Productivity: Enough of Too Much

  • by November 3, 2008
Productivity:Enough of Too Much-J. Walker SmithTed Levitt, the late Harvard B-School marketing guru, famously wrote, "People don't buy products. They buy solutions to problems." For Levitt, this notion is fundamental. As he saw it, and as generations of business people have recognized, thanks to him, identifying problems and solving them is the essence of what business is all about. In other words, the only path to success is properly understanding and delivering what customers need.

Levitt's insight endures as a keystone idea in marketing. Yet, for all of its genius, this notion overlooks something elemental. Levitt's imperative to identify needs and satisfy them begs a more basic question: What is a need?

Studying needs is probably the most common activity in marketing strategy and thus a frequently researched marketing question. But marketers have enjoyed the luxury of answering that question during a decades-long boom in the consumer marketplace. The needs identified during those boom times are not the same as the needs that will motivate consumer choices in the years to come.

Abundance has shaped the marketplace since the end of World War II, especially the past three decades. "Post-scarcity" is the term typically used by economists and social scientists to describe this period. Americans emerged with ferocious appetites from the deprivation entailed by economic reversal and needed sacrifices of the 1930s and '40s. The return of economic prosperity in the ensuing decades filled our driveways, garages, closets and drawers to overflowing. The massive expansion of consumer debt was central to this.

During this period of post-scarcity, our needs became more sophisticated and ever more removed from basic requirements. It was no longer about performance, it was about experience. It was no longer about value, it was about empowerment. It was no longer about quality, it was about celebrity. Consumers came to take the basics for granted. Those problems were solved. So marketers had to discover new kinds of needs to satisfy.

We are now moving from a period of post-scarcity to a future of post-abundance. Even before the Wall Street crisis, the consumer marketplace was changing. The tighter credit and slower growth likely to ensue from economic fright will only accelerate the shift to post-abundance.

What's interesting is that post-abundance will be no less marked by scarcity as post-scarcity. But scarcity in the future will be rooted in abundance, not deprivation. Too much creates no less a dearth than too little. Too much to do creates a paucity of time. Too much to view creates a shortage of attention. Too much to know piles up against limits in processing-capacity. Instead of too little to do, view, know - or own, buy, rent, manage, etc. - we now have too much. We have more than met the needs of deprivation, and the ensuing riches of super-abundance have had the paradoxical effect of creating a need for less.

This imperative of "less, not more" will be reinforced as the fallout of recent financial events spreads through the consumer economy. It is important to recognize, though, that this is more than just tighter credit and slower growth. It is the ascendance of post-abundance.

The current generation of marketers is experienced in marketing to consumers who want more, but not in marketing to consumers who want less. New needs will have to be discovered. New solutions will have to be mastered and delivered. This is not to suggest that market opportunities are going to shrivel up and blow away. Instead, the biggest growth opportunities of tomorrow will be those that address the needs of consumers who are overwhelmed by super-abundance, not to mention suddenly unable to afford more and more of it. It means thinking about how to give consumers less in ways that deliver more value to their lives. That's what consumers will be willing, and able, to pay for.

Levitt's maxim will be as apt as ever in the post-abundance marketplace. But post-abundance will require a fresh look at consumers. Most important, it means a new understanding of the notion of "less," from which a new strategy can be built for solving people's problems.

J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich Inc. and the coauthor of three critically acclaimed best-sellers. His new book, with Ann Clurman, is Generation Ageless. (
2 comments about "Productivity: Enough of Too Much ".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, January 6, 2009 at 11:19 a.m.

    In other words, people who have spent so much time chasing things and intangibles like status will now focus on what is really important, what matters in life. Marketers will have to deliver value to satisfy that. Reliable, trusted brands that build on and maintain that connection should do well. It may be the second time around for the decline of conspicuous consumption.

    Henry Blaufox,
    Oxclove Workshop

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 6, 2009 at 12:18 p.m.

    What we all do not need is debt we cannot pay. What we all need are ways not to keep filling up trash dumps that we don't want in our backyard. If it is true that matter cannot be created or destroyed, then there needs to be a rebalance of how to take things apart that were put together and are no longer needed in the form they once were. Does too much productivity yield idle hands with nothing to hold? Are there too many hands? Yikes!

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