Flights of fantasy

Published: 25-Oct-2012

The grim economy has led consumers to seek comfort in escapist realities and this, says Vicky Bullen, gives brands an opportunity to be more experimental

This year French designer brand Paul & Joe based its summer make-up collection on Shakespeare’s magical fantasy play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Inspired by “the delicate wings of fairies” (yes, really) Paul & Joe promises a “sumptuous enchanted dreamscape of colours textures and tones”. The lip gloss is a “love potion”, the eyeshadow will “transform magically into other worldly tones”, while the nail polish will be “like imaginary fairies dancing on your fingertips”.

Now you may be thinking that perhaps they should lay off the happy tablets for a while. I say perhaps they need to take more. And so do you. Because Paul & Joe has successfully collared one of the most significant consumer trends of the moment: the need for escape. And I don’t mean a week in the Algarve.

Every year we run a survey of the social and economic issues affecting visual trends in branding, marketing, design, fashion and broader culture. This year we’ve found that with no foreseeable solution to our economic woes, impending environmental catastrophe and what many see as a broken society, current reality is so grim that increasingly consumers are seeking comfort in ‘escapist realities’, or surrealism.

It makes sense. After all surrealism first emerged as a reaction to the horrors of the First World War (WWI). The surrealists believed that excessive rationality lay behind the world’s first industrialised military conflict. The antidote was to free people’s imaginations to enable them to see beyond the normal, rational ways of doing things. While today’s economic woes can’t begin to compete with the horrors of WWI, there is a very similar dynamic at work.

We have collected scores of examples from both high end and mass culture of brands expressing this desire for escape. We’ve examined an Alice in Wonderland inspired gym in Japan, a New York designer who creates jewellery from Barbie parts and the flooding of the roof of Selfridge’s department store in London to launch a new sweetener. UK crisp brand Walkers has launched squirrel flavoured crisps. Fashion brand Mulberry has launched an ad campaign with outsized ice creams, straight out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland. And at the more populist end of the spectrum there’s Lady Gaga.

We confirmed our suspicions with research which found that 54% of Britons agree that the need to escape has become more important to them over the past few years. There were very similar levels of agreement in the US, Canada, France and Japan. In addition 57% of respondents agree that there is a need for society to explore new ways of doing things, while 69% agree that: “It’s good to be random or do random things occasionally.”

This new surrealism has been assisted by two other factors related to our benighted times. ‘Excessive conformism’ has seen people and businesses ‘play safe’ and abandon risk taking. This has led designers to tire of monotonous colourless living and attempt to spice things up.

And just as the surrealists railed against an overrational and overregulated world, there is a widespread feeling that our world has become overmanaged.

It all adds up to the fact that consumers are ready and eager to be taken on flights of fancy. Surrealism and alternate realities are the perfect tools to enable us to be less proper and more imaginative.

It looks tailormade for an industry that you might argue specialises in helping people realise their dreams.

Your brand doesn’t necessarily have to be quirky in itself to leverage these ideas. Whether niche or mainstream, you could embrace the absurd in your innovation strategies, your design strategies and your communication strategies.

You might just exploit a consumer trend. For instance cosmetics are increasingly used to express not identity but our moods. Within the space of 48 hours women report that they might be an eighties power dresser, a fairy princess and an English rose. You can help by catering to ‘unexpected versions of me’.

You can use unexpected ingredients in unexpected ways. A company called The Icecreamists caused a storm when it launched a product called Baby Googoo, made from human breast milk. Meanwhile, Jellymonger Bompass & Parr recently unveiled curry and beer yeast flavoured jellies. You might launch products based on unexpected juxtapositions.

You can challenge category conventions and/or challenge perceptions of your brand by stealing imagery from childhood fantasy worlds and jolt people out of their apathy by taking a stand on issues in an interesting way.

This may sound like I am saying abandon all the science and discipline of marketing strategy, positioning and segmentation. I am not. Even the world of the unexpected has to have a reason and a rationale. This trend is really just a licence to be more creative and experimental than you might normally be.

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