Express yourself…

I was brought up in a household where it was considered bad manners to talk about money. In fact, it wasn't until I was about eight that it even entered my mind that you needed money to buy food and clothes and visit the movies.

I was brought up in a household where it was considered bad manners to talk about money. In fact, it wasn’t until I was about eight that it even entered my mind that you needed money to buy food and clothes and visit the movies.

But these days everyone talks about money all the time. And seeing as how Strategy is a business publication, I hope you’ll indulge my rudeness as I bring up the topic – besides, it might cheer you up.

You see, as Strategy staff writer Samson Okalow reports on page 2, it’s once again time to warm up for the RSP season, and this year, there may be something to smile about. The whole field is awakening from a recession-induced coma: investors are beginning to hope that they may actually make, rather than lose, money (54% expect a positive return on their RSPs this year, compared to only 39% last year), the banks are displaying cautious optimism, and yes, it looks like RSP advertising is on the rebound.

In fact, just the other day, I managed a personal breakthrough: I actually checked in on the little fellas (and my investments are little). This is after completely blocking them from my mind for about two years. Why? Because I couldn’t look at those descending staircases purporting to reflect my net worth without thinking: If I had withdrawn all my money two years ago, bought myself a fancy new plasma TV and stuffed whatever was left in my mattress, I’d still be better off than I am now.

But lately things have been picking up. I don’t cackle evilly when AIM Trimark tells me that ‘Knowing Pays’ or respond to AGF’s clever ‘What are you doing after work?’ with a tart ‘Thanks, but I’ll be working ’till I’m 90.’

I don’t think I’m alone: And if the average Canadian consumer starts to feel more confident and secure about his or her investments, it’s going to be good for everyone – mainly because confident, secure consumers are more likely to go shopping. (Indeed earlier this week, the U.S.-based National Retail Federation released its 2004 forecast, predicting that sales in the major categories will increase 5.0% from last year.)

With more people (hopefully) shopping, you may want to take note of an emerging new trend, called ‘mass customization,’ as detailed by associate editor Lisa D’Innocenzo on the cover.

In Canada, Roots is helping to lead this trend with new lines of personalized handbags, jackets and knapsacks – even customizable bracelets – and a pre-Christmas visit to the Roots on Bloor in Toronto confirmed that they’re onto something. The bags and jackets were flying off the shelves and normally reserved, fairly well-heeled people were actually fighting over bags adorned with hard-to-find initials.

This customization trend can be seen in custom ringtones and accessories for cell phones, customized rims, exhaust systems and underfloor lighting for import cars, customized skins for computer applications, BMW’s wild assortment of Mini colour schemes and custom bundles from the telco and cable companies.

The main drivers behind the trend are the new computerized production and distribution processes that make mass customization possible, along with growing consumer ennui with mass production. But I think there’s yet another force at work here.

Ever notice how at Christmas time it’s the accounting department that always puts the most effort into decorating the office? It’s because everyone, no matter how dull, needs a creative outlet. And customizing your car is a way to express your personality in a creative way. When someone says, ‘nice car,’ it means something if you’ve spent hours working on it. Not so much if you have an off-the-rack beige Corolla.

It’s nice to see all this creativity about, just as it was nice to see this year’s crop of RSP ads lighten up a bit. If things keep progressing in this direction, maybe we’ll see a bit more creativity (and a bit more spending) everywhere.

Because as with consumers, when marketers feel more safe and secure – when they’re no longer consumed with just holding on to what they got – then they too can afford to splurge now and then, to take a few risks. If that happens, I think everyone will be happier.

Duncan Hood, editor, dhood@brunico.com