The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Oprah Time: The World as Design: Writings of Design by Otl Aicher

Aicher was a German designer most famous of his graphic design and typography. His most famous font is Rotis  His impact was far wider. Aicher was a co-founder of the short-lived Ulm School of Design. Over its 15 years it developed a legacy that continues to echo through design education.

He worked with prominent German brands including Braun, Lufthansa and ERCO the lighting firm.

Aicher’s design language for the Munich Olympics was ground breaking. He designed the first Olympic mascot: Waldi a dachshund with multicoloured bands on his body. The posters for the Munich Olympics were hyper coloured designs that still had a system wrapped around them and now trade for hundreds of pounds.

You can blame him for single handedly kicking off the use of stickmen pictograms on public signage in buildings like airports.

Aicher and his colleagues at Ulm were about more than making things look pretty on their medium of choice, they thought about systems. Aicher’s holistic approach to systems influenced modern brand design.  Mark Holt, a co-founder of 8vo; who worked on everything from Factory Records to billing systems for mobile carrier Orange cited Aicher as a major influence.

otl aicher

Aicher’s book The World of Design collects a series of his essays across a wide spectrum of topics. Culture and political essays sit alongside examinations on the process of design and typography. Design and art do not exist in isolation but as part of the wider world. Something that you become keenly aware of as being central to his thinking – alongside his advocacy of reinvigorating modernism.

Probably most striking is Aicher’s delivery and style of writing. He writes with absolute confidence as each item has been thought about, despite feeling like a stream of consciousness in the way those mulled over thoughts are put down. He also completely dispenses with capital letters, sentences flow into each other from a visual perspective. This gives his work a sense of urgency and authenticity – but doesn’t make it any easier to read.

Theses essays felt as if they were born on the internet not written sometime before Aicher died in 1991, which says a lot about how fresh and contemporary his work still is.

 

Have we reached peak streetwear?

At the end of January I wrote a blog post about the landmark collection by Louis Vuitton and Supreme.

I delved into the history of streetwear and the deep connection it shared with luxury brands. This linkage came from counterfeit products, brand and design language appropriation.

This all came from a place of individuality and self expression of the wearer.

obey

I reposted it from my blog on to LinkedIn. I got a comment from a friend of mine which percolated some of the ideas I’d been thinking about. The comment crystalised some of my fears as a long-time streetwear aficionado.

This is from Andy Jephson who works as a director for consumer brand agency Exposure:

The roots of street and lux that you point to seem to be all about individuality and self expression and for me this is what many modern collabs are missing. To me they seem to be about ostentatious showmanship. I love a collaboration that sees partners sharing their expertise and craft to create something original. The current obsession with creating hype however is creating a badging culture that produces products that could have been made in one of the knock-off factories that you mention. Some collabs that just produce new colourways and hybrid styles can be amazing, reflecting the interests of their audience. But far too many seem gratuitous and are completely unobtainable for the brand fans on one side of the collaborative partnership.

The streetwear business is mad money

From Stüssy in 1980, streetwear has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry. Streetwear sales are worth more than 75 billion dollars per year.

By comparison the UK government spent about 44.1 billion on defence in 2016. Streetwear sales are more than three times the estimated market value of Snap Inc. Snap Inc., is the owner of Snapchat.

Rise of Streetwear

It is still about one third the size of the luxury industry. Streetwear accounts for the majority of menswear stocked in luxury department stores. Harvey Nichols claimed that 63% of the their contemporary menswear was streetwear. Many luxury brands off-the-peg men’s items blur the boundary between luxe and streetwear.

The industry has spawned some technology start-ups acting as niche secondary markets including:

  • Kixify
  • K’LEKT
  • THRONE
  • StockX
  • SneakerDon
  • GOAT

Large parts of the streetwear industry has become lazy and mercenary. You can see this in:

  • The attention to detail and quality of product isn’t what it used to be. I have vintage Stüssy pieces that are very well-made. I can’t say the same of many newer streetwear brands
  • Colour-ways just for the sake of it. I think Nike’s Jordan brand is a key offender. Because it has continually expands numbers of derivative designs and combinations. New Balance* have lost much of their mojo. Especially when you look at the product their Super Team 33 in Maine came up with over the years. The fish, fanzine or the element packs were both strong creative offerings. By comparison recent collections felt weak
  • The trivial nature of some of the collaborations. This week Supreme sold branded Metro Cards for the New York subway
  • Streetwear brands that sold out to fast moving consumer products. This diluted their own brand values. While working in Hong Kong, I did a Neighborhood Coke Zero collaboration. The idea which had some tie-in to local cycling culture and nightscape. Aape – the second-brand of BAPE did a deal wrapping Pepsi cans in the iconic camouflage

Hong Kong brand Chocoolate did three questionable collaborations over the past 18 months:

  • Vitaminwater
  • Nissin (instant noodles)
  • Dreyer’s (ice cream)

By comparison, Stüssy has a reputation in the industry for careful business management. The idea was to never become too big, too fast. The Sinatra family kept up quality and selective distribution seeing off Mossimo, FUBU and Triple Five Soul. Yes, they’ve done collaborations, but they were canny compared to newer brands:

“The business has grown in a crazy way the past couple of years,” says Sinatra. “We reluctantly did over $50 million last year.”

Reluctant because, according to Sinatra, the company is currently trying to cut back and stay small. “It was probably one of our biggest years ever — and it was an accident.”

Sinatra characterises Stüssy’s third act as having a “brand-first, revenue second” philosophy, in order to avoid becoming “this big monstrosity that doesn’t stand for anything.”

The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management academic study uncovered careful brand custodianship.

It’s not clothing; it’s an asset class

Part of the bubble feel within the streetwear industry is due to customer behaviour. For many people, street wear is no longer a wardrobe staple. Instead it becomes an alternative investment instrument. Supreme items and tier zero Nike releases are resold for profit like a day trader on the stock market.

Many of the start-ups supported by the community play to this ‘day trader’ archetype. It is only a matter of time for the likes of Bonham’s and Sotherby’s get in on the act.

A key problem with the market is that trainers aren’t like a Swiss watch or a classic car. They become unusable in less than a decade as the soles degrade and adhesive breaks down.

There is the apocryphal story of a Wall Street stock broker getting out before the great stock market crash. The indicator to pull his money out was a taxi driver or a shoe shine boy giving stock tips.

Streetwear is at a similar stage with school-age teenagers dealing must-have items as a business. What would a reset look like in the streetwear industry? What would be the knock-on effect for the luxury sector?

More information
USA Streetwear Market Research Report 2015 | WeConnectFashion
Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands | renaissance chambara
New Balance Super Team 33 – Elements Collection | High Snobriety
New Balance ST33 – The Fanzine Collection | High Snobriety
1400 Super Team 33 (ST33) trio | New Balance blog – the infamous fish pack
How Stüssy Became a $50 Million Global Streetwear Brand Without Selling Out | BoF (Business of Fashion)
The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management by de Macedo & Machado, Universidade Católica Portuguesa (2015) – PDF

* in the interest of full disclosure, New Balance is a former client.

Online ethics in a time of unreasonable behaviour

Much of my social channels are filled with outrage and discussion about what is perceived as unreasonable behaviour.

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

On one hand we had filter bubbles that allowed audiences to stay isolated, apparently only seeing the content which broadly fitted their world view. For the metropolitan elite, its a steady diet of virtue signalling. For the right it is the Illuminati / New World Order view of an aloof elite.

On the other hand we have voices that break through and are generally viewed as abhorrent by those in my social sphere.  The archetype of the breakthrough voice would be Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is a complex character who has gone from post modern poet who borrowed from pop music and television without attribution, to technology journalist and a libertarian who has become a figurehead of the alt-right. Along the way his wardrobe has changed from a preppy sloan look to a supporting character from the original version of Miami Vice.

Yiannopoulos is very adept at provoking a response from his opponents that rallies his supporters since they think it is evidence of the backlash from an omnipotent elite.

Those on the right would point to figures like Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor in chief of The Canary – who has been accused of sensationalist or irresponsible journalism.

The underlying element is that everyone cannot agree on what the problem actually is. Silicon Valley is lining up to filter out the worst excesses of the right; partly because engineer political views and advertiser views are largely aligned.

Generally engineers are degree educated so tend to be libertarian and socially liberal. They will support diversity and often work in multi-national teams. They are acutely aware of the power that their technology has which is why privacy tends to be most politicised amongst the tech-literate. Whilst large corporates would like to do what made the most commercial sense, there is a tension in Silicon Valley between this desire and the ability to hold on to engineers to do the work.

At the other end of the spectrum right wingers are trying to crowd fund a lawsuit against Twitter for for discrimination against conservatives and violations of antitrust regulation. WeSearchr – the crowd-fund platform equate Twitter making a call is equated to discrimination in the American South during the 1960s.

Ken White, attorney at Brown White & Osborn LLP and blogger on First Amendment issues, disagrees.

“WeSearchr’s claims of censorship and discrimination are frivolous,” he told me in an email. “Twitter may be ‘censoring’ in a colloquial way, but it’s a private platform and not governed by the First Amendment. It’s free to kick people off for speech it doesn’t like unless doing so runs afoul of a particular federal or state statute, and WeSearchr hasn’t cited a plausible relevant one.”

“Antitrust law is very complicated and it’s pointless to speculate about what WeSearchr thinks it means by citing it,” he said. “But antitrust law doesn’t say ‘it’s illegal to be a big company that dominates a field.’ Generally it restricts anti-competitive practices, and WeSearchr has never credibly identified any.”

Secondly there is research done by Demos to suggest that those of use with more liberal values have a looser social bubble and are likely to be more aware of inflammatory commentary by those with more populist views.

People with more polarized political affiliations tend to be more inward-facing than people with more moderate political affiliations. In short, the echo chamber effect is more pronounced the further a group is from the centre.

Conversely, those who hold more extreme views will feel emboldened as part of an enclosed community of like mined people.

What should be done?

Demos suggests that the mainstream news as a point at which the different opinions are most likely to meet. However, the very subjective viewpoint of different mainstream news outlets imply that this isn’t likely to happen.

The technology companies have made it clear that they will try and curb the worst excesses of the populist faction online. My sense is that it will fuel their sense of persecution  and provide a point to rally around.

Should anything be done?

More information
Canary in the pit | Private Eye
The Alt-Right Is Trying to Crowdfund Twitter’s Destruction | Motherboard
Talking to ourselves | Demos

Great interview with Adam Curtis

I’ve been watching a lot of Curtis’ work recently. HyperNormalisation, The Mayfair Set, The Trap, The Century of the Self, Bitter Lake and Pandora’s Box.

More information
Just Adam Curtis channel on YouTube – has curated many of his documentaries.

PR in Trump’s America

Interesting hour long video discussion on public relations in the US in the midst of media change with the Trump administration. It has a really interesting polling post mortem on Hillary’s loss.

Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands

The recent collaboration between New York’s Supreme and Louis Vuitton seems like a natural fit.  The reality is that luxury and streetwear have been dancing around each other for a good while.

Snide started it all

Snide was slang in the 1980s for fake or counterfeit. Hip Hop and the Caribbean-influenced Buffalo movement in the UK each used counterfeit and real luxury in their own way.

Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan was a was a Harlem-based craftsman and business man who dressed a lot of New York based artists from the golden age of hip hop. Dan’s first hip hop client was LL Cool J back in 1985. Dan’s style was luxe, the finest silks and furs were standard issue – think Puff Daddy before Puff Daddy. They went for customised outfits with their branding on which Dan provided. As the scene took off Dan incorporated suit lining material (which replicated the likes of the Fendi, Bally  or MCM brands) and Gucci or Louis Vuitton branded vinyl to make one-off products.

He customised trainers, clothing and even car interiors. Dan’s own Jeep Wrangler had an interior retrimmed in MCM branded vinyl.

Much of the luxury branding Dan used was coming in from Korean factories which at that time supplied the fake trade. Now similar products would have come out of China. I took a trip to the South China City complex in 2010 where fabric suppliers would offer Louis Vuitton labels and Supreme tags side-by-side.  I can only imagine that the Korean suppliers of the 1980s  had similar markets in textile industry centres like Deagu. Outside of hip hop, Dan was the go-to tailor for all the hustlers in Harlem – so you can see how he could have got the hook-up into the counterfeit suppliers.

At the time hip hop culture was not in a relationship with brands who where concerned about how it might affect them. LL Cool J was the first artist to get a deal with Le Coq Sportif. Run DMC got a long term deal with Adidas after their single ‘My Adidas’ became successful. But these were the exceptions to the rule.  So with Dan’s help they co-opted the brands to try and demonstrate success.

Over in the UK, the Buffalo collective of stylists, artists and photographers including Ray Petri, Jamie Morgan, Barry Kamen (who modelled for Petri), Mark Lebon and Cameron McVey. Buffalo was known as an attitude, which threw contrasting styles together and filtered into fashion shoots and influenced the collections of major designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Even if you didn’t know what Buffalo was, you would have recognised the aesthetic from the likes of i-D, Blitz, New Musical Express and Arena. 

Buffalo mixed Armani jackets with Doctor Martens work boots, or a Puma bobble hat. Petri used music to sound track his process and this was pretty similar to the kind of stuff that influenced street wear pioneer Shawn Stussy over in California. Motown and hip-hop to dub reggae was the sound which explains the Feeling Irie t-shirts created by the white surfboard maker.

If you thought Bros looked cool in their MA-1 bomber jackets and stone washed Levi’s 501 jeans – there was a direct stylistic line back to Buffalo – rehabilitating the items from their link to skinhead culture.

Buffalo permeated into the street style of the decade; influencing the likes of Soul II Soul. Meanwhile over in Bristol The Wild Bunch were yet to morph into Massive Attack. Two members headed to London; producer Nelle Hooper and Miles Johnson (aka DJ Milo who went on to work in New York and Japan). A shoot was organised by i-D magazine and they turned up wearing their street clothes alongside DJ Dave Dorrell and model / stylist Barnsley. At the time, it was considered to be ‘very Buffalo’ in feel, but Dave Dorrell admitted in an interview that they had just came as they were. Dorrell wore his t-shirt as ‘advertising’ for it.

buffalo

The Hermes t-shirt and belt were snide, the Chanel Number 5 t-shirt sported by Dave Dorrell were being knocked out by a group of friends. Young people in London co-opted brands just like the hip-hop artists heading to Dapper Dan’s in Harlem.

Homage

From 1980, surfer Shawn Stussy had been growing an clothing empire of what we would now recognise as streetwear. Stussy had originally came up with the t-shirts as an adjunct and advertisement of his main business – selling surfboards. But the clothing hit emerging culture: skating, punk, hip-hop and took on a life of its own. It went global through Stussy’s ‘tribe’ of friends that he made along the way.

Stussy is known for his eclectic influences and mixing media: old photographs alongside his own typography. In a way that was unheard of in brand circles at the time, Stussy manifested his brands in lots of different ways. The back to back SS logo inside a circle was a straight rip from Chanel; the repeating logo motif that appeared in other designs was a nod to MCM and Louis Vuitton.

All of this went into the cultural melting pot of world cities like Tokyo, New York, London and Los Angeles. Stussy went on to do collaborations from a specially designed party t-shirt for i-D magazine’s birthday party to the cover art of Malcolm Maclaren records. Collaboration with mundane and high-end brands is backed into streetwear’s DNA.

Coke Zero x Neighborhood limited edition cans

(Neighborhood x Coke Zero was something I was involved with during my time in Hong Kong.)

Japan with its engrained sense of quality and wabisabi took the Buffalo mix-and-match approach to the next level. Japan’s own streetwear labels like Visivim, Neighborhood, W-Taps, The Real McCoy and A Bathing Ape (BAPE) took streetwear product quality, exclusivity and price points into luxury brand territory. That didn’t stop BAPE from making a snide versions of various Rolex models under the ‘Bapex’ brand.

Bapex

Some two decades later Supreme came up in New York. The brand takes design appropriation and homage to a new level. Every piece Supreme seems to do is a reference to something else. The famous box logo rips from Barbara Kruger’s piece ‘I shop therefore I am’. From taking a snide swipe at consumerism to ending up in the belly of the beast took Supreme a relatively short time. This heritage of appropriation didn’t stop Supreme from using legal means against people it felt had appropriated its ‘look’.

In an ironic twist of fate, Supreme was sued by Louis Vuitton in 2000 and yet the 2017 collaboration looks exceptionally similar to the offending items…

The last time I shared this story the page was just at 2k followers. With the collaboration officially announced today- and the page having 40k more followers since then- I figure it’s time to re-share. The year was 2000, and a 6 year old Supreme took their hands at referencing a high fashion brand as they did early on (Burberry, Gucci,) this time with Louis Vuitton. Box Logo tees (and stickers), beanies, 5 panels, bucket hats, and skateboard decks all featured the Supreme Monogram logo (pictured right). Within two weeks, Vuitton sends in a cease and desist and apparently, ordered Supreme to burn the remaining available stock. Clearly, many of the products from 2000 are still in the resell market, circulating today. Now we arrive at today’s FW Louis Vuitton fashion show. As most everyone is aware by now, Supreme is in fact collaborating with the luxury brand for a July- into fall collection. I’ve seen quite a few pieces from the collaboration (20+, check @supreme__hustle @supreme_access and @supreme_leaks_news for more pics) and it’s panning out to be Supremes largest collaboration to date. It’s interesting to see the references of both brands within the collaboration- from old Dapper Dan bootleg Louis pieces, to authentic ones, to Supremes monogram box logo and skateboard desks (pictured left). 17 years later and @mrkimjones proves that time can mend all wounds (amongst other things). Excited to see what all will release alongside this legendary collaboration. #supremeforsale #supreme4sale

A photo posted by Supreme (@supreme_copies) on

The new customers

North East Asia’s fast growing economies had been borne out of learning from developed market expertise, state directed focus on exports and ruthless weeding out of weaker businesses. Intellectual property was cast aside at various points. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China went from making knock-off products to displacing Europe and the US as the leading luxury markets.

Asian luxury consumers, particularly those second generation rich in China were younger than the typical customer luxury brands cater too. These consumers bought product as they travelled taking in style influences as they went. First from nearby markets like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore and then Korea. This drew from a melange of hip hop, streetwear, Buffalo styling and contemporary western designers like Vivienne Westwood – as well as the more matronly styles of the traditional European luxury houses.

The luxury brands had to adapt. They brought in new designers who themselves were drawing from similar influences.  These designers also collaborated with sportswear brands like Alexander McQueen and Puma or Jeremy Scott and Raf Simons for Adidas.

Luxury brands got seriously into new product categories making luxe versions of training shoes that could be charitably called a homage to the like of Nike’s Air Force 1.

Bringing things full circle

As the supreme_copies Instagram account notes the collaboration with Supreme and Louis Vuitton brings things full circle with the pieces having a nod to Dapper Dan’s custom work as well as Supreme’s own ‘homage’.  Luxury brand MCM (Michael Cromer München), which Dan borrowed from extensively in the 1980s was restructured in 1997 with shops and brand being sold separately. The brand was eventually acquired eight years later by the Korean Sungjoo Group. Korea now has its own fast developing luxury fashion and cosmetics brand industry. Textile city Deagu which was the likely source of Dapper Dan’s fabric is now a fashion and luxury business hub in its own right. The Korean entertainment industry is a trend setter throughout Asia. For instance, Hallyu drama My Love From A Star drove breakout sales for the Jimmy Choo ‘Abel’ shoe.

The only question I still have is why did a move like Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme take so long? The luxury brands spend a lot on customer insight, they were using social listening far longer than they had been on social media. They know that a customer wearing their jacket could have a Visivim backpack slung over the shoulder and a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths on their feet. Customers mix-and-match Buffalo style for all but the most formal occasions. For streetwear brands, collaboration is in their DNA and they get an additional leg-up in the quality stakes.

More information
Ray Petri
How Buffalo shaped the landscape of 80s fashion – Dazed
Dave Dorrell interview part one | Test Pressing
Dapper Dan
Barbara Kruger Responds to Supreme’s Lawsuit: ‘A Ridiculous Clusterf**k of Totally Uncool Jokers’ | Complex
Volume and wealth make Chinese millennials a lucrative target market: GfK | Luxury Daily
Just why are Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers abandoning China? | South China Morning Post – although Chinese shoppers consumed 46 per cent of luxury goods around the world, their purchases in their home market accounted for only 10 per cent of global sales, falling from 11 per cent in 2012 and 13 per cent in 2013
How a Jimmy Choo Shoe Became a Global Best Seller – WSJ

Throwback gadget: shareware

Back before the internet became ubiquitous, software was distributed by bulletin boards. It was expensive to dial into a board, so magazines uses to have storage media pre-loaded with applications on the front of them.

For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s my parents used to use MacFormat magazine CDs and floppy disks as coffee coasters. One disk may come with bloatware such as the installation software for AOL, Demon or Claranet. The other disk would be full of free or paid for software.

The paid for software was often written by a single developer. It was a labour of love / cottage industry hybrid. Often the developers wrote the software to deal with a real need that they had, it was then passed on as they thought others would benefit as well.

Open source software the way we understand it now was only in its infancy in terms of public awareness. Packaged software was big money. As recent as 2000, Microsoft Office for the Mac would have cost you £235. Quark Xpress – the Adobe Indesign of its day would have cost in the region of £700+ VAT.

Into the gap sprung two types of software: freeware and shareware.

Freeware was usually provided as is, there was little expectation of application support. It would become orphaned when the developer moved on to other things

ChocoFlop Shareware Style

 

Shareware usually had different mechanisms to allow you to try it, if you could see the benefit then you paid a fee. This unlocked new features, or got rid of nag screens (like the one from image editing app Chocoflop).

In return you also got support if there was any problems with the app. Shareware hasn’t died out, but has become less visible in the world of app stores. One that I have been using on and off for over 20 years is GraphicConvertor by Lemke Software. It handles any kind of arcane graphic file you can throw at it and converts it into something useable.

Kagi Software were one of the first people to provide programmers with a way of handling payments and software activation. Kagi provided an onscreen form to fill out, print, and mail along with their payment. it was pre-internet e-commerce.

I can’t remember exactly what utility programme I first bought for my college PowerBook, but I do remember that I sent the printed form and cheque to a developer in Glasgow. I got a letter back with an activation code and a postcard (I’ve now lost) from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Later on, Kagi were one of the first online payment processors.

From the late 1990s FTP sites and the likes of download.com began to replace the magazine disk mount covers. Last year Kagi died, making life a little more difficult for the worldwide cottage industry of small software developers. it was inconvenient, but now with PayPal developers have an easy way to process payments and there are various key management options.

It’s time that we talk about micro-influencers

Much of the social marketing today for consumer brand is done through what is called influencer marketing. For a number of these influencers who have a large social following, working with brand has become very lucrative. But one of the hottest tickets at the moment within communications agencies are ‘micro-influencers’; Edelman Digital lists it as a key area in Digital Trends Report . There is widely cited research by Marketly that claims there is an engagement ceiling (at least on Instagram). Once a follower count gets beyond that, engagement rates decline. This micro-influencer sweet spot is apparently 1,000 – 100,000 followers.

What are micro-influencers?

Brown & Fiorella (2013) described micro influencers

Adequately identifying prospective customers, and further segmenting them based on situations and situational factors enables us to identify the people and businesses – or technologies an channels that are closest to them in each scenario. We call these micro-influencers and see them as the business’s opportunity to exert true influence over the customer’s decision-making process as opposed to macro-influencers who simply broadcast to a wider, more general audience.

Brown & Fiorella wanted to focus on formal prospect detail capture and conversion. It sounds like an adjunct to integrating marketing automation from the likes of Hubspot and Marketo into a public relations campaign.

This approach is more likely to work in certain circumstances:

  • Low barrier to conversion (e-tailing)
  • Business-to-business marketing – for instance Quocirca did some interesting research back in 2006 that showed endorsements by a finance directors peers at other companies was likely to have a positive effect on a prospective supplier

Brown & Fiorella’s thinking tends to fall down, when you deploy their approach to:

  • Consumer marketing
  • Mature product sectors
  • Mature brands

Brand preference and purchase is much more dependent on reach and repetition to build familiarity and being ‘top-of-mind’ as a product.

Most money in influence marketing is spent in the consumer space as B2B marketing tends to struggle with:

  • Reach
  • Volume of conversation interaction

(At least outside of the US).

Brown and Fiorella are 180 degrees away from the approach of consumer marketing maven Byron Sharp and his ‘smart’ mass marketing approach. This means that PR and social agencies are often out-of-step with the thinking of marketing clients, their media planners and other agency partners.

Engagement matters less than reach or repetition of brand message for mature sectors or brands. For many consumer brands the drop off in engagement amongst macro-influencers is a non-issue, a red herring.

The only part of the engagement measure that I would be concerned about in that case would be content propagation amongst my defined target audience – how widely had it been repeatedly shared as this would affect total reach.

If the client and planner are using Sharp’s thinking then this audience would be wide, but a certain amount of the propagation would be wasted – for instance outside targeted geographies.

From the perspective of communications agencies I can understand the obsession with engagement being part of their DNA. These businesses are in the offline world are engagement agencies; whether its politicians, regulators, fashion stylists, movie set designers, editors, journalists, TV producers or DJs.

Why are micro-influencers a hot topic now?

The most obvious reason is that more popular ‘macro-influencers’ are well informed about their commercial value which has been driven up to a point where they look expensive in terms of cost, even if you charitably look at it on a ‘per follower’ basis.

On the supply side of the equation influencer representation benefit from having more ‘inventory’ that can be sold at various price points to marketers.

Challenges in influencer marketing

From a marketing perspective there are a number of issues in influencer marketing – these factors are either unknown data points or represent an issue with the brand experience

  • Quality of brand placement
  • Cost per reach
  • Consistency of reach (how confident is the media planner that the influencer will achieve a certain level of reach)
  • Message repetition amongst the audience that I want to reach

Which makes it harder to factor into an econometric model that would help justify the investment in influencer marketing as a contribution to sales.

Let’s have a look at data around a campaign for a smartphone manufacturer that has been touted as successful by the agency involved. We don’t know the cost as its likely to be client confidential.

  • 2 million YouTube views (we don’t know how many of these were driven by advertising)

  • 75,000 likes

  • 13,587,159 impressions driven by 6 influencers

  • 10,689 clicks from 90 posts

  • 10 million impressions for the promotion of a colour variant of the smartphone model and 92,320 engaged

  • 4.6% engagement rate (which we’re assured is 41% higher than the industry average for branded content)

What this doesn’t tell us:

  • Reach amongst target audience
  • Repetition amongst target audience

Which could then be used to provide an estimate of its contributory factor to sales if you had an econometrics model. You can’t access how it works next to other tactics and there are limited outtakes for the learning marketing organisation.

Quality of brand placement

Many brands have struggled to get their brand in the influencers content in a way that:

  • Represents it in a meaningful way (for example beyond unboxing videos, one smartphone looks rather like another)
  • Doesn’t feel ad-hoc or awkward

Some luxury brands have managed to get around this by keeping control of the content; a good example of this is De Grisogono – a family-run high jewellery and luxury watch brand. They work with fashion bloggers that meet their high standards and invite them to events. (It’s obviously an oversight on their part that I haven’t had an invite yet.)

De Grisogono provides them with high-quality photography of its pieces and the event. They get the best of both worlds: influencer marketing but with a high standard of brand presentation which raises the quality of the achieved reach.

There is a school of thought that micro-influencers will be easier to manage in order to assure quality of brand placement. However, micro-influencers are likely to be aspiring macro-influencers and each will have a clear line of demarcation in their own head that they won’t cross. The reality is one of complexity dependent on:

  • Brand power
  • Relationships
  • Credibility of proposed idea
  • Impact on aspirations – could they get more followers by taking a stand and strategically burning a brand?

Cost per reach

Influencers tend to talk about themselves in terms of the number of followers that they have. However many followers seldom engage with the influencers content. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • The follow button is often used as a book mark or a like button
  • Algorithmic changes to social platforms and the volume of the social firehouse itself drown out brands (and these influencers are all about the brand of ‘me’). Whatley and Manson’s research at Ogilvy on the decline of organic reach in Facebook pages  is worthwhile having a look at

Followers as a data point is not the straight analogue of reach that the industry and influencers would have you believe based on how they present their data.

Reach numbers that are presented are often not that much more useful:

follower

(Data via Golin, TapInfluence and Marriott)

Consistency of reach

So influencers may give us follower numbers or ‘total reach’ calculations but how do we know what reach their brand placement content is likely to achieve? At the moment, I don’t know how consistent influencers are, I have a ‘personal time’ data project currently in progress on it. More on that hopefully in a later post. There isn’t off-the-peg data that I know of, so I am pulling together a data set.

Message repetition

Until we understand the ‘quality of brand placement’ we wouldn’t be able to understand whether a piece of influencer content was a point of content delivery. We’d also need to know do audiences of influencer A also look at media channels or other influencers that we have in our overall media plan. There often isn’t an overall media plan and there often isn’t sufficient quality of audience data for influencers.

More information
Edelman Digital Trends Report – (PDF) makes some interesting reading
Instagram Marketing: Does Influencer Size Matter? | Markerly Blog
Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing by Danny Brown & Sam Fiorella ISBN-13: 978-0789751041 (2013)
Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach

Jargon watch: lights out production lines

If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together. It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)

Belated Christmas Gift: updated set of marketing data slides

I started pulling together and publishing different data sets focused on online marketing from social platforms to the size of mobile screens. I think that it might be useful for strategists and planners. Feel free to use. If you do find them useful drop me a note. You can scroll through the embedded version below and download the PowerPoint version here.

Opportunities for PR and brand communications from 2017 onwards

2016 has been a watershed year in the western world. Political forces that were simmering, but previously untapped manifested themselves in populist victories. Political norms that were common currency for the past two decades have been brought into question and there will be societal impacts and changes in consumer tastes.

Businesses are being buffeted by these changes. In the case of the UK; supply chains will be re-engineered over the next two years to address the country’s departure from the European economic bloc. Most companies that I have spoken to are working on the assumption of the hardest Brexit:

  • No trade agreement with the EU
  • No customs union with the EU
  • No passporting for services such as banking
  • No agreement on storage of EU or US personal data in the UK
  • No free movement of EU talent
  • Problems with the WTO as countries look to settle scores like ownership of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar

This presents communications teams with opportunities and challenges:

  • There will be new regulatory and legal environments for companies to navigate
  • Corporate and social responsibility programmes will need to be recalibrated
  • There will be change management as jobs are moved abroad and facilities closed
  • Brands will have to work smarter with less
  • Consumer data based systems will need to be redesigned to meet the new legal and country boundaries imposed upon it
  • UK businesses will need to prepare for permanent handicap on their profits

There is also a wave of change for consumer businesses. Whole categories of products – carbonated drinks, cereals and spreads are losing market share to substitute products. This is hitting the large FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) brands including:

  • Unilever
  • Coca-Cola
  • General Mills
  • Nestle
  • Kelloggs

Consumer brands have looked to counteract this in a number of ways:

  • Putting their spend where it will do the best work by using zero-based budgeting (ZBB)
  • Restructuring brand architectures – moving away from preventing brand damage through brand extension to brand consolidation to maximise the benefit of marketing spend. Coca-Cola is a prime example of this
  • Brand architecture will create a tension in the organisation. On the one hand the societal norm will be for local brands rather than global, on the other you have the corporate desire to cut and simplify to maintain margins. Whilst some companies may kill brands, others may sell them on to local companies, which will then try to squeeze as much value out of the brand equity as they can
  • Move away from micro-targeting to ‘smart’ mass-marketing – the key exponent of this is Byron Sharp at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia

Opportunities in terms of new products that communications agencies can offer

  • Internal communications programme – site shutdown or company shutdown as a product
  • CSR audit as product
  • CRM (customer relationship management) audit as product

Focus on clients based on their strategic intent if they are implementing ZBB, here’s a quick guide I did earlier this year.

Businesses have six paths to growth
Zero-Based Budgeting

Path versus agency discipline
Zero-Based Budgeting

If your client programme lies in parts of the spectrum where you won’t benefit, then as an agency you have a few choices:

  • Identify and grow your business within other brands of a clients business
  • Look at rivals for opportunities
  • Treat the current business as a cash cow

A second aspect of risk analysis is brand consolidation. There is not much that an agency can do with the change in brand architecture like Coca-Cola. The clients are likely to cut costs.

A clearer source of risk will be ‘local gems’ this is a consumer brand that is only sold in one country (it may be known under a different name in other countries). These brands are likely to be closed down or sold on, particularly if they are in declining growth sectors such as margarine spreads, cereals or carbonated drinks.

If you have only started planning about looking for replacement brands in your portfolio, it may already be too late. Best case scenario is that the brand is bought by a local FMCG company.

Looking at previous brand sales like Radion washing powder as an example the acquirers will not support it with significant marketing spend. Instead, they will look to maximise their investment by mining existing brand loyalty and awareness.  Depending on the product category and the target audience will depend on how fast inevitable brand decline will be.

Either way it is not a particularly attractive piece of business or large or medium-sized agencies. An incumbent agency will have to repitch for the work as it will fall outside the purview of existing contracts and business relationships.

Advertising agencies have a head start in terms of their planners having a clear grip on what Sharp’s concept of smart mass marketing means for their discipline. PR agencies need to articulate this and reflect it in their account planning. They are still struggling to get to grips with social and are championing concepts like ‘micro-influencers’; that don’t fit into Sharp’s world view. They are effectively burning client respect.

PR agencies need to think much more in terms of programme audience reach and repetition for audiences, rather than the current focus on influence.

2017: just where is it all going?

We are entering a period of turbulence in much of the world and I suspect that there are going to be more changes over the coming years.

Smart watches still won’t be as big as fitness trackers. Fitness trackers will peak.

  • Smart watches are struggling for a reason to purchase. Apple’s Watch 2 was the product that they should have realised the first time around. It was fixing the bugs in the first version. But there is still no reason to purchase
  • Android Wear supporters seem to have laid off on development. Huawei Watches are now available for half the list price. Lenovo has laid its Android Wear ambitions aside.
  • Fitness trackers seem to have done a very good job at reaching health fanatics. However the market will soon become driven by replacement devices. There is a constant tension between buying a cheap device which requires low amounts of purchase consideration versus moderately expensive devices that competes agains the smartphone doing the job. It is interesting that Jawbone could not find a buyer and Pebble was sold to Fitbit

If there is a common content format and a rise in content (beyond brand marketing) then VR could take off (and hammer TV sales in the process – at least in single user situations. I still think that VR googles could act as a TV substitute for single person households, shared living and student dorms. When content is time-shifted or binge streamed you can get by without a TV tuner.

The key driver would be the high cost of housing. If you are a hipster living in a small bedsit, having a large TV is a waste of your precious space.

The ‘next billion’ smartphone users in the developing world won’t get their handsets as fast as everyone thinks. Why?

  • Much of the supply will come from small no-name brands. These brands currently are on razor thin margins. Smartphone manufacturers are being shaken out
  • Razor thin margins are crushing key component manufacturers, those that are left will prioritise big customers first
  • The Hanjin Shipping meltdown will hit small suppliers with valuable cashflow tied up in containers that can’t move. Hanjin is expected to precipitate failure in other shipping businesses as the industry still has massive over-capacity and financial institutions will be less interested in helping out distressed businesses. Mearsk’s acquisition of Hamburg Sud is a further sign of this
  • Increasing nationalism in key markets like Indonesia and India is requiring local investment in production lines and component sourcing. This will take the focus away from addressing other markets and likely temporarily rise manufacturing costs
  • Declining economic outlook in mature markets including China, the US and EU will affect the capital available to fund speedy expansion

Leaks about Uber’s finances and rising interest rates are likely to drive increased scrutiny of Silicon Valley businesses. Uber’s finances sound eerily like the investment money pits prevalent.

Media investment is going to pour into the Alt-Right at a VC level. Its been a void that they’ve left up to now. Given that many of the markets that they’ve tried to disrupt are going nowhere, expect Breitbart and Co. to start seeing VC funded competition.

Working class truths, populism and dark futures

Following president Trump’s election and the British plebiscite on European Union membership there has been lots of hand wringing about workers who traditionally participated in legacy industries being outside society.
We won't pay for their crisis - Mancunian protest sticker
Here is what we have to deal with:

  • The ‘traditional’ jobs aren’t coming back
  • Middle-class roles are already being disrupted
  • There is a declining  return on investment in further education, yet lifelong learning is a compulsory requirement
  • Globalisation is working at an aggregate level, but isn’t working at a local level
  • Western society has fractured. It will become more fractious once the realisation takes hold that:
  1. It can’t be resolved by simple measures, populists might listen – but can’t solve anything. Jobs are governed by a multiple factors that affect both cost and demand considerations
  2. It can’t be solved in a relatively short time frame. You can’t build the necessary eco-system and supporting industries to bring the jobs back; even if the economics made sense
  3. Governments don’t have their hands on the levers of control, the best governments can do is actively manage decline. Technological disruption puts the levers of control with a smaller group of people
  4. There is a lack of willingness by those with the money and the power to solve it – primarily due to the pressures that drive their behaviour
  5. Existing social welfare safety nets aren’t sustainable

The realisation that populism doesn’t deliver is likely to cause a further visible outburst of anger. Which should be good news for the private security industry. This could result in civil or international conflict. It has already happened. Factors that contributed to the Arab spring and the Syrian civil war included a large under-employed population living in stagnant economic conditions with no hope in sight. This probably sounds familiar.

I am ruling out some sort of positive ‘black swan’ event which changes the game completely and provides meaningful work with great wages across societal boundaries. If I could reliably predict these, I would be writing this from my private Airbus A380.

Instead I can see four broad categories of outcomes, all of which are ugly:

  • Carry on – carrying on isn’t likely to be sustainable as societal pressures go to breaking point
  • Managed decline – from a rational point-of-view the most ‘possible’ solution. Unpalatable from a voter perspective. It begs the question at what point would the UK economy bottom out? Managed decline makes the most sense as an interim measure whilst a country works out what its new place in the world is and charts a path towards it based on careful strategic investments with limited capital
  • Massive investment – presents a number of challenges that make it nearly impossible for western countries. It would require a long term view – unlikely without consensus driven politics with a high level of comity, huge access to credit – again unlikely with highly indebted economy and a slowly declining credit rating like the UK. Would take too long to satisfy angry voters
  • Massive disruption – the dice is thrown in the air as society tears itself apart and the strong gain control – think China’s Cultural Revolution. Wages and worker rights may drop to make them more cost competitive for low skilled manufacturing allowing for an employed but disgruntled workforce. Power is unlikely to shift too much, the corresponding upheaval in population numbers may provide some supply side pressure on wages when its all over. In all likelihood, it would just reduce pressure for change, increased willingness to work together on a longer term solution, but not provide much medium term economic benefit

Disruption

Here is a chart of numerous successful business, some of them are over a century old. AT&T and Verizon can trace their history back to 1877 and the Bell Telephone Company set up by Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law. General Electric goes back to work by Thomas Edison in 1880. These companies took from 117 – 137 years to become $200 billion businesses. Facebook took ten years requiring only 3% of the people AT&T needed.

It would be reasonable to assume that the future is going to create less jobs with given investments rather than more.

Company #Employees Year its market capitalisation became US$200 billion
Facebook 9,199 2014
Microsoft 27,000 1998
Apple 46,600 2010
Alphabet (Google) 46,600 2012
Amazon 165,000 2015
Verizon 176,800 2014
General Electric 239,000 1997
AT&T 302,000 2007

So large private enterprises will:

  • Employ less people which means less ancillary demand for services in the locale. Less restaurants, shops, artisanal coffee shops, micro breweries, nail bars, car valets, hotels and hair salons
  • Employ even less unskilled people – what unskilled labour is required will be employed on a flexible basis. Their roles will be competing on ‘total price’ with a global workforce and robotics

This hypothesis is supported by data from the MIT Technology review which showed that modern US manufacturing managed to increase productivity by 250% whilst reducing staff numbers by over 40%.

Win-Win to Winner Takes All

Technological progress and globalisation has resulted in a decline in the middle class in western countries. Pew Research claims that the US middle class declined from 61 per cent of the population in 1970 to 50 per cent by 2015.

Corresponding average ‘real wages’ for US ‘good producing’ workers peaked by the mid-1970s and have been broadly stagnant since. A pattern mirrored in other developed economies. Hong Kong saw a similar peak from 1967 riots through to the early 1990s until factories moved across the border.

Manufacturing productivity had grown steadily over that time. You can argue over the data points but the overall trend seems to hold true.

Owners of capital have enjoyed increased returns versus the providers of labour. Knowledge work, a key part of middle class roles could be easier to export than production lines. A classic example is the bank back office roles that have been exported to India.

Supply chain

At the moment UK manufacturing jobs operate as part of a complex supply chain that primarily addresses the European Union as a market. The supply chain is built around a number of factors:

  • The value of the product
  • The weight of the product
  • The volume of the product
  • The cost of shipping versus the cost of production
  • How well the product travels
  • Distribution of product demand
  • Proximity to suppliers
  • Proximity to talent

This is why companies may package a product in one country and manufacturer in others. Washing powder is a classic example of this. Chocolate travels well, so Cadbury could move production lines of internationally popular products to Poland. There is a greater incentive to move low skilled work out of areas that aren’t geographically central to a given supply chain.  European freedom of movement may have kept jobs in the UK by allowing low and semi-skilled workers to move rather than the factories. This would be of little consolation to UK workers, but would benefit UK tax coffers.

This complex formula is the reason why jobs move in and out of the UK.

Cutting the UK out of this supply chain with a hard Brexit ensures that suppliers have to make complex choices. BMW will probably be wondering what UK presence it needs to maintain in order to keep the Mini brand values. It may decide its easier to evolve the quirky Britishness out of the brand over time and just keep it quirky. The Audi TT hasn’t been harmed by actually being assembled in Hungary.

The majority of components in the supply chain for the Mini production line is based in Germany.

A post-Brexit UK could be in the position of importing more rather than less products once companies take into account the bigger picture of the supply chains and the EU single market.

Role of eco-systems

Richard Florida is a Canadian professor who has spent much of his time looking at urban studies from the perspective of prosperity. He is known for is work around the creative class and urban regeneration (or gentrification). His work is controversial. One key concept he has of relevance to working-class communities is one of ‘clusters’ where eco-systems exist.  When you apply it to traditional working class industries one can see how the jobs aren’t just going to come back. The UK has a series of traditional clusters that are in overall decline, this is best illustrated by the state of chemical, oil refinery and coal sectors which underpin a wide range of manufacturing industries.

Where new clusters spring up (Silicon Roundabout and the FinTech businesses within the Square Mile) they create employment that much of the UK population is ill-equipped to fulfil.

Let’s look in greater depth at traditional manufacturing industries.

Factories build on suppliers, who build on raw materials processors, who build on utilities and extractive industries. Take for example industrial revolution era Stoke-on-Trent which was close to high quality clay pits and coal that could be cheaply shipped in from mines in Lancashire or South Yorkshire.

Unfortunately for Stoke-on-Trent; clay is readily available around the world, opening up the possibility of production in areas with cheap labour. Automation raised the quality of production and fashion can quickly dictate whether an ‘area’ brand is in demand.

If we look at the industrial landscape of the United Kingdom, the manufacturing industry has been hollowed away during the 1980s and 1990s. The UK lost 18% of its manufacturing capacity in the space of 18 months during the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

There has been a corresponding (likely terminal) decline in the necessary facilities to support an industrial economy. Now let’s look in-depth at three essential types of facilities that underpin manufacturing:

  • Oil refineries
  • Coal mines
  • Chemical plants

This base of the UK industrial eco-system is running on ‘life support’ in critical areas.

I was fortunate to have a great science teacher at school, he once said to me that you could measure the size and health of an industrial economy by the amount of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid it manufactured and consumed. In order to manufacture hydrochloric acid you need a chlorine gas plant – neither chemical is something you want to transport over long distances. The side effects of a leak would be catastrophic.

The UK currently has one plant to make chlorine gas that is government subsidised because there isn’t a sufficiently large industrial base to support continued profitable production. What industrial capacity is in the UK is perilously close to being snuffed out.

What is left of the UK chemical industry has consolidated in the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEEPIC). Some of the products created are intermediary chemicals for use elsewhere in the European Union. Brexit is likely to have a disruptive effect on some of these manufacturers. The cluster is a key reason why Nissan decided to build a manufacturing plant in Sunderland. NEEPIC is dependent on oil refining capacity for key chemical building blocks (feedstock).

Oil refineries are considered by the public as providers of petrol (gasoline), diesel and jet fuel. The reality is that they provide feedstock (chemical building blocks) for most things in everyday life:

  • Foods
  • Medicines (or we can go back to leeches and blood letting)
  • Paints (containers, large manufactured goods, civil engineering)
  • Plastics (the modern world as we know it) – structural plastics, coatings, fibres including clothing textiles

As I write this is, it is easier to look around my desk and count the products that don’t have an oil-derived input – one item, the desk itself which is unpainted. Though I would put good money on it that the trees it was made from were felled with petrol chain saw and transported on a diesel powered lorry to the saw mill.

Yet the UK has lost a huge amount of oil refining capacity. From 1974 – 2012 refining capacity almost halved from 148 million tonnes to 77 million tonnes (Energy Institute). This decline happened despite start of UK North sea oil production in 1975.

Peak production on North Sea oil occurring in 1985 and 1999 (two peaks due to technological innovation). There were 22 active oil refineries in 1974, at the time of writing there are now seven.

Part of this was driven by changing energy consumption such as the decline of home heating oil and more fuel efficient cars. But a good deal would be due to reduced ability to compete against foreign petro-chemical feedstocks and reduced industrial capacity.

Oil refining capacity has moved to closer to where the industry is.

Belgium and the Netherlands have oil refining capacity beyond their internal needs because of their ease of access to continental European markets. Germany as Europe’s industrial powerhouse has the largest refining capacity in the European Union – which matches its industrial economy.

Much of the capacity to provide chemical feedstocks for industrial use has moved to the Far East; notably Singapore, Japan, Korea, Jamnagar in India and China. Overall industrial production has moved to East and Southeast Asia.

Coal production in the UK is roughly 10 percent of what it was in 1980. There are no deep coal mines active in the UK, only a handful of open cast mines. Coal is not only useful as a fuel but also a alternative supplier of feedstock for a diverse range of products including fertilisers, plastics and medicines. Even if coal comes back to prominence as oil reserves run out it would take a lot of effort to get UK production going again – perhaps too much effort.

Managed decline

The purpose of managed decline would be to concentrate efforts where they can make the most impact. London would draw in more people from the hinterlands. Cities like Liverpool would continue to decline in population. Low quality housing (think trailer parks or shanty towns) would cater for the internally displaced workers and there would be a likely increase in casual or gig economy roles.

So what would managed decline look like? We have a clue from government discussions after the 1981 Toxteth riots. Lord Geoffrey Howe wrote a letter which was considered too controversial at the time

“I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack,”

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

“It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.”

“I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”

Howe realised that even discussing the concept at the time would be explosive.

In practical terms, it would mean:

  • Re-centralising government departments
  • Not spending on infrastructure beyond critical maintenance
  • Rationalising government support infrastructure: police, hospitals, social services
  • Re-zoning areas from a planning perspective to encourage development only in future clusters
  • Allowing local government to go into bankruptcy protection and under go US-style emergency management
  • Once population decline hits a critical mass, turning off the last services, rather like the city of Detroit has done
  • Focus infrastructure investment on ‘clusters’
  • Connecting benefits to re-location

This process would then give time for western countries; in particular the UK, to re-invent themselves and think about their economic purpose in the world beyond consumption.

The Chinese government have already started on this process whilst their economy is still in a high state of growth – looking to move up the manufacturing value chain, moving into the professional and financial services sectors that the west currently occupy. On the flip side they have not flinched from closing down excess capacity in the steel industry and low value industries. This is causing economic hardship amongst unskilled workers in Guongzhou and the steel towns of Hubei province.

Former clothing factories are being bulldozed to make way for corporate campuses. Small electronics factories in Shenzhen are making way for a financial services centre including a stock exchange.

If one thinks about the Chinese experience and their migration to higher value work, where would the UK go next?

More information
The Current Moment | Poverty, Inequality and Productivity
Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t Coming Back | MIT Technology Review
The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground | Pew Research Center
Toxteth riots: Howe proposed ‘managed decline’ for city | BBC
Detroit’s Least Bad Option | The New Republic