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25 technologies

Reading Time: 16 minutes

25 technologies that have come to prominence during the past quarter century and have changed the world. CNET came up with their own list. That inspired me to take a run at it and make my own list of 25 technologies.

CNET’s list

My list

Apple iPhone

SMS and instant messaging

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi

IoT (internet of things)

Mobile broadband

Voice assistants

DOCSIS & DSL

Bluetooth

Bluetooth

VPN (virtual private network)

Voice recognition

Bitcoin

Search

Blockchain

SaaS (Software as a Service)

MP3

VoIP (voice (and video) over IP)

Facial recognition

Global navigation satellite systems

Artificial intelligence

OSS (open source software)

Drones

Email

DNA testing

XML (eXtensible Markup Language)

Quantum computing

JavaScript

Social networking

Social networking

3D printing

MPEG – (Moving Pictures Experts Group)

Video streaming

NFC – (near field communications)

Apps

Apps

Autonomous vehicles

2FA (2 factor authentication)

RFID

RFID

Virtual reality

Strong cryptography

Video conferencing

OCR

E-cigarettes

Machine learning

Ransomware

USB

Music streaming

CMOS sensors

 

Looking over the list of things now, I can see that my ideas were about more foundational 25 technologies required to make the modern technology environment. I also have taken a more sanguine view on the 25 technologies.

Bitcoin and blockchain didn’t make the cut. Most of the applications that people like IBM look at call for a ‘private blockchain’, which negates the distributed ledger benefit. It can’t handle as many transactions as an Oracle database as fast. Digital currency maybe a thing and central banks have been actively thinking about it, but I am less convinced by cryptocurrencies. Secondly, crypto currencies are exceptionally energy inefficient; which is important in a world trying to move towards a low carbon economy.

With quantum computing it is just too early to tell. The technology is probably only where the digital computer was back in the 1940s. IBM have form in backing alternative forms of computing that haven’t panned out, like Josephson junctions, optical computing and gallium arsenide based computing. None of which have made it into mainstream computing.

Back in the 1980s progress was made at a furious rate on superconducting materials, with a future promise of room temperature superconductors at some point in the future. Although the research gave use some novel materials, it has mostly made a difference in heavy hospital based medical equipment sensors. Hence my hesitation to get excited about technologies still in their relative infancy.

Common items in the list of 25 technologies

Wi-Fi – like many technologies, Wi-Fi didn’t suddenly spring forth from the ether. It was the child of several developments over three decades. The name itself came about in 1999, created by branding agency Interbrand. It meant nothing in and of itself except as a pun on ‘hi-fi’. The name and logo were important at the time as they were signs of compatability. A laptop with wi-fi could log on and use a network with the right security details. This changed IT and buildings dramatically. Before Wi-Fi, you needed ethernet cable, a modem, modem cables and socket adaptors. And you’d still need your laptop power brick as battery life was a lot poorer back then. Wi-Fi was easy to install and changed spaces, at home, at work and in between. If you had internet at home before brandband you were tethered to the telephone port; or the modem tethered to the telephone port. The Internet was used in a fixed space. At work you were tied to your desk and forget about working in a coffee shop if you needed to log on. Even the term log on implies a time when going on the internet was an active thing to do. Wi-Fi redefined all that, you could work wherever you wanted to in the house. Connect whatever devices you wanted. I still use ethernet at home for my computer and Apple TV, but I don’t have to. My laptop switches on to the Wi-Fi network when I move away from my desk. Wi-Fi was also critically important for smartphones. Mobile networks are patchy, even more so indoors, but with smartphones came the ability to route their cellular calls over wi-fi. This was first of use to Blackberry users and is now an option to be turned on with most modern smartphones. Logging on no longer had to be an active state, we became always on, all the time. Along the way Wi-Fi had to see off competition from a European standard called HyperLAN2. I worked on promoting Ericsson’s home hubs for that, lovely product design but it was going nowhere.

Bluetooth – While the origins of Bluetooth owe a lot to a couple of Ericsson engineers in the late 1980s. Much of what we now think of Bluetooth is down to a partnership that Ericsson and IBM did in 1997. They looked to incorporate a short link wireless connection between a laptop and a cellular phone. The cellular phone would then be used as a modem for basic email. At the time, the other options were a cable, or IrDA – an infra red connection. IrDA was supposed to have a one metre point-to-point connection. I found in practice that you had to to a third of that distance most of the time. This limitation at least made it secure. Bluetooth eventually made it to phones, laptops and headsets during the dot.com boom. A key driver in this was the more compact nature of lithium ion batteries. People found it disconcerting someone would be next to them apparently talking to no one. So Bluetooth headsets didn’t take off really well until people stopped using voice on phones so much. I was fortunate to go to the US on a business trip in 2006 and picked up a Jawbone headset. This was a major improvement in noise reduction and call quality, but I only ever used for Skype calls at home as I didn’t want to look like a doochebag boiler-room sales professional.

Jawbone

What’s amazing now is the sheer ubquity of Bluetooth. Industrial computing networks, medical technology, consumer electronics, gaming and electronic fences.

Social networking – social networking as a concept had existed for as long as consumers had gone online. There was the bulletin board culture, forums, services that helped you build your own sites. Chat rooms kind of served the same role that Twitter hashtags do. 10 years ago, social networking was a place of interesting experiments. Localised solutions for different markets; Japan and Korea were way out in front doing mobile social. Mass adoption changed things. Now social is engrained in the fabric of society, like a bunion. What we didn’t get was the digital utopian dream of a harmonious global village, but the same grubby aspects of society accelerated through using a digital domain. The truth is no longer a universal concept.

Apps – apps or more accurately an online app store and signed apps have changed computing. The app store first appeared in the early 1990s on NeXT computers. It was designed to manage intellectual property rights on digital media and software. The app store built on Unix-like system tools called a package manager. Palmix was an Indian web based app store aimed at PDA users. A year later NTT DoCoMo launched i-mode an online integrated app store for mobile phones. Vodafone, KPN and Nokia followed with stores soon after. Handango released the first on device store similar to the Apple App Store experience now.

Its often forgotten that the original iPhone launched without an app store. Instead Apple thought the device would run web apps. Unless you were on wi-fi they weren’t great. Everyone had got caught up in web 2.0 fever, where by the miracle of Javascript and XML web pages were no longer catalogues but could do things. Palm made a similar mistake with its WebOS. Fortunately Apple did a pivot with iOS 2 and an app store was launched. But this didn’t stop mobile developers arguing and blogging for years afterwards about which was the best approach native apps or web apps. The thinking moderated a little and now hybrid apps make it into the mix as well.

iphone

Apple quickly realised that the app store was a winner and put it front and centre of its marketing.

RFID – it was originally used to track boxes in a warehouse and containers in a port. Technology brought the cost down so that it could track most items on a shop, or books in a library. Security guards walking a beat could tap and go at checkpoints and so could credit card payments. Pet could be returned to their owners thanks to an RFID pellet injected below the skin. In a secure lab that I worked in, it took a certain knack to swipe your card through the magnetic stripe reader and open the door. With RFID, it would be tap and go. In a post-9/11 world RFID tags went into every passport, changing immigration experience of air travel forever.

My Oyster card for LDN & my Octopus card for HKG

On a more prosaic level it sparked off several stored value transport cards including Oystercards in London and Octopus in Hong Kong. On average, they still get you through the turnstile faster than a phone app and NFC.

The rest of the 25 technologies

SMS and instant messaging – the UK and US developed in very different ways during the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Thanks to the EU spending so much research and development money on getting second generation networks up and running. Meanwhile over the US there was a plethora of cellular network standards and mobile roaming a nightmare. Instead the US established an internet culture earlier. Free local calling made dial up internet popular. This meant that they developed an instant messaging culture, whilst Europe saw a similar surge around SMS messaging. Both provided training wheels for adoption of our current mobile messaging culture. SMS is still used as a lingua franca for smartphone messaging, by everyone from Amazon to airlines. Like email, tales of its demise are premature.

Mobile broadband – GSM or 2G democratised mobile phone usage, but it was limited by data bandwidth and data latency. Whilst it was rated as being similar to a dial-up modem it often felt way slower. It was only 2.5G (EDGE or EGPRS), 3 and 4G that made possible what we now take for granted as a mobile experience. With 2G, getting anything done took a real effort. Downloading text emails were painfully slow. And data was expensive. Mobile connections were worthwhile for specialist applications like news and sports photographers needing to get images as fast as possible for sale to picture desks. 3G promised video calls and TikTok-esque sports highlights. The reality was passible email and access to maps. It was around about this time that I no longer carried an A-to-Z atlas of London with me everywhere. You couldn’t have Instagram, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Siri or the weather without mobile broadband. These not only empowered services like downloads, streaming and video, but changed our relationship with the internet. Our relationship with bandwidth and real terms price drops were responsible for our always-on life as much as WhatsApp and Skype.

Voice recognition – as with many of our 25 technologies, voice recognition as we understand it now started with work done at Bell Labs. Back in the early 1950s, they managed to train a system to recognise a single voice dictating digits. From there voice recognition evolved in fits and starts. This innovation was predominantly driven by the telephone companies and the defence industry. 1990 was a pivotal year. Dragon Dictate – a personal computer based system was launched. AT&T deployed the Voice Recognition Call Processing service. AT&T service allowed calls to be routed without the involvement of a receptionist. This is usually the first line of a call centre experience, or when phone banking is used to validate online banking payments.

It has become more important as smartphone interfaces have hidden the number pad on calls. Voice has also been an area where phone interfaces and home devices have tried to tap into. And for many they have worked reasonably well. I have personally found that the results have been more inconsistent for me. My Ericsson T39 from 2001 was able to recognise ‘Call <insert name>’ consistently; associating the name with a person in my speed dial list. Something that Siri struggles to do now. Siri manages to play me the headlines from the BBC and Google doesn’t seem to understand me at all.

Ericsson T39

The benefits of speech recognition moves forwards in fits and starts. The UK may prove trickier due to the relative volume of accents compared to the size of the population. And then you have people like me with an accent that has changed over time as I have moved around. Unconsciously adapting to my environment and losing some of the edges of my North of England and Irish upbringing.

Search – like most people who have been using the internet since the mid-1990s, my experience was divided not by before and after Facebook. But before and after Google. Originally the web was so small that the original search engines worked remarkably well. I remember using them as part of my research process during my degree. As the internet grew the original search engines like Hotbot, AltaVista and Excite struggled to keep up. On to the scene came Google.

Google changed the way that we found things on the web. Concepts like web rings and directories are now ancient history. Our relationship with the web was mediated through its search box and it became our gateway to the web. Search also changed our relationships with our devices. It inspired journaled index of computer drives as consumers expected answers to finding items on their computer with the same ease as the web. Search is now the primary way that I navigate my Mac and my iPhone. It is a design metaphor that will be with us for a long time.

SaaS (software as a service) – actually dates from before the web. IBM used to provide ‘time-sharing’ on mainframe computers, back before PCs were a thing. Supercomputers in many academic institutions still provide the same kind of function for organisations looking to do market or economic modelling. The internet however, provided a new way of connecting with time-shared resources. Eventually virtualisation broke out the major blockage that every user needed a separate instance of a software application to run on. Web 2.0 pioneer Oddpost – a paid for email service offered new levels of functionality. Oddpost used Javascript and XML to provide a desktop like application experience in the browser. Google extensively copied these ideas for Gmail two years later.

This then opened the door for the modern versions of Salesforce, e-Days, Workday and other SaaS. This software was now available for smaller businesses that couldn’t support running the applications on premises. SaaS, XML and Javascript are intimately connected in my choice of 25 technologies.

VoIP – voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) was first used in the early 1970s to pipe instructions into a flight simulator over the ARPANet. It really found its feet in 1991 with the first software programme allowing VoIP communications. The following Commuique was released which was like a Zoom analogue. As the commercial internet rolls out in the US, Israeli firm VocalTec releases its ‘Internet Phone’ application. Soon after the ITU looks at VoIP standards. The rise of the internet led to alternative telcos that routed voice minutes over data networks – a mix of old and new telecoms.

I started my agency career working on one such alternative telco that used technology from Israeli VoIP start-up deltathree. At this time, the price of voice calls declined precipitously; particularly for international calling at the expense of quality. The industry attracted numerous spivs. The SIP standard was developed as an analogue for SS7 in voice and video calls.

With 3G phones and a modicum of good interface design drove VoIP calls over services like Skype and Vonage. This was displaced in terms of popularity by a new generation of mobile first services like Viber, WhatsApp and FaceTime. Zoom built on this base for its conference call platform. In the meantime, telecoms providers have tried to reinvent themselves. Some with more success than others.

Global navigation satellite systems – The US highlighted the impact of GPS during the first Gulf War.

After the Gulf War, non-defence usage came into focus. Telematics and navigation. GPS also provided timing to a diverse range of technologies from mobile networks. to ATM machines. In the early 2000s. PDA manufacturers like Fujitsu manage to integrate GPS modules into their PDA (personal digital assistant) devices. Nokia’s N95 smartphone, was the first popular device with a built in GPS receiver and this spurred the adoption of maps on a smartphone.

Now the use cases are limitless as smartphone apps can tap into location data when a person is outside a building. The next step is accurate indoor location positioning – all be it, no longer relying on satellite signals.

OSS – Open Source Software (OSS) is pervasive in the modern day. This blog runs on OSS (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP). The Mac that I write this post on is based on OSS (Darwin, Mach microkernel, FreeBSD). The web browser is based on a branch of KDE Conqueror called WebKit and that’s the same with the iPhone and iPad as well. If you’re using an Android phone its based on Linux. Even smart home light bulbs run Linux.

The rise of OSS went hand-in-hand with the web. Widespread doption started in server software that worked with open standards. Pretty soon you saw attempts to put it elsewhere. Desktop Linux including Netbooks – lightweight low power laptops. Ideal for checking your email or surfing the web. At the same time Apple had transitioned from the ‘Classic’ MacOS to something based on NeXTSTEP – acquired with NeXT Computer. Motorola and other manufacturers put it into mobile phones – as forerunners of the modern smartphone. From there it went into Sony PlayStation 3 console. As globalisation drove electronics manufacturing to China; manufacturers of all kinds of gadgets saw the benefits of Linux – even if they didn’t honour the law and spirit of open source cough, cough Huawei…

Email – despite Facebook owning all our data, email is the key identifier. The identifier that you log into your Amazon account, log on to Netflix with and countless other services. Despite email being dead and countless other services being layered on top to replace it, its still very much alive. My own email account has selected correspondence that goes back to 2001.

Email marketing statistics are declining in effectiveness yet its still a very effective medium. Just look at businesses like ASOS.

Our relationship with email changed. When I left college, I had signed up for an online account with Yahoo! I could keep in touch with friends and apply for jobs. The email address went on my CV and I went to a cyber cafe Liverpool with a disc full of email messagess to send every Saturday. I usually had coffee and carrot cake with a friend whilst I sent it. We’d then go into the shopping district of central Liverpool to chat and do some window shopping.

Working in an office, I could check my personal email at lunch time. Home broadband meant that I could check my account at home. Move forward ten years and email is in the palm of our hands, everywhere we go. I managed to get email to work on a Nokia 6600. You can see a surge in Gmail accounts that coincides with the rise in popularity of smartphones.

Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail and Gmail users over time

XML – XML (and JSON) are ways of getting formatted data on to a webpage and allowing the page to become an app. Portability of data is now a foundational technology for the modern web. Want an app or web page that uses data, like the weather forecast or a spreadsheet. It will have XML like feeds in the background. It is so pervasive alongside Javascript that it is more like data as a utility. Electric cabling or indoor plumbing would be a good real world analogy.

Prior to XML and Javascript, a web page would have to be completely refreshed to show updates. There were software as a service applications running on the web; but they were painful. I know, I was a beta tester for an early version of an IPG company’s real time reporting tool. Every agency person knows the pain of time tracking, but time tracking when the page had to constantly update was ten times worse. I know, I was there.

JavaScript – The modern web, where web pages function as an app is down to the use of a group of technologies one of which is JavaScript. JavaScript is a programming language that alters the in-browser behaviour of a web page. When this was combined with formatted data such as XML or JSON it allows a web page to perform as a piece of software. You make a change and the page doesn’t need to refresh, thus improving responsiveness. The potential of it first became obvious with a web email application called Oddpost. Oddpost was a subscription based email service. What you paid your $2.99 a month for was a web interface that thanks to JavaScript and XML worked just like a desktop app. It was Internet Explorer only, which gives you an idea how close Microsoft came to extending their monopoly from Windows to web browsers. Oddpost was eventually acquired by Yahoo! and inspired the launch of Gmail two years later. From there you got self-service enterprise apps like e-Days and Workday.

MPEG – Motion Picture Experts Group is responsible for pretty much every form of audio and video format that we use today. Whilst the technology might come from a multitude of sources, MPEG set standards are invaluable for it. Whether its digital radio, online radio, digital physical media like Blu-Ray and DVD or streaming media MPEG has had an outsized influence. It also relates directly to voice and video communications codecs, hence their place in the 25 technologies. If you’ve done a FaceTime call, listened to Spotify or watched a movie you can thank MPEG.

NFC – Near-field communications offers a way of using devices as authentication. It has really come to its own in smartphones where they serve as contactless digital wallets, access passes and digital car keys. Admittedly mobile wallets have a poor experience and its frightening to think that you wouldn’t be able to get into your car because someone couldn’t be bothered to maintain the Android or iOS app. Yet whether we like it or not NFC has become part of our tech eco-system. I would have preferred if I didn’t have to put into this list of 25 technologies, but I had to acknowledge its impact.

2FA – over the past ten years, two factor authentication (2FA) has gone from being an enterprise level security tool to consumer grade security. The traditional RSA dongle with its constantly changing number codes was a status symbol of the corporate road warrior alongside Tumi luggage and a Blackberry. Now we get those numbers via a smartphone app or by SMS. This has happened as online identity theft and data breaches have become commonplace and massive databases of passwords have been cracked.

Strong cryptography – It’s hard to convey how pervasive strong cryptography has become. Up to a 1/4 of users online currently use a VPN application which encrypts their web traffic. Web connections between a site and a browser are now encrypted more often than not. If you’ve ever done online backing, or bought something online with your credit card you’re using strong cryptography. My laptop uses Apple’s FileVault to encrypt the drive completely. Messaging via iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal or Silent Phone all use strong cryptography. Back in the early 1990s, strong cryptography was seen as a weapon, it was limited in its export. I strongly recommend reading Steven Levy’s Crypto to find out how we got here. I remember when Lotus Notes came with weaker encryption outside the US during the dot com era. Now I am leery of using any communications platform that doesn’t have strong cryptography.

OCR – optical character recognition is technology that has been around for decades. In its modern sense, the start of it is around 1974 with entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil. Now its a foundational technology for many leading edge applications:

  • Interpreting the real world (billboards, road signs, automatic number plate readers)
  • Real time translation (using Google translate to read restaurant menus etc)
  • Digitisation of books and manuscripts (Google Books)
  • handwriting recognition and pen computing
  • Making digitised documents searchable

All of this helps technology to interact with the real world in near real time. You need it for many of the wide range of future technologies that are envisaged. The slow rise of a web-of-no-web where the real world is blended with the online world is possible because of multiple technologies from GPS and QRcodes to optical character recognition.

Machine learning – when people talk about artificial intelligence they usually mean machine learning. Google and other companies are applying techniques that were developed at the University of Toronto in the 1980s during an AI winter. The idea is that if you show a computer programme enough pictures with cats, it will recognise cat attributes as a pattern and recognise them in the future. Its a very particular skill which is the reason why machine learning has offered so much promise and let us down at the same time.

I talked about an AI winter. That’s a time when there was a dearth of spending in artificial intelligence research. We’ve had several cycles of massive government investment and withdrawal as AI historically failed to deliver.

So under the right circumstances, machine learning can count craters on lunar photography or likely cancerous tumours in X-ray imagery. Yet machine intelligence struggles to recognise what I ask. AI driven ad platforms get targeting hilariously wrong. It mirrors some of the fuzzy logic capabilities of Japanese consumer electronics: the auto focus camera, lifts that optimise for traffic flow in tall buildings or the microwave that knows how long to cook your food for. This was based off a mathematical paper published in 1965 by an academic at UC Berkeley.

Moore’s Law and the worry of digital disruption has pushed machine learning adoption, the results may disappoint; but realpolitik will keep it in play.

USB – Computing before USB was messy. There was a range of ports for different things. Connecting a printer, connecting a keyboard and connecting an external hard drive or CD ROM drive all required different sized cable connectors. When you were setting up a computer, it would be clearly labeled on the back of the machine what its function was. I had cables which had ideograms that were moulded on the top of them which came with the Macs that I owned.

CMOS sensors – CCD sensors had been invented over 50 years ago. They were well understood and had been incorporated in video cameras since at least the early 1980s. CCD sensors offered better quality, but had issues with lag. Techniques designed to deal with this helped the performance of CMOS sensors. CMOS sensors were invented by NASA’s Jet Propulson Lab building on work that Olympus did in the 1980s. First it went into mice, then into low end cameras. The technology got better all the time. Doing more in less space with less power. Eventually they went into webcams and cellphones. Nowadays, you’re only like to see CCDs in very particular use cases now. CMOS sensors are everywhere in modern life; even high end photography equipment like PhaseOne.

What would be in your 25 technologies, how would they differ from mine or CNet’s?

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Generations or life stages?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Generations or lifecycles? – Why am I asking this as a question? I’ve had a bit of time to think about consumer behaviour. At the moment you can’t throw a stick without hitting ‘an’ expert in at least one of three generations:

  • Gen-Y or millennials
  • Gen-Z
  • Gen-A

There are older generations that also exist but are mentioned in passing:

  • Gen-X
  • Baby-boomers
  • Silent generation
  • Greatest generation
  • Lost generation

The principle behind this is that each generation would relate to the world in different ways. The implication is that each would require different marketing considerations radically different to anything that has come before.

This lens has a number of results:

  • It encourages marketers to segment markets in certain ways. This facilitates marketing assumptions that are unhelpful
  • It continues marketing focus on a set age group, rather than mining a portfolio for lifetime spend
  • It feeds into a wider marketing culture of ‘disruption’ that can be unhelpful

A history lesson in generations

Generational labels seems to have been started in journalistic essays. These essays tried to convey common experiences. For instance, the sense of loss and dislocation that many felt after fighting in World War 1.

The massive scale of the war meant that armed service touched more people. Over time they have been used to illustrative effect by governments, media and business.

Generations

This has meant that generations varied in length. I reviewed a raft of reports and media coverage and found that from Gen X onwards there has even been an variation in definition of what the generational length was.

Over time an industry of journalists and consulting firms has been built up. They point out the various flaws that are supposed to characterise each generation. They point out to company boards how their businesses will be disrupted if they don’t change the way they do business to meet the needs of a generation. This consulting mirrors the way consultants have preached a similar disruption message around different aspects of digital transformation and requires a regular cyclical refresh.

Is this a deliberate ruse? Probably not, but book publishers need books and consultants need to bill. Both of which are insatiable machines that require a ‘new, new thing’.

A final factor to consider in defining generations. Historically the definition of generations has been done with a global north, western-centric lens. If you look at markets like China the differentiation tends to be done in decades: post-90s generation, post-80s generation and so on.

Now, we’re in a time period where the bulk of young people are going to be born in the global south. There is likely to be emigration north for economic opportunity. There is likely to be a corresponding need due to population decline in developed nations. A trip to Tokyo or London already shows the impact of this. From nurses and care home workers to combini staff and baristas; many of the workers are young and foreign. A global north, western-centric lens makes even less sense.

Period trends and generation trends

One of the things that the generations stereotypes can blind marketers to is cross-generational trends within a period of time. One of the stereotypical characteristics that Gen X was labelled with was cynical. Researchers found that Gen X did exhibit higher levels of cynicism than previous groups of 18 – 29 year olds.

But Stanford University took the research one step further and looked the accuracy of this cynical label. What they found was that all generations at that time were exhibiting higher levels of cynicism. It was a period trend rather than a generational one. As a marketer, that might have a huge implication in the way you deliver messages beyond Gen X.

What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? “Media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of ‘historical underdosing’,” the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. “Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present,” Grusky said.

Oldsters Get The Gen X Feeling | Sci Gogo

David Grusky, one of the two Stanford sociologists who conducted the study highlighted some great actionable insights that marketers at the time could have used when targeting older market segments. Unfortunately, the Gen X = cynical impression stuck, marketers failed to ask the right questions and got the wrong heuristic.

Grusky’s work and the rise of social media adoption across all age groups does make me wonder about Gen Y’s reputation for narcissistic behaviour – when we could be living in a more narcissistic time.

Unhelpful stereotypes

Stereotypes are heuristics that help us make sense of the world. If we constantly had to analyse everything, we’d have been eaten by large predators whilst in a state of analysis paralysis. In a resting state our brain accounts for 60 per cent of our body’s glucose consumption. So anything that can drive energy efficient actionable insight would make evolutionary sense.

It is unlikely that the modern marketer will be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet stereotypical heuristics will make their way into the decision making biases of marketers and their management teams.

Generational labels lend themselves to stereotypes and some of the biggest of them are questionable at best.

  • Boomers are selfish and don’t care about the planet. The publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson, could be considered the point at which the modern environmental movement was born. Counterculture figure Stewart Brand lobbied for the release of the iconic ‘blue marble’ whole earth in space photo by NASA which galvanised the environment movement. His Whole Earth catalog series also went on to influence the ‘back to the land’ counterculture movement that sprang out of hippydom. It is no coincidence that groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were founded around this time. The first Earth Day happened in San Francisco in 1970. As the counterculture movement went around the world in the early 1970s, so did green-orientated political parties. Without Boomers there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) stands on the shoulders of direction action groups like the Greenham Common women and Greenpeace. There is however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that public interest in environmental issues dips during an economic recession and this seems to have been the case after the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Gen X are slackers. They came into a world that had much less economic opportunities than their parents generation. The lack of balance in corporate culture was as unattractive to young Gen Xers as it was to Gen Y and Gen Z first jobbers. As outlined earlier, the move to deregulation and globalisation led to increased cynicism thoughout generations at the time when Gen X entered adulthood. Yet on the flipside, their entrepreneurship has been lauded over the years. Though often that entrepreneurship was forced upon them as industries globalised
  • Gen Y are tech savvy, demand work life balances and are narcissistic in nature. Pew Research indicates that Gen Y do indeed adopt smartphones and tablets, but despite the research article headline of Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life – the difference with Gen X is just three percent in terms of smartphone usage and tablet usage is broadly comparable across generations
  • Gen Z are digital natives and are socially conscious. A classic example of how the truth is more complex and nuanced than this is a recent Kings College London research done into UK attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19. In it is a group called resistors. They buy into the fake news around the virus, are more likely to violate the lockdown regulations and the majority are in the 16-24 year old category.

Massively parallel cultures

Cultural movements used to align in a serial manner to moments in time and space. There was a serial progression as one cultural movement was created in reaction to; and on the legacy of another.

The nature of media and connection changed with technology. Cheaper air fares mean’t that the world has become much more accessible. I am not saying that it is cheap to fly to Australia, Japan or Brazil – but it is cheaper than it was. In my parents life time in Ireland, families and friends used to hold a wake for members of the community emigrating to the United States or Australia.

The reason for the wake was that the distance was only likely to be bridged by the occasional letter and post-departure it was unlike that they would be seen again.

Media is no longer something that has a time slot like the morning paper, drive time radio or prime time TV; but a membrane that surrounds us. It is in our pocket with us everywhere. We are the media; we have a portable broadcast studio of sorts in our pocket and the means of transmission.

To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is, here’s a clip from Back To The Future which was released as a film in 1985. Note the sense of wonder that the 1950s era Doc Brown has when confronted with a 1980s vintage JVC camcorder.

Victor legendary video camera
The iconic JVC GRC-1 camcorder. It is branded Victor for the Japanese domestic market.

The Victor / JVC GRC-1 camcorder had been launched the previous year and was the first all in one VHS camera and recorder – so at the time of the film release this was still cutting edge stuff.

The ‘Mondo‘ series of documentaries shocked and thrilled audiences with practices from around the world that would have seemed fantastical. At least to the average member of the public in the Italy of the directors, or mainstream audiences in the US. As the introduction to the English dub of the film says:

Intro to Mondo Cane

By comparison e-commerce and websites allow us to sample culture and products from around the world. You have access to Korean dramas and beauty tips, vintage Hong Kong movies, Brazilian funk carioca music from the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro or Chinese rap. The web isn’t a perfect memory, content disappears or often never gets seen.

Content is often mediated through algorithms governing e-commerce, search and social platforms. But despite those impediments; culture evolves and morphs in a massively parallel way. Which makes a mockery of generational stereotypes.

Consumption is becoming an attenuated concept

Part of the focus on generations is due to a focus on grabbing early life time spend. Brands want to get consumers as young as possible. An oft-mentioned heuristic was that half a consumer’s spend was done before they reach 35. There are a few things wrong with this approach:

Marketing science research has shown that consumers are brand promiscuous. Light consumers are more important for brand sales than heavy consumers. So an exclusive brand building focus of going after young consumers like a game of capture the flag isn’t the most effective approach.

We also know that there are a number of factors attenuating consumption patterns and spend along the generations so a youth focus makes less sense:

  • Older people tend to have more assets and the ability to spend. This is due to property prices, historic performance of pension investments, life insurance policies and a lack of student loans
  • Earning power in real terms has been declining over time. Taking into account a parity in education and inflation; boomers earned more than gen x, who in turn did better than gen y. Gen x managed to keep ahead of boomers only by having both partners in a marriage go out to work, to compensate for the man’s reduced earning power
  • Younger people are having to spend a larger degree of their income on somewhere to live. Student loan repayments creates an additional drag on their income
  • People are delaying life stages like marriage later due to the financial burden and have been having less children in most of the world
  • People are acting younger for longer and this reflects in their consumption patterns. Part of this is down to ageism in the employment market and part of it is down to them continuing to do what they love. I know Dads of college age kids who still skate or do martial arts. I know pensioners who love to buy lip gloss. An exception to consumer attenuation is the luxury sector. Luxury consumers have become younger, but that is also because the centre of gravity in luxury has shifted from US consumers to east Asia. Scions of first generation entrepreneurs from China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are not afraid to embrace their affluence

Life stages rather than generations

Culture is very important in making brand messages resonant. Culture is also adrift of generational labels. It is ethereal and finds its way to people, now more than ever. Being massively parallel in nature has made culture more democratic.

Thinking about the brand challenge in a consumer life stage way allows us to build strategic rather than short term communications. It allows to think about meaningful brand propositions across price, place, promotion and product. And then manifest it in a way that resonates culturally over time.

In an industry when marketing effectiveness is failing and campaigns are taking an increasingly short terms approach. Peter Fields’ report The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness for the IPA highlights the dangerous position that marketing is in. It’s a big hill to climb, but a good first step would be to ditch ineffective stereotypes as part of an effort to improve the quality of long term thinking and ideas.

Update (August 17, 2020)

BBH Labs looked at group cohesion data and in the process added another reason why generations don’t make any sense.

The Group Cohesion Score is our attempt at calculating the relative likemindedness of a group of people. Using TGI’s Jan-Dec 2019 UK dataset, we measured the size of the average majority viewpoint across 419 lifestyle statements. These statements range from the mundane (“I use a refillable water bottle most days”) to the profound (“There’s little I can do to change my life”) to the philosophical (“A real man can down several pints in a sitting”). The available responses are Agree, Disagree, Neutral or Not Applicable. These statements will elicit conflicting opinions in every group, but close-knit, homogenous groups (e.g. Mormons) will have larger majorities than weaker ones (e.g. left-handers). You can access the same data yourself through TGI – we haven’t manipulated it in any way.

As an entire populace, the UK’s Group Cohesion Score is 48.7%. In other words, the average majority opinion is held by 48.7% of the population. …On average, the generations have a Group Cohesion Score of +1.3, making them only marginally more like-minded than the nation as a whole. For Gen Z, this score falls to +0.2. People born between 1997 and 2013 have no stronger connection to each other than to the rest of the country. There’s an entire industry built on churning out Gen Z insights and it’s complete bollocks. They have no worldview.

Puncturing The Paradox: Group Cohesion And The Generational Myth | BBH Labs

More information

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner

Generation X not so special: Malaise, cynicism on the rise for all age groups | Stanford News Service

Gallup Historical Trends | Environment

Living: Proceeding With Caution | TIME magazine

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier

Creative effectiveness is collapsing, claims new IPA report | Contagious

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Salience overloads advertising

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Salience is the buzz word of the moment in advertising circles.

What is salience?

According to Siri salience is a noun. It’s definition:

the property of being particularly noticeable or important.

Historically, when you tested an ad through the likes of Kantar. One of the attributes that an ad would be measured on is salience. Relatively recently salience has become a more important attribute in advertising from a marketing science point-of-view. But this shouldn’t be to the extent of eclipsing other attributes such as distinctive brand building.

Salience becomes pre-eminent

But now you see campaigns where salience is pre-eminent. I had only seen this in Asia in the past, where random endorsement choices looked to drive impact.

At one stage in the early noughties you could see Jackie Chan side-by-side with over 20 products including:

  • Canon cameras
  • Mitsubishi cars
  • An anti-hair loss shampoo that allegedly contained carcinogens
  • Zhongshan Subor – games consoles with a basic home computing capability. Subor ‘Learning Machines’ had educational programmes, games and provided Chinese children with an opportunity to try computer programming. Think of it as an analogue the Sinclair range of home computers in the UK
  • Fenhuang cola drink
Jackie Chan-branded Canon Rebel T2i / 550D
Jackie Chan branded Canon Rebel T2i / EOS 550D via M.I.C Gadget

A classic example of an ad that personifies salience is Burger King’s The Moldy Whopper.

The campaign is a one-off stunt designed to drive water-cooler talk. Some colleagues were at a breakfast event last week. The outtake that they took from the event was that the future of advertising is PR. Or to be more exact the publicity stunt.

I get it, creative directors are measured on memorable award-winning campaigns. They are less worried about effectiveness and brand lift. It’s sexy. And it moves things away from soul-crushing digital disruption-driven work. Big data, A-B testing that’s just aimed at sales conversion.

But publicity is just a short term effect, contrast this with effective advertising that can keep paying off for decades!

But when you’re doing stunt-after-stunt what does the brand stand for? I agree that a brand has to be distinctive, but to make a brand distinctive you need to reinforce it. Think about Coca-Cola; distinctive and instantly recognisable.

Don’t believe me, here’s what Mark Ritson said about it. Ritson uses ‘brand image’ as a way to discuss brand distinctiveness and visibility at a granular level in the ad:

The new global campaign from Burger King features a month old burger complete with the mould and decomposition that comes with it. Supposedly, this is a campaign aimed to promote the absence of preservatives. But is it good advertising? No. Showing a disgusting, mouldy version of your hero product to target consumers is – believe it or not – a really bad idea. So why are Burger King doing it? First, we see the ultimate exemplar of the focus on salience over image that is sweeping much of the advertising world. “It got me talking about it, so it is great marketing,” has been the response of many addled marketers to the new campaign. While it’s true that salience is a much bigger goal than we once thought, there is still a need to focus on brand image. All publicity is not good publicity. It’s also the latest in a long line of marketing stunts that Burger King has pulled. Hiding Bic Macs behind Whoppers in all their ads, asking consumers to order a Whopper online from a McDonalds, the list is long and stupid. It wins awards and gets marketers talking but it is eclipsed by KFC and McDonald’s less flashy, more enduring and more effective tactics. Same store sales growth over the last two years tells its own story. This is flashy, ineffective fare.

Mark Ritson on LinkedIn

Or Phil Barden who wrote Decoded:

From a behavioural science point of view this is a bizarre use of marketing money; Firstly, our attention and perception are implicit (‘system 1’) processes that are stimulus-bound. System 1 can’t imagine, it responds to stimuli. Kahneman uses the phrase ‘what you see is all there is’ and it is the stimulus (what you see) that will be decoded using our associative memories. The brain metaphorically asks the questions, ‘what is it, what does it represent, what’s in it for me’? The answers to these questions are ‘rotten food’ and ‘nothing’ because rotten food is a threat to survival. This triggers ‘avoid’ behaviour. Secondly, this image is highly likely to trigger ‘reactance’ which is emotional arousal with negative valence ie it’s unpleasant. Thirdly, memory structures are built on the basis on ‘what fires together wires together’. In this case, Burger King and rotten food. Fourthly, the category is hedonic; it’s all about enjoyment. Rotten food and enjoyment have no implicit intuitive association. The only saving grace for BK may be that their logo is such low contrast and the food is so salient that the brand may not be attributed to the image.

Phil Barden on LinkedIn

Many of Barden’s points are very specific to the mouldy burger creative. But points like attention and perception are implicit processes that are stimulus bound works against salience. It triggers related memories, which is distinctive brand building allows you to tap into. The importance of hedonic enjoyment plays against a lot of shock tactics used to get salience.

I am not saying that marketing campaigns shouldn’t have salience. Some of the best ads of all time use salience like Coca-Cola’s ‘Hilltop’ advert.

But that they shouldn’t be salient at the expense of other attributes of brand building. A side serving of salience adds cut through to consistent distinctive brand building. But balance in different attributes for an ad is needed.

For more on how to achieve a balance in attributes, I can recommend Building Distinctive Brand Assets by Jenni Romaniuk. The book is based on research by the Ehrensberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science.

More on advertising here.