Saturday, April 18, 2015

The frantic quest for the Next Big Thing

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 17.)
Ever get the feeling the consumerist society is getting just a bit out of hand?
I certainly do. For the status-conscious, life seems to be an endless, frantic quest for the Next Big Thing.

Allow me to give you an example. A year or so ago a New York bakery started selling something called the cronut, so named because it’s a cross between a croissant and a donut. People queued for five hours to buy them.
Inevitably the cronut craze quickly spread to New Zealand. We like to be up with the play on such things.

They weren’t cheap but they flew out the door. Everyone wanted them. Suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.
In foodie circles, admitting you hadn’t tried a cronut – or worse still, didn’t even know there was such a thing – was tantamount to revealing you had a paedophile in the family.

Having scoffed a few cronuts myself, I can confirm that they are indeed wickedly desirable. But here’s the thing: I haven’t seen a cronut in months, or even heard them mentioned.
Cronuts, it seems, are just so last year. Exciting new diversions, such as Lewis Road Creamery Fresh Chocolate Milk, have elbowed them out of the way.

As for cronuts, so for the Lewis Road product. The Waikato dairy factory that made it (which is not, as far as I can ascertain, in Lewis Road) couldn’t keep up with the demand when the product was launched.
Wellington’s temple of gastronomy, Moore Wilson, had to ration it: one bottle per customer. On Trade Me, 750ml bottles – retail price $6.29 – were selling for up to $26.

Supermarkets had to put out signs advising when stocks had run out. Anguished shoppers who missed out were dousing themselves with petrol and setting themselves alight in New World car parks. (All right, that’s a slight exaggeration.)
As with cronuts, though, the Lewis Road chocolate milk frenzy quickly subsided. You could probably stroll into your local Countdown this morning and fill your trolley with the stuff.

Better still, you could try making your own at home. It was just chocolate milk, after all.
So what made this particular brand so desirable that everyone simply had to have it? I’ve never tasted it, but logic and experience tells me it can’t have been that sensational.

As advertising people know, creating demand for a product is often about selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Words like “creamery” and “fresh” seem irresistible in a world obsessed with naturalness and authenticity. And it’s surely no coincidence that Peter Cullinane, the man behind Lewis Road, is a former worldwide boss of Saatchi and Saatchi.
Clever advertising (and I suspect social media was a key tool in this instance) can build an aura of mystique around a brand. The same happened with the New Zealand vodka 42 Below, which made a multi-millionaire of another former ad man, Geoff Ross.

I’m not suggesting Cullinane’s and Ross’s products were not good to start with, but their success was about much more than quality. It was about creating a sense of desirability and exclusivity.
The marketing campaign for Lewis Road didn’t just tap into a hedonistic society’s hunger for new sensory experiences. More subtly, it exploited that peculiar form of social anxiety known as FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Psychologists define this as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Status-conscious people can’t bear the thought of being excluded from something new and exciting. 
You see this same phenomenon played out when a trendy new restaurant opens. It’s typically swamped by fashion-conscious foodies … that is, until another trendy new restaurant opens. Then they move on, like so many reef fish.

There are innumerable other examples of our cultish obsession with newness.  In the 1990s we were captivated by wine, in the noughties it was coffee, now it’s craft beer.
Our forebears, who fretted about being able to put food on the table and having enough warm clothing to survive the winter, would find it very puzzling. They would call us an effete society, if they knew the word existed.

And what does it all amount to? Ultimately, the longevity of any brand relies on much more than novelty. In the long run it’s consistent, dependable quality that counts.
The women’s fashion business is hilariously capricious, yet the little black dress, created by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, endures virtually unchanged. Will we be queuing for cronuts and Lewis Road chocolate milk in 90 years? Somehow I doubt it.


Unknown said...

Hello Karl. I enjoyed your article as usual. The only point I'd take issue with is that the Lewis Road Creamery (named after the road where we started making our butter) is not based on a single product (Chocolate Milk) but on a belief that New Zealand should make world class dairy products and none more so than milk and butter. To me the brand is important but the products, much more so. You should try them!

Julia du Fresne said...

Not the Bishop, I presume.

Unknown said...

God bless you, no!

Karl du Fresne said...

I don't know whether I should admit this, but Lewis Road butter has been a fixture in our fridge for quite some time.

Unknown said...

Hi Karl. Delighted to hear it. Thanks.