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River is 10!

River is 10!

River is ten years old!

In 2008 River started flowing – how time flies!

If you’re reading this then you have helped get us here – so we wanted to say a big thank you! It’s a special thing to reach double digits as a business – and we’re very proud to have made it.

As with all aspects of life the last ten years have been an interesting journey for River and there never seemed to be a dull moment. From launching at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 to being on the verge of Brexit now, the only thing that has been certain over the last ten years is that things change!

But we’ve been fortunate enough to adapt to that change and that’s thanks to the wonderful colleagues, clients and business partners we worked with over the years. With your help we’ve travelled far and wide, from New York to Nigeria, Poland to Pakistan, Denmark to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Always delivering insights, always marvelling at the breadth and depth of people’s imaginations.

It’s been a pleasure working with you all and we hope we’re all still together at 20!

Thanks for all your support.

The River Team

Cryptocurrencies: are you all in?

Cryptocurrencies: are you all in?

If you’ve been watching the World Cup of late you may have seen an interesting ad during the break for Hdac:

https://youtu.be/s8EcrSjb85o

 

As far as we know this is the first time blockchain technology has been promoted to the mass market via TV (in the UK at least) but it is certainly a sign of things to come. A blockchain in its most basic form is the platform that brings cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ether into play.

 

River recently undertook a research study looking at consumers with wide ranging and self-directed investment portfolios and asked them about their understanding of, and in interest in, cryptocurrencies.  The results were surprising and highlight some of the issues with the market as it currently stands.

 

Lots of heat, not much light

 

Firstly, the idea of cryptocurrency is very exciting for investors.  There is genuine belief that this represents a credible long-term investment option and will become an important part of their portfolios.  Whilst there a lot of noise in the financial press about the massive swings in Bitcoin, there is a wider sense that cryptocurrency is establishing itself as a credible tradable commodity that has very good long-term growth potential.  In a market that is always looking for new ways to invest, cryptocurrency is seen as a great growth opportunity

 

HODL: Not for the faint hearted

 

But the key factor putting off many investors at present is the volatility of market and the potential for short term loss that will take a while to recover.  The message you’ll hear on all cryptocurrency forums when asked what to do with their investments is HODL – a slang term that effectively means hold on – don’t lose your nerve.  Many investors jumped on to the attractive upswing in Bitcoin but are now facing a bear market for most cryptocurrencies.  The idea of getting rich quick has fast become HODL – not the investment strategy many were looking for!  The scariest thing for many investors is that there is no long term normative data to benchmark how long or how low currencies will fall for – it’s a new market and investors are learning as they go.

 

Where do I begin?

 

For many this is the key barrier.  Most ordinary investors don’t know the difference between a blockchain and an ICO.  The terminology is a new language – both in terms of finance and technology.  But currency exchanges are now emerging that allow investors the opportunity to buy different cryptocurrencies as easy as regular currencies – you simply need a digital wallet and the conviction to invest.  You may even have seen a Bitcoin ATM near you!

 

 

So despite the perceived complexity and the volatility, blockchains and their cryptocurrencies are generating more interest and forming a larger part of our discussions with investors than ever before.  It’s an emerging, exciting market that many want to be involved in – but indecision over what currency and to some degree what wallet and what exchange is still a factor.   Many however expect the market to consolidate and simplify as it becomes more established – the perception is that it won’t be long before your IFA is recommending some cryptocurrency holdings!

2018 – the year so far

2018 – the year so far

We haven’t blogged for a while – we’ve been very busy on a wide range of great projects.  Here’s 5 cool things we’ve done this year (and we’re only half way through)

 

  We’ve done ethnographic work in Japan and Hong Kong – & compared the cultural differences across the two markets  –  that was interesting

 

   We’ve helped develop new mobile gaming concepts –  which was lots of fun

 

   We’ve undertaken quantitative research in Africa – which was enlightening

 

  We’ve run online communities with football fans – which was close to our hearts

 

  We helped relaunch a major global brand’s e-commerce strategy  – which was commercially illuminating

 

  Oh yes, and we’ve tackled GDPR as well, which was, necessary

 

We’ve done a lot more asides, travelled far and wide as always, and helped turn insight into action for our clients.

 

We live in interesting times, and we never stop learning

We’re Hiring

We’re Hiring

An exciting role for someone who is looking to develop their strategic and client consulting skills. You’ll be a key part of our dynamic team, working across sectors and clients on a wide variety of challenges across the globe.

[embeddoc url=”http://www.riverresearch.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/River-Research-Research-Manager-Job-Description-2016.doc” download=”all” viewer=”google”]

 

Is this the Novel for Our Sector? – Review of ‘Satin Island’

Is this the Novel for Our Sector? – Review of ‘Satin Island’

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I haven’t entirely decided how to take Satin Island. It’s either a clever and highly nuanced satire of the knowledge and consultancy sectors at their most beard-stroking and hubristic. Or it’s a rather abstract, beard-strokingly impressionistic musing on ‘the patterns that surround us’ and the connectedness of, well, everything. Either way, it’s an impressively imagined rendering of our sector’s voice and culture – and it’s hugely original.

I’m inclined to see it as an elegant satire of the sector. Frankly, there’s not nearly enough satirising of our sector.

Here’s our almost nameless narrator, ‘U’ (you? Kafka’s drifting ‘K’?), an ethnographer-anthropologist working on an undefined project of global importance at a global company, headed by a talismanic surname, ‘Peyman’ (Sir Martin perhaps?) – a man who’s a sage to ministers and statesmen. ‘U’ is paid to think about things on what appears to be a rather vanity, ‘look clever’ footing (having once written a noted work on night club culture). That will already ring a bell curve with our peers.

‘U’ opines on a kaleidoscope of ‘things’: parachute-tampering deaths; the slow movement of oil in oil spillages; the cargo cult in Vanuatu. He suffers a form of writer’s block, seeking to write a heavily anticipated ‘Great Report’, while not knowing its subject or purpose (anyone in our sector who’s read this novel is certain to use ‘The Great Report’ label for their next piece of work). He has an artist’s eye and his reflections on the connections between forms of movement are often a delight (Lagos traffic and buffering; tumours and oil spills; jellyfish and parachutes). They reminded me of looping projector installations in contemporary art galleries. (Tom McCarthy has mentioned a phase in the gestation of the novel where he found himself enthralled by repeat footage of oil spills).

The novel does a fine job of rendering some of those all too common pretensions of the consultancy world, and the desperate efforts many of us make to be seen to be doing anything but ‘selling stuff to people’. A culture that co-opts the language of the art world, the design world, the world of people-who-actually-make-stuff world. Whence such job titles as ‘Cultural Storyteller’, ‘Ethno-Curator’ and ‘Behavioural Engineer’. (‘No, you’re not getting retitled ‘Financial Storyteller’, mate. You’re staying ‘Payroll’’). It even resembles a consultancy report, with its short, numbered sections (1.1., 1.2…) and foyer coffee-table friendly squarer form.

It also captures the way idle thinking can quickly turn into orthodoxy (remember ‘Brand Love’?) – in the way the industry is currently mudwrestling with ‘storytelling’. We learn that Peyman has started using one of U’s passing constructs at a very high level. ‘U’ is later asked by Peyman’s assistant ‘to bring up whatever you’ve got’ to a rare meeting – even though ‘U’ hasn’t actually written anything. That alone seems to do the trick. It all feels like one glorious suit of Emperor’s New Clothes, though ‘U’ is no ‘Lucky Jim’ chancer – he’s terribly earnest.

Throughout, ‘U’ is an enchanted observer of ‘things’, but a pretty dreadful empathiser with and observer of people – something one sometimes hears said about a sector that’s supposed to be about understanding ‘real people’. His tone is wonderfully clinical, elevated and removed. His lover tells him a shocking story about how she was seized by the police during an anti-globalisation protest, and was forced to act out a bizarre, semi-sexual ballet for an unknown senior official. ‘U’ doesn’t really pursue this – it’s not that interesting to him. Likewise, a colleague has a terminal illness, which cues some thoughtful musing on the idea of attaining a kind of immortality by phasing text messages to send beyond the grave (but not much sympathy).

Oh, we do see flashes of our hero fantasising about edifice-tearing and sabotage, but at each point normal service resumes. He’s a brilliant, cold fish. I have a London-based consultant friend of a friend about whom we sometimes affectionately say ‘He finds Wallpaper magazine a bit provincial’ and ‘He can read Monocle with a straight face’. He can talk in depth about Sao Paulo pichaçao, but can’t name a single character from Coronation Street, past or present. (Of course, it wouldn’t be him if he could). That’s ‘U’. If you work in the knowledge and consultancy sector, he’s eerily familiar.

So, think: ‘Monocle – the Novel’. I really enjoyed it. It is probably the great novel of ‘our’ sector for this century. Ironically though, for a novel that channels marketing and consultancy so well, I can’t see it shifting many units or taking the Booker Prize, despite making the longlist this month and also – fittingly –being available in a traditionally bound luxury edition for no less than £185. Tom McCarthy is a literary innovator and his previous two novels are equally smart and tricksy, but he’s no crowd-pleaser.

If only he’d called it ‘The Girl with the Satin Island’. Or ‘The Strange Young Ethnographer Who Thought of Oil Spills and Dreamed of Staten Island’. I’m seeing a cover with an enigmatic silhouette on it, walking into the distance; a Richard and Judy endorsement in the bottom right corner. Come on, consultants. Let’s workshop this.

Rollercoaster River – Our Summer Day Out

Rollercoaster River – Our Summer Day Out

At River Research we’re all about ‘immersion’, in and out of the office. Once a year, the whole team go out and do something – yes – ‘funtastic’. This July we decided to go fearless and take our summer day out to Alton Towers.

River Team Smaller

Alton Towers is of course famous for its ‘blockbuster’ rollercoaster rides – and has been famous for the wrong reasons recently. Some of us – including me – aren’t the first fans of rollercoasters and rarely very brave in general. (One of us was having nightmares about teacups weeks before the trip, so found solace in the gardens of the original park. He knows who he is. He studied the branding and communication architecture of the rides and, apparently, the more abstract the name of the ride, the more terrifying it is. ‘Only the brave’, as we say).

After some hesitation of my own, I found the courage to meet Rita – an easy rollercoaster, as the theme park describes it. Rita actually reaches speeds of 100 km per hour in just 2.5 seconds, which nobody told me when I was queuing up. I must confess that after wrestling with the urge to give up, I enjoyed this vastly more than I expected. I will definitely go back to you, Rita. Or alternatively, hide in the gardens.

Rita and Park

We also got wet. The sun came out and we all went for a splash on the rapids – and as champions of ‘diving in’, this ride was, frankly, borderline mandatory. The river rapids send rushing waters surging under you, sending you into a spin and forcing you to navigate through crashing waterfalls.

Water Ride Smaller

Not feeling quite wet enough, we moved on to bath time – ‘but not as you know it’. Once you’re in the bathtub, you fall through waterfalls, get a tepid power shower and brace yourself for the big submerge.

Log Flume Smaller

But don’t worry – if you pay £2, you can dry yourself off in a big drier machine designed up to 2 people at time.

Drying off Smaller

Our day out finished with a delicious dinner at the Blacksmith’s Arms (an old tithe barn), a short distance from Alton Towers – more rustic and cosy than we’d expected. All told, an exhilarating, exhausting day and a fine ‘crowd pleaser’. I would do it all again. Who says immersion can’t be fun?

Planes, Planes and Researchers – Review of ‘Skyfaring’

Planes, Planes and Researchers – Review of ‘Skyfaring’

skyfaring feature

‘Skyfaring’ is a memoir and meditation on air travel and flight published earlier this year, written by working pilot, former consultant and New York Times contributor, Mark Vanhoenacker.

It instantly caught my attention as a title for obvious work reasons (I bought it with my company birthday voucher, no less!). We spend an awful lot of time on planes in our line of work and few won’t have found themselves straying into metaphysical ruminations on flying on the way back from a piece of research (gin helps, too).

Flight is, once one puts aside the mundaneness and routine, still remarkable, mind-boggling and – from what we see from high up – often stunningly beautiful (give or take that approach to Heathrow). The experience and the very idea of waking up in Moscow and going to bed in Chicago can still inspire child-like awe. I still feel this, so when I read that a pilot had written about it from his underreported angle, I wanted to know exactly what he made of it all.

The book is a strong proposition and Vanhoenacker has a gift for the metaphysical and the lyrical which will inevitably stand out among what I imagine is a straight-talking, overwhelmingly Alpha Male peer group (globally, only 3% of commercial pilots are women). I have pilots down as officer-like and ‘good in a crisis’ (code for ‘rarely does small talk’). They’re one profession where an upper class accent can still sound, oh, timelessly reassuring and plain right. Mark Vanhoenacker isn’t like that: he loves flying and he loves to talk about the spectacle and the wonder.

Alas, the book didn’t quite, er, take off for me. There are reams of wonderment and awe; the quiet beauty of the earth ever peeking through the cockpit window. But it felt light on many aspects I wanted to hear about. It reminded me of well-preserved copies of the National Geographic. Volcanoes and spectacle in brilliant double-page colour; not much about people. It’s dislocated and a little ‘removed’, almost. There’s something of the lone warrior about that pilot.

I entirely buy into (and now use) the writer’s notion of what he describes as ‘place lag’. This is the disorientating cousin of jet lag that makes us feel thrown by being picked up and placed in another part of the world, leaving the events of the morning seeming like they happened many months ago. I also totally felt the author’s awe in the miracle of flight. I used to be someone who hated flying and now feels unbelievably privileged to have lived in an age where Moscow is a bit of a drag and San Francisco can feel like a trip to Brighton. I don’t get scared anymore. We were at Alton Towers a few weeks ago and teenagers were fearlessly raising their arms on the rides (I learned that this means that they’re so brave they don’t need to hold on). I still feel like doing that on landing sometimes.

There are also plenty of enjoyable nuggets on how pilots and aviation map the planet – thinking not of countries but of nodes and corridors. There’s particular fun to be had in the names of the territories and ‘waypoints’ they use to navigate. Leaving Australia, you may pass through three ‘waypoints’ named WALTZ, INGMA and TILDA. The ‘dirty meat’ trend is being flexed around Kansas with waypoints called BARBQ, SPICY, SMOKE, RIBBS and BRISKT. (Disappointingly, there are no waypoints over England named DREADFL, OVER, BOILD and VEG).

But a book like this could have been more. I wanted to know about the weight of human responsibility a pilot bears. About the effect of 9/11 and air disasters on how pilots feel. The human cargo. A little more heart.

Then again, perhaps the whole point about pilots is that they do need to be that little bit… distant and clinical. It’s probably an advantage to all of us on board (including the nervous insomniac in 23C, sandwiched between the teething infant twins and the septuagenarian pilgrim). That pilot is in control. He loves his job. He’s so confident about his human cargo, he’s not even contemplating us. Sit back and rest easy, noble researcher-consultant. And write up your notes.

Humbled by Economy Strawberry Jam

Humbled by Economy Strawberry Jam

NoshA while ago I was visiting Auckland in New Zealand and found myself in Ponsonby, a onetime working class inner-city suburb of unassuming, white weatherboard houses, which has since become an Auckland Greenwich Village or Notting Hill. You know: eye-watering real estate prices, power walkers, high end eateries and delis.
I came across the local branch of a market-style grocery chain called Nosh, which feels a little like a NZ take on Whole Foods. You’re seeing organic produce in baskets, chalk boards, lots of imported dairy, charcuterie and condiments.
This is not the kind of place I was going to find my local FMCG heroes (the fabled Kiwi ‘Chocolate Fish’, ‘Pineapple Lumps’ or ‘Burger Rings’). For one of the awkward pleasures often shared by people working in insight is heading to the supermarkets and ogling the local mass-market legends (see also: Maple Syrup Baked Beans; salty licorice, Bird’s Milk, Tim Tams, etc).

At Nosh, I met Planet Earth’s most ‘added-value’ Economy Strawberry Jam. They were stocking Essential Waitrose Strawberry Jam – several neat rows of it. This strawberry jam was being sold at over twice the price it is sold at in the UK, and confidently fraternising with a select few decidedly premium jams.

It felt like a micro-scandal, this. Surely, Ponsonby gourmets were being taken for fools? It also felt a little reckless (for wouldn’t the well-travelled, Anglophile Aucklander know all about Waitrose?). Here is a foodie nation that often does homely British-style ‘comfort food’ better than the British (I give you fish and chips). Here is a nation that invented the ‘flat white’. It seemed perverse to me that a bountiful land of vineyards and orchards (and, I’m guessing, strawberry fields) would fly a jar of economy strawberry jam 18,000 kilometres to its cupboards.

(For the non-UK reader, Essential is Waitrose’s ‘private label’ / value range, introduced early in the UK recession to help stem a defection of shoppers to discount stores. Given Waitrose’s strong aspirational, middle class associations, there’s often unintended humour when a food receives its ‘essential’ badge. It’s hard not to imagine crude mobile phone footage on CNN (to the wail of sirens and gunfire) – a breathless professional in a torn shirt, pleading to the Red Cross for Essential Guacamole and Essential Chorizo).

Seeing Essential Strawberry Jam posturing here, I instantly Instagram-ed it. This felt like shopper dynamite. I tweeted it to Nosh (okay, I had struck on some free wireless), glibly asking them if they thought Aucklanders wouldn’t realise that they were being sold ‘economy’ for premium.

They replied that they weren’t passing it off as premium, but they stocked it because their customers loved it. That is a tiny bit evasive (it’s an emphatically premium store, with premium food; they don’t sell my Burger Rings or Diet Coke).

But they have a perfectly solid point – customers want it.

This was a moment I should probably cherish. Besides finding the most added-value economy strawberry jam on the planet, here was my pristine reminder that value is in the eye of the beholder; that brands are built on consumer belief, not hard facts; that context is extremely powerful (there’s glamour, 18,000 km from drizzly England, rubbing shoulders with truffle oil and Fiji water). That sometimes just being novel and distinctive on shelf can be special enough. That provenance – e.g. Britishness, there in NZ – can hold huge sway.

It’s also a reminder about strong, single-minded design: the ‘Essential’ packaging is plain and utilitarian, but, actually, that same pared back, typography-led look-and-feel is just as likely to grace premium brands (BluePrint Juice; Vitamin Water, Voss, Aesop, Jo Malone), where they come across as desirably understated and in no hurry to flaunt themselves.

So, behold: that Waitrose Essential Strawberry Jam was positively dripping value. In fact I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t bring a few jars back to the UK.

Jake

Smartphones in Beijing: Hello Xiaomi, Goodbye Apple

Smartphones in Beijing: Hello Xiaomi, Goodbye Apple

ML sellerI took this photo as I walked through a subway in central Beijing, China’s fast-paced capital. The man in the picture, Gao Jie, was playing with his large screen smartphone as I walked past his stand. He runs a street stall, selling a range of products – Thai candles, phone screen protectors and decorative mobile chains. The electric bike in the background is his means of commuting to work. His was sending a WeChat message on his phone K-Touch (a local Chinese brand), which cost him £80 at the time he bought it. When asked how much he could make every month, he was smiling, ‘not too much’, he said. According to official stats, the average monthly salary of Beijing is about £500.

It is not rare to see similar cases as Gao in the city. In fact, it is fairly common to see street vendors, delivery boys, security guards and blue collar workers with ‘fancy’ smartphones – and probably more so in Beijing than in London. That’s not because people in Beijing have higher disposable incomes than those in London. In fact my friend who was visiting China with me is an Austrian national and was completely shocked by what he saw. “Why do these people have smartphones?’. He had assumed that most people like Gao in Beijing would use feature phones or something more basic.

His question was halfway answered when we walked into a local mobile phone store. The Hisense 966, a 5-inch quad-core smartphone with 2G RAM is priced less than £40, and this is just one among many local brands doing in-store promotions. Surprisingly, the deals weren’t attracting many customers – the store was half empty and there were more sales staff than customers. One of the staff told me that these days, consumers prefer to buy mobile phones online, for the additional freebies (such as a free phone cases, back-up battery or a sim-card cutter from the seller).

ML price pic

The Rise of Local Brands

The Chinese market used to be dominated by Apple and Samsung, but this has been rapidly changing since 2013. Local mobile phone brands are now catching up by producing competitive products at more affordable prices, which is proving to be appealing to Chinese consumers.

A good example is hot-selling Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, which is taking away dedicated iPhone fans from Apple. Xiaomi smartphones may have started off as a ‘knock-off’ iPhone, running on an Android operating system, but they have now demonstrated their innovative credentials and are endorsed by consumers for their ease to use, high performance and low price. In fact, Xiaomi has numerous customisable features that make the smart more advanced in some ways.

Since December 2013, Xiaomi has beaten iPhone and Samsung, becoming the bestseller smartphone brand in China. While capturing a significant share of the domestic market, Xiaomi have also had some success in other Asian markets – in Singapore, for example, batches of Xiaomi phones sold out within a few minutes of being launched in 2014. The company plans to sell 40 million handsets in 2014, which is more than double the number it sold in 2013. Brands like Xiaomi may be little known outside China (especially in Europe), yet their rapid development is quickly changing existing market dynamics and challenging our way of thinking.

Another half of the answer to the smartphone’s penetration can be found by understanding the Chinese mentality when it comes to technology. In 2012, a 17-year-old teenager notoriously sold one of his kidneys in order to afford an iPhone – shocking the national press. The focus of the story in Western media was on illegal organ trading, while the Chinese media was busy criticising the failure of education or materialistic values. Hardly anybody paid enough attention to the reason behind the trade-off from the teenager’s perspective. Naturally I wouldn’t agree with (or encourage) behavior of this kind, but I do believe that there may have been strong motivations making the young man so determined to trade part of his body for the ideal smartphone.

This left me trying from another perspective to understand how a smartphone could be believed to be so important to an individual. From a cultural standpoint, China is not the best place to talk about freedom. Social norms, family expectations, political constraints and singular definition of success…all of these contribute to the formation of conformist individuals and a collective society as a whole. Unlike the social environment, a smartphone offers open sources (e.g. free applications), equal accessibility to information (e.g. the internet) and opportunities to stand out in non-traditional ways, providing the chance to challenge the status quo and to fully develop individual potential. In a nutshell, it is the freedom that technology brings which turns a smartphone into a magic wand.

The crazy organ selling incident has been almost forgotten since it happened two years ago. What hasn’t changed much is the desire and appetite for advanced technology in China. With an up-to-date touch screen smartphone, consumers are being empowered with the freedom to express themselves and explore the world – a kind of freedom that is incredibly valued by the Chinese and especially by younger generations.

ML pic kids

ML pic kids two

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our way back, my friend was once again surprised by how young the Chinese technology consumers were. We kept seeing kids running into mobile phone stores with their parents, or using their own devices in public spaces. Those young people who were born after 1990 or 2000 seem to have more progressive, exploratory attitudes and behaviours around technology and smartphones, compared to those in their late 20s or early 30s. How to appeal to this zealous, fast-changing and increasingly domestically-led market that we see in urban China is a question that marketers and businesses will need to consider.

Michelle

 

[1] [http://www.chinaabout.net/beijing-2012-average-monthly-salary-reached-5223-yuan-us-836/]

[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-08/china-s-xiaomi-plans-to-give-the-world-iphone-cool-at-half-price.html

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/02/us-china-xiaomi-idUSBREA010B920140102