2013-09-20

The Brands Of The Future Will Help You Consume Less

Right now, companies get by by pushing more and more stuff we don't need. But with data and personalization, they might earn our loyalty and dollars by giving us exactly what we do.

It is an article of faith in mass marketing that more consumption is good. Marketers focus on increasing penetration and frequency--selling to more people, more often--as ends in themselves, and research consumer attitudes to everything from packaging design and pricing to the position of products on shelves to do it. Brands help them to do this more effectively by making things attractive and easy to identify and playing on unconscious desire.

So we quite often consume more than we need of the wrong things, which wastes money, time, and the world’s resources. For example, it is estimated that Americans throw away 20 pounds of food per person per month, restaurants in China throw away enough food to feed 200 million people a year and we send hundreds of millions of mobile phones to landfill annually. Not just that, but potato chips and sweetened drinks, among other convenience foods, make us more fat than any other products . So unthinking mass consumption, and the brand marketing that drives it, has to change before stuff runs out and we end up floating around in hover chairs like the future humans in Wall-E.

What if brands were able to help us consume less, not more?

In the future, brands will still sell dreams, but will also provide tools for a better reality. We have the technology today to track exactly what we consume, when we consume it and how much it costs – individually and collectively. Branded products and services are increasingly connected, as are the people that use them, so individual brands and the companies behind them can learn how they are being used.

Retail banks now offer services that allow you to track your history and see exactly how you have spent your money, which provides an unprecedented level of insight for the banks and builds customer loyalty. Fitness ecosystems like Nike Fuelband and Fitbit track and share your levels of physical activity on a real-time basis. Insurance companies have been offering telematics to peg premiums to actual usage for years in car insurance.

Major organizations now report exactly what environmental and social impact their manufacturing processes and products have on the world--from CO2 emissions to waste and use of resources. And the major global retailers that provide most of the things we buy every day know exactly what they sell and who to, often building sophisticated loyalty schemes around that data. But, as you would expect, they tend to use it to recommend more consumption to us, not less.

This fragmentation will soon be a thing of the past and consumers will increasingly be able to join up their diverse personal data sources--levels of activity, spending, location, consumption--to create lifestyle dashboards that provide real-time information on what they are using, where it is from and the impact it is having on the world around them. I will be able to measure how many soft drinks I have, how much sugar they contain, and what this means for my calorific intake. Combine this with basic measures of health and well-being--my blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, family medical history and levels of activity and my consumption choices will start to be framed not by marketing, but by a real understanding of how my consumption affects me and everyone else. Not just generally, but at the point of purchase and consumption. This data then becomes an asset to the consumer that they can optimize and sell to service providers.

Where do brands fit into this?

Instead of trying to blindly increase penetration and frequency, future brands will help consumers understand how much they consume, and what this means for their health, wealth and happiness. My favorite pizza brand will know how many times I have enjoyed its meat feast this month and let me know if I should try a healthier alternative when I reach my pre-agreed limits.

Instead of allowing me to overspend on my monthly mobile phone tariff every month, my mobile brand will calibrate my bill to my actual usage in real time, reducing as well as increasing the amount I spend based on personal activity not averages. My gym brand will only charge me when I use its facilities, but also find ways to help me exercise more based on my personal location, levels of activity and health, as well as connecting me to other members who can encourage me to visit more frequently--attending to my overall fitness and wellbeing, not just my hours using its equipment.

My favorite retail brand will build a personal shopping cart for me based not only on what I have bought in the past, but how much food I have thrown away, whether food is in season and available from local sources, as well as showing product alternatives bought by similar customers who have my desired body weight or health profile. It will also help me to reduce my household waste and environmental impact by recommending products with less packaging and brands that have a lower carbon footprint.

Loyalty will earn insights and a better holistic life, not just discounts that encourage more consumption. My favorite car brand will allow me to access any model I like when I need it and only pay for the time I use. And because ownership will shift from me as a consumer back to the automotive company, it will take care to fully recycle its machines--reusing the raw materials that made it to create new cars, rather than committing them to landfill.

Less Will Build Loyalty

Brands have always been a promise of quality and addressing personal needs and this is how they build loyalty--people want to recreate previous good experiences and brands help them to do it easily. In the future, this quality of experience will depend on helping people to understand and manage how much they consume, not just offering pleasure, efficacy and consistency. As they do this, not only will they deliver the great experiences we want, they will also help us to reduce waste, improve our health and be more conscious of the impact our consumption has on the world around us.

This will make us more loyal to brands, not less, because we will depend on them as vital inputs to our quantified selves. And it will make sure that corporations continue to make money and grow sustainably by providing things that genuinely improve our quality of life, rather than just selling us too much of stuff we don’t need.

Because it costs them more to sell things that are wasted, and they might find that people are prepared to pay more for less, saving them money on raw materials, packaging and distribution that simply are not necessary--"concentrated" washing detergents being the prime example in mass market products today.

But the key to this future is the creation and management of the dashboard itself. Who will we trust to aggregate this information, interpret it and store it on our behalf? For example, would I allow a food brand access to my health or financial information so it can design better food for me?

The unspoken contract between people and the brands they love will need to be more explicit – I trust you with my data and you have my best interests at heart in return. If you don’t, the contract breaks down and brand loyalty is broken. The most obvious candidates for this kind of trust are the current aggregator brands--the search engines, the multi-brand retailers, the software service providers--brands that exist to help us get access to multiple products, services and information, we depend on every day, and are increasingly personalizing their services around individual customer needs and data.

So what will our future consumption look like? Supermarkets will deliberately sell us fewer products in smaller packages. Automotive brands will stop selling us cars and start selling us access to mobility services. Financial services brands will help us to spend less money within our means. Soft drinks brands will sell us fewer sparkling beverages. Insurance brands will charge us lower premiums based on our individual behavior, not actuarial tables. All in the interests of building the loyalty that comes from being understood and not trying to manipulate us into using more than we want or need. And one brand will bring it all together to drive the balance.

The question is, which brand will you choose to do it?

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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15 Comments

  • jottman

    Less as more is already here. It's bubbling up all over the world. My firm is trying to capture best practices at http://www.WeHateToWaste.com Just starting to tap the unmet needs and opportunities for innovation. I invite entrepreneurs, businesses, Govs and NGOs to join us.

  • Mathieu Provencher

    I personally think that the idea of "treating customers like babies so they don't have to use their brain to make decisions" is totally wrong. I like the progress but the disempowerment of the customer will be a big society problem in the next years because everyone needs to make their personal decisions and not rely on Big Brand ones. People will think less, companies will guide their customers like they're babies and make big money with cheaper products. Great! What's next? We all gonna wake up in a society of brainless bodies if this is the future..

  • emailedanonymously

    There is too much information to keep track of. That is why people will want this. Look at soda, The general public knew nothing about how bad all that sugar would be, or that it was in there, let alone what the heck methylimidazole or bisphenol A or phenylalanine etc. The average consumer doesn't know, or have the time to learn about the myriad of things they would need to know. How about pink slime in meat? Or, away from food, how maybe they don't need that specific car (although advertising says you do) or that jeans are designed to wear out in a year (they are)? Sure you can always do research, yes, but you can't all the time and in every instance. Business produces and consumers consume. Business wants us to consume as much as possible. It is that simple. Now, back to food as the example, restaurants that at least TRY to offer healthier food (and make that part of their marketing to let you know) are a good thing. Places like Bgood or Chipotle are far better to eat at than McDonalds. They aren't perfect but I would love for that trend to continue. And it will. First for the rich (Google macrobiotic restaurants) then for the middle, but probably never for the poor. What this article talks about is inevitable as long as the consumer wants it more than they can be tricked into any other avenue of consumption food or otherwise...

  • Guest

    "So we
    quite often consume more than we need of the wrong things" 
    I spend a lot of time thinking about this. It's become clear that the majority
    of our patterns of consumption are broken and at times detrimental to our
    quality of life. I think consumers have reached a tipping point in which
    they're exhausted by irrelevant/unnecessary consumption. Whether or not this
    tipping point manifests itself via the instances described in the article, I
    think it's definitely clear that people are seeking more sustainable,
    efficient, and purposeful consumption and are willing to pay a premium to do
    so.

    This kind of shift is pervasive and I often think about it in terms of how
    information is delivered to individuals. We spend hours each day sifting
    through different apps, feeds, and web browsers in search of whatever
    information we require. In the process, we end up consuming an abhorrent amount
    of irrelevant information. This kind of delivery can have the effect of
    compromising productivity, splitting concentration, and bogging down consumers.
    Inspired by this thinking, I came across a startup operating outside of
    Montreal that is striving to change the way information is delivered to us,
    ultimately making it more intelligent, responsive, and relevant to each
    individual user. The concept is pretty cool. They're about to launch in beta
    and they seem to be thinking exactly along the lines explored in this article. (http://dashbookapp.com/lab/#co... Interesting stuff!

  • slevasseur

    "So we quite often consume more than we need of the wrong things"

    I spend a lot of time thinking about this. It's become clear that the majority of our patterns of consumption are broken and at times detrimental to our quality of life. I think consumers have reached a tipping point in which they're exhausted by irrelevant/unnecessary consumption. Whether or not this tipping point manifests itself via the instances described in the article, I think it's definitely clear that people are seeking more sustainable, efficient, and purposeful consumption and are willing to pay a premium to do so.

    This kind of shift is pervasive and I often think about it in terms of how information is delivered to individuals. We spend hours each day sifting through different apps, feeds, and web browsers in search of whatever information we require. In the process, we end up consuming an abhorrent amount of irrelevant information. This kind of delivery can have the effect of compromising productivity, splitting concentration, and bogging down consumers. Inspired by this thinking, I came across a startup operating outside of Montreal that is striving to change the way information is delivered to us, ultimately making it more intelligent, responsive, and relevant to each individual user. The concept is pretty cool. They're about to launch in beta and they seem to be thinking exactly along the lines explored in this article. (http://dashbookapp.com/lab/#co... Interesting stuff!

  • Guest

    "So we quite often consume more than we need of the wrong things, which wastes money, time, and the world’s resources. " This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that the majority of our patterns of consumption are rigged in a way that at best doesn't make sense and at worst is detrimental to our quality of life. Whether or not the instances explored in this article manifest themselves exactly so, I think it's becoming clear that we are on the verge of a shift in terms of our patterns of consumption. More and more people are craving more mindful products that optimize living and are willing to pay a premium for them. 

    I think that such a shift in consumption will be truly pervasive. For example, consider the way information is delivered to us every day. We spend hours in various apps and web browsers sifting through a seemingly endless reservoir of data. In the process, our mind is bogged down by an abhorrent amount of irrelevant information and distractions that compromise our productivity and peace of mind. This kind of thinking led me to discover different kinds of information aggregating platforms. A startup operating out of Montreal seems to be thinking exactly along these lines (http://dashbookapp.com/lab/#co.... Considering how broken the way in which we consume information is, it will be interesting to see how information platforms are revolutionized in the future.

  • Mike Williams

    I believe brands have both an opportunity and an ethical responsibility to facilitate less consumption. An important distinction though: this isn't THE  future; it is just one possible future. There are many other possible, but less beneficial futures. The likelihood of this future you describe depends on the willingness and courage of those who create and manage organizations and brands to apply this idea. 

    Technology that aggregates and quantifies our lives is a tricky proposition. I believe most of us already have a good sense of our weaknesses and failings, and turn a blind eye to them. More detailed reporting may have an incremental benefit (though extremely helpful in areas like healthcare) but better carrots and sticks based on that data are the real opportunity for most brands. (This of course ignores that we live in an age where the bubble of trust in institutions and organizations continues to deflate while the amount of collected personal data grows. Brands need to build credibility in the organizations behind them, before even thinking of leveraging trust to sustainably aggregate so much personal data.)

    But I believe the larger point is that brands need to better prioritize end-user's and humanity's best interest within their products and actions. Increasing end-user benefits at what may be a (perceived) cost to profits won't feel natural for most organizations. But applying user-experience principles like many described in this article to brand experiences and provide incentive for a better future might be a way to take advantage of already corporate-friendly methodologies that prioritize user behavior and motivations to increase value for everyone.

    It's a big idea and a good one, but it certainly won't be an easy one. 

  • Tom Foremski

    We have an economy and a political establishment that requires we spend more and use more every year otherwise we "stagnate." Brands aren't people they are inventions of a business and each business has a fiduciary duty to increase sales and profits. 

    Businesses focus on green packaging, for example, when its the things in the packaging that need to be eliminated if we are to "save" a planet or even our neighborhoods. But there's no business in no business. 

    You are right in terms of we need to consume less but that won't be because of brands.

  • Mike Williams

    I've heard corporations only have a fiduciary responsibility to the corporation - not specifically to shareholder value. Many people interpret that responsibility to mean shareholder value must be increased, but that is just one interpretation. There's a great article on this here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/...

    And regardless of the corporation's legal responsibilities, consumers are increasingly voting with their dollars in ways that support other values-driven bottom lines. This opens up a lot of possibilities for corporations to re-align their idea of corporate purpose to be more in line with the original idea of a corporate charter (a charter for a specific purpose that benefits the state or its people). As Drucker pointed out, profit is the outcome, not the purpose of good business.

    How do we change the popular notion from "corporations must increase shareholder value" to "corporations have an opportunity to have a more meaningful role in humanity"?

  • FluxAppeal

    This might seem optimal in a magical kingdom..one where corporations could be trusted, but I don't really want a gaggle of businesses making decisions about what's best for me. Being in the advertising business, I admit I'm pretty immune to the mindless steering, but I sure hope people still want to think for themselves because what's proposed here is a bit scary. 

  • Aassia Haroon Haq

    This is a really compelling post. I've often thought about how technology has altered our concepts around consumption. When consumption is not just about physical goods, but also experiences, the very smart curating of the consumption experience -- the less is more idea talked about here - is where discriminating consumers will assign value. 

    Moving from Gourmand to Gourmet is good for us as a society, personally and for a sustainable future. We should assign a higher value to goods that are developed to delight at a deeper level than just a hungry search for mass repeats, and ugly packaged volume. 

    Love this article on so many levels, but especially as a CMO working in an industry where we spend alot of time thinking about the future. Thank you Tom! 

  • Andrew St. Juste

    I respect your opinion and the premise of this article however I believer there is one factor you aren't considering...capitalism. Brand aren't giving us more for less with the detergent example they are providing smaller packages and less materials for more money. The future CEOs won't charge you $20 if you are already paying $40. It will come to a point where this connected environment does happen but you just have to pay an additional $9.99 for its services.
     
     

  • Richard Campbell

    Well, this already happening. Smart phones and tablets are taking the place of watches, cameras, TVs, stereos, cassette recorders, records, CDs, DVDs, VCRs, computers, flashlights, pen, paper, day timers, books and yes, phones. Apple and Google are leading the way on this.

    Car to Go is the car as a service.