Wanting for nothing and why brands have a crisis coming

Brands have got a real problem coming. It’s also going to have a huge effect on some of the biggest economies around the world too.

We all have enough stuff.

Back in Spring 2008, my favourite brand Howies sent a card inside my quarterly catalogue asking if I’d fallen out of love with them, or maybe whether I just have enough clothes for the time being. It has been something that has stayed front of mind for nearly ten years now as I think we are at a stage where we probably all have enough stuff.

I just have enough stuff thanks
I just have enough stuff thanks

I have a newish computer, my car is fine (even with 130,000 miles on the clock) and I have quite a few watches. My Phone is reasonably recent and I really don’t need an Apple Watch, a new TV or another bluetooth speaker. In fact we have TV’s all over the place, bluetooth speakers all over the place and a lovely old valve amp for playing proper music.

I have outerwear coming out of my wazoo, at least six pairs of jeans, two gilets, jumpers, shorts, socks and shirts in every material for every eventuality.

I have access to almost every song ever produced with Spotify and every film ever made, with a combination of Amazon Prime, Netflix and a mildly chipped Firestick.

I adore Oxford United and should make more effort to see them home and away. That’s tribal, it isn’t about the brand. This is an opportunity for tribal experiences like football and they will be one of the few areas to do well out of this.

I love holidays, exploring new places and going to the pub. In fact, probably my favourite thing to do is walk to the pub with the dog, have a few pints and walk home again.

But in effect, I want for nothing.

Which is the problem that any brand faces.

We all have too much stuff.

There is no consumer good that creates real desire, real anticipation and a real need to have it in your hands.

New products are all derivations. Small but barely discernible differences that the brands create to try and make us want them. But the differences aren’t real enough. They don’t add value to our lives and as such, they just become normal, within a moment of owning them.

Social media makes things worse. You can now see that everyone owns everything and we are all bored of this. It’s why so many people are turning away from Facebook and it’s dying on its arse. No-one lives that perfect a life and we can all see through it for what it is.

Showing off.

But if everyone has everything anyway, who is there to show off to and what with?

It’s also why everyone needs to pay less than full price for anything. Why else do you think the outlet villages and discount sites are so prevalent? The only thing left to give you a buzz is the bargain, rather than the brand you’ve bought.

So what do brands do to overcome this?

The answer is to fulfill something deeper than a need to own something. My clever friend Leila pointed out that this is why there’s a huge rise in Mindfulness and Wellness. We are all searching for something more than just the diminishing thrill of owning things. I know with the challenges I’ve been through in the last year, I couldn’t care less about material things, I’m quite pleased to be vertical and pretty much pain-free again.

That’s one hell of a challenge and one thing I can say is that not all brands will survive this imminent crisis.

You can summarise it all very easily in just one line.

If there is no actual need, then the only way to sell is by creating desire.

maybe that is what marketing is all about. Creating desire. The issue I have is that we are all losing our desire for material things and therefore selling anything material is just going to get harder and harder.

It’s a self-imposed austerity that could run for quite a while. With an economy built entirely on buying such things and a Chinese economy built on making these things, I suspect things are going to get a little rocky in the manufacturing-based economies.

Howies and the slow drift down river

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love the Howies brand. A year or so ago, I described them as a star brand. But a little before that I had been very critical of them for missing their target audience (by miles!) with their hand me down range. Well it seems like i’m not the only one that is thinking the same way. I have a watch on ebay to see what comes up from lots of the brands I love and when I saw this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A treasured collection of 29 Howies catalogues dating back to 2002

My first instinct was to want to buy them as they grace the shelves beautifully of any designer. But when you scroll down and see what the seller fuzzywiggins has said, it makes you realise quite how far the brand has drifted down river from where it used to be.

29 Howies Catalogues     From 2002 to Autumn 2010     If you know Howies you know these are so much more than just clothing catalogues, they're loaded with interesting stories and info...  These books contain the story of how a once ethical and environmentally sound clothing company catering for active types morphed into purveyor of £200 chinese jeans for the middle aged bourgeois hobbyist.     Enjoy the tales of the joy of canoeing to work, or building a half pipe in the back garden. Better still the exhilaration of travelling around Ireland in a V8 powered Winebago (Go Wales' Bio diesel fueled van must have failed its MOT?)     Like the sea, Howies...
29 Howies Catalogues From 2002 to Autumn 2010

This description crucifies them for what they have done with the brand. These catalogues are clearly being sold as the owner of all of them has so totally fallen out of love with what Howies do and what Howies now stand for. I have to say, it is now some time since I bought anything from them. I just wouldn’t pay £200 for a pair of jeans – by anyone, let alone £200 plus for a waterproof mac.

My advice. Buy Timberland out. They must realise they made a mistake with a little provincial company like Howies. Let Howies go back to where they were, what they stood for and what we all loved about it. Howies has sadly become a pseudo corporate business, whereas before they just made beautiful clothes that really lasted, for people who were into skate, surf and biking.


An almost complete Howies catalogue collection that sold for £51 on ebay
An almost complete Howies catalogue collection that sold for £51 on ebay

They went for £51, which seems like an awful lot of money, but they do represent some of the best pieces of design for print that i’ve seen for many years.

Shame they sold their soul on the way there.

If Howies, Innocent and Rachel’s Organic are the star brands now, well what’s next?

Are all of our mega brand becoming a but samey?
Are all of our mega brands becoming a but samey?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and flattery will get you everywhere, perhaps that’s why all of the best brands of our age are all becoming a bit, well, samey.

And, If green is the new black, organic is the new everyday, and hybrid is no longer just for those who prefer to knit their own yoghurt, I have to ask, what will come next as the real differentiators for our current mega brands that we all look up to?

There is no doubt that any trend is just that, a trend. And trends come and go. I’m not even slightly saying that Howies, Innocent or Rachel’s have copied each other, it’s just that as these are at the front of the curve, the rest of the market will be following. Every new brand we are being asked to look at, needs to add a little hug here and there, a bit of planet kissing and some stout green nosing for good measure.

They are all drifting towards a level of sameness that will slowly see the current heroes be caught and potentially overtaken. Unless they move their own cheese and get themselves into a new and worthwhile position before the others even get there, they will no longer be the top brands in their own sector, let alone any other sector.

I think a change is a coming. I believe that brands grow so fast these days that they are likely to die just as fast. In the perfect market that we now live, where all of the people have all of the information a new brand can literally come out of nowhere and achieve the status of our current heroes.

So where will this brand come from?

A few pointers that have been gathered over lots of episodes of Trendwatching and lots and lots of reading around the subject.

1. It will be from the quality end.
This recession ain’t ending fast, so people will buy fewer things but better quality things, that give them the status they seek.

2. It won’t be needed, just wanted
Everyday is mundane. It will be a treat that is a little naughty and a bit of a backlash against the goody goody era in which a 4×4 is the work of the devil. Once we all survive the Swine flu myth, we’ll want to kick back and live a little.

3. They will restrict their supply
If you achieve worldwide distribution overnight, you kill the golden goose. Leaving them wanting more, works.

4. It won’t be green
Like any normal distribution curve, the green revolution will fall off and the responsibility for greenness will be thrown back to the manufacturers. The public will simply expect them to do the green worrying for them.

I’d love to know what people think this new brand or new market could be and whether they agree with my four points above.

Answers on a patent application would be most welcome.

Thanks for the image of his niece Sobrina to Corre Madrid. See more work here.

Sometimes we need to look back through little people’s eyes

When we are little, we look at the world around us and everything seems enormous. Scarily big and scarily new – but its exciting. We’re looking and learning from everything we see, touch and do.

Tom Hanks, in the film Big, used this ability to look though a child’s eyes to create brilliant kids toys. He had the beautifully clean ideas and the sense of fun/wonder of a child and the experience and ability of an adult.

Tom Hanks - looking through a child's eyes
Tom Hanks - looking through a child's eyes

But late on in the film he realises he has lost it. He has accidentally become an adult and wrongly assumes that what an adult will like, a child will like, and perhaps more importantly – can afford.

It’s similar to starting a business. We look through excited young eyes, doing almost anything for anyone to pay the bills and make ends meet whilst learning our craft. If we’re lucky, the business grows up and we stay with it for the ride. But like the blogpost I wrote yesterday about stopping to think, I really believe that any business or brand owner needs to keep referring back to where it came from, to see if that is still directing its future.

One of my favourite brands in the world is Howies. They make beautiful quality clothes with a quirk and have always been aimed at the surf/skate market. Now I’m no skater or surfer but for me this is aspirational stuff and Howies makes me feel cool.

But I wonder whether they need to do a bit of Tom Hanks themselves and look at their business through their young eyes again.

They have launched a range of bags and coats under the name of ‘Hand Me Down’. The name is given because they are in theory so good, you will be able to hand them down to future generations. But £400 for a Howies coat and £185 for a Howies laptop bag is pretty rich stuff by anyone’s standards, but a huge and possibly fatal price hike by Howies.

Howies 'Hand me down' Messenger Bag
Howies 'Hand me down' Messenger Bag

I don’t put this down to their part ownership by Timberland, but more to do with them losing sight of their core audience.

You can buy a hugely aspirational Freitag bag made up from banners that were used at the Tate Gallery for £75 – how cool is that?

Or if you really want to push the boat out, stretch to a fully hand made leather work of art from Hard Graft that comes in the form of the ‘2UNFOLD multi-use leather laptop bag’ at £300 or so.

The beautiful hand made Hard Graft bag
The beautiful hand made Hard Graft bag

We all need to keep our childish eyes focussed on our business or we are in danger of killing it, before it ever even reaches adulthood.

So please Howies. Remember us. The little people who have loved and lived your brand for years and years. Give us reasons to fall in love over and over again, not reasons to flirt with others.