufacture) they don’t cover those faults under warranty? Why would that be? How would a consumer know that when buying a product in a foreign country?

A similar example is my Nikon D50 camera which was purchased in Taiwan (where they are much cheaper… but not cheap). When I encountered a problem a week after I got the camera I took it to Nikon in South Africa. They were reluctant to work on a camera at all that was not purchased in South African; after some arm twisting they agreed to diagnose the fault but not repair it. The issue of who is liable for the warranty becomes less important when you are faced with a broken new product that no one is even willing to repair, let alone put up the bill.

The world has become truly a global marketplace, consumers travel and shop all over the globe and we buy on the net but the jurisdictional boundaries of many brands remain rigid and incompatible.

Brands are carried in various business forms around the world. Dealerships may be subsidiaries of a listed company in one country and franchises in another, which inevitably makes for more variation in offering. Geographic pricing strategies which are more an economic product of international policies than brand strategy may add further turbulence to global standards and perceptions (but are also a driving factor in making people search for bargains abroad).

Certain service standards depend very much on a regions environment and service infrastructure which support their ability to deliver services. You would expect better service from a computer brand in the USA or Taiwan than in South Africa, but many service deliverables don’t depend on the company’s local support system or conditions but simply on what they decide to deliver. Perhaps this area offers an opportunity for brands to differentiate themselves from competitors that still offer divergent global service deliverables?

Well polished symbols
Brands and branding people put tons of resources into making brands have well structured visual representations which are congruent in all markets. Much less is done to bring brands service deliverables in-line globally. Perhaps it’s an issue of measurement: seeing what a brand looks like in various countries is fairly simple in comparison to measuring complicated intangible characteristics such as service offerings.

A critical area of brand thinking now is how the logo’s and symbols that represent brands become vessels of brand meaning. There are the obvious conclusions that can be drawn from certain visuals but over time visuals soak up further meaning (through the brands performance and interaction with people) and the symbol’s meaning move beyond their generic meaning, to a point where it truly becomes an ownable vessel of meaning. If I say camel… in a brand context the animal probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind.

Semiotic analyses of brand visuals have shown that the visuals don’t ever exist without the brand meaning – if someone sees a visual of a brand that persons memory stores are triggered; the built up brand meaning for that person is “present” to some degree when seeing the symbol. This link is bidirectional; if someone hears the brand’s name, that person’s visual stores are activated and so they “see” that symbol at some level too.

So if this mark can have such profound meaning and every interaction that a brand has with a person affects that persons personal and eventually the societal meaning of that mark, then brands should look after their actions as much as they look after their visual brand equity.

Shouldn’t having the “Nikon” logo on your camera be enough of an endorsement to deem any consumer anywhere in the world with that camera in their hand worthy of standard international service basics?

A Brand fairytale
The opposite of the two previous cases is and example that is what brand fairytales are made of:

When I was a young teenager my father returned from a trip to New York with an Orvis rod (and reel) as a gift for me. Orvis is a premium fly fishing brand. I was mesmerized by my rod but I must admit I looked at it more that I fished with it.

Eventually I broke the rod and my only conciliation was that the rod has a 25 year unconditional guarantee! So I took the rod to a local fishing dealer and after some waiting I received a replacement and a personal letter wishing me the best. After a few years of doing very little fishing I broke the rod again and again they replaced it. Eventually in 2005 I lost the top quarter of the rod. I wrote an email to Orvis to see what could be done and, after some conversing I mailed my rod to them expecting a new segment and probably a bill. My rod’s model had been discontinued so they could not replace the lost segment. I received a brand new equivalent model with a fresh 25 year guarantee!

A brand manager may look at this romantic episode and think that Orvis have probably amongst other things made a loss off a single sale but I can’t help thinking of one day taking my son or daughter to get their first Orvis rod... and a couple more for me wont hurt.

Orvis is not a visual symbol that is strongly communicated but the meaning for me is rich, I have almost inferred visuals in my mind that are related to the good experiences I have shared with the brand and one key factor in all of this is that their guarantee (and core service deliverables) have never been compromised because of where I am. Their symbol is their promise regardless of where you may be.