I gave a talk at the World Retail Congress in Amsterdam last month, in return for a £2,000 donation to Send a Cow, a charity that helps small-scale family farmers in Uganda. I sensed it would be grim, but was unprepared for the life-sapping banality of so many global brands desperately searching for a pulse of originality in the corporate hell of a conference centre. Neither the conference strapline – ‘High velocity retail’ – nor the smoke machines, light show, or thudding beat of a ‘90s rave could breathe life into this moribund gathering.
A session on brands ‘craving authenticity’ (no irony detectable) was followed by a faintly uncomfortable Oxford philosophy professor. Looking as if he felt he might have sold his soul to the devil, he explained how we have moved beyond buying stuff, through services and experiences, past brands, and now want ‘meaning’ for our money (again no irony detectable). By this time my wife Geetie, who all along said I shouldn’t accept the invitation, had left in disgust. Despite my mounting revulsion at the cynical manipulation of consumers, I felt I should at least understand what we as a business are up against.
Stuart Rose, formerly of Marks & Spencer and their eco initiative Plan A, told us that customers expect to buy what they want, where they want, when they want, and now expect to pay what they want for it. Such is the modern e-commerce frenzy, with everyone terrified of the Amazon tsunami sweeping in from the horizon. I was depressed to hear the man known as the ‘good, principled’ face of retail accept that running ever faster to meet the ever less reasonable whims of consumers, whatever the commercial, social and environmental cost, is an inevitable necessity.
As consumers, do we really want those choices anyway? The choice many of us want, but no speaker offered, is the chance to be part of the solution rather than the problem; we might even make a few sacrifices for that.
A marketing industry, so adept at mining our evolving insecurities and inner discontent to fuel the demand that is killing our planet and our souls, comes close to evil. We should all reject the ‘consumer’ label, with its implications of being passive and manipulated, and rise up to become responsible citizens with the confidence to find meaning in our lives without the medium of brands. My final advice to the audience was to “get the hell out of here while you still have a soul and a pulse”.