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.
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.
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.
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?