THE BIG TENSION and how it explains the success of brands today
Julian Saunders, Founder of training organisation The Joined Up Company. Parent.
Issue 45 | December 2017
Son (25) and daughter (23) have returned home after university.
The perfect opportunity for this planner to observe close up two millennials with their always- to-hand smartphones and dirty, untidied bedrooms.
I pause at this point to give some advice to fellow sufferers who have failed to train their children to "TIDY UP THEIR BEDROOMS!". The advice is this: it's too late. There is no point in bellowing things like "PICK UP YOUR CLOTHES OFF THE FLOOR" through closed doors while your children fester in the sheets of their unchanged bedclothes. You should simply adopt an air of Buddhist calm and accept the inevitable. You will be much happier.
Anyway, back to the social observation: -
Two millennials, installed chez Saunders, are tooled up with and glued to devices, which look very similar to those flip-open thingies that Captain Kirk spoke into whilst fending off aliens on planet Zog. Yes, Star Trek has come true.
Son sits at dinner with a slight smirk on his face as he messages friends in China on WeChat. Daughter grabs the remote control from my wife because she is too slow at downloading the latest episode of "Made in Chelsea." "FFS, it's like watching a moron," she says affectionately as she prods buttons in a blur of fingers and thumbs.
Son ignores us during the evening meal as he searches for cheap flights to Japan so he can visit his girlfriend. He might not yet be able to dematerialise in one place and materialise in another but otherwise the world is at his command. He can order or book seemingly anything with just a few prods of fast-moving thumbs. He can banter via an app with friends in four different locations around the world.
He is living a life of semi- planned spontaneity in which arrangements can be made at the last minute and changed live and in real time. He has the power. He has the freedom. Beam me up Scottie.
Or does he?
There are also limitations and constraints. Stuck at home, he doesn't fancy spending half of his trainee's income on overpriced rental accommodation. The taxman is taking his cut to recover student debt. Several of his friends have little or no income so they can't come out. Property is stupidly expensive in London but still quite cheap in Berlin but, sadly, some beery backwoodsman called Farage has screwed up his plans to work wherever he wants in Europe. His parents and other property owning oldsters have "eaten all the pies". New Labour's winning anthem has turned sour – things are not getting better. In fact, they may be getting worse.
This is THE BIG TENSION.
It works like this: empowerment + freedom runs up against the pressure cooker of constraint.
The most resilient brands in the future will be those that help resolve THE BIG TENSION. What my children want is (surprise, surprise) Value and Service, just like their parents. But how they want it is different: -
Tough customers. They are ratty when things don't go smoothly ("they haven't got a mobile site FFS!"). Expectations have been raised/new standards set by a generation of constantly innovating brands that live on their smartphones. If your brand does not wake up to their exacting service expectations then things are not going to go well for you. The smart advice from design thinkers is "always keep the toughest customers in mind" – because they will make you more resilient. So, what are their demands?
Quick and easy through a smartphone. It is a smart move to design for mobile first. (BTW- talking out loud at your smartphone via Siri, for example, is still way too embarrassing.) Want a brand to model your design on? Look at Booking.com. They are pretty much always page one of search because they work constantly to make their e-commerce as smooth and frictionless as possible
Don't just use their data without asking. They know that Zuckerberg's mob is a bit scuzzy and that Facebook has tried to get away with things in the past through impenetrable T&Cs. They know that when they are encouraged to "sign in through Facebook" that it is just an attempt scrape their data. Clean up your act in this area. Embrace the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It is your friend.
Cheaper and quicker (and quicker). Amazon. Enough said. Try Googling Amazon innovations and you will see what I mean – Prime/One Click Checkout/Drones. It is all getting quicker. There is no "you want it urgently but you will have to pay through nose". No. Winning brands have abolished the trade-off. Gen Z insist on quick, cheap and good quality.
Design in flexibility. "Book now, pay after you stay"; "Sign in four of your friends"; "Cancel whenever you want with no exit charges"; "No contract means that you are free to go and free to stay"; "Only drive when it works for you. No office. No Boss"; "Request a ride and you will be on your way in minutes"; these are promises made variously by the brands my children love, including Booking. com, AirBnB, Netflix, Uber and Lyft. They make perfect sense to a generation that wants to act spontaneously (EMPOWERMENT) but cannot come up with the cash (CONSTRAINT).
Flexible service design helps resolve THE BIG TENSION
Upgrade the experience all the time. To live life through a smartphone is to experience constant improvements and enhancements. Every year your phone gives you a big software makeover (you know, the one that takes at least 15 minutes) with new bells and whistles. Meanwhile over at Facebook and Snapchat, ferocious amounts of A/B tests are happening in order to design new enticements to keep you in the habit ("You have memories to look back on"; "You and Patrick have been Facebook friends for 10 years"; "Jim likes your post"). It's Darwinian innovation, of course. If they don't evolve then you will fall out of the habit and they will be swept away as Myspace was. The effect of all this restless paranoid innovation is to make the smartphone an endless pleasure ground of daily upgrades, which then become an expectation, a new norm.
But what about making the world a better place? Don't all the surveys tell us millennials say they will switch to ethical brands?
It's true a few companies are admired when it comes to ethical behaviour – the ones that have been committed to "social impact" from the start like Toms or Ben and Jerry's or John Lewis. They are (to use that overused word) "authentic".
Otherwise canting pieties about 'brand purpose" and social responsibility don't cut much ice. It's seen as cover for companies doing what they have always done or not paying their taxes (step forward and take a bow many global brands and much of Silicon Valley.)
The likes of Uber and Amazon lobby for open markets so they can grab market share and kill the competition. Those Uber drivers are expendable when self-driving cars come in. Amazon are just playing the game that Tesco played in the past: driving out competition and buying as cheap as possible.
Son and daughter understand this.
Does that make them cynical? No just sceptical and realistic. Qualities that they are going to need in spades to thrive and survive the pitiless libertarianism of the digital revolution.