November 15, 2006
I heard Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet on the radio yesterday and it all came flooding back. Few of you know what it is like to be a redheaded teenager at a disco. Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ was the slow-set number of choice in my youth and simply hearing Hadley’s voice was enough to give me the creeps.
Thinking of school slow sets, it is striking how our large companies – none of whom have any lasting comparative advantage – mirror the behaviour of kids at a teenage disco. Young adults’ desperate efforts to be cool, hip and yet stand out just enough to get noticed are similar to the behaviour of today’s Irish corporate players. Like teenagers, when one person does something, the next guy reacts in an effort to cancel out the advantage the first guy might garner from the new innovation.
Let’s first revisit the disco and examine the predicament of the redhead. Redheads all over Ireland have a secret code. Bet you didn’t know that. We acknowledge each other privately, stand up for each other at job interviews, share each other’s insecurities, remember the same playground taunts and generally know what it is like to be the silent oppressed minority of the country.
My brothers and sisters have endured the widest range of low-level psychological abuse imaginable. This begins with the hurtful but innocuous name-calling ranging from ‘foxy’ and ‘redser’ to the recently imported English derivative ‘ging-er’ (pronounced with a hard ‘g’). And there was always ‘carrot-head’ and ‘Duracell’.
As a result of this persistent slagging, we redheads have a deep, durable, unspoken, and almost Masonic, bond.
Because it doesn’t stop in adolescence, the bond firms with age. For example, a few years back playing in the ‘belt and braces over-35s’ football league in Tallaght, yours truly was referred to politely as “that redhead f*k off the telly”. And that was by the ref, for God’s sake!
The redser neurosis gets more pronounced as we move into our teenage years when we have to endure unspeakable Plain Janes and their “Yuck, he’s got red hair”. Or the “I can’t believe you snogged a redhead”. Or the whispered, “I wouldn’t touch a carrot-head with a barge-pole”.
We tend, like Jewish comedians who build up great resilience in the face of childhood derision, to develop other attributes. We can talk, tell jokes, entertain and laugh, particularly at ourselves. Apparently we have fiery tempers, well who could blame us?
But imagine what it’s like to have this opprobrium reinforced officially? This happened to me on arguably the worst night in a teenage redhead’s calendar. The night the Inter (now junior) Cert finishes is always a disaster for redheads because of the dreaded school disco and its slow-set.
That particular morning, as I caught the bus to school for my Latin exam, all I could think about was the night’s slow set at Wesley. Wez, as it is known locally, was a rite of passage for generations.
But that morning, Latin grammar was not even on my radar screen. My head was dominated by the fear: the fear of being exposed after all 11 sweaty, fumbling minutes of ‘Stairway to Heaven’, when the lights came on and she could see my fiery top in the full glare of the fluorescent lights.
Only when the Mean-teistimearacht paper was placed in front of me did I finally focus on Ovid, Catulus, Caesar and all the lads. But what do you think was the first question? It read: “In Roman theatre, how did the crowd recognise a slave?” By their red hair of course! This is true. In early Roman theatre, slaves wore red wigs to make them immediately recognisable as untermensch to the sallow Mediterranean audience. I knew things didn’t bode well for the night ahead.
The whole of Wesley was divided between flirts and wallflowers. Those who could flirt got all the attention and all the girls. And those of us who were wallflowers just disappeared during the opening bars of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’.
Today’s economy is similarly divided. Look around at all our big companies. None has lasting comparative advantage. They all have to flirt with the customer constantly. There is nothing going on at Ryanair that can’t be replicated at Aer Lingus. Nothing is happening at Bank of Ireland that can’t be repeated in AIB. There is no deal that Vodafone can offer today, that 02 can’t copy tomorrow. There is no engineer at Dell who can’t be poached by Microsoft in the morning. There’s nothing going on inside the management of Dunnes that won’t be discovered and replicated by Tesco. So no company has a competitive advantage, rather if you are doing well you have a “temporary monopoly”. This has to be guarded at all times.
THE only way to do this is to create a brand or an image that is unassailable. This means that all companies now have to get inside the heads of their customers in a way that was never expected before. This will imply a huge investment in design, image and market research to know who is most likely to buy your stuff, where she lives and what does she aspire to.
In the years ahead, because of the tribal behaviour of many of us, the buying impulse is not going to be, “Oh, I like that”, it is going to be “Oh, I am like that”! The winning company will be the one that twigs that the big picture is the school disco model of economics and the future is flirting.
This is a harsh lesson that all of us redheads learned years ago; now it’s up to the rest of you to cop on.