Iain Murray: Science has the answer and it’s in your backyard

How can marketers predict future trends and stay ahead of the game? The answer, says Iain Murray lies in science – not physics or biology – but in hedgerow botany

It’s the job of every conscientious marketer to keep a finger on the pulse, an ear to the ground, an antenna in the air, and a wetted finger likewise. There’s no other way. It is only through capturing the zeitgeist, grasping the cutting edge, and seizing the state-of-the-art that one can truly attain the where-it’s-at.

Usually elusive, sometimes evasive, the where-it’s-at has been unnaturally static for too long – mired, along with most of politics and all of television, in the soggy ground of metropolitan liberal opinion. That is why every ad that requires a product or service to be explained does so through the medium of a sharp-witted, savvy woman addressing a doltish, slack-jawed male. It has become the only way. To deviate from this custom (it has almost achieved the status of a tradition) would be as unthinkable in polite society as wearing your FCUK T-shirt inside out.

But the zeitgeist cannot remain immobile for ever. After all, it was not that long ago that it was perfectly acceptable to speak without a Geordie accent, something that today i

s looked on askance in all of TV and much of advertising. A fortune awaits the visionary who can see what tomorrow holds and tailor the marketing message accordingly. But in seeking clues to the future where are we to look? As luck would have it, there is a source. In this secular age the force that drives society forward and moulds opinion is neither political nor philosophical, it is scientific. It is in science that we believe. True, we don’t always like it, but we know we cannot escape it, particularly at this time of year. For this is the season when the scientists come out of their laboratories and dazzle us with their discoveries.

The annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science is always a happy time for the lay onlooker. As one boffin after another takes the podium and unveils the choicest plums of the previous year’s endeavour, we chuckle and giggle and nudge each other. The wonder of it is that each speaker is barmier than the one before. This year’s conference at the University of Leicester provided the customary quota of eye-catching headlines.

Like visitors to a Victorian freak show, we never knew quite what curiosity would affront us next, and which might point to the dreadful shape of things to come. Would it be that parents are destined to outlive their impossibly fat children? Or maybe the secret way to persuade children to eat greens? Might it be the revelation that a breakfast of cold leftovers is more effective at warding off cancer than high-fibre cereals? Could the key to marketing success lie in the gnomic utterance of Professor Christine Nichol, of the University of Bristol: “There are hidden depths to chickens”? Could there be something of great import in the work of professor Leo Pyle, of Reading University? We shall have to wait. Although he has been working on the mathematical structure of crumpets for 18 months, he is no nearer to discovering how they develop fine holes from top to bottom.

For what it is worth, my guess is that the most significant contribution was made by Dr Hew Prendergast, of the Centre for Economic Botany at Kew Gardens. He has discovered nothing less than an entirely new economy, which, if allowed to develop, will strike at the very roots of metropolitan England. He has found that, unknown to most of us, thousands of people are making a living by harvesting the countryside, using hedgerow plants to produce vodka, manufacturing paper from heather, and gathering elder and seaweed.

Just think of the marketing potential in hedgerow vodka alone. What could be more chic, more exquisitely post-modern, than to get drunk on the distilled essence of badger droppings and tramp’s boot?

His study, conducted for the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage, found that about 2,500 people were living off woodlands and hedgerows. “We uncovered a wealth of fascinating, very committed people,” said Dr Prendergast.

It is nice to imagine that he uncovered them in a literal sort of way, parting the prickly branches of hawthorn to reveal the tweed encased buttocks of a rustic foraging for seaweed in a committed sort of way.

In a pleasing irony, these rural folk, at present persecuted by an unfeeling urban elite, are, through their industry, helping those same city dwellers to avoid setting eyes on each other. About 1,200 people are working in the greenwood trades, harvesting hazel to make hurdles. And what are these hurdles used for? “The big market is in urban and suburban gardens, using large hazel panels to divide you from your horrific neighbours,” says Dr Prendergast.

It’s a symbiosis that proves that country and town are mutually interdependent whether they like it or not. Were it not for the country, townsfolk would see more of their next door neighbours with all that that would entail in terms of homicide and civil unrest.

It is upon these kinds of insights and understandings that future marketing concepts will depend. Just as feminism changed the TV ad for ever and ushered in the age of the child-man, so the advent of the hedgerow economy will change the way we see each other in as yet unspecified ways.

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