Now that glad confidence is yielding to fearful despair, we must all find a means of living with recession. For marketing, the adjustment will be difficult, especially since in recent times it was all so easy. When house prices were booming and credit was cheap, the consumer needed no urging to buy. To see was to want, and to want was to have. Instant gratification for the buyer, instant satisfaction for the seller.
The only serious challenge for the marketer in that age of illusion was to persuade the buyer to choose his brand rather than the alternatives. Now the game has changed entirely. Getting the consumer to spend at all will be tough, particularly as the habit of not spending can quickly become as entrenched as the compulsion to let rip which it replaced.
But cometh the crisis, cometh the man. His name is Malcolm Cuthbert, and he has had the timely and ingenious notion of marketing non-spending. At first, given the changed temper of the times, that might seem a work of superogation, or a case of selling the proverbial coals to Newcastle. But Cuthbert is a canny fellow. He is a director of financial planning at Killik & Co and, unlike many of his profession, he is given to moments of musing on the mystery of life, or at any rate on the mystery of the way we live life. It was during one such period of reflection that his Big Idea struck.
There he was, standing in the queue at Starbucks, wondering why providence should have seen fit to keep you waiting for something that, when it arrived, was not worth the waiting, when his thoughts took a mathematical turn. That, I suppose, had something to do with his being a director of financial planning. Had he been, say, a personal trainer, lifestyle consultant or leg-waxer, his reflections might have been more inclined to the metaphysical.
Anyhow, as he stood there, waiting to place his order for a mug of liquid that, speaking for myself, I would not give to the cat, he realised that he spent £4 a day on shop-bought coffee. Or £20 in each working week. Or about £1,000 a year. If only, he thought, a 35-year-old cut his or her daily spending on coffee by half, he or she would enjoy £4,000 a year extra on their pension.
“Most people,” he said, “will be surprised and comforted to know just how much difference small daily cutbacks in spending can make.’
Until the present crisis struck, he would almost certainly have been wrong. Most people, inured as they were to getting and spending and living for the moment, would have been neither surprised nor in the least comforted by empty talk about pleasures deferred. But how times have changed. As food and fuel prices soar, as the skies darken, as coat collars are turned up and heads down, we all look at what the future might hold and shudder. What better way to mitigate the gloom than to forego Starbucks coffee – a smack in the eye for that chain being by way of a bonus – and lay down comfort for uncertain times ahead.
I hope that Mr Cuthbert’s imagination is rewarded and pension business at Killik & Co takes a gratifying upturn. After the excesses of recent years, a return to commonsense would be welcome. A return, that is, to living within one’s means, to saving some of our income and to appreciating that houses are for living in, not for living off.
As ever, though, a new threat looms. In Zurich, scientists are working on developing a cure for shyness. It’s a hormone nasal spray containing a chemical produced naturally in the brain which can overcome feelings of social inadequacy and awkwardness. This is troubling. One of the pleasures of living in the UK is that we are not a nation of salespeople. We are by nature too reserved, too fearful of rejection. If, however, driven by the exigencies of recession, social misfits take to squirting stuff up their noses and, thus emboldened, sticking their feet in other people’s doors or buttonholing them in the street, life will become intolerable. So intolerable that the prospect of surviving into an old age, even one cushioned by £4,000 extra a year at the expense of Starbucks, would be dreadful.
One of the few consolations of recession is an end to excess. Please let us not be denied that by an epidemic of chemically-induced huckstering.