If you ever need reminding of how quickly styles change, I highly recommend a quick trawl of the op-shops on K-Road. Find any fashion annual or cook book from the 1980s and marvel at the furnishings and just how much beige it was possible to fit into a single photo.
Some things, however, are immune to changes in fashion or design. The ingrained nature of human clannishness and status seeking is a constant; an innate desire that continues on and has been a pressure point for advertising since its inception. As advertisers, we know that if we can identify where people are increasingly looking for affirmation then we’ll have a much better idea of what we need to do to sell to them.
Looking for status, meaning or happiness in the possession of material goods was one of the defining constructs of the 20th century. The explosion of consumerism that took place across the second half of the century was unprecedented. Today, however, we find that consumers are starting to suffer from material saturation.
When we try to understand why that saturation point has been reached, the answer could change significantly based on your personal outlook. For some it could be a growing awareness of our carbon footprint and a desire to protect the planet. On a less conscious level, some would argue that today’s stable society has seen us climb through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to achieve a post-materialistic state. Whilst, on a more practical level, others would point to advances in technology that are now affording us the sort of options that were simply unavailable five or ten years ago.
While these are all factors in the shift, social media, and the immediacy of being able to reach your entire peer group in a single update, is arguably the most important factor of them all. Social media is no longer just another media channel; it is the stitching that holds together the fabric of our social lives and how we communicate has fundamentally altered how we choose to portray ourselves to others.
People are increasingly under pressure to put forward the most interesting digital version of themselves, one that is worthy of their friends’ attention and jealousy (gone are the days when ‘Todd is drinking a soda’ is an acceptable life update). With this pressure to provide an interesting life narrative becoming ever present, the value of unique, engaging and inherently shareable experiences has skyrocketed.
Social media is a better forum for documenting experiences than possessions and to share your creativity over your wealth. A trip to a unique eatery now confers more status than a new TV; a ticket to the gig that no one else knew about is more desirable than being the first one to own the latest, ever so slightly improved iteration of the iPhone.
For marketers, brands that can facilitate and help shape this digital sense of self for the better will be the ones the consumer is willing to enter into ongoing relationships with. And they will become top of mind and beloved.
As with all emerging trends, those fastest to react have been able to establish themselves a niche to play to this new consumer need. Sam Bompas founded his food artistry company Bompas & Parr in 2007. He describes their work as ‘flavour-based experience design and contemporary food designs’. Each of their events is more than just a reimagining of food; it’s a visceral experience that demands to be shared with others (and I would highly recommend exploring his work, with the takeover of the Selfridges rooftop a great place to start). “Everyone is an autobiographer nowadays. It’s like everyone is actively writing their own biography all the time,” he says. “Stories are becoming more important. In the ‘80s everyone wanted a fast car. Now they want a good story to tell”. He has hit upon a realisation that others are only just starting to cotton on, and we’re moving toward an experience economy.
In recent years the idea of advertisers needing to act as storytellers has been fashionable. The question to ask today, however, is whether it is more valuable to tell consumers a story they can buy into, or provide them with the means to tell a story about the brand experiences we facilitated. Now, that the terms ‘viral’, ‘earned reach’ and ‘organic shares’ are on the tip of every client’s tongue, storytelling alone is no longer enough.
In Stuffocation, James Wallman states that the best place to look for evidence of this trend is the “human question of how should you and the rest of society live to be happy?” In the 20th century, he argues the answer was materialism. “At that time people found happiness, status and meaning in material things.” But, in our time of over-abundance, the real way to stand out is to seek out unique, unexpected experiences as you no longer have to wait to share them. In this always-connected world, you can skydive in sunny Queenstown while your friends in frosty London look on in real time.
In short, the shift from ‘owning stuff’ to ‘living experiences’ could be one of the most important cultural trends of the 21st century, a trend that is powered by the immediacy of social media and one that us marketers need to take note of if we want to continue sitting at the forefront of consumers’ thoughts.
- Neville Doyle is senior social and digital strategist at Colenso BBDO.
- This article originally appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing.