Ruth Marshall-Johnson | Cultural Researcher
August 14, 2020

InterviewsRuth Marshall-Johnson | Cultural Researcher

Meet Ruth - she's a cultural researcher based in London, with some extensive travel thrown in. A pioneer of prioritizing culture in business, she helped spearhead WGSN's advisory service and has advised clients ranging from LVMH and BMW to Coca-Cola.

Ruth At Work

What are the industries you think have the most exciting futures ahead? (Particularly in terms of the potential for social good)

Smart fabrics, digital image production (across all sectors), AI design and services you can personalise through machine learning are going to see some really exciting times. Innovation happening around sustainable packaging and production is also exciting – check out the work of Lucy Hughes who won the 2019 international James Dyson award for a new plastic alternative, called MarinaTex, that’s made from fish off-cuts.

If fashion can get their s**t together the industry could be transformative!! 

In terms of potential for good, ethical tech has the opportunity to make huge social gains. Whether that’s tech designed to broaden our understanding of the world and access to information or better, more equitable practices within the tech industry. I am also a Founding Director of a consultancy called Even where we specialise in chatbots that educate on social issues on the internet such as online harassment, unconscious bias and the intersection between sustainability and feminism. I’m happy to say corporations are taking note and starting to build ethical tech into their systems, using it to hold themselves accountable.

Are there are any actionable ways entrepreneurs & business people can use trends and future forecasting?
  • Use social innovation trends to audit your business practices and make sure you’re in the business of empowering, not limiting, people
  • Use design innovation trends to stay relevant and produce products and communications that people are truly excited by
  • Use tech innovation trends to make sure you’re being as efficient as possible, wasting as little as possible and serving people with the best possible product

Trend work allows you to imagine the context of future work places, public spaces, homes etc. and then see more clearly what products and services need to be in those spaces. Trends researchers and trend frameworks are essential tools for VC’s, start-ups and businesses because there is so much information to filter today. Much like an accountant or a marketing specialist I think trend mentors are an essential service in business today.

What are your thoughts on mass cultural changes you’re seeing right now, and how do you think they impact business?

The change that we’re seeing now is the sharing of information and organised resistance to injustice (racism, misogyny and systemic oppression etc) but also the ability for people to hold businesses accountable. All organisations will be impacted by this in one way or another. It won’t all be positive though – I think we’ve got some seriously unpleasant culture wars ahead of us. 

A brand I’ve worked with who are consistently aware of this are adidas – they’ve long been a pioneer for innovation that delivers on social, human needs as well as product. Clients from big banks to beauty businesses to hotels are starting to think seriously about this though – we help them explore the commercial AND social potential in ethical, gender-smart behaviour.

What 3 questions can marketers ask to better understand their target audience? 
  • Who are you really speaking to – do you have a clear, well researched, relevant, contemporary target in mind?
  • How could your product really help them – how is it relevant to them? What power does it give them?
  • What assumptions have you made and are you applying your own lived experience to decisions about other people?

Ruth After Hours

What key things got you to where you are today?

There’s really only one answer: Reading! 

As much as possible, from as many different sources and writers as possible, in multiple formats. Language and the communication of ideas is essential to my life and seeking out knowledge and trying to understand what makes us tick has underpinned everything I’ve done. Unsurprisingly my business is called Do Your Research! 

At the moment you must read:

What advice would you give to your younger self?
  • Don’t waste time on people who aren’t loyal, truthful, thoughtful and supportive. And be the same in return! 
  • You can design your life exactly how you want it – and you don’t have to stick to the plan
  • Get financially literate as soon as possible and pay particular attention to pensions from a young age – especially if you’re a woman, only 52% of women are adequately saving for retirement! There are quite a few young, female financial advisors on social media these days that are changing the conversation, as well as good online courses, and I’d say don’t be afraid to talk about this stuff with your friends and pass on what you’ve learnt. Why should we feel so uncomfortable talking about how to make the most out of money! 
  • Don’t shy away from conflict – learn how to understand it and navigate it 
  • Don’t take anything personally – honestly, everyone is dealing with their own demons and they’re not really thinking about you
  • Travel but don’t be a tourist. Whenever possible find someone to be your guide – it might be a friend of a friend or it might be a paid for service but having someone subtly show you the things that only locals know is invaluable. Preferably someone who likes talking because you’ll need to ask ALL the questions! If that’s not possible just get out and walk or cycle and look around at the real people, real food, back streets, residential streets and off-the-beaten track galleries and arts centres
  • Ask ALL the questions – of yourself and others
  • Keep reading
Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by artists and their all-consuming need to be creative – the ones who listen to their gut and their subconscious. 

Personally I love abstract art – in particular Frank Bowling, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler but there are many, MANY works of colour and texture that get me. Oh and textile artists! There’s a brilliant quilt maker called Nancy Crow who whose colour awareness is amazing.

What outfits and styles make you feel the best day to day?

I absolutely get energy and power from black clothes. The deepest black I can find with gold jewellery – never fails to empower me even if the shapes are super simple. If I could afford it I’d wear all Yohji Yamamoto, Rik Owens and Commes des Garcons!

What’s your favourite quote to live by?

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” – Toni Morrison 

Toward a Racially Just Workplace by Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J Mayo
Toward a Racially Just Workplace by Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J Mayo

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