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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Competitive edge in a finite world

Updated: Apr 23

The end of unfettered growth?

So we do live in a finite world after all.

But our economic system and its offspring, the branding and marketing orthodoxy of the past 30 odd years, has operated as if we don't.

We have fetishised economic growth with no concern about extraction. And like the faithful hound that it is, brand and marketing world followed the growth fetish, contorting itself into the weird shape it is today - obsessed with a battle for consumers and paying no attention to the other end of the chain.

Which is weird when you take a step back. Read any history of either marketing or branding and you'll see that it is always described as having a critical role throughout the value chain - shaping not just how stuff gets sold, but crucially what gets made in the first place and how.

Brand was always rooted in origin. A brand was literally a sign of provenance. Good brands came from good places and good people who did good things in good ways.

So what happened to shunt branding and marketing into a subdivision of sales?

From ration cards to strawberries at Christmas

I was a kid in the 80s. Heady times when everything was possible, and we were told that we should all demand and expect everything. Big phones, red braces, fast cars, Brummies on yachts, strawberries whenever we wanted.

Greed was good.

It was horrible. How did we get there?

From scarcity to superabundance

Rewind 7 or 8 decades. Post WW2 people were still used to scarcity - there was hardly enough of anything so people planned and shopped according to what was available.

HT Museums Victoria
Georgia - fruit is both seasonal and off the charts tasty

Gradually, through the 60s and 70s more choice entered the market, and shops started competing for customers, mostly through expanded ranges and on the basis of choice.

Check out this from Safeway in 1983 - when "choosing your own fruit" was a new thing.

Then in the 80s everything went mad. Suddenly we could all have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. Avocados on Christmas Day. Asparagus all year round. Tomatoes in every possible shape and size.

But this superabundance wasn't because nature had suddenly got a touch of the Wonkas, and was producing more and more stuff. It was because we had perfected the industrialisation of global supply chains. Hyper efficient procurement duped us into believing in superabundance and permanently shifted our expectations.

We all lost track of seasons and scarcity. We got disconnected. We deserved everything we wanted. Give me it. Now.

And marketing - from that moment on - became all about consumption and consumers.

Bigger, cheaper, faster. The game was market share and share of wallet. Get as many people to buy as much as possible from you. Woo them with abundance, choice and low, low prices. Drive down costs by ruthlessly fragmenting supply chains into transactional units.

Here comes the real cost

An economic system that fetishises growth whilst disregarding natural constraints was always going to have an unhappy ending. Now we can see it.

The cost to nature is enormous.

Crop production has increased 3x since 1970

23% of the global terrestrial area has reduced productivity

75% of the land surface is significantly altered

85% of the wetlands area has been lost

66% of the ocean is experiencing change

Sea levels are up 16-21cm since 1900

At least 20% of native species are already lost in each biome

1 million species currently face extinction

From what we can see in our work in Good Growth all of these extractive trends are accelerating, especially in the past 4 to 5 years. Where barely 4 years ago there were trees there are now sand dunes 20 m tall.

Yes, we have no tomatoes

Now there are signs all around us that we've reached the end of superabundance. That a system that relentlessly drives down costs, industrially sweats landscapes for raw materials and constructs its chains on purely lowest-cost transactional terms won't cut it anymore.

Sometimes it's difficult to see the change clearly until something in the day to day shifts. I think that just happened.

In recent winter weeks Brits have been struggling to get hold of their out of season fruit and veg - which they have grown so used to having. Suddenly there were not enough lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries on the supermarket shelves.

Many things were blamed - not enough immigrants, too many immigrants, not enough Brexit, too much Brexit, the French, Putin, and of course the weather in Spain.

Soon enough social and mass media was awash with images of Dutch and German shoppers laden down with huge quantities of tomatoes. The EU was swimming in fruit but the UK was not.

Clearly a Brexit issue then......but no....not Brexit. No it turns out that UK supermarkets simply don't pay producers very much for lettuces. About half what the Spanish pay. So when there is a lettuce shortage in February the producers are loyal to the people who are loyal to them.

You don't pay, you don't get

So now a quarter of the 7000 NHS staff who last year applied for posts in other countries are heading to Australia. And there's a massive queue behind them.

Australia now has 4 beds per 1000 head of population. The UK has 2.5 beds per head, down from 6 in the mid 80s.

But the UK still pays health staff roughly 30% less than the Australians do. So the exodus continues.

This is not a blip

There's a lot of moaning about food inflation - but food prices have been way too low for too long. Given what we now know about the damage industrial supply chains wreak on the planet, not to say the stupidity of shipping out of season asparagus around the world for a few people who don't mind their veg tasting of cardboard, we ought to be rethinking not just the nature of consumption (when it's disconnected from nature) but also what is going to be a winning competitive strategy for the next 50 years.

Loyalty to landscapes, loyalty to producers - the new competitive arena

The thing that got lost in the greed-is-good frenzy was any kind of relationship with the origin of the chains - the producers.

If there aren't enough doctors, and you don't pay doctors a competitive wage, then you'll be short of doctors. If there isn't enough lettuce, and you pay 70 pence per lettuce vs the Spanish paying €1.50 - don't be surprised when you don't get any lettuce.

This points to a correction - maybe a reversion - in what we mean by brand and marketing.

Instead of myopic focus on selling stuff the role of "marketing" in a fundamentally constrained world is shifted to run through the entire chain. And specifically to foster connection between origin and buyer, to establish and reinforce "identity" between buyer, producer and (let's really hope) the landscape and nature from whence that product comes.

And competitive edge will no longer be about how much you can beat up and impoverish your producers, it will be about the long term reciprocity of relationship between you and them.

There will be more on the mechanics of this new kind of relationship soon over in Good Growth.

It changes the role of brand building and marketing. A return to valuing and appreciating scarcity. Not just communicating value but creating value. Not just how value gets articulated through the chain but also in how innovation works. It means there is - again? - a fundamental role for marketing in product range and design. Innovation driven by natural constraint not by market preference.

But at present none of marketing and brand world functions or even thinks like this. From the way brands are managed within business (just sell stuff) to the structure and business models of agencies to the mix of skills needed.

So we're going to build it. I am excited because this feels like a return to genuine value.

The value of craft. The value of identity. The value of slow and seasonal. The value of nature.


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