Science fiction writer Frederik Pohl said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. This sentiment shapes the new decade, as we manage both the positive and the negative network externalities of our organizations, technologies, and behaviors, from climate crisis to sustainability standards to ethical, legal, and human benefits and fallouts of the new economic models.
Applied to marketing and brand strategy, the “traffic jam” approach means a shift from the short-term focus towards taking into account longer-term social, cultural, psychological, economic and political dimensions of our brand and marketing actions. For example, a successful strategy addresses collective versus individual dimensions of consumer behavior and asks what taste communities do their brand messages and actions target, and how. It considers different models of social influence, often working simultaneously. It addresses contradictions in modern culture and in consumer behavior. It designs for inversions of existing cultural trends. It also shields our planet and appeals to the better angels of our nature. It distinguishes between mood (emerging) and trends (already happening) and debunks the cult of innovation and newness in place of something more sustainable and worth maintaining.
Problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and solutions create new problems that can be solved in their turn, noted physicist David Deutsch. Here’s to dealing with traffic jams of the next ten years.
“Repeat This” Culture. Mimicry is the mechanism of cultural and commercial production and distribution. Trends and ideas spread top-down in the past, through gatekeepers like editors or programming directors. Now they spread laterally, through imitation. This dynamic is perfectly captured in TikTok, where short videos become memes become trends, on repeat. Instagram Face, Airspace, streambaits and clickbaits, and infinite reboots and sequels are also the examples, shaped by combination of algorithmic personalization and social feedback loops. Things become popular because a lot of people like them, and then get copied, reproduced, and memeified. Just like with crickets or lightbulbs, our taste signals are harmonized, so all of us end up liking the same things, be it fashion. Interior design, content, or coffee shops. In the fragmented digital landscape, imitation is a mechanism of having a communal experience, and hence social cohesion. Entertainment-as-a-service is part of this dynamic, where, thanks to the immediate user feedback, our entertainment products are upgraded in real time. Implication for marketing is that copy of a copy works best, especially when optimizing for sharing and scaling.
Taste Communities. Simultaneously with harmonization of our cultural and commercial output, we have the rise of the everything niche. Apparently, niche grocery products, niche food and fashion magazines are thriving, as do hyper specialized gyms, intimate online spaces like group chats, and waiting in lines for streetwear drops. The keyword here is not uniqueness, but belonging. Just as the golden age of television brought the feeling of watching together, there’s a pleasure of consuming together. This commercial togetherness can emerge around identifying with a brand purpose or aesthetics or shared values and interests (like sustainability, gender equality, running). Social consumption enforces social interactions as much as product transactions and is a multidimensional setting for socializing, sharing, and shopping. Participating in a consumer collective is as important as buying a product, as streetwear enthusiasts already know well. Implications for brands are to target not an individual but their consumption collectives and to consider not just a consumer personas but their networks of social relations. This is done by creating commercial symbols that encourage a common sentiment, support social relations and a shared lifestyle. It’s also executed by creating multiple versions of creative that appeal to different taste communities, and by advertising not only on massive social networks, but also smaller, more intimate groups.
Click to Purchase. It also can be called “retail everywhere” or “everything is a shopping mall” — a friend’s social media feed, a video game, a piece of entertainment content, or the community we belong to. In all those settings, purchase is only one click away. For example, in China, influencers livestream their life for up to eight hours a day, interact with their fans, and sell their own products and/or products of their partner brands. Or, consider “user-generated commercials” on TikTok that people actually want to watch. We have on-demand everything, from at-home fitness market to rentals of clothes, makeup, and even relatives. Majority of our social, cultural, and psychological activities can be (and have been) commercialized — the trick is to think beyond traditional retail or service environments and interweave product purchase opportunities. Experience overload makes this “click to purchase” as a retail model even more important: in the same way that microsites did not add anything to either our shopping journey or our satisfaction, retail experiences often get in the way of purchase. Implications for brands are to invest in video, content, and in-game commerce and to focus on service as the key competitive advantage in demand-driven markets.
Aspiration Economy. This is the post-Veblen age: aspiration is decoupled from wealth and also from consumption. Signals of status today are the amount of likes, followers, and social influence one has; having a social mission or supporting a brand with a cause; being a busy professional; or running an ultra-race. Beyond the domain of the intangible and inconspicuous, our purchases are increasingly aspirational, extending to categories like TP or CPG. When we are buying green and non-GMO, and when we ask questions about where our items have been made, we display our status. Allbirds claims to be more sustainable than Nike, Away offers a more magical travel experience than Muji. Our choice of travel, interior design, food, and fashion creates a modern class distinction, based not on wealth, but on values and lifestyle. Once an oxymoron, commercial luxury is now mainstream. Streetwear is not a category, but a marketing strategy defined through limiting inventory, access, and cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge gives sneakers, art, travel destinations value; when we buy something, we are buying knowledge, and this knowledge is giving us status. In the aspiration economy, the narrative is the most valuable thing about a product; other sources of value are the limited product inventory, a collaboration, and materials innovation (e.g. use of recycled parachutes to make jackets) or functionality. Implication for brands is to double-down on creating narratives that enrich commodities and make them more desirable, and to employ value-based marketing to lend their consumers lifestyle status.
Less Work, More of Everything Else. Recent calls for 4-day-week and 6-hour work day increasingly counterbalances the equally recent worship of 996 work culture, preferred by Silicon Valley and the Chinese. The sentiment of more than one VC is that only working all the time can yield change in the world. The type of the world change has not been specified. Equally unaddressed are the impact that constant work has our happiness, productivity, and wealth. If the explosive growth of the wellness industry, astrology, CBD, learning to cook on Sicilian farms, and spending time in nature are any indicators, the tide is turning. On the hierarchy of needs, wellness and health seem to have overtaken the achievement: something that will only intensify. Dry January will become Dry January, February, March … as consumers have more non-alcoholic spirits options. Astrology is a 1.6 GBP market that seemingly sprang up as a rebellion agains automation. Nature is messy, serendipitous, and magical, and its rhythms are non-linear, cyclical, and organic — a far cry both from the digital infrastructure and the copycat culture. Linked is low-impact consumerism, aimed at protecting whatever natural world we are left. Implication for brands is to start undoing the narrative that links business and achievement. There’s a story in intrinsic joy and purpose that comes from simply living one’s life and not rushing through it. Celebrate the force and mystery of slow living, and cultural capital, time, and privacy as the biggest social and personal achievements. Through their marketing, brands can alleviate our guilt of doing nothing through the same mechanisms they used to create it.