Martin Orton: Brand Looters

Three quarters of the young people convicted of looting London in August had previous convictions, many of petty crime and theft. The others? Perhaps bystanders seeking an opportunity too good to miss. Who can forget the family of looters? But what affliction do they all share? How did they suddenly transform themselves from the passive aggrieved and excluded into a proactive, well-organised army of rampant materialists?

I’m going to point the finger at a new culprit in this landscape of social inequality; a cause of the looting, one that has a solution and that will definitely surprise some people: Brands.

This debate on our loud and violent minority of malcontent youth is certainly not a simple one. The challenges facing youth now are multiple, complex and not commonly understood.

So what are they up against?

They are up against a long list of factors which, individually and combined, work to exclude them from all but the basics of human existence. Unemployment, poor education, family breakdown and the absence of any positive role models, to name a few. Indeed, one could go as far as suggesting an amalgamation of role model deficit – life lessons they learn from politicians, corporate companies and celebrities in the media read like Dante’s Inferno -larceny, greed, corruption and collusion just for starters. How can we really teach values that those in power and authority are not prepared to embody?

Parents have little defence in this landscape; only the most tech savvy will have what it takes to shield their children from brand, media and peer influence. Economic and political factors have one key result for our youth – low buying power. Culturally our focus on material possessions and sophisticated brand advertising has created the second key reality for our youth – out of control need. It may sound shallow and implausible, we may not want to believe it, because it is a construct of society we have all been party to, but nonetheless it is as real as the £100m bill the insurers now face. So why is buying power and the possessions it gives access to so important? As Zygmunt Bauman describes it ‘The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied’. The widening gap between zero opportunity (and therefore buying power) with ‘out of control’ need has a limited elasticity. What we witnessed in the looting was a snap in this relationship. This is what laid waste to our local JD sports.

Numerous economists point out that we can’t leave large sections of society behind – real progress is inclusive. We collectively took the gamble that this time bomb would not go off – but it did. Recent research from AAT (The Association of Accounting Technicians) compared the cost of sustaining a teenager in 1975 and 2009. Adjusted for inflation it cost £700 per year to keep a teenager in 1975 but the post millennium figure rises to £9,000. Why is this when many things are cheaper, most significantly technology? Sophisticated communications and entertainment are so much part of a teenager’s norm that the consequence of not having them will result in peer exclusion.

Mobile access to Facebook or BlackBerry messenger for youth now is an essential not a luxury. On top of this the products have extremely short life spans in order to sustain the revenue streams of the manufacturers and service providers (and indeed the GDP growth needed to sustain global capitalism). iPod and downloads alone per year average £600 per Western teenager. Paid content through micro payments contributes more than 60% of these costs. The natural naivety of youth is no match for engineered need created through behavioural economics, digital advertising and sophisticated payments systems. This, colliding with the scarcity of jobs and the reduced buying power of parents in tough economic times, is bound to create overwhelming stress. In Tottenham 53 applicants apply for every job advertised. Education costs are high and deliver ill-prepared individuals to the job market – I say this as an employer. Let’s call this zero opportunity, without prospect of change – a bleak place most of us can’t begin to imagine.

So we see the buying power alone may not be the key cause of looting: but the out of control needs of young people, combined with low buying power, is. In 1975 not all of an individual’s self esteem could be purchased, now there exists the seductive illusion that it can. The intoxicating power of the brand is pivotal here. After all, it is the brands that have created this artificial need upon which all young people judge their worth. The values which brands profess to embody are a spiritual end game in themselves. In the beginning brands associated themselves with the values of the consumers they wanted to target. In this advanced age of capitalism products have the power to deliver values to the consumer in themselves – no matter how they are acquired. The unfortunate consequence is that youth take this as a norm – and why would they think anything else? Nobody has told them that character and values are hammered and forged over time by your own toil – not slipped on like a boxfresh trainer.

Zygmunt Bauman again brilliantly puts the argument that ‘The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am.’

So the malaise and hate grows as a direct cause of these walled gardens of consumption, the temples we have all created and so many are excluded from. Shops are the heavily guarded bastions from which our youth are excluded, representing prominently and unmistakably what they will never be a part of. The switch to violence and looting when offered at a low risk of being caught then seems like a sensible option to achieve the high level of material expectation that have been hammered into our youth.

Youth brands are stuck, they’re stuck in one way conversations with their customers. Digital communications has been embraced fully in all
the ways we can imagine and many more we can’t. However the relationship is still a one way value exchange. I’ll tell you what to think so you can buy my product. Simple, but it won’t last. The same social networks and high levels of communication that the brands have exploited in their infancy will inevitably be used as a tool by consumers to distinguish good from bad. Brands need to embrace the two-way exchange of value and except that in the youth market at least they have a responsibility for the progression of their consumers as individuals. Great examples for this include Nike +: the brand gives you to tools to run more therefore you’ll need their shoes to do it. Orange Rock Corps encourages volunteering to gain access to exclusive concerts. And perhaps my favourite: the Do Lectures from Howies – a type of TED lecture event to inspire young people to do things. The important value here is authenticity: you can’t force the product on youth any more. An authentic relationship between consumers and their brands makes the difference. I have relationships with brands because I know their values are in line with mine. The reason I know this is because they walk it rather than just talk it. Because I have this relationship I find ways to buy their product just to support them. That is a very different relationship and one that will form the future of all brand/consumer relationships. It’s like sponsoring a team, but you don’t just focus on the elite and make a big noise about it – you can touch all your consumers and change genital herpes their experience of a brand. You give them something tangible they can use day to day – knowledge, skills, experiences and confidence. Most important of all it needs to be real. Currently brands spend huge amounts to look real (see Mark Ecko’s ‘tagging’ of Airforce One) when they could just be real, for real.

In this winter of authenticity deficit who will step in a give our youth something real to believe in? It’s the death knell of the Mad Men days of advertising. It’s a call to the army of marketers – there is a new schema for brand relationships: one that delivers value for society as a whole and direct to the bottom line. After all brands only go one way – down. They become complacent, rich and arrogant and then die. Who’s to say that Google, Apple and BlackBerry aren’t standing on the edge of this corporate precipice right now, only because they refuse to engage with our youth?

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