20 February, 2010

Marching to the beat of a different drum

Melbourne Herald Sun, 20th February 2010

Were you ever an army cadet? My own version of that was an outfit called the Sea Cadets. Much like army cadets, only dressed in little blue uniforms and white sailors hats.

We never seemed to have anything to do with sailing or water but spent much of our time marching up and down the parade ground tossing rifles from shoulder to shoulder. I later learned that the reason for this was to drill into us a sense of being a part of an unthinking herd and reacting to orders from any superior without question.

It left me with a lifelong suspicion of regimentation and attempts to make me gallop in any one direction.

I was reminded of this the other day when my hardware store told me they no longer supplied carrier bags. So I walked off, purchases in arms because I suddenly got mean about buying one of their fabric bags.

This was the third time that day it had happened and I realised I was observing a trend. Multi-squillion dollar retail chains suddenly getting righteous about plastic bags and the environment, and saving themselves some money in the process.

The vast amount of packaging that surrounds their goods - boxes and plastic packs, cellophane and polyethylene and polly-wally doo dah day - are conveniently overlooked while the micrometre-thick plastic bag is banished. Now I have no liking for the bags either - but doesn't this all smell of hypocrisy?

We often come across the gallop of stampeding herds. If you can trigger it, there is no better marketing tool.

Inching though the city traffic jams you can find yourself in a solid herd of CRVs. Big boxy four-wheel drives designed for scaling mountains and fording torrents. What on earth are they doing on the Monash Car Park? It's not as if they're allowed to climb the banks and skirt the traffic.

But some clever marketers persuaded many of our citizens that they are intrepid rugged pioneers. Even if they only drive to Collins Street and back.

Rugged individualism doesn't work any more when it goes mass-market. Once upon a time a muscle-bound Chesty Bond type would put intricate Celtic tattoos around his biceps. These days go into a supermarket and you'll be surrounded by tattoos. Worn by housewives, teens, factory workers and clerks. Not quite so rugged any more - but great for the tattoo industry.

Sometimes the trend can be a triumph. Wherever you stand in the herd, you insist on a good cup of coffee these days. The frothing Gaggia is a necessity for any eating establishment. The day-old jar of stewed coffee is hard to find. Hey even McDonalds can serve up a good macchiato in their Mac Café.

These trends can be manipulated. Remember that seedy, ill-suited Welsh phone salesman who entered Britain's Got Talent? Looked sad and dreary till he opened his mouth and sang like Pavarotti. The video clip went round the world and made Paul Potts an overnight sensation.

Think that was fate? Forget it! That was marketing. ("Here run down to the Salvos and find the bloke an awful suit. And I want the hair really nerdy....") So that when he sang the contrast was jaw-dropping. In fact he'd studied opera for years including professional training in Italy.

A couple of years later they found Paul a cross-gender twin in Susan Boyle. Same thing - Scottish spinster in a daggy outfit, bad haircut and makeup - and a brilliant voice. Look at her current albums in the shop today and you'll see her the way she could have looked then. But it wouldn't have pulled off the marketing twist, to arouse the excitement of the herd and send them stampeding to the cash registers.


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