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Sorry To Be So Direct…

Sorry To Be So Direct…

I’ve always considered myself fairly tech-savvy, but First Direct have truly been challenging my levels of technological patience over recent weeks.

For 15 years I have been a very loyal customer of First Direct – the UK’s first ‘direct’ bank – and was always proud to have been one of the first ‘online bankers’ in my friendship circle. The bank is well known for its loyal, vocal customer base and has long been a case study in the power of word of mouth and customer recommendation. Over the years, other high street banks have, of course, become every bit as ‘direct’, but First Direct customers can still be heard gushing about phone access and queue-free banking like it’s 1999. Yes, we’re very loyal.

Until recently, that is. Since First Direct’s latest Mobile app and security features were introduced, the business has been testing this loyalty to destruction. In the past few weeks, I have been spending copious amounts of time on the phone to the customer help team: resetting passwords, resetting them again – oh, and then two days later re-setting them yet again.

I use my mobile phone for banking at least three or four times a week, but I’m now reduced to crying while sitting on the train, desperately trying to pay my Next Directory bill (another ‘direct’ pioneer, come to think of it), only for First Direct to tell me for the umpteenth time in a week that none of my security details match. “You must be entering your details wrong” I hear you shout. “NO, I’M NOT!”, I’ve told endless First Direct support staff.

I know that in the era of the celebrity hacker we do need to be careful and security-conscious, but spending 45 minutes, three times a week just to pay a simple bill takes security vigilance to the extreme.

Having delved around on twitter for answers like any self-respecting digital native (yes, twitter – I’m no greying technophobe), it’s quite apparent that I haven’t been alone in my misery with First Direct. Indeed, even the business’s chief exec has made a public video apology, recognising that the bank’s apps are ‘not as good as they should be’, but that the team are ‘listening to you and we’re going to fix them’.

It’s reassuring to hear this admission and I’m hoping to test the promise when my next Next bill needs paying. Until then, the experience has been a powerful reminder for me of how fragile even decade-long reputations can be when everyday functions break down – and how the same ‘word of mouth’ that elevated a brand can quickly turn against it. Over to you, First Direct.


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.


Urban lens: River’s Gen Y Brand Engagement study is here

Urban lens: River’s Gen Y Brand Engagement study is here

Gen Y or Gen Why?

The digital natives, the millenials, the so called professional consumers…..To some they are the tech-savvy, well educated and ambitious youngsters who have the power and appetite to influence and change the world – Others, however, describe a fickle, disrespectful and hyper-demanding generation who have never learned to wait, work hard for anything, yet demand continuous feedback.

Whatever you think, this generation will significantly influence the next decade – society, politics, culture and business – in a way that is comparable with the baby boomers. In fact, by 2025 they will be 75% of the global workforce. But are you taking GenY seriously enough? Is your marketing ready to face this savvy generation?

River Research Online GenY Community

We set-up a 3 week online research community to immerse into the world of 20-30 year olds in the UK – an opportunity to learn about the lives, loves, needs and behaviours of this unique generation and which brands are successfully building affinity.

Click here to view our very own Gen-Y info-graphic and watch the video below to learn more about this unique generation!


For more information and a ‘GenY Brand Review’ please contact

Look out for our GenY blog entries over the coming weeks!

Could iBeacon technology change our shopping experience?

Could iBeacon technology change our shopping experience?


Having spent the last few weekends roaming around car showrooms in a bid to help a friend select a new car, I found dealing with the sales staff to be more distracting than helpful.

Granted, they have a job to do, but when you initially just want to mooch around the various cars at your own leisure, it’s quite frustrating to have somebody tagging along, bombarding you with their pushy sales pitch. Of course it helps to be provided with information on the product you’re perusing, but wouldn’t it be great to have access to this without the presence of a 3rd party, talking nineteen to the dozen?

Well, just maybe ibeacon technology could help provide the solution.

Here’s how it works. Apple’s iBeacon uses Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) technology to talk to nearby mobile devices such as your smartphone or tablet. Once iBeacon pinpoints your location, it sends you a push notification with an invitation to opt in to the service. Once you agree to the terms (sometimes you’ll be offered entry to a prize draw or similar as an incentive), nearby iBeacon transmitters send you messages. This could be in the form of product information, coupons, recommendations, promotions etc.

How much better my car shopping experience could be if as I approached each vehicle, messages or videos appeared on my phone including price, features and other detailed information – all transmitted by the beacon placed in each car.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Could there be any negatives? Well, ‘message overload’ is possibly one. Previously you had to be running the relevant app in order for iBeacon to send you messages. Now, just having the app installed is enough. So with the app not running at all, you’ll still get messages on your locked screen from the iBeacon system. I’m not sure I want to retrieve my phone from the depths of my handbag only to see 15 messages relating to bananas, toilet roll and cat food as I stroll around my local supermarket on a Sunday afternoon….

Another negative, for brand owners, is that iBeacon takes control of the marketing message away from the brand. That’s something that online shopping and comparison sites have already done – and marketers are still wrestling with that particular challenge.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how iBeacon may affect us all and our shopping experiences. No doubt we’ll be hearing about it from consumers before too long.


River’s Recipe For Successful Co-Creation

River’s Recipe For Successful Co-Creation

Over the years, River has been using co-creation for many innovation projects – from trying to design wearable technology to looking at new ways of cooking with cheese. We’ve co-created from Nigeria to Mexico with hipsters, new mums and problem-skinned tennagers. One thing has been consistent on all these projects: there’s no real consistency! 


To stick our necks out here, we’ve found the biggest challenge with co-creation is that everyone understands it at a conceptual level (rather like ‘Big Data’) but there’s a real struggle when it comes down to putting it into practice (exactly like ‘Big Data!’).


We’re a humble bunch at River and wouldn’t dream of trying to define co-creation for the insights industry – but we’d like to offer some advice and suggest a framework for the approach  to ensure our clients can sell the process in and manage the expectations of their own stakeholders.   So, based on our experiences, we’ve put an infographic together, to show how we have successfully shaped, baked and made co-creation work in innovation.  Please click on the infographic to explore and Enjoy.



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.



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