What the hell should we sell now?
This thought may need re-visiting. I feel like it is ¾ of an idea that I haven’t puzzled out fully, but keen to get some input, to try and talk this out (and I am lacking an effective foil in the office…)
Some time back, I attempted an analysis of what it is exactly I do, working in advertising, and more specifically, as a planner. My very bad Marxist analysis essentially saw my function as the cholesterol-clogged, hardened artery-ed heart of the late capitalist industrial system, creating desires that means that people continue to buy things, keeping money circulating in the system.
Now I expect to be picked up on this by my economist friends, but despite financial hacks and politicians obsessing about growth or ‘economic output’, the rate of circulation is equally important. MV=PY indicates that amount of cash(M) times how fast it moves (V) is equal to economic output (Y) multiplied by price index (P). I also expect that glibly flitting over this rather fundamental equation may leave me open to further attacks, so maybe we may just take the above as an acknowledgment that I know what an ‘economy’ is and leave it at that. As far as this is relevant to my point, if the money moves faster, people feel richer, people need the money to be moving so that it can come to them, so that they can spend it. Belief that more money will come their way ( and yes… I know I am trying to draw analogous lines between the micro and the macro) means that they will spend more- consumer confidence- a crucial ingredient for the ‘confidence trick’ that is the market.
Society also has a hand in this, making us feel that we need to buy to self actualise- ‘keeping up with the Jones,’ the very idea of ‘status symbols’. So we exploit that, we leverage that toehold- people feel rich so they spend themselves poor to look rich. Products collaborate with business ( they, after all designed them), televisions break after 2 years with alarming alacrity, and the media are complicit to make sure that the next ‘new’ is always being dangled in front of us. What was wrong with the iPhone 3 anyway, what functionality does the 4 have that is going to seriously improve my quality of life, was it really what I had been missing? And for that matter, when is the 5 coming out!
This was something to think about as we spent our time still convincing people to enter into the same Faustian pact, it is after all their own rapaciousness that is giving them the ability to be so rapacious. But this is no longer in any way a sustainable model. Now we are aware of the resources that we were blinding squandering, we must be more careful. The repurchase cycle that sees us buy a new something on a rolling 1- or 2- or 3- year cycle for high ticket items is one that seems to be accelerating the Earths decline. We can produce items that last a lifetime, but that is economic suicide for the current system, and like all robust economic beasts, its self-preservation instinct is what has made it so pervasively successful. Even closed -loop recycling is energy intensive, and very little of our energy is currently clean. ‘Upcycling’ is nice for a pair of shoes made out of car tyres, but what do you do with the car’s in-built CPU- it isn’t going to become the beating heart of the next gen Playstation 4…
So this is the planner railing against buying things? Not really, just how we buy. This century’s successful and enduring brands will be the ones that seek to separate the reasons we buy products from the products themselves. The old mantra that if it ‘floats, flies or f*cks- rent it’ (sorry to be crude) will extend to more and more. I am not quite sure what this means for the widescreen TV (rolling upgrades to the same unit? designing products that can be optimised through software upgrade? purchase a contract for hardware uprating with the set itself?) , but for the car, we can see it in ZipCars; for the DVD, in Netflix- brands which establish an ongoing repurchase cycle without there ever having to be a purchase on the first place. We ‘have’ (buy things) in order to ‘do’ (be), we need to think about how we can supply that desire to ‘do’ without encouraging our outmoded and unsustainable 20th century acquisitiveness.