Identity

Having dusted my old bike off and headed out for a few short spins recently I was accused of being a mamil (middle aged man in lycra).  It is true.  Form fitting clothing is simply more comfortable, allows ease of movement and does not flap about.

It reminded me that during the Winter Olympics a few months ago that for every high intensity event the uniform is one piece, skin tight, lycra. These established sports and athletes have huge research budgets and so it seems probable that there are advantages to this that extend beyond showing off their impressive physiques. Less drag, ease of movement etc.

But the freestylers wear baggy clothing – one competitor, Henrik Harlaut, had his trousers fall down in competition.  I may be wrong but it seems that these clothes are not simply about performance.

 Sweden's Henrik Harlaut performs jump during men's freestyle skiing slopestyle qualification round at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor

We humans are highly evolved social animals. In prehistory our survival depended on our being supported and protected by our tribe. it’s no surprise then that we are all keen to show our belonging and to conform to social norms. Being evicted from our chosen tribe isn’t simply a matter of identity it’s one of survival.

Our innate desire to conform is possibly why stereotypes tend to have a degree of validity. It also is a great part of the success of many Brands. A Brand, the marketers will tell you, is the encapsulation of the customer experience. It’s what is promised and delivered. For the consumer a Brand can be a shortcut to an identity, a stereotype if you like. And identity is generally not about individualism it is about belonging.

Dressing in a certain style or wearing a certain Brand makes a statement. In one simple logo a whole raft of information about your ideals can be broadcast.

Marketers exploit this strong desire to belong and it’s very hard for an individual to truly break free. Indeed there is arguably a tribe one can belong to whose central doctrine is ‘not belonging’. This tribe of course has a set of rituals, social norms and a dress code just like any other.

Historically freestyle ski-ing and snowboarding were the choice of the rebels. The free spirits. They showed their individuality by dressing in a baggy, looser style of clothing and that has carried through to those competing at a high level, even if it carries performance penalties.

It will take a real individual to start competing in a suit scientifically designed to enhance performance, rather than ensure belonging. A change of identity from rebel to high performer.  That would take real courage.  A need for authentic leadership perhaps?

Identity
Is the crisis
Can’t you see
Identity identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the t.v. screen
Do you see yourself
In the magazine
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream

X-Ray spex: Identity

Lost in the Supermarket

 supermarket_1525685c

Today Tesco posted a 6% fall in profits, with like for like sales down 1.4%.  This is the second year running that they have declined.  They are not the only major UK supermarket to be struggling. According to the BBC “Recent industry figures showed the UK’s “big four” supermarkets – Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s – all lost market share in the first 11 weeks of this year to rival discount stores, as well as upmarket rivals Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.”

Ever keen to look for an external cause the finger has been pointed at the continental upstarts that have dared to open in the UK  in recent years.  Disparagingly referred to as “discounter’s”, these retailers, most notably Aldi, Lidl and Netto offer a no frills experience that undercuts our established incumbents.

In an edition of Question Time (the BBC’s political panel show) this subject came up and the left wing representative used the opportunity to make the point that the current economic problems had created an underclass so deprived that they have no choice but to turn to these discounters.

I don’t doubt that many people have found money a little tight and this may have tempted them to try the discounters but the success of these challengers is not entirely due to poverty.

When on holiday in Europe we often take a villa and do some self catering.  If we find an Aldi we consider ourselves lucky.  The range is good, prices keen and quality excellent.  Yet I hadn’t tried an Aldi in the UK.  I related shopping at Aldi here with ‘being poor’ and no one wants to be poor, or seen to be poor.  Indeed the view that  you have to be part of a deprived underclass to shop at the discounters was prevalent.  However my daughter’s dance lessons cause us to drive past an Aldi almost every day.  And I don’t mind admitting that saving a few pounds is also important.  Hesitantly at first, apologetically even, my wife went in and bought a few things.  No one in the family complained, there were even compliments about some of the produce.  She returned and tried more.  Now I often shop there, in fact I popped in last night.

Increasingly I find that once I admit to shopping at Aldi others ‘fess up too.  We cheerfully compare prices and smugly feel better about ourselves.  The economy may have helped but there seems to be a growing number of people who can feel comfortable without the security of the ‘big 4’ supermarkets and the brands they sell. Admittedly Aldi is a brand itself, appealing to value conscious consumers who don’t care about or can’t afford to care about labels.  Mine isn’t the only Mercedes in the car park either.

The problem facing the ‘Big 4’ is not just that discounters are cheaper than them, there is no longer any stigma attached to using them.   Furthermore the ‘Big 4’ got big by appealing to a broad range of shoppers.  In the internet world of endless choice that translates as blandness.  If you want a bargain go to a discounter and if you want the best go to Waitrose.  Tesco and others sit uncomfortably in the middle with no real identity.  The CEO of Tesco, Philip Clarke,  stumbled over this point when challenged by John Humphrey’s on this morning’s Today show:

‘Fill in this blank,’ said Humphrys. ‘I go to Waitrose for quality, I go to Aldi for value. I go to Tesco for… ?’ At which point Clarke made some comment about Parma Ham.  Having said that no one could beat discounters on price he then outlined a ‘strategy’ which was to cut some prices and carry out some store makeovers.

We’ve read a lot about the way the big Supermarkets use their purchasing power to beat suppliers into offering unsustainable prices and pay low wages on zero hours contracts.  Surely this means that no one could beat their prices?  Well it isn’t hard to understand.  The discounters are all about value, amongst other things they don’t take credit cards (which charge a commission), the tills are designed to be very fast (to reduce the number of staff) and the displays are simply adequate as is the service.  But the real difference is that in Europe work on a much smaller margin than is normal in the UK.  That’s right, they make less profit.  In % terms less than half than that of the UK based behemoths.  In the UK they can make more profit and still undercut the competition.

Ever wondered why so many European utility companies rushed to buy up our national assets in the form of energy and water companies?  Again they are used to making much smaller margins on the continent than is normal here.  They didn’t have to cut prices as no one rocked the boat and led on price.  A nice cosy, profitable few years followed.  Hopefully we’ll start to see a real challenger brand in this space too.

The big question is what happens when the economy improves?  Will we all revert back to our comfortable known supermarkets and brands?   I think that as a family we’ll continue shopping in Aldi and so will many others because the produce is good.  Not for everything, but for a lot.  The reality is that once you break free of the tyranny of big supermarkets you won’t want to go back, you can even start to look at other labels you can drop once you become comfortable with your own unbranded identity.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

Lost in the Supermarket – The Clash