marketing

KNOW YOUR PLACE

Not far off one of the arterial roads that connects Nottingham to the motorway system, a dual carriageway where traffic churns pretty much 24/7, there’s a drive-in McDonalds. Opposite, there’s a turning that branches with two routes into Old Basford. One takes you over a stone bridge by a church, and towards industrial units where you can buy sheet glass or get your car fixed. The other, along a wall behind which trains rattle, past a boarded-off site that’s never been repurposed in any of the ways local rumour has suggested, to a place of terraced houses.

Locally, rather than take unwanted items to a tip people tend to leave them outside their homes for passers-by to choose whether they want a wooden CD holder with a missing shelf, a wonky spice rack, a stray toaster. Before now I’ve come home with things that I can use, or that I know a neighbour might appreciate for the kids she looks after in our shared back gardens.

A couple of minutes away Vernon Park welcomes Sunday league footballers, dogwalkers, families tossing a frisbee. Half an hour ago a guy in his 20s leaning back on a bike watched his 3 kids play, agreeing with their mother that they’ll have McMuffins for breakfast in a while.

I’ve been enjoying the park on a daily basis for a few weeks now. Sometimes I’ll use the exercise equipment that’s been there since 2012 courtesy of the Queen. The roads were packed when she came, on a blazing hot day. I still don’t understand what she had to do with putting gym gear there, planted in concrete to deter anyone who might want to uproot a rowing machine for their garden, but I’m appreciative of their presence.

Getting to know Vernon Park better has helped me understand the concept of parks more generally. They’re interesting spaces. If I’m not making use of the exercise machines, then I’ll take a wander around the whole area. I could use any route across the grass, through the trees, by the pond - but what I actually do, more or less, is follow a tarmac path. The whole space has been designed with that in mind, allowing you to take in a variety of scenes as you do.

Coming through gates painted municipal green there’s a low building with a 1980s feel. There are changing rooms for footballers and those who use the tennis court, toilets for anyone, and rooms available for hire. I’ve been to a Slimmer’s World class there, and voted in the exact same space on several occasions.

Just after that building is the first of the 20-odd bins dotted around the park. Dog owners are requested to deposit bagged droppings there. I use them to put in the litter I sometimes collect, which I started to do when after a few days of visiting I began to feel like one of the custodians of this shared space.

That notion of communal territory is interesting. I don’t feel obliged to pick up litter on streets, so how come I do when there’s grass around me? Partly it’s about the visibility of that litter against the green, but there’s more to it. A park feels different in all kinds of ways, and the space shapes our behaviour. You’re more likely to engage with people in a park. In an open space, where there are trees, and animals run more or less free, we change in ways that are good for us. The greetings we exchange, the little conversations that crop up, are a reflection of that. Something social is happening for which we are grateful.

The outdoorness of it all is critical. And connected to that, a park is somewhere for everyone. Unlike so many other places we spend time, a park is not branded except in the most basic ways. It has a name, and that’s pretty much it. Compare to the urban experience, where logos shriek at you from every building, insisting on the right of the corporations they denote to impinge on your consciousness. Instead, give me birdsong, lime trees, and a chance of spotting the heron who’s become an occasional resident.

There are more subtle aspects I’m still pondering. Walking by the pond, approaching a path that leads to one of the entrances, you go under a stone arch. It changes the way I feel as I do, and that’s about more than stepping through brickwork. Something about the surface above flickers constraint along with shadow as I step beneath. For an instant, the feeling of being inside strobes within, like a switch has been flicked.

We need spaces like this, and I am blessed to have one on my doorstep. And I have some sense of how others experience it. The retired chap with a dodgy hip who circumnavigates the park five times before going home, where he will have lunch with his grandkids a couple of times a week, and in the evening sit in the garden with a bottle of wine as he does his crossword. The veiled women who laugh as they picnic on a huge blanket. The geezer with swept-back hair and a cigarette who takes his aged mum for a walk. The Turkish man with three rods lined up hoping for fish he can catch to eat and sell. The pink-haired woman perched on a rock at the back of the library using its wi-fi so she can send job applications from a laptop.

I think about other places I’ve known. The woods in Disley where I spent my 50th birthday, bathing my feet in a chill stream under a canopy of trees. A beach in Anglesey, the sea lapping against a pebbled beach as it has for millennia. A mountain in Bavaria I climbed with my father, looking at the tapestry of landscape unable to discern signs of human presence. A walk around Uluru, radiating something primal and mythic with a visceral intensity that punches through the frenetic surface of the branded world’s greedy hold on mind. Companies pay millions to create brands hoping they will establish a foothold in the consciousness of consumers, but the presence of something so powerful demanding nothing while offering so much makes it clear how pale, how needy, how empty that clamour for attention is.

WHATEVER IT TAKES

It wasn't long after I got my first job as a copywriter that I heard about how a rival agency won a pitch. Asked to present concepts for what promised to be a substantial account, not only did they make a good show of the work they did, they went above and beyond. Making a bit of razzle dazzle out of it, they led the client out to the front of the building. A new car was sitting there. To indicate their excitement and commitment about working together, they gave the keys to the client. She took them. And the agency won the account. It was unclear whether the story was being told out of disgust, or grudging admiration.

The next agency I work for, a big London one, I got to see how things sometimes worked when one of the directors showed me some previous work they'd done. I was looking at a leaflet campaign for a premium retail store seeking staff, and asked why they used that approach and not run an ad in a newspaper. Turned out they'd done that, but too many of the candidates who applied were off-brand. Which is to say, they were black, or at any rate not white. So the leaflets targeted a suburb where well brought-up young white women were to be found, which is who the department store  wanted to be selling to their customers.

A few years later, in Nottingham, I was developing scripts and meeting people who were getting short films made and occasionally worked in radio and television. Two guys hatched a sitcom, and got some funds to make a pilot episode. They came along to a shindig for the regional screen agency, and thanked the chief exec for support received to an audience of people hoping for similar backing. Only, the screen agency had nothing to do with the money that the sitcom got. The chief exec was pals with the chaps who'd made it though, who sang his praises in return for the prospect of future collaboration.

I mention all of this in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. They made dark use of data harvested illegally from Facebook, and using a combination of digitally-assisted psychological profiling and good old-fashioned skulduggery delivered election results that some pretty unpleasant clients paid handsomely for.

The thing being, none of this is surprising.

Cambridge Analytica are only different in the scale that they operate on. The targeting the department store colluded in with the London ad agency was no different in principle, or lack of it. There are people in businesses worldwide who would behave in exactly the same ways, and clients everywhere more than happy to pay for results.

The guys behind the sitcom caper are classic cases in point. They'd think of themselves as decent sorts, just doing whatever it takes to get by in a cut-throat industry. So they cut throats. One in particular would justify his actions by frequent use of the term 'realpolitik'. Being prepared to do anything to get your result is ok if there's a German word for it.

As you go about your business today, what ethical choices will you be faced with? And how will you deal with them?

 

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis.