The Consumer: My, How You've Grown
I've been writing for this column for close to three years now, and a few days ago I took a couple of leisurely moments to breeze through some of my old pieces, which made me think that it might be time to recap - for my own edification, if nothing else: a compendium, if you like, of the new consumer. Who are they, and what makes them different?
First, and most important, this is about the consumer, not about people in general. The reason for that fine line is that as people, we haven't really changed that much at all - people seldom do. But as consumers, we have. Our attitudes have remained consistent, but our consumer behaviour is quite different now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Most notably, there used to be some lag between interest and action. There isn't any more. If we see something we like, we don't wait - we act. We text our friends, or we do some research online or we buy. But we don't wait.
The new consumers are happy to listen to and be influenced by complete strangers. These are the things that reach us: "Five star - will buy again." "Rated A+." About 80 percent of us say our purchases have been influenced by peer reviews. Which makes the user-generated review significantly more influential than any other.
Social media means the new consumers punch well above their weight. A recent Facebook campaign organized by the National Union of Students in the UK forced the mighty HSBC to revise its policies on student loans.
The new consumers expect corporations to behave like ideal citizens. The values of the companies we patronize are as important as the products they sell. We look up their manufacturing policies, their human rights record and their record on sustainability. Corporations can't hide bad behavior any more. The truth will come out.
New consumers have little loyalty. (This has always been the case; it's just that it's becoming more obvious to more people these days.) If they don't like what you say or what you do, they'll tune you out.
Neither do they have any patience. They know what they want and they want it now. (Of course, they're happy to accept a work in progress as long as they're invited into the process.) They get bored easily.
Unlike in the TV age, the new consumer's attention is given voluntarily and often in short spans. They have the power to avoid news, entertainment and advertising that doesn't interest them, so their attention has to be earned, not taken for granted or bought.
The new consumers want to be in-volved and consulted. We're not content any more to sit and be passively entertained; we want to contribute. Which is why more people voted in the last season of American Idol than in any American presidential election, ever.
Our circles of influence are expanding dramatically. Whereas in the past, a few key (and geographically close) influencers could steer our purchase decisions, our influences now come from a vast arena of physical and virtual recommendations - from all around the world.
The demographics of age, income and address have become less important than our attitudes, beliefs and convictions. Our peer groups are becoming more physically diverse and more influential. Even if we can't stand next to them in a bar, we like them, we agree with them and we socialize with them regularly.
The new consumers are no longer just the audience; if they are presented with the right idea at the right time, they are also the medium.
New consumers don't make media choices. They choose everything. We consume more media than ever before, but we rarely concentrate our attention on any one at one time. While we're working, we manage to spend 2.4 hours a day playing around online. Then we go home and spend 40 hours a week watching TV and still find time to play games, read, listen to the radio, and oh yes, eat, sleep and enjoy time with our families.
But of all these new consumer themes, the one that I think offers the greatest challenge and the most opportunity is this: We tire of brands now more quickly than ever. Eighteen months before Facebook was the biggest thing in the world ever, MySpace was the biggest thing in the world ever. And soon, no doubt, something else will be the biggest thing in the world ever. Let's just keep our fingers crossed that it's one of our things.
Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (email@example.com)