Thursday, 10 December 2009

Why the world needs fewer handbags

One of the marketing department’s cleverest tricks is product life extension. With a “new improved formula” here, and a version 2.0 there, the marketer can reignite interest in a fading brand with minimal investment. For the purveyors of FMCGs, such as toothpaste and shampoo, marketing sheen is administered in lieu of real research and development, no matter what those white-coated boffins in the ads lead us to believe. And this is considered good business. Money for old rope is every finance director’s dream.

But while extending the life of a brand of detergent isn’t necessarily all that harmful (we’ve all got to wash our clothes occasionally) pull that same trick with electronics and the downside is more pronounced. How many iPods have you bought in your lifetime? How many DVD players? How many TVs? These faux product upgrades provide something for nothing, but it’s what we do with all the somethings that causes alarm. Continuous flogging of the product life cycle is a serious environmental threat, packing landfills to the brim with materials that nobody really knows how to dispose of safely.

Acclaimed minimalist designer Dieter Rams spoke out recently against our throwaway culture. He told the Times:

“There’s such a lot of things. Such a lot of unusable things. Most things are unnecessary and overdone. Look around: we cannot send to the third world all the garbage we don’t need any more. We have to go back to more simplicity, longevity.”

Longevity is anathema to marketers, of course. But perhaps if consumers were trained to see that Rams’s philosophy of “Weniger, aber besser” (less, but better) is both practical and desirable, marketers would begin decorating their brands with more sustainable messages.

Sustainable doesn’t have to mean green. According to IDEO UK managing director Sue Siddall, obsession with product life cycle is dissipating, partly because endless replenishment isn’t always commercially desirable.

“Look at the handbag business: high-end, luxury handbags. These brands taught their consumers to be promiscuous around brands, they taught them to buy the “it” bag every season, four bags a year. They now have a bunch of consumers that are brand disloyal. They don’t care which brand, it just has to be the one Sienna Miller is wearing. They have driven a behaviour that has shot them in the foot.”