The 1990s saw the rise of a new type of consumer which represents a significant social change and which reflects a more confident but more cynical consumer. This change isn’t just represented in the way consumers buy goods and services; it is increasingly evident in culture and politics. There is a real possibility that the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit are a direct result of this shift in consumer behaviour.
For much of the 20th century, consumers were often viewed as conformist, differential children. This status was a direct result of the hardship of events from the 1920s to the 1950s. During that period, consumers faced the hardship of the depression that resulted from the Wall Street Crash; they experienced the rationing, shortages and hardship of World War Two; and in Europe they faced the significant costs of rebuilding the damage caused by the war. Austerity was the norm and that drove conformity.
In the UK, there was rationing until the mid-1950s and successive governments nationalised what they saw as key industries. Nationalisation clearly saved some industries from oblivion but it often resulted in a lack of consumer choice and terrible service standards. UK consumers had no choice but to accept what those nationalised industries gave them.
For example, in the UK, up until the mid-1970s, if you wanted a telephone, you could only get one from the nationalised Post Office and you had little choice of design or colour.
Prior to 1950, there was no such thing as the teenager. Prior to that date, when you left school you went straight from being a child to being an adult. You wore the same style of clothes as your parents, you listened to the same radio programmes and your choice of music was classical or jazz.
Compare that world to now. Consumers have a vast variety of goods and services from which to choose and switching is easy.
During the austerity of the middle part of the 20th century, social views were one of conformity. People talk about the greyness of 1950s Britain. Everything seemed drab and ordinary. Your life was effectively planned. You lived with your parents until you got married. Society expected 2.4 children, a Morris Minor and a three-piece suit.
If you listen to political interviews of that time, it is astounding how differential journalists were of those in authority. Searching questions were rare and if asked, would be treated as contemptuous; as if the interviewer was attacking the politicians honour. It was a cultural norm that elected officials and government ministers were your ‘betters’.
For a minority, the Swinging Sixties represented a casting off of this social and cultural straightjacket. However, for the majority of UK residents, those outside London’s cultural fulcrum, the greyness of the 1950s remained until well into the 1970s.
L.P. Hartley summarised it nicely in his 1953 novel, The Go Between:
“The past is another country, they do things differently there”.
In the 1990s, the UK shifted from a state where austerity was the norm to an environment of affluence. Whatever your political views it is clear that Britain was a wealthier place after the Thatcher premiership. Consumers expectations changed. They moved from a position of conformity to one of individualism. They expect choice and extremely high levels of customer service.
During the austerity between the 1930s and the 1950s, consumption was about survival. Consumers purchased what they needed to survive. Today, they buy what they need and what represents their personality. The mindset of consumers has shifted up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards self-actualisation.
There is another side to the move towards individualism, consumers are becoming increasingly cynical. They are less trustful of authority and less trustful of advertising.
This is clearly shown in our attitude to both journalists and politicians It is why the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald trump aim to present themselves as anti-authority and not part of an elite.
Of course, take one look at the credentials of many of these politicians, and they couldn’t be more establishment. Farage was privately educated at Dulwich College, he is the son of a city trader and is a former merchant banker. Trump inherited his billions from his father; he went to select schools. Since childhood Trump has lived a life of luxury, private jets, limousines and gold-plated lifts. Both these individuals have nothing in common with the ‘man in the street’.
Like Trump’s election, Brexit is a symptom of the increased cynicism. I guarantee that the vast majority of those who voted to leave the EU had not a clue of about what the EU did, how it operated or its structures; what they wanted was to express their cynicism of politics in general and to give the government a kicking.
So old style consumers were constrained by income, limited choice and the availability of goods. The new consumer is cash rich, has almost unlimited choice. Compared to the last century, consumers now face a significant increase on calls on their time. They are time short so need answers quickly and efficiently delivered.
Increasingly, social tribes are breaking down. For example, in the 1950s you supported your local football team. If you lived in Manchester, you supported United of City. In the early 1960s, if you were under 23, you were a mod or a rocker. Now Manchester United have fans located all over the world and there is a proliferation of musical and cultural genres. Where once you were part of an individual cultural tribe, it is now the norm for an individual to be a member of many tribes and to act in a number of social roles. It is now almost expected for someone to be a wife, mother, manager, co-worker, charity campaigner, councillor, simultaneously.
The increased expectations of consumers means that businesses need to understand consumers better. They need to directly attend to those consumers needs. If they do not, they are doomed to failure.
Increasingly consumers are using their purchasing power to regain some control over their lives and to alleviate their frustrations resulting from hectic modern lives. Most see their life as more uncertain than that of their parents. Their buying habits have become a prescription against such frustration. Uncertainty has also weaponised nostalgia, a critical element in Brexit. Consumers have greater vulnerability; they feel anything can happen at any time.
It is also notable that consumers increasingly use purchases to ‘cheer themselves up’. This is particularly notable amongst the group described as ‘Millennials’.
It is also noticeable that consumers expectations of service levels are outstripping product satisfaction. Clear evidence of a focus on the experience of purchases not simply a focus on product features.
So what are the lessons for marketing strategy:
- You need to reconnect with your customers. Do not fall back on traditional demographic categories such as age, ethnicity and income. Marks and Spencer has struggled over recent years trying to match its products to the new image consumers see themselves as having. Discounters such as Aldi and Lidl saw a big rise in ‘middle class’ customers.
- You need to become better at directing messages to an increasingly cynical consumer audience who have immediate access to communication technology. Consumers can now express their satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, instantly; and too a mass audience. It is noted that highly critical reviews can be far more influential than formal advertising campaigns. Consumers are becoming smarter.
- There is now a focus on creating ‘street buzz’. Increasingly companies are getting better at selecting and using selected opinion formers rather than developing advertising hype. For example, Ugg, the sheepskin boots manufacturer, don’t do much in the way of traditional advertising, they rely on consumer advocacy, appropriate brand advocates and ‘superfans’. To develop buzz, Ugg employ bloggers and vloggers, who don’t just promote the brands footwear but talk about other associated issues such as music, art and fashion. Through the spread of social media and the internet, there is an increased focus on viral marketing.
This law of increasing individuality has resulted in greater competitive intensity. Markets are becoming more competitive. As a response, there is an over-riding need to individualise products and to tailor services (the product surround) to consumer’s needs.
This is the development of ‘micro-segmentation’; the impact of which on many businesses is increased price transparency and a focus on ensuring that consumers feel empowered. Businesses now face pressures to cut costs and maintain profit margins whilst not raising prices. A common result is product downsizing.
Businesses also need ‘complicated simplicity’. Yes that is an oxymoron. As a single consumer can belong to a wide range of ‘tribes’, you cannot typecast. You cannot put consumers in boxes of generic description. Increasingly businesses created individual customer profiles and design products with those profiles in mind.
Much of the success of Amazon has been the tailoring of offers to individual consumers. Yes, Amazon used new technology to disrupt the bookselling market but now they use increasingly sophisticated algorithms to tailor their product offers. they are continually improving this process.
The rise of the new consumer has huge implications for marketing strategy. You need to supercharge your marketing agility to meet consumers demands and to meet their increased expectations.