Sorrell calls for an end to deliberate obsolescence

A marketing director who wishes to remain anonymous – once said to me that when Sir Martin Sorrell is quoted in the media, he always feels uneasy. My friends theory is that when the chief executive of global marketing services group WPP has time to speak to the press, then the market must be going into some kind of downturn.

A marketing director – who wishes to remain anonymous – once said to me that when Sir Martin Sorrell is quoted in the media, he always feels uneasy. My friend’s theory is that when the chief executive of global marketing services group WPP has time to speak to the press, then the market must be going into some kind of downturn

This might be a joke but he has a point. The economy is currently less buoyant than we might wish and Sorrell has indeed been speaking out. He was talking at last month’s Added Value ‘Branding for Good’ event and I asked him about the future.

Sorrell told me: “All our instincts as clients, agencies [and] media owners are to encourage people to consume more – super consumption.” He added that people had become used to: “The aspiration that you should consume more; the aspiration that you should have a bigger car; the aspiration that you should have a number of holidays, bigger houses [and] multiple houses”.

His point was that marketers and their agencies need to adopt a new way of thinking to stop this trend of ‘super consumption’ becoming a real problem. In an age of worries about global warming and limited environmental resources, brands need to behave with responsibility. He suggested that the days of companies creating items that would quickly become obsolete could – and should – be numbered.

Irresponsible Apple?

Sorrell cited Apple as an example of a brand creating products that consumers quickly jettison in favour of the company’s newer ones. While nobody can deny that Apple produces desirable, design-led objects, they do tend to become outdated very quickly. The company cut the price of its 8GB iPhone model and scrapped the original 4GB model only two months after launch.

But should Apple really be worrying about issues such as ‘super consumption’? As the economic climate worsens, don’t marketers need to keep parting people from their hard-earned cash? This is especially important when the finance director starts asking difficult questions about how the company can afford to run TV spots when sales are being squeezed.

Let’s apply some common sense. Sorrell isn’t saying that marketers should stop doing their job properly; this is the man heading an organisation that made pre-tax profits of £817m in 2007, up seven per cent on 2006. He is a clever businessman and he’s not suggesting that as spending is curtailed, companies should stop trying to sell.

The glass half full

Rather, he is picking up on an important point: any problem opens up opportunities. You can be the company worrying about what ‘super consumption’ means for you or the one rubbing your hands together with glee at all the potential new business it presents.

If people are less willing to buy items in large volumes because they have less money, make a virtue in advertising of how long your products last. Charge slightly more for them. That’s good for the landfill sites and good for your sales.

Or what about finding ways of getting people paying to ‘upgrade’ old products? It shows that you’re thinking about obsolescence while still offering people the sexy new functions and features they desire.
You don’t have to do these things, of course. You can fight economic difficulties by cutting prices and laying off staff. But you can bet Sorrell is already working out how he will address ‘super consumption’. That £817m profit last year suggests he’s pretty good at turning his ideas into actions.

Ruth Mortimer

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