ETN: Simple Answer? No-one is “Always Right”

Simplicity is great. If humanity has one over-riding achievement, it’s the ability to take the previously unknown, simplify it into a concept, give it a name and make it forever understandable.

Intangibles like democracy, supersonic flight and reality TV are not in any sense naturally-occurring yet appear as concrete a fixture of our times as the Classical elements of earth, water, air and fire. The difference is that, as artificial constructs, there must have been a form of process to produce them and define them. Consider the case of ‘Customer Service’.

From the Middle Ages, sellers eagerly cited the Common Law edict of Caveat emptor (literally, “buyer beware”) as protection against costly, unwanted liability. The seller was seen always to be in the right and the buyer merely a challenge to the status quo. It’s not a particularly fair rule but it’s simple to establish and enforce

Basically, the seller’s honesty was assumed and if everybody agreed the buyer had almost no legal rights, no-one should ever be disappointed by any outcome, no matter how disadvantageous. Exhorting sellers to accept any moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ was like expecting night not to follow day. Rightly or wrongly, simplicity won the argument.

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Some customers are more right than others

As often seems to be the case where regulation fears to tread, commercial pressures show the true willingness of business to adapt. A shrug and a “you know the rules” may protect sellers in the short term but in a competitive environment, it doesn’t take long for buyers to decide they’d rather not deal with those who simply hide behind convention when things go slightly awry. The issue becomes thornier still for the seller when one considers that people have a habit of telling each other about their experiences – and bad news tends to travel faster than good.

The winds of change were about to bear down on Caveat emptor, spectacularly so, in the late 19th century, with the rise of the American retail magnates, specifically Marshall Field, to whom that most quoted of business quotes is most often attributed: “The customer is always right”. His radical principle took hold elsewhere – most notably at the new hotels of César Ritz in Paris and London. The ethos of the new consumerism could not have been more opposite to Caveat emptor. Revolutionary as the words were, it was however just another simple rule, with all the efficient inaccuracy of the last one.

The deification of the customer assumes their honesty and integrity – hardly a practical concern when selling haberdashery to well-heeled ‘Gilded Age’ citizens of Chicago or afternoon tea to aristocrats in Piccadilly. Transfer the principle of infallibility to a wider audience (including a less-than-scrupulous element) and it doesn’t take long for sellers to retreat to the safety of a legally-upheld disinterest in satisfaction.

Essentially, selling guidance became: ‘legally, don’t give in; commercially, don’t hold firm’. It couldn’t be more bi-polar or contradictory. Only in the years since the Sale of Goods Act (1979), was the matter necessarily complicated, encouraging greater professionalism. For buyer and seller alike, simplicity may have been the best way to achieve clarity throughout the last millennium but it finally seemed to meet its match in the information age.

Simplicity saves troublesome fact-checking, awkward judgement-calling and irksome justification of unpopular decisions so the attraction of a “rules is rules” approach is understandable – yet we live in a world of limitless, ubiquitous competition, we eulogise our brand values and venerate “customer relationships”. Customers are promised not just ‘satisfaction’ but ‘delight’ and have their own social platform, a potential for well-worded complaints to ‘go viral’, however disingenuously they represent the facts of their experience.

The net result is that upholding consistent, mutually-fair customer service is more difficult today than it’s ever been. Some simplicity helps ensure consistency but clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach guarantees that sooner or later, the wrong outcome will be reached.

There will (and should) always be judgement calls. As in judicial process, consideration must be given to things like previous good character and mitigating factors. I recommend you ask yourself these three questions. They’re based on my B2C experience but they’re just as relevant in the B2B world – although perhaps with bigger values:

  • Who am I arguing with? If you’re at risk of making an enemy, know who it is. It’s up to you to decide how much more leniently you’ll look on your best customer than, say, someone you’ve only had one purchase from (that you know of). What’s their social following? More particularly, do you have evidence that this customer has a history of disputes? Picky people are one thing, serial fraudsters are another. Decide on that before deciding to what extent you are inclined to give them what they want.
  • What will it cost me to make this problem go away? Are you arguing over a small amount just because you can? Yes, it’s been 29 days since the purchase but is it worth having an argument over a five-pound item? Even if they’re in the wrong, or being unreasonable, how much money is at stake today, compared to what you’re likely to lose by not investing in a “gesture of good faith”? It’s better to lose the battle and win the war.
  • How often does this problem occur? Even a small monetary loss to resolve a particular complaint can prove unsustainable if it’s likely to recur frequently. You do have to worry about setting a precedent and today’s five-pound concession could easily become a thousand-pound problem if you’re not alert to the issue (begging the question of why your team or your supplier hasn’t addressed it previously). Conversely, a hundred-quid hit can seem like an outrageous amount to get you out of a situation but if your analysis shows a sequence of failures on your part that’s truly a once-in-twenty-years perfect storm of ineptitude, you should probably pay it gladly and trust your attempt to resolve the matter amicably is acknowledged and valued by the customer.

 

  • Look out for my next column, about the way that BETA seems to divide opinion, even among those who don’t appear to know enough about it, in the October issue of the ETN, out October 1st.
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ETN: The Internet – Has It Gone Too Far?

Over the years, I’ve spent many a frustrating hour explaining why online selling is coming/is here/is here to stay/is just in its first phase and so on. I’ve debated it internally as a marketing strategy when people were still getting used to email and as a fact of life and within BETA Council meetings when certain people were hoping to ‘ban’ it (how, exactly?!). I even found myself having to defend it at the end of a speech to the National Equine Forum! When it comes to e-commerce, I’m quite firmly planted in the ‘Pro’ camp.

And yet, not everything in the virtual garden is rosy. Chiefly, look at the way digital marketing is measured and made accountable.

Once upon a time, you’d spent £X on a direct marketing campaign, divide the number of orders it yielded into the number of customers contacted and get a Response Rate. You’d also divide the revenue it brought into the aforementioned number of orders yielded and you got an Average Order Value. All you needed was a trustworthy ‘quote the code’ response mechanism. You knew how many copies you were sending out so, aside from all the sales, you also got a lovely source of comparison data. Then, using something called segmentation, you could have even more nerdy fun, all the time seeing how much money you were making.

Compared to retail, which struggled to tie a transaction to a name in a database (although that’s more achievable now), all this customer-centric data was a revelation. Information that became knowledge, which, as we all know, is power.

And then along came the Internet – simultaneously the biggest blessing and the greatest curse to hit direct marketing. Yes, it offered 24-hour, borderless trading, much greater agility in presenting one’s offering, a promise of cost-free mass mailing, something called social media and so much more lovely data! How many people viewed page 26 of your paper catalogue? No idea but I know how many online views we got for each of the products it features.

Online selling offered nothing short of a revolution of data and visibility – if marketing went from the Medieval era of retail to the Renaissance of direct marketing, the web quickly whizzed us through the Industrial Revolution and straight into the Space Age. Cosmic, man! ‘Newer’ equals ‘better’, doesn’t it?

Well, yes and sometimes no. This myriad of metrics may look like your friend but it can often give you useless information – or worse still, misleading data that fails to alert you to a problem. Sure, if customers want to buy online, you have to operate in that space but e-commerce tends to make a huge mess of your internal reporting – for two main reasons:

1) There’s no clear link of ‘cause and effect’ between your stimuli and your incoming orders like there used to be, which means you can’t make solid conclusions about your effectiveness and efficiency quite so easily. Consider the paradox that spending more on offline material increases web orders because, guess what, people will always do what suits them and not follow the ‘rules’ of whatever tidy flow-chart we might be tempted to think they inhabit. Now, if a sale depends upon both a stimulus (to compel a customer to order) and then a referral (where they may need to find your site as a means to place that order), do you credit the offline activity or a Google Adword for that sale? What if there are more than two stages to the process? Even if you know when all of this is happening, how do you decide to attribute each of those sales?

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Here’s some data we were told was 100% reliable, earlier

2) Most of the data on which you depend isn’t generated internally any more, raising questions about its reliability. Data collation is now usually subcontracted to the very digital channels you use: Google, Facebook, Twitter, whatever SEO ‘partner’ you’re using, Remarketers, Affiliates, email handlers and so on. At best, they’re all innocently taking sole credit for potentially the same order (see above); at worst, it becomes a case of paying a bunch of turkeys who keep telling you it isn’t Christmas. You can’t replicate their data (which usually forms the basis of their charges) but you do know that if you add up all the ‘sales’ that each of them claims to have led you to, you should be turning over far more than you actually are. Something is amiss but you’re next to powerless to find out any more than that.

You have paralysis by analysis: more information than you can handle and less knowledge than ever before – and a nagging feeling that somewhere along the line, some of this lack of clarity is hurting you.

If you think this is just me checking into middle age by having a rant about the object of my prior fascination, you may have a point but bear this in mind: clients like The Guardian have started to sue agencies that they believe are misreporting their own performance stats. The incoming Chief Brand Officer of Proctor & Gamble recently gave a blistering speech in which he told the digital ad world in no uncertain terms to clean up its act, provide the transparency that clients always used to expect or kiss goodbye to the promotional budget that supports P&G’s $65bn worldwide sales revenue. There’s a sense that a fightback has begun against the charlatans and snake oil salesmen and that, in time, better regulation of one form or another, will follow.

To answer the incendiary question I initially posed, the Internet hasn’t gone too far – it has indeed, as Karen Carpenter once sang, only just begun. The Web has, in a human generation grown from a preposterous daydream to dominating most forms of marketing. Inevitably, its forms of regulation and control have struggled to keep pace. Perhaps they always will.

Whatever happens next, an important lesson is there to be learned: it’s still selling, the same as it ever was. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean the same basic rules, disciplines, checks and balances that we came to expect in the analogue world shouldn’t continue to apply.

  • Look out for my next column, about the difficulties of applying simple rules to resolving customer disputes, in the September issue of the ETN, out September 1st.

ETN: A Catalogue of Considerations

This month, I’ve chosen to dedicate a thousand words to the wisdom of catalogue publishing versus some of the more obvious alternatives. This is a tough assignment for me. I could easily write ten thousand words on the subject, maybe even enough to leave this issue of your trusty ETN looking like a… well, you do the punchline.

Of course, the reason I’ve only got a thousand words is the same reason you should avoid catalogues: cost. Printing catalogues can be eye-wateringly expensive but if you think that’s pricey, try posting them as well. Oh, and any mistakes in production can’t be corrected, leading to costly proofing processes, significant potential for missed opportunities and little alternative but to withdraw products from sale if they’re mistakenly priced too low. Catalogues also act as a Sword of Damocles over your stockholding – if you run out of anything, customers will not take kindly to your printed promise that you have it. Basically, they’re an argument with your suppliers waiting to happen.

While none of this is new, the financial risk these days is thrown into even sharper relief by the fact that in theory at least, the digital alternative is free. Email and Social are so much more immediate and far less costly. Any page on your site can be edited every day if need be and if products do sell out, you may miss sales but you have the choice to limit the damage by suppressing any troublesome items in the meantime. Finally, a website can carry your entire range but a catalogue reduces its ROI severely when it includes much beyond your winners. All of that being the case, why on earth would anyone pay for a physical compendium?

There are some reasons. A tangible presence, ideally, with some heft to it is a good way to symbolise your credibility: “Look, we can afford to send you this charming selection of products lovingly represented on glossy 50gsm paper” you can almost hear it say. They also convey an indication of the extent of your range that any homepage will invariably struggle to match: “never mind the production quality, feel the width”.

Catalogues also invite customers to indulge in the rather old-fashioned pursuit of browsing – not just searching for the specific thing they’ve recently decided they want but actually spending time considering owning every item their eyes dance over in a more relaxed, day-dreamy state of mind. If search-based web shopping is akin to hunting for today’s meal, catalogue browsing is more like foraging for a whole winter foodstore.

Unfortunately, the binary nature of this comparison is rather ruined by the fact that these days, almost all your catalogue recipients will, having chosen the items (on paper) that they wish to order, then go online to place it, thus messing up all your nice, neat reporting structures (more about that in next month’s issue) so this is not a by-extension suggestion that paper catalogues mean you can eschew the website. The best way to think about it is this: in the days before the web, a catalogue usually represented an entire conversation with a customer; today, it’s really only there as an ice-breaker – if you go beyond the small talk, the conversation will inevitably continue online.

A catalogue therefore performs a much more specific role than it used to, which is why you’re far less likely to see your doormats groaning under the combined weight of quite so many ‘big book’ versions. To prove the rule, there are still some exceptions – Next and Argos being the most obvious examples in the ‘normal’ world.

These leviathans of a bygone age may seem a comforting reminder of constancy in an uncertain world but bear this in mind: Next have flirted with charging for their directory and are also very sophisticated at deciding which customers should (and shouldn’t) deserve to be on their ‘VIP’ list to whom free directories are sent. If you happen to find your coffee table supporting the Next directory, their hard-bound Summer Fashions volume and the extensive Next Furniture opus as well, clearly, someone in your household is spending a fortune with them.

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Last of its kind: The day the Argos catalogue is retired is the day ‘big book’ catalogues can safely be consigned to history

Argos have made overtures about ditching their familiar brick of paper, reduced its format and pagination but even with the simplicity and impressiveness of their app, they still haven’t yet dared to shake their money-maker out of their marketing budget.

In our own little part of the ecosystem, a similar story can be told – with the added twist that there seem to be a number of what we used to call ‘trade catalogues’ somehow finding their way into consumer magazines. It’ll also be interesting to see how successfully my old friends at Krämer will utilise their legendary katalog as a means to entice British consumers to send their orders to Hockenheim.

So, are catalogues really a relic of the past or an under-rated means to stake a claim to the future? With questions like this, there’s very rarely a simple answer beyond “it depends”. Catalogues are no longer the only way to carry out distance-selling but they are capable of out-performing all other techniques in certain circumstances. For that to happen, there are lots of variables to consider, not least number of pages and number of copies.

The ‘Holy Grail’ catalogues offer is a more compelling way to start a conversation with the right people on your list. I’d argue that if you don’t know who those people are yet, you probably shouldn’t be sinking too much money into catalogues until you do.

Why? ‘The 40/40/20 Rule’ is a principle established by marketing expert Ed Mayer in the 1960s which states that 40% of the success of a marketing campaign is based on reaching the right audience, 40% on the offer you make, with only the remaining 20% based on various other factors such as its presentation and format.

Without knowing precisely what to offer, and specifically to whom, you may be consigning yourself to an expensive mistake.

  • Look out for my next column, about the downsides of marketing your offer online, in the August issue of the ETN, out August 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ETN: Boy, Equestrianism can be Unyielding

For Christmas, we bought our 12 year-old son a course of riding lessons at an Equestrian Centre operated by friends. He’s grown up around horses and, as my wife Helen is a keen BE 90 and 100 eventer, he’s always enjoyed a day out at the events at which she competes.

We’ve always encouraged him to participate in sport. He’s played rugby league for one of the top amateur clubs in Wigan (which, as it’s the home of the World Club Champions, is a pretty big deal) and he’s the reigning U-13s ‘Bowling Award’ recipient at our local cricket club. He’s a useful goalkeeper and in June, he’ll participate in the Great North Swim (half-mile) in Windermere. You can safely say he knows his way around a changing room.

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In the interests of peer group credibility, no identifiable photos!

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to harness his equestrian talents – and the last attempt (at a different yard) didn’t end well. In fact, those few lessons might have represented the entirety of his riding career. Highly-recommended as it was, the place was small, poorly-lit, lacking in basic facilities, held together in part by baling twine and surrounded by pot-holed, muddy surfaces.

Of course, we’re all familiar with ‘the horse world’ – we use that phrase, don’t we, as if we inhabit a ‘Harry Potter’-style otherworld but in reality, it’s mostly a shorthand for ‘lower your expectations’. Back in the ‘muggle’ world, some of the parents of the other children present must have wondered what on earth they were doing there. I imagine they were initially thrilled to explore this rather glamorous world of horses and all its stereotyped allure of power, wealth and mystery. If so, it wouldn’t have taken long for their preconceptions to crumble. If they went, hoping for Jilly Cooper, they found the reality was more like Henry Cooper.

“I won’t remember your names, I shall just refer to you by your pony so each of you remember your pony’s name” shrilled the almost comically Blytonesque instructor. Her instruction, while technically adept, was delivered in militaristic fashion, schoolmarmly in the extreme. Was this a lesson for beginners or an initiation test? With such uninspiring surroundings and questionable levels of encouragement, it didn’t take long for the magic to fade to our then 9 year-old and eventually, after one unfortunately-executed flick of a lunge whip had connected with his buttock, not the pony’s, there was no going back. Literally.

It wasn’t that he disliked horses or riding, just that the positives of the experience weren’t sufficient to sustain his interest in the face of so many negatives. Speaking from my own experience, I’m tempted to conclude that this is a particularly male reaction. For girls, the horse or pony always seems to represent more than just the means of conveyance but also a companion to look after, to form a bond with, to understand. I’m not saying boys are neglectful or uncaring but in general, riding to them is primarily another form of experiencing the thrill of motion or, more basically, danger. Everything else it involves is merely a means to achieve that end. Ergo, if boys are denied the fun and left only with the sense of connection with the animal for their motivation, I’m afraid it’s safe to conclude that most will opt out.

How do I know? I remember being thrown (and trampled) at a similar age and reaching the point that I wondered why I was doing this. The fact that I chose not to pursue riding any further was not due to it being wholly negative but that other sports entered my world, sports that were lower maintenance, less punishing, more fun and infinitely more cool.

In the thirty-odd years since then, it seems equestrianism has hardly progressed in its attitude to boys. Maybe there’s even less incentive to even try to include them today, in the face of the efforts of football, rugby, cricket etc. to recruit their stars of tomorrow. Perhaps the status quo is just too comfortable.

About twenty years ago, I read an opinion piece in an American riding magazine which argued that, confronted with the combined marketing efforts of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, was it really a surprise that so few boys wanted to take part in a sport that required them to dress in attire that had hardly changed in centuries? I’m sure you could re-print that article today and it would be no less challenging or relevant.

And here lies the essence of the problem: it’s a vicious circle. Riding is simply not welcoming enough to boys, therefore it’s unpopular with boys, which inevitably skews it towards girls. This has the effect of marking it out as “a girls’ sport” to the mainstream, which acts as a further disincentive to any boy who then dares to cross the Rubicon. I’m thrilled that our son is learning to ride but I’m well aware that indiscriminately posting pictures of his lessons on social media would mortally wound his peer credibility.

I know we mustn’t take for granted the number of girls coming into the sport but in comparison to boys, it’s always been a far easier sell. The 2015 BETA survey reports that while 26% of all regular riders are male and that 27% are under 16, there’s no published data to suggest how those under-16 riders are split, boys to girls. Anecdotally, I’d suggest it’s far more skewed to girls than the 26:74 we might like to presume. Can we afford to believe that we’ve done all we can to make riding accessible to boys just because it’s a little more difficult to attract and maintain their interest?

One sacred cow to consider sacrificing is the supposed attribute that equestrian sport has greater value because both male and female riders compete together. Swedish academic Birgitta Plymoth produced a paper in 2013: ‘On the Difference Between Masculine Needs and Feminine Practices in the Context of Swedish Equestrian Sports’ and cited the story of the Zetterman Stars all-male showjumping team as an example of how gender segregation can help to restore the appeal of the sport to male audiences, thereby increasing male participation. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m imagining a cross between HOYS and ‘Robot Wars’ and already, it’s appealing to my inner 9 year-old. Is equestrian sport prepared to be so bold in order to maximise its future participation?

Or should we just re-print this article in the 2037 ETN?

  • Look out for my next post, about the pros and cons of producing a catalogue, in the July issue of ETN, out July 1st.

ETN: Criticism – Are You Shaken or Stirred?

I recently came across an article on LinkedIn, rather provocatively entitled ‘Marketing in the Equestrian Industry – Why it Really Needs a Shake-up’ by a lady called Isobel Witts.

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Reading it, I raised at first one and then both eyebrows as its author describes how poorly you’re all doing at connecting with ‘the customer’ – whom she claims to represent. I haven’t done any marketing to the equestrian consumer for about a year but a couple of paragraphs in, I could feel my hackles rising at this blunt deconstruction of a whole industry’s efforts, mine included. I found myself gleefully spotting the various assumptions and delighting in areas where the point is oversimplified. In short, I became incredibly defensive for no logical reason.

Eventually, I arrived at the part that’s a sales pitch to help you put everything right. Ah, I should have known! Grab the attention, pique the interest, provide a desirable answer and leave a call to action – it’s literally the textbook way to make a sale. Her disclaimer really should have read the other way round: “I’m a real customer who happens to be selling consultancy”.

But does that render her words meaningless, lacking in any credibility simply because they’re there to support a sales proposition? If you believe that, then by extension you’re kind of admitting your own ad copy is bereft of any integrity, aren’t you? There are always basic truths in promotional literature, the trick is the extent to which they’re clothed in hyperbole or they exaggerate the absence of an alternative – just enough to stimulate response while avoiding claims of deception.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to re-evaluate your own communications to see how many of the sins the author describes actually apply to your brand? Is equestrianism is still too keen to embrace its heritage as a ‘calling’ to which few are worthy and in which a lifetime of study and apprenticeship is the only path to true enlightenment? Back in the real world, most of its consumers are people who simply want to have fun owning and/or riding a horse, not feel like they have to ascend to the level of a Jedi Master. If such people are willing to consider spending money with us, don’t they deserve our help and encouragement in ways that will motivate them the most?

There’s an episode in ‘The Simpsons’ where Japanese game shows are described as being different from those in the West because they punish ignorance rather than rewarding knowledge. It can be a fine line and it’s easily crossed. We’ve all seen this done over the years, haven’t we, retailers: someone not entirely confident calls for a slightly left-field item like a de Gogue. If it’s in stock, we sell it whether they need it or not under the convenient pretext that the customer is always right; if it isn’t, we’re tempted to make ourselves feel better about missing a sale by dismissing the possibility that it would have been used properly, anyway. Does that sound uncomfortably familiar?

It’s not just a case of what we choose to communicate, it’s also a question of methodology: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, as I think Bananarama more succinctly put it. We need to think about using the most compelling ways to engage with our audience – and including media they may wish to consume more than we do. If that means it’s time to start using scary words like ‘blogging’, ‘vlogging’ and ‘Instagram’, maybe it’s time you were less scared by those words.

Be honest about your own communications offering – is it at odds with what you expect from other companies when you’re the one sat in the customer’s chair? Ignore for a moment issues like scale and cost. I know you won’t want to throw another X thousand pounds at that website you only seem to have had for five minutes. Try to find out how many punters you’ve annoyed this week because they stuck with your fiddly site on an iPhone – and be amazed that some of them still ordered something! Estimate how many extra sales that could be if it was just easier for them to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

I know Tesco can seem to do these things in an afternoon and you can’t and I know money doesn’t grow on trees but surely ignoring changes in customer behaviour is only going to make things worse, isn’t it?

Feed companies have least insulation from criticism and it’s canny of the article to direct its disdain in that direction – they generally have far greater revenues than anyone in the industry and from a relatively narrow range of products. You might conclude that it’s more cost-effective for them than anyone else to invest in the kind of content that she claims will engage her. To a certain extent, this may also be true of some brand-owning suppliers.

For almost everyone in retail, with more modest revenues and a range that can run into thousands of products, it’s not that simple. Having said that, if there was a way to prove that the more good copy you include about your products, the more units you sell, wouldn’t that justify the effort? Actually, there is a way to demonstrate that relationship but you’ll need analytics you can trust and popular, consistent-selling products to test it properly.

We can all choose to react defensively to criticism or we can let it inspire us to think again about what we do and why. Ms. Witts and her colleagues may be just what you’re looking for – and I’ve sort of walked into the advertising trap she laid by making reference to her article – or you may find the most effective response is merely to stir yourself into action, challenge your own assumptions, understanding and standards in order to bring about a shake-up yourself. Good luck!

  • Look out for my next column, about the challenge of attracting boys to riding, in the May issue of the ETN, out May 1st.

ETN: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

IMG_3608My first visit to the BETA trade show at the NEC was in 1996, twenty-one years ago. By then, I’d been to the ‘Travelling Fair’, I’d already met many of the industry’s luminaries, attended several fairs in other markets; and spent a childhood punctuated by the county show circuit, celebrating my birthday at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley.

My first BETA, therefore, wasn’t quite the revelation to me that it might have been but if it’s true to say I was born into this industry, my initial immersion into its annual gathering was certainly akin to a baptism…of tweed!

Despite the impressively forward-looking venue (you can’t deny it, ‘proper’ industries have their trade fairs at the NEC), it seemed to me to be a collective populated overwhelmingly by a certain ‘type’: white, middle-aged, land-owning men – mostly decent chaps of course but very much of a particular sort. Yes, if you looked hard enough, you would find a Lucy Carr-Seaman, a Vanessa Roberts or even an Oliver Skeete breaking the monotony but even then the tendency to tweed remained. As the members of the dance group were themselves back then, ‘diversity’ was a concept in its infancy.

I agree, it’s an easy stick with which to beat anyone’s history, especially an industry built around an animal which has been domesticated for millennia and which became functionally obsolete decades previously. Tradition has always been and will always be a potent selling point and, this being Britain, the compulsion to embrace the past is powerful. It’s therefore understandable that an industry such as ours was unlikely ever to have been at the forefront of inclusivity.

Back then, I was determined to survey this familiar world anew with more objective, more professional eyes. I suppose I was mostly amazed by the apparent presumption that ‘horse’ equals ‘country’ and vice-versa – forever and ever, Amen. I’m not saying that the two are unrelated – we can all agree there is significant overlap – but coming from a Northern town set between two of England’s biggest (and at the time, grimiest) cities, it jarred with my experience of burgeoning district shows in which children of scrap metal dealers competed with their suburban friends on ponies provided by their parents’ hard work and social mobility.

Two decades later, it still jars a little – even though I hope I’ve gained a much wider understanding of the complexion of the market we’re here to serve. I can’t deny that in ‘the Shires’ (wherever they may be defined), that rather cosy relationship pervades but it still seems little more than a continuing stereotype to the majority of the rest of the country.

Perhaps these days, it’s really a case of two separate niche industries deliberately combining to create a more sizeable entity, capable of punching together at a heavier weight. Or it’s just a sign of the inertia that comes with the involvement of ‘The Establishment’. Maybe it’s now being perpetuated by new consumers actually ‘buying into’ the well-spun image that ‘horsiness is next to rural-ness’ or possibly it’s got something to do with the ongoing debate about hunting. I don’t know.

I accept ‘the countryside’ is a fertile area for new participants and I realise we mustn’t overlook that, for the sake of the future but I’ve always felt it’s not the only area worthy of attention if equestrianism is ever going to flourish as much as it can.

I therefore attended BETA 2017 (my twenty-second) wondering whether the pace of change had increased much beyond the glacial, being careful not to set my expectations too high…

I can report that we are still disproportionately comprised by a brigade of such ‘chaps’ but nowhere near as much as we were. Fate, the passage of time and commercial opportunity has seen the old patriarchy loosening its grip and becoming increasingly replaced by new people in a variety of shapes, colours, genders and outlooks.

This is important because difference refreshes the thinking of the companies with which we do business – and that invigorates our product development, our marketing strategies, our operational processes, our employee policies and everything else. A former BETA Council colleague, whom I respect hugely, once told me “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I won’t embarrass him by naming him – or by pointing out that he’s one of the very ‘chaps’ I considered back in 1996 – but that’s the very essence of the need for diversity and the main danger of consistency and traditionalism for its own sake. As he’s proven, it mustn’t be presumed that patriarchs are incapable of embracing change but I’m sure he would be the first to agree that fresh thinking is a much more elusive commodity in an environment which displays a reluctance to evolve.

What else remains? The tweed – although now it’s a badge of hipster fashion as much as a uniform of the traditionalists. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, you might conclude – but these days, you’re just as likely to hear it said in French.

  • Look out for my next column, about the impact of criticism, in the April issue of the ETN, out April 1st.