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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Create More – More Creativity

More creativity please!

This piece came from a prayer I provided for a book of prayers in the workplace. The prayer is posted in koan no 10. Personally I aspire to create more than I consume every day. Though that’s a tough challenge – so high are our consumption levels: of information, of products and services even of energy and rubbish!

I’m fed up with consumption. And consumers. We don’t like the word consumers any more than we like calling people C1s and C2s but the industry seems to lethargic to come up with anything else. Well let’s try. The problem with consumerism is twofold: It’s origins and its narrowness. Re origins the world has moved on. Re narrowness – if you’re trying to influence human behaviour then the way people ‘consume’ things is waay too narrow – we need to think more holistically.

OK starting with origins. Consumerism so the pundits say, started in the Industrial Revolution. Which is only half the truth. Consumerism as an object of study only really took off iin the 1950s and the consumer movement courtesy of Ralph Nader in the 1960s. Consumerism came together in a very particular way as a Western, post war phenomenon when demand exceeded supply (and desire) and mass media facilitated mass consumption. Today consumerism is neither exclusively Western, nor mass, and supply is vastly greater than demand. The reason most marketers go to work on Monday is to force feed products to people whose houses and lives are already full. When he was at Selfridges Vittoria Radice used to say that to sell anybody anthing you have to get them to consider what they are going to go home and throw out in order to put the new purchase in its place. And now that mass media aren’t any more, the battle has move away from persuading people they need something to getting their attention in the first place. So defining the marketing task in terms of getting people to consume stuff isn’t accurate any more.

Secondly consumption is too narrow a way of looking at human behaviour. There are a number of alternatives worth considering which in themselves might be better than consumerism. There’s purchaserism – the joy of shopping. But for the last few years we’ve been promoted to to death – anybody know when the next high street sale is on? Answer all the time. There’s accumulerism – the joy of owning stuff. And that too would be a more accurate take on how we actually behave. Having just put the household CDs, videos and DVDs back on the shelves after decorating the lounge it would take weeks to play back all that material – there is literally too much too consume. The collection mentality is an interesting one. What proportion of the population have a collection of some kind or another. Most children do. All of these alternatives are as valid objects of study as consumption which is about using stuff.

But I think what realled pees me off about consumerist thinking is that it’s not a way I choose to define myself. Whether I purchase, or accumulate, I am trying to accomplish certain things some of them practical but some also symbolic in terms of how I see myself and how I want other people to see me. And ‘consumerism’ just doesn’t begin to capture this. Which is why I’ve begun to think about creativity as an alternative to consumerism. Which is more holistic – it is a better descriptor of the intangibles I am trying to bring about when I ‘consume’

Let’s do a little ground clearing. Firstly creativity isn’t the province of artists alone and it certainly isn’t just the preserve of the creative department. Creativity is universally distributed. Secondly just because you’ve been creative doesn’t necessarily mean that your masterworks will find their way into the Tate. There will always be arguments as to what constitues ‘good’ creative work and a lot of this is down to good taste – what a certain social group consider to be ‘original’. But that doesn’t invalidate the notion that all of us aspire to be makers and shapers bringing our own personal signature to what we do however generic the actual result may be as judged by a critic. And that the markets for professional and amateur products are converging. You can afford the same gear as the pros even if you can’t use it as well as they can.

I’m suggesting that when we consume stuff what we are doing is co-creating – a term I have borrowed from the Ethnography company Everyday lives. They use it to describe the interviews they run with subjects when they review the films they have made of those people’s lives. The co-creation session is a way in which both film maker and subject dialogue to interpret their own behaviour. But co-creation is a very useful way of thinking about why I have chosen to buy or own things. Any planned purchase has to satisfy functional requirements. But it also has to satisfy my own self image and often the image of myself I wish to project. That dialogue is in essence invidual and personal and creative – however generically us professional marketing and communications people may choose to view it.

Now creating when you buy stuff sounds more elegant than consuming but there’s more to it than value judgement. Brand marketing has had a long and distinguished history as a way of grouping rational and emotional associations together to enhance people’s perceptions of products. But Brand marketing treats the consumer as a passive recipient who capitulates and assimilates what the marketer has chosen to promote. When a far more realistic description of a brand response is that it is a co-creative act between marketer and customer. When customers decode the brand activity, deciding which parts are important to them and assimilates these into their own conceptual framework. If we treated brand response as creative activity then our communications and our measures would be quite different – more dialogical – more sensitive to what people found valuable – and what they didn’t – sometimes it seems that all we do is turn the frequency up because the hapless consumer didn’t seem to get the message first time around. And of course it the valuable stuff – is when people get really engaged in what the brand is about. The most loyal customers create their own brand materials. I could reference Harley Davidson owners who post their travels on the official website. Or Honda owners posting recordings of their souped up Civics accelerating past 100 – I kid you not. Or the way you go about redecorating a room and how brands enable you to do it. Or the way you prepare a meal.


Jeremy Bullmore famously said that people assembled brands the same way bird assembled nests. I’d take it one stage further. That those of us who shape brand architectures are in the flatpack business. We can’t force them to put it together the way we’d like them to. But the most successful flatpack brands make people feel that they have made something themselves and still it is something that they have created – not just a mass produced object.

And just as a parting shot point your browsers at Trendwatching‘s take on Generation C – C for content. Did you know that 44% of Americans on the web have made their own website? Go figure. Let’s have a little less consumption and a little more creativity.




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