“Quality has a way of being recognised and that’s why it triumphs.”

 An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Time To Think

Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?

Hill: Meaningful consumption is idealistic. But one shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it’s unrealistic. It is a combination of keeping a keen eye on the ROI while bringing R&D, design, and marketing together to create deeper and richer experiences for customers. Within the financial services industry, we enforce this innovation through design solutions that enable each customer’s sense of identity to reveal itself – whether they are a risk takers or cautious builder of capital. How customers see themselves determines the style and messaging of our clients’ communication with them.

Q: Why is Meaningful Consumption so much in focus at the moment?

Hill: It is of primary interest to business, not consumers. We may consider the environmental, ecological or moral background of a company, but when we go out to consume, we typically practise meaningful consumption at a far less conscious level (unless we have so much time that we can reflect on what we’re doing before we buy).

Q: In what ways do you think consumption is driven by consumer experience?

Hill: The experience is part of the equation for the vast majority of us, but still only a part. The old favourites like price and convenience still play a major role.

Most of the time when we buy for pleasure (as opposed to needing to refuel the car before it runs out), we are looking to stimulate ourselves. This need for stimulation naturally increases as previous purveyors of meaning, such as religion, state and family, fall by the wayside. This need for stimulation is still the primary driver, so even when we shop for our organically produced laptop cover from Iceland we are still thinking: ‘I need to feel good about being good’

Q: Why do you think we have moved from product-focused consumption towards cultural consumption – and what are the key social drivers behind this shift?

Hill: I am not convinced that we have. The product is still king, its messages change that’s all. Pepsi – you remember, the other cola – is now talking up its contempt for sugar lovers instead of trying to compete on taste, and it’s still failing. On the other hand, everyone I know either has or wants an iPod. Is that a cultural decision? No, it’s because iPods don’t skip tracks when you jog, they look beautiful and they feel great in your hand. Quality has a way of being recognised by all of us and that’s why it triumphs.

Q: Who would you single out as leaders (both people and companies) in Meaningful Consumption?

Hill: Richard Branson, because he’s game for anything – in fact, everything – and this enthusiasm and energy fuels the appeal of the Virgin brand. He knows that good ideas come from people everywhere, not only, or perhaps rarely, from the boardroom. And this level of down-to-earth realism and galactic success gives us as consumers the desire to buy into the Branson ideal when we buy from him.

Another leader that springs to mind is Steven Spielberg. He is a great inventor of tales and stories that appeal on a simple, emotional level, despite the intellectual properties his films may have. Everyone has seen at least one of his films and they love them – and love has got to be the most meaningful of consumptions.

Q: What will the future impact of Meaningful Consumption be for brands, services and products?

Hill: If this trend continues to grow at its current rate the impact on consumer brands will be significant. We can expect to see a mixture of intelligent and considered brand messaging that legitimately aims to elicit positive emotional responses and brash and clumsy attempts to get on the bandwagon. Much like when every company from domestic appliance providers to telephone companies sticks a football on their ads when the World Cup comes on the telly and thinks the public will buy into this crassness.

The intelligence of the consumer will determine the success of these approaches, but the tendency to always promote the good will have serious influence on the way we live. It could make political correctness look tame by comparison: covering consumer products with a veneer of the feel-good factor so that anything negative, bad or destructive will be social anathema. We may risk outlawing what does not support our often manufactured view of ourselves.

Q: What lifestyle changes do you think will be the most important in years to come?

Hill: As the chances to generate income independent of an employer increase, so there will be more opportunities to explore our own potential. On the down side, there will be more government interference in our so-called private lives as technology enables us to track, record, monitor and evaluate the way we eat, sleep, work, play – everything. This data is invaluable to business and will inevitably become available by design or incompetence. This feeling of having our every movement watched will result in two major reactions: spoilt-brat mentality and outright rebellion. Let us hope we have the strength to rebel.

The nanny state may well inherit the world if our interest in political life continues to be matched by our contempt for current political remedies. New solutions will be sought locally, but government will try to ‘harmonise’ these approaches into a solution which solves little and suits no one.

Q: What is the biggest challenge companies face in the future?

Hill: Accepting that the consumer wants influence and power and being creative and humble enough to engineer products, services and marketing solutions that enable this to happen.

Questions on Time and Meaning…

Q: How has modern society changed your notions of time?

Hill: Impossible to say. This is the only society I really know. However, the increasing rapidity of delivery of everything from written communication to pizzas, has caused the tempo of urban life to reach such a dizzying pitch that more and more of us are looking for release, more frequently and in more places. Companies that can provide opportunities for release will reap the benefits.

One way of slowing down the tempo is by increasing the amount of free space on websites. This often results in a calmer user experience and one that prospective customers prefer to being bombarded with sales messages.

Q: What is your definition of ‘quality time’?

Hill: Marketing drivel, to be honest. It’s a clammy, nauseating expression used by people who lack the vocabulary or wit to use more personal and descriptive adjectives.

Quality time is simply creating the time to do the things that make us feel good. Most of our ‘lack of quality time’ problems emerge when we fail to recognise that we choose how we spend our time. Most of us in the West don’t have to work as many hours as we choose to, or join clubs, or fill our diaries with evening and weekend activities. Nine times out of ten we can exercise our right to choose. The trouble is we don’t like accepting the fact that it is our choice.

Q: Why do people today feel they have less time?

Hill: There are two main reasons.

First, technology has increased our connectedness to the world which means that we are never alone with ourselves now. We are constantly informed of problems, jobs and responsibilities that await via email, phone and the ubiquitous sms. This leads us to live in a hectic future rather than in the here and now. This, ultimately, diminishes our sense of connectedness.

Second, children have become the great project of our times. No longer are they allowed to grow up aware of and participating in the dangers, thrills and joys of life. Now they must be protected, mollycoddled and indulged – often at the expense of their parents’ relationship – their development monitored, measured and analysed. Taking up more and more of their parents’ time, they expect the same unmitigated attention and interest from the rest of the world.

Those of us so far without children bear witness and tremble – will we too become sad, petty creatures consumed with every movement and action of our offspring?

Q: How do you feel the 24/7 culture has impacted on brands, products and services?

Hill: The 24/7 culture only exists in a complete state online at the moment. With access to the web all the time, prospects and clients are looking for answers, inspiration and reasons in different ways. So we at Brand X create solutions where customers can choose to read, view or interact in order to learn more about what our clients have to offer.

I live in Denmark, so 24/7 is still a far off galaxy. Many shops still close at 2pm on a Saturday (the one day when you can spend time and money in retail consumption). In the public sector, however, because of massive funding from the tax payer, everything has gone electronic so you, the tax payer, end up doing their work online at night, instead of them doing their work during the day. Try calling most public offices in Denmark after 2pm and you get the inevitable ‘Press one to hear how much tax we are going to skin you for…’

Q: Convergence technology is supposed to save us time. Is this your perception?

Hill: Ha-ha. Privately, it’s great for anyone who has the time to figure out how they converge, but updating and maintaining the data requires time and inclination that most of us don’t have. Commercially, convergent technologies are fabulous at improving workflows and speed of execution provided you have a technician to maintain, fix and support them. If you don’t they become relics before they have even been installed.

Q: Has technology improved our quality of life or made achieving work/leisure balance more stressful?

Hill: There are distinct improvements to life from technology, like never having to wash clothes or dishes by hand again, being able to book a flight and hotel without having to go to a travel agent, finding the information we need and – I could go on. The basic rule if you want any technology to get adopted is to make it simple, interesting and instant.

Mobile phones though have polluted the once pleasurable tones of fellow commuters grumbling, chattering with one another and snoring. Now, all we get is: ‘Gerald, have you discussed the top secret project with Anthony from Legal yet?’. Idiots

Q: Can you give us a speed conclusion on Time and Meaningful Consumption?

Hill: Slow up. It is not a race. We don’t consume to achieve meaning, we consume because we are hungry, tired, thirsty, horny or bored. Meaning comes from all the living in between. ‘Life is hard’, someone once said to Voltaire, to which the wit replied: ‘Compared to what?’. I love that.

Interview: Questions by Kjaer Global for the Time to Think Conference (UK), August 2006

Keynotes on Adem Hill and Brand X
* The company, based in Copenhagen, was founded to bring a fresh approach to financial marketing.
* It builds tools that enable clients working in the FS sector to get measurable and targeted results.
* Brand X’s work covers everything from promotional campaigns for media and retail to full-scale partnership programmes.

Profile: As co-founder of Brand X, Adam Hill has brought both creative thinking and a coherent voice to the all-too-tired world of financial marketing. He says: ‘Building brands and marketing programmes that possess the agility to recognise, define and increase the value of all corporate relationships is what will determine durable commercial success over the next decade’

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