The Experts

Fi Bendall
+ About Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Bendalls Group and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

5 digital trends for 2019

Monday, December 17, 2018

The world of digital and online is ever-changing, so we can expect 2019 to bring with it all manner of disruptions, transformations and fluctuations. Here are five of the big trends to keep an eye on in the coming year.

Privacy presents as opportunity

The ongoing travails of Facebook, the continued occurence of data breaches, and the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) this year by the EU have all highlighted the problems of maintaining privacy online. Of course, where there is a problem, you can expect smart entrepreneurs to be looking for solutions.

One sign the thirst for privacy is growing is in the user growth for DuckDuckGo, a search engine alternative to Google whose main selling point is that it doesn’t track user activity. DuckDuckGo is still very much a minor player in online search, but the fact its daily search figures have gone up a full 50% in a year, from 20 million to 30 million, shows there are people out there who value their privacy. Maybe not enough people to truly challenge Google’s dominance, but enough to indicate there is a market for privacy-focused online services.

Blockchain to transcend the crypto crisis 

Blockchain’s big PR problem might be that it has become so closely associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that many people can’t see its potential for broader applications. But much like the internet as a technology and communications platform transcended the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s, blockchain has the potential (and will among its devotees, developers and investors) to transcend the fluctuating fortunes of cryptocurrencies. 

Blockchain is already being trialled and used in applications for social media networks (Steemit) through to transport and logistics (DHL), as well as the more commonly associated use cases in the finance and legal sectors. In fact, blockchain is seen by many as being one of the potential answers to a lot of the privacy and data breach problems besetting the online world in its current incarnation. Expect to see blockchain emerge in 2019 as more than just the tech base for cryptocurrencies.

Voice search to get more vocal

The voice search trend has been strong in 2018 and you can expect it to continue in 2019, especially as the likes of Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant continue to develop and improve. However, voice search is still in its infancy as a consumer tool. The technology is not at the maturity level yet to be all pervasive and, consequently, mainstream consumers have yet to fully integrate voice search into their daily lives.

But as with other elements of eCommerce, this will come in time, and we’ll see more advances over 2019 towards voice search becoming an increasingly trusted and able consumer technology. With the major (as well as some smaller) tech companies all putting plenty of resources into improving the voice search experience, expect to see it blossom in 2019.

The influencer bubble burst

Influencer marketing has grown substantially as a marketing strategy over the past five years, but it’s influence appears to be on the wane. In essence, influencer marketing has been used by brands and marketers as a way to get in front of consumers via the reach of the likes of ‘insta-stars’ and popular ‘YouTubers’ - people with big followings on certain social media channels.

The idea has been that these people, often amateur enthusiasts in a specific area like makeup tutorials, etc, have big follower counts and an authentic connection with their audience. However, plenty of brands are now starting to question the reach, influence and authenticity of these influencers, and are instead searching for better validated methods of reaching a target audience. 

Data to become more useful

We’ve got used to hearing about the wonders of ‘data-driven’ this and ‘big data’ that, but the thing with data is that an awful lot of it is being collected without being effectively turned into useful and actionable information. Machine learning is the key to turning all that data from useless to useful. It’s best thought of as a subset of artifical intelligence.

Jeff Bezos says “it will empower and improve every business, every government organization, every philanthropy, basically there is no institution in the world that cannot be improved with Machine Learning.” As a simple example, think about the recoomendations you might currently get from the algorithms that power Google, Facebook, Netflix or Amazon and then imagine those algorithms being 10x, 100x, 1000x more powerful over the next few years in being able to predict what you want.


Why we're failing to grasp the opportunities of an ageing population

Monday, December 10, 2018

Meal kit delivery services like HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Foodora have been heavily hyped over the past few years, as the food and grocery business looks to make use of online ordering and delivery in capturing consumers and tapping into new markets. 

Most of the marketing spin for these kinds of services has been aimed at young professionals who are too busy to shop or cook for themselves. HelloFresh is dominating the market right now, but according to Brittain Ladd, an expert consultant in this area, these businesses don’t have much of a future. He’s utterly scathing in his assessment:

Of all the industries I've evaluated, meal-kit companies rank among the worst run and poorly managed businesses in existence. Out of more than 150 meal-kit companies operating today, I can only name a couple that I believe have a sustainable business. The majority of meal-kit companies will experience little to no growth, resulting in serving a small number of customers. 

As with so many other things retail these days, Ladd cuts to the chase and declares Amazon will be the eventual winner in the ready-meals category, delivered and otherwise: “Amazon is playing an infinite game where the goal is not to beat its competitors but to outlast them and keep the game going forever.” 

Ladd touches on the failure of many of these meal kit companies to think beyond Millennials as their target market, but another analyst, Matthew DiFrisco, goes a bit further in nailing the myopic marketing lens of these businesses when it comes to age and demographics. 

“We see a significant opportunity for meal-kit delivery services with affluent retirees who still enjoy cooking restaurant-quality meals, but do not have the energy or means to consistently go to the grocery store to get fresh ingredients,” DiFrisco says. 

It’s not only meal kit delivery service companies though that fail to grasp there is a market beyond 25-45 year olds, and that older people, by which I mean 60 and above, are a largely ignored but rapidly growing market segment. 

Baby boomers are getting older; advances in medical science mean they are living longer and generally healthier lives; many people in this age group have assets and money to spend. You’d think businesses and marketers would have cottoned on to this simple demographic fact by now.

But most businesses have yet to invest the resources necessary to fully grasp the unprecedented ways that our ageing population will change the rules of the game, especially in sectors like leisure and travel, health and wellbeing, and social connectivity and emotional health. Even more importantly, they’ve failed in shifting their mindset to allow them to see the potential.

In an invitational paper presented in 2017 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) International Workshop on Adaptation to Population Aging Issues, Mary Beth Arensberg, the Director of Health Policy at US healthcare company Abbott Nutrition, outlines the basic mindset problem too many businesses have when it comes to grasping the market potential of older consumers:

In short, older adults as consumers are often viewed as frail or dependent and thus judged by the faculties and functions they no longer have, instead of by the assets and capabilities they actually possess. But older adults are much more of an asset than a burden to society. Changing this ageist attitude can help commercial businesses’ brands better target opportunities in the thriving older adult population.

As Arensberg identifies, age can be one more blindspot that stops businesses from seeing market potential. As with sexism, it is mostly not a matter of conscious malice, it’s more an ignorance about examining the prejudices and presuppositions that underpin a company’s marketing approach.

I don’t think most businesses set out to exclude people; they tend to exclude because they haven’t put enough thought into how to include. It can be hard work trying to rethink what you’ve always done, the way you’ve always thought about things. But more so than ever, business mindsets have to be adaptable to change. That includes who we think our product is for and how we talk to these potential consumers. 


Cultural confusion

Monday, December 03, 2018

If you’re an iconic luxury brand, offending Chinese consumers is not a great strategy. According to the McKinsey 2017 China Luxury report, China’s consumers spend around 500 billion RMB (approx. $A100 billion) annually on upscale and luxury goods, which is about one-third of the total annual global spend on such goods. 

Furthermore, the report says that within a decade Chinese spending will account for 44% of the total global market: “By 2025, 7.6 million Chinese households will represent 1 trillion RMB in global luxury sales, an amount that is double that of 2016, and equivalent to the size in 2016 of the US, UK, French, Italian and Japanese markets combined.”

Yes, there has been a slight downturn in China’s economy. But has that dampened the appetite for luxury goods, especially among those under the age of 35? Not a chance.

Enter iconic Italian designer label Dolce & Gabbana with a crudely conceived ad campaign for a high profile D&G fashion show scheduled in Shanghai. The ads, titled “Eating with Chopsticks”, show a female Chinese model trying to eat Italian foods like pizza, spaghetti and cannoli. They look like the kind of thing an ad agency might have made in the 80s. In the cannoli ad, the model is eating a large cannoli with chopsticks while the male voice over asks her, “Is it too big for you?”

Frankly, the ads are so bad it’s embarrassing. This is meant to be a high-end global fashion brand.

What’s far more important than my opinion, though, is that the very same Chinese consumers D&G was attempting to win over with its ads found them to be degrading and belittling. If the people at D&G had thought this one through (which it seems they didn’t) and maybe read something like the McKinsey China Luxury report (or even made their own educated assessment of the market), they would surely have worked out that today’s upmarket Chinese consumer is probably sophisticated and worldly enough to know you don’t eat pizza with chopsticks!

And more importantly, that these consumers want to be treated with respect rather than as the punchline for stale jokes based on racial stereotypes.

But that’s not the worst of it. As if the chopsticks weren’t bad enough, the G in the D&G, Stefano Gabbana, managed to put his brand further into it when an Instagram conversation of his was leaked. In trying to defend the ads from criticism by a model named Michele Tranovo, Gabbana resorted to calling the furore surrounding the ads “fake news” and then said to Tranovo “China Ignorant Dirty Smelly Mafia” and that “from now on in all the international interviews I will do I will say that the country of 💩💩💩💩💩 is China.”

Gabbana subsequently claimed his account had been hacked. The outburst was certainly quite a turnaround from his previous declarations of love for China.

In 2017, Gabbana said “It’s our love for Asia” that was driving the brand’s focus on China.

“After these trips and collections we understand Asia more, and the differences between Hong Kong, China and Japan in terms of cultures, people, food, the approach to life … and since we’re designers, even the proportions of the body. You need to respect each country or place,” Gabbana says. “We need to learn. And if we don’t come here, we don’t learn.”

It appears D&G still have a fair bit to learn about China.

This epsiode is one more example of the need for businesses to pay attention to cultural context and ensure they understand and respect the markets in which they trade. That’s not only relevant to international markets but increasingly also to fragmented and tribalised domestic markets too.

Brands and businesses can no longer take cultural norms for granted. They need to understand how their message is being received by different people within a market. Lazy generalisations and offensive stereotypes just don’t cut it anymore, whether it’s racial, gender or otherwise. People are far more sophisticated about these things now. Brands have to be as well.


Women over 50 set to power the new economy

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Isn’t it nice when you occasionally come across someone with whom you wholeheartedly agree. For me, Joseph F. Coughlin is one of those people.   

“One of the greatest under-appreciated sources of innovation and new business may, in fact, be women over 50 with new ideas, lots of life ahead of them and with the verve to get it done,” says Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an interview with US website Today.

Coughlin is the author of the book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market, which looks at what many of us know but too few acknowledge, especially those in the youth-obsessed advertising and marketing industry: people over 50 still hold a lot of economic power even if they appear to be invisible to many advertisers.

While he sees over-50s as the key drivers of the new economy, he identifies women as the ones holding the keys and purse strings: “Women do more. They have more education than at any time in history. They’re likely to live longer.”

A woman is the researcher of the house… She is the caregiver-in-chief… A woman is the chief consumer officer of the house… Because of all these factors, she is likely to be the person who is closest to understanding what the new jobs and the opportunities of living longer, better are going to be.

In another article for Forbes, Coughlin outlines why businesses are mostly failing to truly understand the technological and healthcare shifts that are extending the boundaries of what we have traditionally perceived of when we think of categories like ‘youth’, ‘middle aged’ or even ‘elderly’.

Old age is going to be very different for us than it was for our parents and grandparents. Mainly, it’s not going to look all that “old.”

Indeed, the new generation gap is about expectations – the next generation of older adults don’t simply expect to live longer, they expect to live better. And women are the lifestyle leaders inventing the new old age.

Just as Millennials have seemingly extended some of the rites and passages of youth by living at home longer, and delaying marriage and children, older people are deciding to stay in the workforce longer and looking for more rewarding lifestyle options than sedentary retirement when they do finish up with work, with options like travel proving popular. 

By the way some businesses seem to totally ignore older people, and especially women, you’d be hard pressed sometimes to see it, but these demographic trends — driven by economics, technology and healthcare — are opening up all sorts of opportunities for smart businesses.

It’s so refreshing when someone like Coughlin talks about ageing not as a burden on society but as something wonderful and full of potential, both in the economic and social sense. Women — people — have so much to offer beyond the number that denotes their age. For too long we’ve been willing to use these arbitrary digits to put people in boxes and assign them roles.

People and businesses that continue to ignore the burgeoning economic power and cultural strength of older people are missing out on great market opportunities, fantastic employees, and the potential of what wise heads have to offer.


Can we negotiate the gender pay gap away?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The most recent Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) data, released last week (Tuesday 13/11), shows solid progress has been made on closing the gender pay gap over the past five years. However, as the report also points out, there’s still work to be done.

The good news is the gender pay gap has declined every year over the past five, and this year has seen the biggest single-year drop (down 1.1 percentage points) in the average full-time total remuneration gender pay gap.

The three big takeaways from the ‘Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard 2017-18’ were:

      Strong growth in employer action on gender equality over five years

      Gender pay gap has declined but men earn 21.3% more than women, on average

      Steady increase in women in management and leadership roles 

However, the plain truth is that women’s average full-time base salary across all industries and occupations is still 16.2% less than men’s ($15,457 p.a.) and women’s average full-time total remuneration across all industries and occupations is 21.3% less than men’s ($25,717 p.a.). 

The pay gap leads to both short-term financial shortfalls for women, but also longer term issues of poverty and insecurity. Sadly, single women over the age of 55 are the fastest growing demographic among Australia’s homeless population. Women also leave the workforce when they retire with far less than men in the way of superannuation.

In the same week as the WGEA data was released, the Sydney Women's Fund released a report that serves as a stark reminder of the financial struggle many women face. Among the report’s survey findings: 

      49% of women said they were “struggling or just getting along”;

      73% are “concerned about maintaining an adequate income to remain in Sydney”;

      82% were finding it harder to live in Sydney than a decade ago;

      61% had experienced discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality or disability in the last year;

      49% spend 30% or more of their income on housing; and

      11% are confident they can finance their retirement.

While a base salary rate is often fairly fixed, remuneration through bonuses and other entitlements are often open slather for employees willing to push their boss a little harder at the bargaining table. This is one area in which women can do something at an individual level to make gains, and the key is to become more confident in demanding better remuneration packages.

The biggest gap between men and women for average full-time total remuneration is 30.3% in financial and insurance services, an industry well known for its generous and often bonus-focused remuneration packages. The next biggest gap is in construction at 29.4%. At the other end of the scale, public administration and safety has the smallest gap, at only 4.9% — probably reflective of the lesser tendency and scope for negotiated packages in that sector.

This is where (some) men have had an advantage over (some) women, according to experts.

Speaking to Bloomberg Law, Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s chief human resources officer, said a survey CareerBuilder had conducted about the differences in how men and women negotiate salaries showed the reluctance of women to ask for more.

“When we asked women why they were less likely to negotiate, 57% of women said they just didn’t feel comfortable asking for more money, compared to 42% of men,” Haefner said.

“Forty-eight percent of women said they were afraid the employer would decide not to hire them (versus 44% of men) and 36% said they didn’t want to seem greedy (compared to 35% of men.)”

The gender pay gap data on total remuneration shows women need to ask for what they're worth. Negotiating a better salary package is not going to solve the gender pay gap issue entirely (it’s more complex than just that), but it will make a difference, especially in industries like finance and insurance services.

For far too long, women have been modest in their demands, whereas men will ask the earth, and often get it. It's time women started asking and negotiating for their true worth.


Health and wellness in the digital age

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Smartphones, Fitbits and health and wellness apps have all changed the way we train and even meditate. What's next on the digital horizon for health and wellness? 

While we might think of health and wellness as a physical arena, somewhere we escape to from the sedentary poisoning of a life lived looking at screens, the truth is that many of us are using digital tools to get the most out of our exercise and relaxation regimes.

The relationship between technology and health and wellness is not entirely new. Exercise, in particular, is a measurable activity. We can time how far we run in a set amount of time; our heart rate; how many steps we take; what we eat; and much more. Think about how the humble stopwatch would've changed the way runners approached their sport.

According to the TimingSense website, the first race events to be timed were horse races in the UK in the 1750s, while human athletics events first began to be timed in 1850 at Oxford University. Even if we're not competing with others, many of us like to compete with ourselves. We like to get the most out of our exertions and physical endeavours.

Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can't measure it, you can't improve it.” Drucker was speaking about business processes, but the maxim has become just as applicable to health and wellness pursuits. It’s the thinking at the heart of the ‘quantified self’ movement that has arisen over the past decade or so, which seeks to monitor, measure and improve all aspects of our lives, but especially our physical beings.

Journalist Gary Wolf has chronicled the Quantified Self movement and he says it's not only about changing your physical self, but also about changing how you think about yourself, your self-perception.

“We know that new tools are changing our sense of self in the world. These tiny sensors that gather data in nature, the ubiquitous computing that allows that data to be understood and used, and of course the social networks that allow people to collaborate and contribute,” he explained in a TED Talk on the topic. 

“But we think of these tools as pointing outward, as windows, and I’d just like to invite you to think of them as also turning inward and becoming mirrors. So that when we think about using them to get some systematic improvement, we also think about how they can be useful for self-improvement, for self-discovery, self-awareness, self-knowledge.”

The Quantified Self movement is barely ten years old. As biometrics collides with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we're going to see even more innovations and advances in how we think about health and wellness. The Fitbit of today will seem as old-fashioned as a stopwatch. Once we factor in developments in areas like nanotechnology and the health sciences, we will be at a new frontier for how we approach health and wellness.

As Baby Boomers continue to search for the fountain of youth, or at the very least, a more satisfying path to getting older, expect to see more venture capital pour into technology that will help us better measure our activities and improve both our physical and mental health.


Is there anything sexier than tyres?

Monday, October 29, 2018

There's nothing sexier than tyres. At least that's the impression one might get from looking at a Pirelli Calendar. Not that you see that many tyres in The Cal™. A lot of gorgeous women, not many tyres. 

The automotive industry, including the wheel and tyre sector, can often feel a little like it’s stuck in some kind of Jeremy Clarkson timewarp. However, even it is making some concessions to the changing times. It has to, with the likes of Tesla, Google (through its subsidiary Waymo), and even Apple looking to revolutionise the way we drive and use cars.

A recent example of a company looking to change with the times is American tyre company with its new prototype boutique retail offering called Roll by Goodyear.

Roll is an interesting example of how businesses can reconfigure what they offer to tap into new, potentially lucrative market segments. It's also another example of companies in traditionally male-skewed product categories waking up to the fact women buy their products, often in great numbers, and there’s money to be made if you’re smart to that fact.

According to Goodyear, Roll came about following a great deal of consumer research that found many people, men and women included, found buying tyres to be an onerous and time-consuming task. The upshot of the research was that it would be a good thing to make buying tyres quicker and easier. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but sometimes even the most obvious things can elude big companies and even whole industries.

It’s usually blindspots like this that disrupters exploit. Alarm bells should always ring when the prevailing attitude in a business or industry is ‘that’s just how we do things?’

“Roll by Goodyear makes buying tires easier,” said Fred Thomas, vice president and general manager of Goodyear Retail, in the company’s media release. “Guests can choose when, where and how to install their tires and they are in complete control of the process from start to finish. Goodyear is eliminating the waiting room and giving people time back in their day to do the things they really want to do.”

Again, it's not rocket science. However, what's especially interesting about Roll is the concept and the look of the store tested very well with Millennial women. The design of the store is quite elegant. You can see why young women might be keener to pop in and browse the store for a new set of tyres than in your standard blokey tyre shop. It does look a little like an upmarket shoe store — but with tyres on the wall.

Source: Goodyear

Another factor that might be underlying this trendier, more customer-focused concept is that Goodyear is vying with other tyre companies for the loyalty of the Millennial generation, which is now well into its car ownership years. Hook them in young and they might stay loyal for a lifetime, so the thinking goes. That line of thinking is maybe not as sound as it once was, but it’s certainly a consideration. 

Of course, it will take more than a beautiful showroom to win young people and women over. Excellent service and convenience are a big positive though. 

Companies that have traditionally marketed their products to men can no longer ignore women or treat them disdain. There's too much money to be made to do that. Aside from being the Chief Purchasing Officers of the Home, women are also making decisions for themselves about what they want to buy. Women are far less likely to rely on a man in their life to go and buy tyres for them these days.

Goodyear's Roll is just one example of the way modern businesses have to rethink their approach to selling. It's not exactly revolutionary, but it's a welcome bit of forward-thinking in a sector not noted for its progressive thought.


What's driving the e-Scooter investor frenzy?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Silicon Valley's fervent investor community is prone to manias, especially since the rise of Uber, and the latest seems to be focused on electric motorcycles and scooters. Behind the frenzy is a belief that in a world with a growing population, mass urbanisation and diminishing resources, electric scooters and bikes might well be the main form of transportation for lots of people around the world very soon. 

But will Silicon Valley necessarily come up with the solution to the problem of how people get around urban areas in the coming age of autonomous vehicles, especially what’s referred to as ‘last-mile transportation’?

There’s already plenty of money pouring into e-scooter hire startups like Bird and Lime, which operate services that rent out scooters to people for short rides, both are powered by apps that allow you to locate, hire and unlock the scooters. 

The proposition is simple. These are lightweight, easily operated, battery-charged vehicles designed to get you from Point A to Point B in congested and built up city areas. For example, instead of getting in the car to travel a couple of kilometres in heavy traffic, you use the app to find your nearest scooter and scoot your way to where you want to go. 

It’s a variation on the Uber rideshare model, scaled down from car to scooter. In fact, Bird’s founder and CEO, Travis VanderZanden, is a former executive at both Uber and its rideshare rival Lyft. Bird was launched in September 2017 and since then has raised $415 million, with valuations for the company now running between US$1.5 billion to $2 billion. It’s most recent funding round in June raised $300 million.

Similarly, Lime has attracted its share of dollars too, $467 million since launching in June 2017, as investors scramble to get on board. Lime has also partnered with Uber, which will integrate Lime scooters into its apps, and was a principal investor in Lime’s most recent funding round, which raised $335 million. 

Plenty of big-name VC firms have been effusive about both Bird and Lime, and the ‘last-mile’ urban transport space in general, with the likes of Sequoia Capital, Accel and CRV all backing Bird, while Andreessen Horowitz and GV have taken stakes in Lime.

Explaining his thinking behind investing in Bird, B Capital partner Raj Ganguly said: “Ultimately, Bird has the potential to completely change how we think about short-distance mobility.” 

However, there’s also a fair degree of scepticism about just how profitable or even viable these e-scooter companies will be.

“Doesn’t it feel like the Uber heyday all over again? On some level, I get it—but also, I want no part in it,” one investor told Vanity Fair. “There’s liability issues, regulatory issues.”

“If I’m being honest, it feels like a short-term trend,” another investor said. “It already feels like a lot of the FOMO-stricken players and firms who missed out on companies like Airbnb or Uber are diving in.”

The e-scooter companies also face hostility and opposition from local government and the general public. Some US local governments have tried to work with the scooter companies, but others have banned them outright.

Like the bike-share companies such as oBike that popped up around Australian capital cities recently and subsequently disappeared, many have accused the scooter companies of creating a public nuisance. The reasoning is mainly because of users leaving the scooters all over sidewalks, as well as zooming through crowds at (relatively) high speeds. So while some people might love the scooters, many others are not so fond.

The Uber business model has proved to be successful, but applying it to e-scooters might prove to be a novelty blip on the radar. There’s probably a real need for this type of transport solution in the high-density urban centres of the developing world, but the Silicon Valley mindset might not have the answer to this specific problem.




Is time up for retail fashion's old guard?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

It’s tough days in fashion retail. There’s lots of competition, from online and traditional, and margins have been cut finer than a Savile Row suit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK, especially among High Street retailers. One of those retailers feeling the bite is Topshop, which recently reported a £12.6 million hit to its bottom line.

So when it abruptly cancelled an in-store promotion recently with Penguin Books for a book called “Feminists Don’t Wear Pink”, it earned the ire of a decent chunk of its customer base, young and fashionable women, and put its brand reputation among this influential group in serious jeopardy. 

Topshop cited creative and production reasons for pulling the plug on the promotion. However, the media and the Twitterverse quickly looked past this explanation, and pinned the blame on Topshop’s 66-year-old owner, Sir Philip Green, who has become the villain of the piece.

Actress Thandie Newton, one of the book's contributors, summed up the outrage when she tweeted: “Yesterday #PhilipGreen used his big muscles to smash up the @Topshop @penguinrandom #FeministsDontWearPink pop-up because he thought it was too controversial!!? LOSER.”

Whether it was actually Green who ordered the promotion be stopped is unclear. As some background to the story, it should be noted Green is not exactly a fan of Penguin Books, after it published a scathing unauthorised biography of him this year. The fact is Green might well have been pissed off that one of his managers signed off on a promotion partnership with the publisher of a book that had done so much damage to his reputation, rather than taking any offence to one of his stores being used to promote a feminist book.

However, as PR people put it, the optics are bad. And the optics can get very blown out and ugly once fed through the lens of social media. 

Topshop issued an apology the next day but by then the impression had been well and truly cast that theirs was a brand that does not support the empowerment of young women. That’s not a good place to be for a retailer which is reliant upon the custom of young women, especially when competition is hot and new retail outlets are breathing down your neck.

Topshop has been one of the leading fashion retail brands among young women in the UK for decades now. It started out as a youth-oriented offshoot of department store Peter Robinson and soon became part of the Swinging London fashion scene of the 1960s with its flagship store in Oxford Street. It was one of the earliest of the UK fashion retailers to take its online presence seriously, launching the UK’s first online fashion store in the 1990s. It is also seen as one of the most progressive of the High Street fashion retailers, initiating policies on everything from gender-free change rooms to animal-friendly PETA-approved fashion. 

However, Topshop, which is owned by Green’s Arcadia Group, has recently faced challenges on several fronts. 

Last year, its foray into the Australian market came to an acrimonious end, with the $30 million collapse of its Australian franchise. Its efforts to take on the American market have also placed it under strain, with some analysts believing the US expansion has distracted it from the robust competition it faces in the UK from the likes of River Island, H&M and Primark, plus up-and-comers like PrettyLittleThing and Missguided.

“Topshop has lost some of its edge and I suspect that’s because it has been trying to please the American market, which is less fashion forward. It’s had to dumb down a bit. It’s very subtle, but that means it’s lost some of its edge in the UK,” retail analyst Richard Hyman told fashion business journal Drapers.

Contrast Topshop’s feminist fashion faux pas to the body positive coverage PrettyLittleThing has received recently, and you get an idea of how important it is for fashion brands to be seen to be doing the right thing by their customers. 

PrettyLittleThing launched a campaign featuring ‘plus size’ models, which is not revolutionary, but when placed next to Topshop’s feminist shutdown, it shines as an example of a brand supporting and empowering women: “At PrettyLittleThing we are all about celebrating body diversity and we believe everybody is beautiful.”

What a lot of people don’t recognise is that fashion has always been a highly politicised and even ideological arena, especially so in the UK: fashion has meaning. Women are very awake to this and they can quickly sniff out brands that align with their beliefs and those that don’t. What brands stand for, and how they communicate that with their customers, is vitally important. Brands that can’t keep up with their customers’ expectations on this count will lose their respect and trust. 

The old guard of fashion retail, like Sir Philip Green, should tread carefully because never have women been as vociferous about their place in the world as they are now. Fashion moves quickly, even more so in the age of fast fashion and social media. Today’s cutting edge fashion brands could soon become tomorrow’s remaindered stock.


When bullies win, we all lose

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Recent comments from women in Australian politics show bullying and intimidation are rife in public life. It's a problem in corporate life too. The problem with a culture that accepts, and even encourages, bully behaviour, aside from its obvious nastiness, is that good people eventually say ‘enough is enough’ and move on to some other place that will hopefully respect them and care for their wellbeing. In the case of politics, that means we eventually get a smaller and less talented pool of people to represent our interests.

Research from beyondblue shows bullying is unfortunately widespread in Australian workplaces. From your local retail strip shop right up through to the corridors of corporate power, almost 50% of Australian employees will experience some form of workplace bullying during their lives, according to beyondblue. 

Bully behaviour comes in many shapes and sizes, from the despicable and degrading hazing rituals to which trades apprentices have long been subjected through, to the reputational destruction wrought by whisper campaigns among even the highest levels of executive management. None of it is acceptable. Too many people are hurt, mentally and even physically in some cases. The mental health toll of bullying is substantial, along with the loss in workplace productivity that goes with it.

Changing that culture requires decisive and robust action from leaders.

“Bullying is usually blamed on individuals, or interpersonal problems, or ‘personality clashes’. This is too simplistic. Bullying occurs because of cultural, organisational and structural issues in the workplace,” said beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman, in response to beyondblue’s research findings. 

“Change requires root and branch reform of organisational culture, led decisively from the top by committed, unequivocal, strong leaders and managers.”

Unfortunately, across too many organisations, we too often see little effort put into changing the rotten cultures that harbour and foster bullying. 

The recent revelations of the kinds of bullying that have gone on in the federal Liberal party probably don’t surprise those who know a bit about how the business of politics is conducted. The former Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop acknowledged as much with her recent comments in the wake of the resignation from Parliament of fellow Liberal MP Julia Banks.

“When a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don't say 'toughen up princess', say 'enough is enough',” Ms. Bishop said.

“Politics is robust, the very nature of it, it's not for the faint-hearted,” Ms. Bishop said. “I have seen and witnessed and experienced some appalling behaviour in Parliament, the kind of behaviour that 20 years ago when I was managing partner of a law firm of 200 employees, I would never have accepted… Yet in Parliament it's the norm.”

You may not agree with her politics, but why should Sarah Hanson-Young put up with the degrading, sexist comments levelled at her by Senator David Leyonhjelm? Why would a woman, doesn’t matter what stripe of politics she represents, bother running for Parliament if she’s going to be treated horribly?

Similarly, why would a woman bother to become a board member if she’s going to be ignored or even ridiculed for her contributions? Thankfully, I have not had this experience, but I certainly personally know women who have. These are women who have come onto a board in good faith to share their knowledge and expertise and then either been treated like an adornment at best or as an existential threat to the men on the board at worst.

Seriously, why put yourself forward to run for office or be on a board or become an executive when you are liable to get treated in such an appalling fashion? 

However, it's not only the victims of bullying who lose in these circumstances; the organisations and institutions that do nothing to fix their cultures will ultimately lose out. That's because people who are bullied, including many talented people, both male and female, will simply choose to work elsewhere, for an organisation with a healthy culture that calls out and eradicates bad behaviour. 

Quite simply, organisations that offer a safe and respectful environment will better be able to attract talent, while those that ignore their duty of care will lose out in the recruitment and retainment stakes. Good talent is a valuable asset. Organisations that can't attract that talent because they have a workplace environment and culture with a poor reputation will suffer. They won't attract women, or anyone else for that matter, who wants to enjoy their work.

Organisations that look after their staff will have the edge over those that don't; especially if they're interested in attracting smart women who don't want to put up with the rubbish that still goes on in too many workplaces in regards to bullying, intimidation, and harassment. Call it market forces or just plain decency, but the days of bully culture are numbered.



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