A Cautionary Tale
June 19, 2017
A decade or so ago, I came across a book at Barnes & Noble that I simply had to pick up and read. It was called “Jennifer Government” by Max Barry, and it is one of those stories that sticks with you when you cover the retail industry day in and day out.
In this book, the world is ruled by American corporations. Employees take the last names of the company they work for (read: John Nike, Hayley McDonald’s, Violet ExxonMobil, Jennifer Government, etc.), and making profit is the end to all means. In this alternate reality, the brands have all the power and consumerism trumps everything—government, politics, etc. Taxation has been abolished, the police have become privatized and the NRA has become a mercenary-for-hire organization that is equipped to deploy military-grade force. Schools are run by the corporations, filling soon-to-be employees with corporate propaganda.
As the plot of the story unfolds and characters’ lives become entwined with each other, it becomes clear that all of the corporations find allegiance with one of two loyalty programs—Team Advantage or US Alliance. By the end of the novel, these two competitive factions essentially unleash World War III on each other, in an apocalyptic world where ExxonMobil, Burger King, Apple and the Police are at war with Nike, IBM, Pepsi and McDonald’s. And I do mean at war, as in bombs and explosions and such. It’s a snarky parody on the lengths consumerism can take in a brand-driven, profit-fueled world.
Zero back in on the real-life retail marketplace in 2017. While there are no bombs or guns threatening America’s retail livelihood (not yet, anyway!), there is a threat quickly emerging that is even scarier—stagnancy and complacency. We face a retail marketplace with a growing number of retail corporations answering to private-equity companies, a revolving door of CEOs and CMOs, a hesitant consumer, a real estate renaissance, and a balance sheet hanging on a thin rope of a missed quarter, a failed margin or an unwavering fear of the bottom line. These are the challenges we face—all while we are supposed to create tech-savvy, authenticity-spewing, merchant-driven, experience-
oozing, sustainably built, design-centric brand houses for our shoppers to love. Oy.
While “Jennifer Government” might be a dystopian cautionary tale, it does give weight to the profit-or-die-driven retail path. Putting the shopper first, versus the bottom line—that’s the key to escaping a corporate apocalypse.
P.S. I came across a new company recently called brandcoin, a retail start-up who elevator pitched me that they are an open loyalty network for merchants. Essentially, their aim was to create a legion of brands where your loyalty points have value rewards across a network of partner retail companies. So your Starbucks purchase today might get you a free milkshake at Burger King tomorrow, hypothetically speaking. Great idea, but the book popped right into my head. Hoping I don’t have to shoot any Nike customers to get my points. (Read the book. You’ll get it.)
Photo by Semmick Photo/Shutterstock