By Tom Ewing
We live in a time and work in a business which offers us not just one change, but many: a buffet of disruption from which one picks according to one’s argument. People talk about technological disruption and ignore the revolution in our understanding of the mind. People talk about global growth and turn a blind eye to resource scarcity. Often these are necessary omissions – there is simply too much going on to take it all into account – but it means, as I blogged yesterday, that Big Picture thinking is often a little thin, with holes appearing when you stretch it too far.
J Walker Smith, of the Futures Company, didn’t completely escape this trap but had a good stab at it, managing to tie up two of the great trends of our time in an engaging keynote argument. He talked first about the Global Enraged – the product of a long-term decline in trust and more recent financial and political crises. What are they angry about? Take your pick – the gulf in justice and opportunity between rich and poor; the ineptitude or corruption of government; the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Close to a third of global consumers are very angry about all of this – but fully 90% are enraged by at least one of the factors Smith enumerated. These are not, as Smith repeatedly pointed out, people on the margins – it’s the global middle class that is angry.
This big tent approach to anger creates a genuinely global perspective, but risks papering over significant differences. For instance, Smith talked about how the middle class has gone from “looking up” – aspiring to more and feeling they have opportunities – to “looking down” – being scared of ending up like those beneath them on the social pyramid. This is surely true for swathes of the middle class in the West, but is it the case for the rising middle class of the global south? How useful is the idea of “middle class” here? And does talking about the middle class, but not mentioning the poor, or workers, betray a particular skew? Such are the problems with global talk.
Smith skilfully linked his Global Enraged with another big trend – what he called the “Kinship Economy”. In an era when business to consumer trust is breaking down, people turn more to each other for support and advice, and social media is there to help accelerate that. Social media has increased human connection, Smith argued, not diminished it.
What can brands and marketers do with this knowledge? Getting between people on social media is out – facilitating connections is in. Lowes, for instance, created an app which let people create and share room designs, and that’s typical of the “kinship economy” approach – it draws energy from people’s real connections with each other, rather than trying to create bogus ones between people and brands. “Don’t make things just about the brand”, said Smith, giving the example of Converse’s campaign teaching teenage boys how to kiss better – nothing to do with shoes, everything to do with lifestyle and social connections.
Will kissing campaigns and parking lot farmers markets – as set up by Whole Foods, in another Smith example – do much to stem the tide of global anger? Probably not, but the kinship economy thrives on personal touches and local connections. And ultimately, this was a talk by and for marketing people. As such it followed marketing’s habit of seeing matters in attitudinal terms, not material or political ones.
But when it comes to the Global Enraged, material factors count. It matters if people feel that big business or government is a racket, but it also matters whether or not they actually are. Tea Party protests in the US and anti-Austerity protests in the EU – two examples given by Smith – have certain features in common, but one big discontinuity: they can’t both be right. Not everyone is going to get what they want from global trends, in other words.
The upshot of this is that trust isn’t coming back – we are now in an era of mitigating global mistrust, rather than trying to reverse it. Smith talked about the rapidly rising costs of insuring against political risk and social unrest – Lloyds of London, which has begun offering such policies, can’t find the capital to meet the demand. We are in for bumpy times ahead, and I ended Smith’s fascinating talk still unclear as to how much apps and farmers markets will help when those times arrive.