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!
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.
At River we don’t believe that you can package ‘innovation’. The approach you take depends on your product category, target audience and organisational culture – as well as the geographic markets you’re operating in. But there are some ground rules you should follow that our experience and expertise allows us to map out in or infographic. This River Map is simply an aide memoire to ensure you’re involving the right people at the right time in the right way. It places consumer needs at the heart of the journey, building on experiences, opportunities and pain points and benchmarking this against the commercial reality of the client organisation. By taking this journey, we innovate and our clients receive achievable new product and service streams.
Click on the image below to view the full infographic.
River has just got back from a whirlwind tour of South, Central and Sub Saharan Africa. We’ve talked Food, TV, Drinks and Technology. It’s been fun, exhausting, eye-opening and inspiring. A lot of trips follow the dull route of “hotel, cab, meetings and repeat”. But not Africa – Africa always has the ability to surprise you. If you get the chance we highly recommend you go….
Here’s some of our favourite moments.
I spent an extortionate amount of money updating my Yellow Fever and Typhoid vaccinations prior to travelling, only to then leave my medical card in my other passport (yes I have two!). When I arrived at Lagos Airport there were signs everywhere “no entry without vaccination card”. When I informed the helpful person at the health screening booth that I didn’t have my card he very nicely showed me to his office, where after a brief discussion and a small donation to a charity of his choice, I was fast tracked right through the immigration queue and waved on my way. So helpful of him! Ironically, this donation was substantially lower than what I paid for my vaccinations in London!
Unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time for a much needed hair cut
But Nigeria is a great place to do research. It’s populous, growing economically, and consumers know what they want. Research may not go like clockwork, but when it starts, consumers are all too ready to help deconstruct and reconstruct whatever you put in from of them. Don’t get put off by stories of low internet connectivity either, we’ve done plenty of online communities with consumers in Nigeria as well – where’s there’s a will there’s always a way.
Angola gave us the true pleasure of traveling to Cacuaco, just outside of Lluanda, through shanty towns and country roads, where we saw the famous Big Ship Graveyard – a shoreline of tankers and super tankers either shipwrecked or abandoned and left to rust away with time. My client and I strolled down the white sandy beach (strewn with litter) observing the fallen majesty of discarded and disembowelled sea faring monsters. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
Back in research world we were interviewing TV viewers – females in the 20-40 category. Each entered the room more glamourous than the next – all too happy to tell us their stories and show us their public faces (and handbags). Angolan women really do glamour very well!
The Democratic Republic of Congo
We arrived in Kinshasa and went straight to the hotel only to find a very large military presence and an array of government dignitaries aligned in the entrance ready and waiting to salute us. As impressed as I was with our Operations’ team ‘concierge service’ I felt this was a bit over the top. It was only later I found out we were five minutes ahead of the arrival of the President who came to the hotel most days to go for a jog. Our route to the fieldwork a little later was obstructed by the tank placed in the carpark, but nothing gets in the way of River undertaking fieldwork! Well, actually the local police did a little later when the local clients were ‘detained’ for taking photo’s of the Congo River. However, a small donation to a local charity later and the schedule was restored to normal service.
The Congo River as seen from Kinshasa. Take photos very quickly!
The DRC is full of charm and character, a French speaking enclave that embodies the African spirit of optimism and resourcefulness. We were warmly greeted whereever we went, and look forward to going back.
What do you do after four days of intense fieldwork in Jo’burg? – Take the client on safari to the Rustenburg game park of course and on the way back stop at a brewery in Soweto for beer, a lot of local banter, and some highly drunken table tennis.
No Tigers, but plenty of Lions…
As hoped, but still surprising, was the spirit of progress inherent in SA consumers. Whilst looking to the West for inspiration, National pride was paramount and a sense of a positive outlook for the future of the country created a warm backdrop for any discussion.
A week of fieldwork in Dar was blighted with thunderous rainstorms which unfortunately had the disastrous consequences of bringing the roads and phone networks to a standstill. Despite our first group starting an impressive 3 hours late, the relaxed and generous attitudes of our Tanzanian respondents was inspiring, with most wanting to stay longer to chat than the scheduled two hours as they were enjoying the discussion so much. Luckily, the clouds finally broke after the final group and River was able to enjoy a quick celebratory beer by the pool.
Ghana is, as the stats will tell you, one of Africa’s most promising economic growth stories. River was there this year on a project researching technology and telecoms and was once again impressed by the embrace of technology and the accomplished juggling of phones and networks by everyday consumers. “I’ve got more Sim cards than you’ve had hot dinners”, we were told in Accra. Which is true – especially as a vegetarian traveller (in much of Africa). Telecoms advertising is everywhere. WhatsApp has long been a primary means of contact for everyday business – something only recently being seen in a place like the UK. Why not use it more? It’s how most of us are messaging.
Now, we often get a particular sense of accomplishment ‘on location’ when we learn (or steal) a new local phrase or word that inescapably spells out the national context. Word one for Ghana is ‘Dumsor’ (meaning ‘off-on’) , the rather playful sounding term used to describe the all-too-regular national problem of power cuts (not ‘playful sounding’ if you’re trying to run a hairdressing business or a garage, as I learn). The other is ‘Drop that Yam’ – the sparky strapline for a mobile network campaign that has entered the vernacular (and you won’t get more African for a veggie than a yam, right?). It originally referred to getting rid of your bulky mobile handset, but can now refer to ditching unreliable partners and ineffective politicians. ‘Drop that Yam’. Perhaps we should start using it for unsuccessful product concepts or ad executions. It’s refreshingly blunt, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Here’s the ad.
So what we learned:
River drinks a lot of beer!
Relax – things will happen – just in a different order and slightly different time to what you may be expecting
Avoid elections – You really don’t want to be trying to get across town on polling day!
Always look for policemen before taking photographs
Be prepared to laugh – our partners are people too!
Bring your own HD video cameras – and a sound mic!
‘Everyone’ is online (Or at least Gens X and Y – thanks to the networks and Facebook zero rating data for Facebook). So social media is a key marketing activity
Cultures are changing. Women in particular are demanding a more equal place in society, and attitudes are progressing
Fashion and beauty really motivate female consumers. Marketing which provides a cultural window and stimulate ideas is highly effective
Western products still symbolise status and are aspired to greatly
But reality prevails – limited supply of goods and services, infrastructure issues, and informal bureaucracy can impact on things getting done properly. Brace yourself for what will be a unique experience.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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).
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.
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.