A regular review of interesting cultural shifts & marketing developments as viewed through the collective lens of the Stancombe Research + Planning Team

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

E2E: the new world of ‘everything to everything’

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that with the rise and rise of the sharing economy a seemingly endless stream of consumer experiences and services are being delivered in new and disruptive ways each and every day. Pioneers such as AirBNB, car share services, Kickstarter and Uber continue to radically alter the supply and consumption of travel, car ‘rental’, project funding and ride services, and more recent arrivals provide innovative ways and means of accessing everything from fruit and vegetables to borrowing pets. 

The sharing economy / peer-to-peer business model continues to expand into more and more manifestations of service and experience opportunities, disrupting traditional ways of selling and delivering goods to consumers. As insight professionals, it’s a phenomenon we’re all fascinated by and increasingly, an important consideration in the innovations, customer experience and channel strategy research we do. As a B2C, or more correctly, C2B2C model, it’s definitely here to stay and will continue to impact and shape consumer behaviour for years to come.

But all of this got us thinking; if it’s such a great model for delivering services to consumers, shouldn’t this ‘model’ of disruptive innovation also become the new business logic – that is – the way we structure and deliver our own businesses? Freedom from ownership is not just for consumers, but can also be a boon for businesses. We noted the rise of organisations such as WeWork – shared, flexible office accommodation specifically geared for new generation “entrepreneurs and freelancers” – from a small-scale New York start up to a global operation about to launch in Sydney, and it got us thinking about our own future business structure and resourcing needs – what will Stancombe look like as it evolves over the coming years? (Because we’ve never been an organisation that sits still.)

We envisage ourselves as a place that offers highly flexible connection, committed of course to a common purpose, discovery, innovation and outcomes, but drawing heavily on collaboration on a project by project basis; working with teams of long-established collaborators; building networks of practitioners from various disciplines as needed; creating a place for wide-ranging skills to cross-pollinate and work together towards solutions; and offering a kind of temporary autonomous ‘zone’ in which a group of people are dedicated to one or two particular challenges at a time. Once these solutions, projects or challenges are complete – these groups are likely to dissipate … until the next time.

This means that beyond the core of Stancombe, our business will likely comprise of a range of individuals at any one given time (as it already does to a certain extent); researchers of all kinds, videographers, journalists, photographers, facilitators of all types, design thinkers, digital artists, story-tellers, subject-experts and academics from a variety of disciplines. We might even borrow the odd pet. In short, our model moves beyond the current C2B2C or B2C2B loops and we find ourselves somewhere best described as E2E; “everything to everything”. Surely the best place to be to tackle the new research world of controlled instability, quick responsiveness, flexibility, intuition, agility, imagination and creativity.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sage-ism; when age really does matter

The world of fashion is driven by the desire to connect with the deepest parts of our changing psyche and with the many emerging zeitgeists that populate the furthest corners of our world. So it’s always interesting when we detect a shift in the discourse of fashion that seems to be reflected in our broader consumer culture; that’s when we at Stancombe think - “this is it; we’re having a cultural moment!” So what is it that has got our cultural forecasting pulse racing right now?

Last year it was almost impossible to open the pages (digital or otherwise) of any fashion publication and not notice something interesting happening on the advertising front. Rather than impossible, idealised youth, many leading fashion brands presented us with something else entirely; the very real possibility of old age. Starting at ‘high’ end it was impossible for us to ignore 71 year old Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent, or 80 year old Joan Didion for Celine. Soon after, Helen Mirren emerged as a face of cosmetics giant L’Oreal and Australian fashion brand Saba built campaigns around septuagenarians Robyn Nevin and Dion Horstmans.

Now Hollywood is also getting in on the act, which means that somebody somewhere thinks there’s money to be made from watching Anne Hathaway’s cool young boss learning to understand the value of Robert de Niro’s 70-year-old ‘intern’ in The Intern.

And Bunnings, the only place we shop for our vegie seedlings, community gardens, outdoor furniture and balcony plots, has always had a thing for employing overtly older staff. Who doesn’t believe 68 year old ‘Barry’ when he tells you that, “this native grass will survive the bloody apocalypse mate”, or, “you’ll need 120 grit sandpaper for that job”. While Sage Fitness trades on ‘experience and knowledge’ and ‘the experts you have asked for’ in its promotion of personal training courses.

What’s this cultural moment all about?

It’s not a moment of cultural nostalgia. These people are represented in the here and now rather than referenced as something from the past; they are clearly speaking to us in the present.

There’s also a transparency and acknowledgement of who they are, of how they look, what they’ve done and where they’ve been, that belies the idea that this moment is a bit of navel gazing on the part of ‘baby boomers’ (who’s aspirations and self-image don’t tend to align particularly well with traditional ideas of ‘old people’), nor can it be read as an attempt by these brands to appeal to this substantial, ageing cohort. These brands are both high-end and aligned with a much younger aspirational target or are resolutely mass-market.

Here’s what we think is going on …

Whereas once the media (and the world) was filled with ‘baby boomers’ looking at millennials with puzzlement and sometimes incredulity, it looks like our culture has shifted and is having a moment when the gaze has been reversed. Millennials are looking back at older generations for wisdom; they are looking for experience; and they are looking for the kind of authenticity that only comes with both. Age really does matter when it’s allied with the kind of experience and perspective that can’t be downloaded from the internet, or gleaned instantly from the pages of a magazine ad.

Rather than the ‘ageism’ that felt like a dominant cultural theme immediately post-GFC, post-post-GFC there’s a different kind of ‘ism’ emerging; Sage-ism. The deference to the expert, the scholar, the advisor, the thinker, the professional, the wise, the teacher and the mentor - allied with a strong desire to use intelligence and experience to understand the world. The archetype of the Sage is having another moment in the sun – often in feminine form.

Getting excited too, it seems, is uber-Millenial Lena Dunham who in her newly launched e-newsletter Lenny gives inaugural interview space to an extended conversation with the mature Hillary Clinton who is demonstrating that older women have something valuable to offer society and may take Sage-ism all the way to the White House.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

We’d Rather Live in Paris than in Calgary

One of the things that perplexes us at Stancombe Research + Planning is that traditional ‘Liveable Cities’ indexes tend to favour a certain type of city; middle-sized to small in population, regional, a bit ‘off the grid’ when it comes to business and tourism, and almost always not what you’d traditionally define as a big economic or cultural powerhouse.

Take The Economist Intelligence Unit (TEIU) index of liveable cities; the rankings are dominated by Melbourne, Vancouver, Adelaide, Calgary, Auckland; lovely Canadian and Australasian cities, closely followed by a clutch of Northern European cities such as Helsinki, Zurich and the Scandinavian capitals. They are all fine cities and great places to visit (Melbourne is the home town for many of us here at the agency) but we have to ask – where are New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Singapore or Hong Kong; the cities that, as vibrant, dynamic, cultural, business and financial hubs, you would think would rank highly in many people’s minds as great places to live? 

The answer lies within the metrics used by traditional indexes. TIEU painstakingly draws on a range of factors such as population density, per capita income + GDP, crime rates / threat of terror, access to healthcare and education, climate suitability and infrastructure factors in order to develop its liveability score. These obviously work against the vibrant and dynamic world capitals listed above and favour the less obvious, and perhaps, in some ways, the less vibrant cities that continually top the list. 

So what happens if the metrics are changed and a set of measurables are created that provide a more contemporary and less hard economic perspective on what makes a city liveable? What happens when the ‘softer’ factors that might drive a sense of community are bought into focus? The resulting list of cities look like much more fun, stimulating and vibrant places to live - sorry Calgary, Adelaide and ZurichBusiness traveller and urban culture magazine, Monocle, has recently published its annual ‘Quality of Life’ city index and the list is quite a different-looking beast to what we’re used to seeing. 

Vibrancy is considered a key contributor to quality of life; factors such as 24 hour opening hours and availability of services, the cost of a good lunch, number of public libraries, efficient transport including bicycle routes, tolerance + diversity and open-minded societies, mixed building heights, aged-care services, proximity to city escapes, support for start-up businesses, number of cinemas per person, proximity to good cafes; the list goes on and of course also includes ‘hard’ economic factors as well as more abstract metrics such as ‘colour’ - both as an aesthetic consideration and a driver of mood / feelings. Although we’re pleased to see that Melbourne still makes the top five of the Monocle list, something more interesting can be observed about the list as a whole. Big economic powerhouse and cultural cities appear in the upper reaches; Paris, Hong Kong, Madrid, Berlin, Singapore and Tokyo - which tops the list and is another favourite haunt of the Stancombe team - score very, very highly; perhaps a truer reflection of liveability from a people and community perspective rather than an economist’s perspective.

Blending qualitative factors with quantitative ‘hard’ metrics will always give us a truer picture of liveability – some thing we’re very conscious of in our own work in this area. We think that Paris, rightly, should trump Calgary, and New York, rightly, should trump Zurich, but then we like to be in the thick of things. And Sydney – which is our agency hometown – we think should always rank highly in the liveability stakes. It is truly a fabulous, vibrant yet relaxed place to live, work and play.

Stancombe are always interested in the latest Liveability indexes. Why? We’re involved in developing an index in Australia that is used to measure the liveability of communities within our major urban centres. Naturally, we take a holistic approach, blending soft qualitative factors with hard quantitative factors to give great insights into the liveability of many of these new communities. It is proving to be a great barometer of liveability and of what factors truly contribute to a strong sense of belonging and community. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Cultural Othorexia: It’s All About What We DON’T Eat

A reductionist, 'denial'-based, prohibitive philosophy is shaping what we do and don't eat.

Steven Bratman M.D. coined the term orthorexia to explain worryingly unhealthy restrictive eating. Essentially, orthorexia is a mental health problem experienced by a minority of individuals in our population, characterised by a deliberate and irrational denial-based, self-punishing relationship with food, based upon a continuously diminishing pool of foods and drinks deemed emotionally and psychologically acceptable to the individual. While this and other forms of mental health is cause for great concern, compassion, care and appropriate professional assistance we are observing that a milder but non-the-less concerning version of cultural orthorexia is playing out in the wider population - the search for healthy eating has become unhealthy.

Cultural orthorexia appears to have entered the general psyche; examples - beyond the individual – abound. Now a large number of people are being serviced by a food industry that is busy excluding; think about the latest fad, the presumed caveman-style Paleo diets excluding dairy, cereal products and a range of processed foods. However we can relax, as it doesn’t seem to require hunting and gathering in the open fields or forests, fighting wild animals or each other, and the need for a continual seasonal migration in order to survive.

Cultural orthorexia is presenting as a reductionist, ‘denial’ and prohibitive philosophy applied to food and the consumption of food. It is evidenced by the Western cultural trends toward exclusion: take out the gluten, banish sugar, eliminate carbs, don’t touch dairy, avoid all processed foods, quinoa but no other grains, a liquid-only diet (cold-pressed juice is de rigueur), no this, no that! 

While farmers + food producers feel the heat, people are walking our cities smugly eating in cafes - like this one in near our office in Sydney - that play to this philosophy of denial. 

This cafĂ© has virtually no food, taste or appetite cues apparent at first glance and you’d be hard pressed to even identify ‘food’ on display. Conversely, the mind is nourished with lots of stories on the wall, ‘philosophies’ of eating, and tons and tons of ingredient and nutrient based information – food is articulated as tables, metrics, words and numbers. Although, it looks like philosophy might not sustain or nourish one alone, but certainly helps to keep things tidy and pared back.

One suspects that a large degree of disassociation and control is required when one chooses to embark on a cultural orthorexic lifestyle. But, cultural orthorexia may be providing the sword and shield against every kind of anxiety (and there seems to be a lot of them) we are experiencing in developed nations. It’s probably not stretching things too far to say that there’s a degree of status involved – exerting ‘orthorexic’ control over what we consume is a badge proudly displayed to others. What we DON’T eat helps to set us apart rather than what we DO eat.

The Australian Food Pyramid was recently re-launched. It has tweaked a few things yet still promotes balance and a bit of everything. We DO need to eat well (or is that just a highly unfashionable perspective held by us here at Stancombe?), and that old adage ‘everything in moderation’ looks like it may be due for a revival.

On a final note, a recent article in The Independent struck a strong chord with us. It seems the cultural is now becoming more pathological and the debate around recognising it as a medical condition takes on a new vigour:


Friday, May 29, 2015

Blood Sweat + Tears: Survival Chic and the Devolution of Humanity

Basic survival is now uber-chic. Human sustainability is now what matters ... even if it's more devolution than evolution.

There is a collective desire for something stripped back and stripped down; a push towards the pared-down parts rather than the complex whole; the core, rather than the skin or flesh; the essential elements of our humanity;  bare with us as we talk this through…

At Stancombe, we have previously detected the not-so-subtle undercurrent of a return to basics. Primarily a ‘devolution’ of life experience, this cultural drive encourages us to strip back our lives and embrace the pure, primal elements of life rather than the excess of its disposable trappings. Now we’re not just happy with making our environment a testament to simplicity and austerity, we are turning inward, focusing on our sense of being human and asking a lot of the same questions. What are the basic elements of humanity? What lies at the stripped back core beneath our skin and flesh? What is excess and disposable versus what is enduring, elemental and sustainable?

Helen Macdonald’s falconry-and-grief-driven memoir, H Is For Hawk taps into this phenomenon. The commercial success of television such as Man vs. Wild, Naked and Afraid, the prevalence of 'survivalist' fitness trends such as Tough Mudder, as well as blockbuster films such as Gravity, 127 hours, All Is Lost, Wild and the delirious, non-verbal, visceral reboot of the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max Fury Road, are all testament to the fact that there is a growing curiosity around skills & attributes we’ve all but left behind in our specialised modern existence. 

All have popularised the allure of getting back to basics as humans, ridding ourselves of all the superficial/artificial trappings of our more evolved selves and focusing on lower order, base needs – such as food, warmth, shelter, security, safety, as well as instinctive emotions and behaviours. In a sense we’re flipping the Maslow hierarchy. Culturally, we’ve reverted to a more devolved sense of who we are. 

Basic survival is now uber-chic. We’re no longer just chasing the best things in life, preferring instead to dig deep for the primal things that ensure our sustainability as human beings.