Posts by Mariko Kataoka - London

Job-less—but having the time of their lives

Taj MahalOn holiday in one of the most remote places in India, I was surprised to meet a number of people who were there on a long break, having no job to rush back to. Their stories were similar: They used to be expats working in London (from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., etc.), they were made redundant (expats tend to be the first to go), and before going back home, they’d decided to take an extended trip—something they’d always wanted to do but never had the time for. They stay in guesthouses or do home stays; eat in local eateries; take long-distance buses rather than fly or hire taxis; go on meditation treks and walks. They’re on relatively modest budgets and things aren’t always comfortable, but the experience, they say, is very fulfilling and inspiring.

Such “gap year” travel, along with doing volunteer projects overseas, is apparently booming. Although in general travelers have greatly cut back on overseas holidays during this recession, people are being forced to re-evaluate their priorities and values—so while spending more to make the most of one’s limited holiday may no longer be viable, investing in a long break now seems like a good way to spend one’s limited money. People will spend on what’s meaningful.

Being made redundant is obviously something you’d rather avoid, but the people I met looked as though they’d gained much more than they probably would have were they still employed, at least from a life-fulfillment point of view.

Photo credit: premasagar

In U.K., brands jump on the nostalgia bandwagon

Is nostalgia and heritage a winning formula when times are hard? No.

“Trying something new for 140 years: Sainsbury’s.”

“Tough but gentle for 100 years: Persil.”

“Quality worth every penny: M&S celebrating 125 years.”

Several brands have jumped on the nostalgia and birthday bandwagon, portraying themselves as having been with the British people for generations, influencing society, culture and individual’s lives, and promising they will continue to be with the British people today and hopefully for another century. It started last year when Hovis launched an epic 122-second TV ad looking back at the 122 years of British history a loaf of its bread has witnessed and announcing the brand’s return into stores.

Hovis managed to create a strong emotional connection, but the rest seems a bit of a miss. Heritage doesn’t mean much in a world where long-established institutions go bust and disappear overnight. Plus, nostalgia for a brand’s past is irrelevant if its values are rooted in what consumers desire today (Sainsbury’s: inspiring people to try something new every day; M&S: quality, value, service, innovation and trust). Nostalgia worked for Hovis because it’s the brand idea—not because of the current climate.

Contrived use of employees and customers won’t help financial institutions

While financial institutions continue to suffer, they are desperate to show they can be trusted to serve customers well. I’ve noticed a number of financial institutions resorting to the unimaginative ideas of “staff doing anything to serve their customers” and “showing lots of happy customers.”

Halifax creates a human road with its employees and the customer walks on them. Norwich Union has tens of thousands of people queuing to say they are happy with their insurance and would like to renew.

Thousands Welomed Back to Happy at Norwich Union - soon to be Aviva

Both approaches seem too contrived to feel sincere. They signal desperation rather than confidence. There is a Japanese idiom “fugen jikko,” which means “getting things done rather than making a fuss/talking about it”—which is probably what financial institutions should be doing.

Beyond the runway: Alternative fashion shows

Barbies, music videos, interactive Web sites—are these the new alternatives to full-fledged fashion shows? Many elite designers, including Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson, abandoned the catwalk at this spring’s New York Fashion Week, where a 20-minute show can easily cost in excess of $100,000. Instead, Fashion Week featured Barbie’s 50th birthday show, put on by Mattel, while Halston launched its collection via a music video on YouTube and Catherine Malandrino, a popular French designer, focused on reworking her Web site to recreate the intimacy and accessibility of a boutique.

The recession is forcing brands to come up with alternatives to business as usual, and these are sometimes proving to be better approaches than the old status quo. And digital technology is helping marketers create new experiences that are modern, stylish, fun and intimate. Ironically, the expensive catwalk is now being invaded by $120 dresses from QVC—the TV and Internet shopping brand put on a runway show of its own during Fashion Week.

Lunch with the FT: It’s not only co-op housewives collecting vouchers

ftlunchI was lunching with my 30-something girlfriends when one mentioned a deal in the FT: “Lunch with the FT: Take a friend for a fiver.” These girls are high-earning investment bankers who couldn’t be bothered to cut out three vouchers from the newspaper and restrict themselves to a given list of restaurants a year ago. But they’re doing it now, and commenting that “It feels silly to go to expensive restaurants. Why pay high prices when you can get equally good and enjoyable food much cheaper?”

The promotion, which runs from mid-January through mid-February, was reintroduced last year after a five-year break. Well done to the FT for bringing this promotion back at the right time. It gives the “discerning” set an opportunity to discover “smarter” alternatives—without feeling as though they’re downgrading.