OPINION24 May 2011

Coming to terms with Slinky culture


Trying to keep pace with changes in culture, life and technology is like chasing a Slinky down a staircase – a frustrating experience. Just when you think you’ve caught up it takes another great leap forward. Researchers need to work out how people are coping with this state of perpetual advancement, says Justin Gibbons.

Culture and life now move very, very fast indeed, so much so that we are seeing a Slinky effect; change goes down the stair, everybody catches up, and just as they do the whole thing moves again, down to the next stair and so it goes on. We are playing a hopeless game of catch-up; except it’s catch-down, the myth of Sisyphus in reverse.

The most obvious Slinky is technology. For years we’ve been on a rollercoaster of ceaseless innovation. No sooner is each game-changing device unveiled to a council of geek leaders than game-changing device 2 is being drip-teased on a Norwegian blog while competitor game-changing device 1b is being ramp-pushed in Argos. The geek leaders love the chase; the wider public look on with a mixture of bewilderment and the mildest of enthusiasm. Life looking down the barrel of the techno-Slinky is hot and sweaty for some, but for most it’s a bit of a damp patch.

There is a social Slinky effect too. Human beings are social animals and from caves to closes to loft extensions there has always been an irksome Jones next door to keep up with. We see life not in absolute terms but in relative terms. Studies of happiness confirm that large pay rises matter less to wealthy people who mix with even wealthier people than small pay rises do to middle-income people who earn a fraction more than their peer group. Brands and marketing perpetuate a culture of aspiration, framed most frequently as an upgrade. Once the sole domain of the airlines, upgrades appear in all aspects of life from finest shepherd’s pie to unlimited data plans. Once bitten, forever smitten.

In business, the rise and rise of the procurement department (especially in our industries) has led to a commercial Slinky. I have heard recently of clients pitching business and organising the next pitch before the new agency has been appointed. I’m sure it happens in other industries too, and what it does is drive down quality, innovation, investment, talent and trust, all in the name of price. True value gets squeezed out, and once out it’s difficult to recapture.

Change has always been around, it’s really fast change that is the difference we are seeing in contemporary society. If you accept that the Slinky effect is real, the question that we have to ask is, how are people coping? Coping strategies used to be based on rational research. Which is better, the VHS or the Betamax? Which is nearer, Tesco or Safeway? Now that we don’t have time to think, the coping strategies have changed. Some people make blink-like decisions: quick, emotive, knee-jerk choices based on context and mood. Some people use loyalty as a coping strategy – I always buy Apple products. Some use heuristics – I buy the biggest brand, the brightest brand, the promoted brand, the brand I used last time. Some people don’t make a decision at all – they don’t know who their home broadband is with, what their package is, how much it costs or what the bloody password is.

Rather than look at the product truth, the competitive set or the brand personality, we should be asking ‘Is there a Slinky effect?’ and from there exploring customer coping strategies. What are the problems, what irks them, what makes them unhappy? We spend too long trying to make people happy with our brands and coupons and not enough time asking how we can make them less unhappy. Research has always had a therapy-like element to it. It’s time to get back on the couch.

Justin Gibbons is founding partner of Work Research

1 Comment

12 years ago

An excellent article, thank you.

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