Consumption is a means of communication and communication is becoming more important. More and more is being consumed in an apparently unending growth process. But the interesting thing is just as much how the composition of this consumption changes, how its importance for consumers changes, and how the consumer situation changes. Here are some ideas on the consumption of the future.
By Søren Steen Olsen
I had originally thought to write an article that could create an overview of consumption in the future, but I have rejected the idea. Reluctantly I had to admit that I unfortunately lack some of the prerequisites to do so - an overview among other things. Instead I will present some more or less unconnected ideas on the consumption of the future.
In step with more consumer possibilities opening up and more and more goods and services becoming economically accessible for more and more people, we would expect consumption to become a simple banality. That a fleeting and trivial attitude to consumption, a so-called use-and-discard mentality, would arise. But this is not the case. Precisely because of the many possibilities for the individual and the growing importance of communicating our individuality, consumption becomes more important. As a means of communication.
Most people imagine that the choice of education, profession and partner, for example, are some of the great significant choices in life. And that consumption does not raise existential questions to nearly so great a degree. Nothing could be further from reality. How you dress, where and how you live, what taste in music, films and literature you have, what leisure pastimes you enjoy - all communicate who you are, allow you access to some circles and exclude you from others. The trick of piecing together one's consumption in the right way will therefore be of great importance in the future. Also for how big a success you are in the job market and in the partner market. But this may not even be the most important; consumption will become an extension of the consumer, a manifestation, a totally personal expression for him or her.
Consumption counselling will therefore be one of the great growing lines of business in the future. We see it already in everything from counselling in beauty care and colour choice to indoor architects. In the USA there are consultants that counsel people in what to do in their leisure time. Women's magazines have always given this type of advice - what we in the old days called "fashion fads". But now it has spread to other genres, media and target groups. In recent years men's magazines, for example, have rapidly been gaining ground.
In the future we will directly and indirectly be occupied much more with consumption than with production. We can see this as a result of physical production becoming a banality; it is not how we should produce but what we should produce. Or we can see it as a result of consumption becoming one of the most important means of realizing our personality, identity and social life. Both because we can afford more and have more choices and because modern people are not automatically part of the tradition-bound, predefined social communities. We choose and define them ourselves - and we have to; we cannot choose not to.
Pavarotti-consumption; Why make do with less than the best? The globalization of market consumption means that some brand goods will be totally dominant. When all the world's supply of goods are available to the consumer, why then make do with second best? When hi-fi technique, TV, CDs and the Internet can bring the three tenors directly into your sitting room, moreover bringing only the very best songs - why make do with less? When it is possible to order via the global-embracing Internet from whichever supplier of whatever product or service and have it delivered directly to your home address, why make do with less than the best in the world?
How is the position "best in the world" achieved? By having quality - and by being there where the decision about what quality is is made, i.e. in the mind of the consumer. It is marketing and brand product position that will be the deciding factors. This is where the enormous large-scale operation advantages are. At one point we thought that the Internet would reduce large-scale operation advantages in marketing because it enables the customer to search independently for goods and services that are specially adapted to precisely his/her own individual needs.
But step by step, as the net becomes more widespread and - not least - more commercialized, it looks as though it will on the contrary strengthen large-scale operation advantages. It is to a high degree a question of getting the consumers' attention and trust so as to emerge from the tidal wave of information that washes in over the consumers.
Martini once had an advert with the slogan "Because you know it's right". Products with the predicate that you can be certain of their quality - i.e. you will not be judged as being "uncool" or excluded and you will not be cheated - will not only be able to conquer the local market but also the whole world.
This requires us to speak the global language. We imagine Hollywood films as being distinctly American, but the big film studios consciously avoid too obvious American references. Hollywood's greatest global successes are those that do not specifically refer to American environments, those that are not characterized by long and very fast exchanges in local jargon, but which strike universal emotional strings and employ magnificent visual effects. Titanic, Star Wars or Terminator are examples of these. The budgets, the media coverage, the marketing and the famous movie stars - are all aimed at making the audience feel they can't possibly go wrong if they buy a ticket for this particular show.
The biggest names cover the global market and displace money and attention from more local names. European films have been ousted on the home markets during the past decades. The difference in salaries between the best paid Hollywood stars and the next best paid has increased tremendously during the latest decades. Is this because the best have become so much better actors? No. It is because they have a global market at their disposal, a market that the next best do not have. Achieving a breakthrough has been awarded a far higher bonus because this, among other things, will almost by definition be a global breakthrough.
Luciano Pavarotti is a good singer. But is he the best? Certain connoisseurs will probably say that Giacomo Aragall is a better singer. "Who's that?" one can almost hear the, in his/her own opinion, usually well-oriented reader ask. He is indeed an Italian world-class tenor and he is a fantastic singer. But he hasn't made a breakthrough.
A by now classic Danish example of consumer goods that has made a breakthrough by means of the global language is the chewing gum manufacturing firm Dandy's success in Russia. Dandy had great success with a TV-advert, among other things. It featured a female American motorcycle police officer in a typical American desert landscape - well-known from innumerable western films. Danish chewing gum is simply being sold to Russian consumers by means of American symbols. The characteristic rock formations in Nevada have become a universally understandable global icon; a word in the visual global consumer language.
Many consumer products are in global competition. This is exaggerated to an extreme degree by the Internet. There are very few consumer products and concepts that only have a "home market". Does a hot-dog stand have a home market? Or is it in competition with McDonald's?
It is dangerous to be in the global market if you are only "next best". A strategy that more and more will employ is to redefine their market. To find - or create - a niche where they are the best, maybe because they are the only one.
The Internet's effect on consumers can hardly be underestimated. The purchasing situation is already today markedly different when you are sitting at home in front of your computer and also have access to a global choice of all the products and goods imaginable. Added to this is the opportunity of entering into a dialogue with other consumers about given products and concepts. Payment can also take place over the net and many products, such as entertainment for example, can be delivered via the net, for others - the physical products - it will take a little longer.
But we have only just scratched the surface of the possibilities available in this development. This technology will guaranteed be used in the future to create simulated reality, both as product and consumer possibility in itself, and as a means of simulating consumer situations for any number of products. With Virtual-Reality technologies it becomes "as though you were there" for real - you can be surrounded on all sides and in three dimensions by virtual space. You can see how a piece of furniture will look in your room, how a pair of glasses or a blouse suits you, what it feels like to drive a car, what it's like to be in different hotels at different destinations - and even experience the local smells. And you will be able to be counselled by experts and enter into a dialogue with other consumers.
In the future, consumption on the Internet will be a much more intense and many-faceted experience.
A tendency that will become more and more apparent is that consumption is not actually paid for by the consumer. The best example of this is seen in the world of sports. TV-stations pay fantastic sums to ensure the rights to transmit sports events. The great sports stars are becoming even greater, and their unique talents are rewarded with greater and greater sums. There is no doubt that the consumption of sport as drama and entertainment has increased, and that still more resources are being directed into this field to stage still larger and more frequent events. But is it the consumers that pay? No. Ticket sales for matches represent only a minute part of the turnover. It is paid for by sponsors. TV-channels sell advertisement time, the great stars advertise for various products, there are advertisements everywhere in our field of vision. Naturally, the commercial sponsors do not do this merely for the sake of a pretty face. They pay for the spectators' attention. The great challenge for manufacturers is not to convince people to spend their money on their product, but that they should at all give it their attention. Because even though money becomes a more and more available commodity, the consumers' capacity for attention - their time and their ability to absorb - is constant.
The sponsor model is spreading in many directions. When we buy a weekly magazine, we get a novel thrown in. We can telephone free of charge, if we accept that the conversation is interrupted by adverts now and then.
Of all the methods the Internet could be financed by, sponsoring seems to be the one that is winning. It is a question of creating traffic on your home page so that you can sell advertisement space - or gain access to markets and sell your concepts. It is not the consumption of the home page that costs money, and the news media on the Internet have more or less given up the idea of being financed by user payment. But the sponsors are willing to pay if the home page is given enough attention. And this is created - paradoxically enough - in many cases through massive marketing and exposure in the traditional media.
Consumption is a social activity and the still more differentiated consumer choices and the still more individually oriented consumers emphasise this, as also described earlier. This means that consumer-based clubs or subcultures are created - whether it is mountain climbers, hip-hop dancers, Harley-Davidson owners or bridge players. And even though we are very individual as regards to our consumption, there's not much to shout about if no one else knows about it and understands the signals.
Individualism is far from always the same thing as that which in marketing theory was once known as being "governed from within". It is to choose one's own individual variant of the consumer pattern in the social club to which one belongs. Many of these clubs are centred around consumer activities. And with the Internet - and the jet plane - they become global.
In spite of individualization there is therefore an amazing similarity in people's priorities with regard to consumption. It is very much a case of social and cultural influences, i.e. we find a group we would like to be part of and we do as they do. There are many more possibilities for variation within the social and cultural themes nowadays. At the same time, it is becoming easier and easier to jump in out of the various groups. And it's no problem being a member of several clubs at the same time. We can even create our own individuality through the unique combination of social connections we are part of. For example, a banking consultant that is into Heavy Metal music, has an old farm in Sweden, plays chess and attends a cookery course on advanced French Cuisine - you know the type - but exactly how many of them are there?
There are no constraining demands regarding consistence or unity in the behaviour of the individual. We have to know when we are at a Heavy Metal concert and when we are advising customers at the bank. This points to the fact that consumption will to an increasing degree become a question of occasion. A few years ago, the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies launched the expression "atomism" to describe the consumer of the future who doesn't speculate in unity but jumps in and out of different consumer and identity roles.
But there is still to a high degree mass markets for clothing, entertainment, food and so on. The variation possibilities have made it almost even more important to keep our attention on the new "trends" so as to be able to participate actively in the ongoing trend "discourse".
There is also a surprising synchronism in consumption. A concrete illustration of this are the seasonal fluctuations. Year after year the retail turnover follows the same seasonal fluctuations that are totally predictable. At Christmas we spend a lot, in January very little.
And all kinds of fashions and fads take on with a surprising simultaneity that has inspired the idea of cultural "mems", i.e. small items of meaning, combinations of information that are copied from consciousness to consciousness in the same way that genes are copied from individual to individual in the reproductive process. Some mems do not take on, others spread at the speed of communication - faster and faster.
And when a certain mem - fashion or behaviour - has been sufficiently widespread, suddenly someone feels the need to express their individuality by deviating from it and are immediately copied - and we have the next trend.
We see therefore a tendency towards a foreshortened fad or fashion cycle. At the same time we would naturally expect less simultaneity and more localized fads when we consider the greater choice and increased individualism. But globalization pulls in the opposite direction, inviting still greater sections of the world population into the same "fad discourse". Much is dominated by America. There has been talk of McDonaldization, and global brand names such as Disney, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, CNN and Hollywood products are unarguably American. But there are also Chinese restaurants all over the world, and a phenomenon such as the Pizza Hut is of course American, but it is based on an originally Italian dish. Hybrids and new combinations of consumer expressions and possibilities arise and can be spread over the entire globe, literally at the speed of light.
"Me too" is still an effective sales pitch. Even in this individualization's day and age.
Consumption as a conception is usually connected to something pleasurable. It's nice to pamper yourself, to allow yourself something, to enjoy the benefits of the world. (And therefore also sinful - the natural reaction from the world's preachers of self-denial). Consumption is often understood as an activity that is influenced by the consumer's free and unconstrained choice between numerous possibilities. But it is in fact a very small part of the overall consumption that is free in this sense. The majority of consumption is tied up in what we could call necessary expenses. Not necessarily in an objective sense - because if it was only a question of sustaining life, it would be a very modest amount that was involved here. But subjectively necessary, i.e. consumption that we do not consider as being optional, "what we have to have". And this subjectively necessary consumption is to a high degree decided by the type of society that we live in, who we associate with, our family background and so on. In 1973, 26% of the American population regarded air conditioning in the home as a necessity. In 1996 this figure had risen to 51% (Schor, 1998). Can we live without a computer with access to the Internet? Maybe we still can - but it's getting more difficult. Half the population in Scandinavia and the USA already have the Internet today. Can we live without a TV? Telephone? Dishwasher? Mobile phone? Insurance? Or, from the irresponsible department: Holidays abroad? Of course we can. But we would constantly have to explain ourselves.
There are clear norms and expectations as to how we should live, especially if we are a family with children. Then there will be high demands from our surroundings - and naturally also a must from the family itself - that the children should have the right environment for growing up. And this environment is to a high degree defined by what people "usually do". We would prefer not to give our children a bad childhood.
This also influences a number of things such as the need for transport and therefore the need for a car, if not two cars. There must also be room in the budget for exiting outings and holidays abroad - as well as multi-media facilities and diverse children's fads. Families with children typically have large preliminary expenses, i.e. their consumption is to a high degree financed through loans. This means that the experience of consumption as being something characterized by freedom of choice is very limited. Instead we can feel bound hand and foot - even though it is our own choice; in principle we could very well have quite different priorities. But this is not often seen as being a real option.
Several years ago an international survey of how large an income people considered necessary to make them economically satisfied was made. The answer was universal: An income of twice the size would make people satisfied. And this applied to almost everyone, irrespective of whether their present income was high or low and also irrespective of cultural and national differences. The fixed consumer expenses tend to follow in the footsteps of every income increase and - at not least - make it necessary to uphold the same income also in the future. Prosperity then has increased, as has the standard of living. But not necessarily the experience of economic freedom.
Will we have unconstrained consumption in the future? Yes. But will we experience it as such? This is more doubtful.
Finally, it must be said that many of the above-mentioned tendencies are decidedly relevant for the rich countries. Alone the fact that in the rich countries 15% of the world's population account for 76% of the world's consumer expenses. Poor peoples' possibilities for consumption are so much less that they do not gain much attention in the debate on consumption development. On the other hand, there is so much greater scope and potential for their consumption to increase. This raises still more questions. Firstly: Will the poor countries catch up with the rich so that the great inequality that exists today is more or less "merely" a question of a backlog? And secondly: Will the poor countries follow the same consumption development patterns as the rich countries, so that the poor countries' future consumption patterns can be read in the rich countries' present patterns?
The global inequality is decreasing - mainly because of the development in India and China. And as far as the consumption pattern goes, there are many signs that it is developing according to a stylized universal model. Needs are met according to a kind of "necessary succession". It is followed by a simultaneous development of the social values and norms. Traditional lifestyles and values are left behind, more materialized lifestyles and values gain ground, ending up with post-material values. This is illustrated by newer global attitude surveys - the ambitious World Values Survey, among others. Many sociologists from Karl Marx to Daniel Bell have worked with the hypothesis of a general modernization process. And no doubt there is something in that. But at the same time studies show that traditional values and norms still stay alive and greatly influence the way in which modernization is expressed.
It must be pointed out that, while inequality is decreasing in the world in general, there are exceptions. If we look at the extremely poor countries, especially in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, it is going in the wrong direction. Consumption per inhabitant in these countries is 20% less today than it was in 1980 - at the same time as it has grown significantly in the world as a whole. This part of the world also stands out because it is the only place where there has not been a significant decrease in the number of undernourished. On the contrary, the UN calculate that there has been more than a doubling, from 103 million in 1970 to 215 million in 1990. Many people still fight against the oldest consumer problem in the world: To get enough to survive.
Juliet Schor: The Overspent American. New York 1998.
UN: Human Development Report 1998.
World Values Survey