The future of ownership
There are major changes going on in the heads of European consumers that will have a significant effect over the next decade, according to Chris Middleton of Sociovision.
We are living through a fundamental mutation in attitudes to ownership. But like so many social revolutions before, this change is going largely unanalysed.
We are convinced that the very assumptions of the existing consumerist paradigm are increasingly out of synch with social reality. Several months ago, we set out to discover what is really going on in 21st century consumer society.
There is a complacency of Western thought that is too happy to believe that the fall of the Communist East represents the triumph of the market model, and that democratic capitalism, as it is understood in the anglo-saxon world, will now diffuse across the globe (terrorists notwithstanding).
This geo-political perspective is blind to radical grass roots movements transforming the heart of Western societies. Is the enemy of global capitalism actually within?
The Fifties heralded the era of mass consumption in the West where the triad of work/money/possessions formed the basis of respectable family life and social status. Much has been written about this "individual possession" paradigm and most contemporary market analysis simply seeks to unearth its new trends, fashions and fads. We hear about "identity morphing", "hyper wants", "tribal belonging" and "buying bulimia" as drivers to today's consumerist society.
But this paradigm is becoming passe and new life is burgeoning beyond this closed world of purchase, prestige and property rights.
Our monitoring of social trends across the globe shows a distinct move of parts of society to new models of attitudes and behaviour. Here are two examples of archetypes indentified by our research:
Light Lifers enjoy material possessions, it's just that they see no need at all to pay for them. In an era when so many of us have so much, their strategy of "beg, steal or borrow" is perfectly practicable. What counts for them is to be able to use things for more or less short periods of time; individual access is the door and networking the key.
The ramifications are considerable for consumer goods companies. Renting and leasing are frequent means to access although, borrowing, filching and sharing are even better. The idea of spending money to acquire an article frequently doesn't even enter Light Lifers' heads. Their philosophy of adaptive navigation means that being weighed down with long-term commitments and "forever possessions" is the last thing they desire.
Meanwhile, the Respectable Rebels are, to all intents and purposes, neo-Marxist in their attitudes and actions (although they might not recognise their philosophy as such). Having grown up in an era where bytes replaces atoms, the web is their new marketplace. Respectable Rebels barter, not buy; in the peer-to-peer world, what is virtual is virtually free. Don't speak to these downloaders about legality; this is a reactionary notion propounded by "fat cats" who have created the intellectual property laws themselves. This archetype believes in "rebel's law", where possessions are collective and where the "payment" for a transacation is the investment in the know-how concerning system configuration.
Other archetypes include:
Financially Challenged: necessity drives these people to access not possess. Hand-outs and rental are frequent means of accessing consumer society.
Freeloaders: a group of individuals for whom their high-powered network is the source of their wealth. They are parasitic consumers rather than purchasers; it is more important 'to seem' than 'to have'.
Image Actualisers: these people embed their identity within the things that they buy and use. Possessing beautiful things and tribal brands are necessary to morphing who they are as individuals.
Accumulators: people for whom acquisition brings social status, safety and hoped-for immortality.
Old Style Socialists: supporters of Marxist sentiments like 'all private ownership is theft', people with this leaning want collective ownership and public service to distribute wealth equitably.
Pre-Materialists: these are people who have never been fond of possessions,
emphasising a simpler, sometimes spiritual approach to life.
Post-Materialists: experiencing and being are the leitmotivs of this cluster who have gone beyond possessions and now "invest in lives". They do consume, of course, but always for "higher motives and ethics".
A Systemic Analysis
The above insights drawn from our analysis of the future of ownership merely scratch the surface. We also distinguished three fundamental philosophies beyong today's commonplace "individual possessions" paradigm: Collective Access, Collective Possessions and Individual Access.
Our conviction is that with so much riding on the uninterrupted and unmolested continuation of market capitalisation, and so much attention paid to expanding this model globally, businesses are at huge risk of being blindsided by evolutions in their midst.
Billions of pounds are spent by marketers annually digging their hole deeper and trying to find new niches. And what if the hole turned out to be in the wrong place? The recorded music industry is one of the first to be wrong-footed by the changing face of ownership but in a world where "free" increasingly is assumed and deep discounting blurs price benchmarkes, all sectors are at risk of a wholesale reappraisal of "value". Retailers and consumer goods companies have to understand the tectonic social shifts underway and plan how to reconfigure as a consequence.
For more on the effects of social change on marketing, visit the Sociovision website at www.sociovision.com.
Sociovision are a European research-based consultancy, specialising in understanding, measuring, interpreting and anticipating social change. They have 50 years' experience looking at social dynamics for companies such as L'Oreal, Nokia, Virgin Atlantic and Tesco.
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