Power to the inner-directeds

Why, in an era dominated by labour and time-saving devices do most of us never feel we have enough time? Time-based competition has long been a factor within and between companies; are we now moving towards a new era of time-based competition in consumer markets too?

One way of getting a handle on how and why time is suddenly becoming such a crucial issue may be to see it as a symptom of the emergence of an “inner-directed” society. The term “inner-directed” draws on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, under which humans move up a hierarchy of prime motivations, such as sustenance, security, socialisation, self-esteem and what Maslow called “self-actualisation”.

Researchers divide the population into three broad clusters: “sustenance driven” (those who are driven by the day-to-day struggle to survive and a need for security); “outer directed” (those who measure success by comparing themselves to others around them and who want esteem and status); and “inner directed” (those whose prime search is for self-actualisation).

What’s currently happening, according to consulting firm Synergy which specialises in research around these concepts, is that the inner directeds are becoming the dominant influence in society.

If current trends continue, says Synergy consultant Anna Eggleton, by the new millennium the sustenance-driven group will be smaller than the combined weight of the other two groupings, for the first time. Just as important, the influence of the inner-directeds will also outweigh those of the outer-directeds – whose values dominated the Eighties.

“We are going through a transition stage as inner-directedness takes over. This has huge implications for marketing,” she says.

Such as? The first and most obvious level is the way brands are presented. Synergy reports that inner-directeds often have “active antagonism towards status cues that invite them to feel superior to others”. Many, for example, are just as happy buying own-label as designer label.

More fundamentally, however, inner-directed consumers are likely to look for different ways of getting value out of their dealings with companies – many of which involve finding better, more fulfilling uses of time.

Sustenance-driven and outer-directed consumers are more likely to have an instrumental attitude towards time. They go to work or go shopping in order to achieve their objective, such as financial security, or looking better than the Jones’s, and if they achieve their objective they regard the time as well spent.

But for inner-directed consumers, any time not spent on self-actualisation is wasted. For them, the once-clear distinction between means and ends in terms of time usage is a source of deep frustration.

If this conjecture is right, many things follow. The consumer’s focus begins to shift, for example, from product quality to time quality, which is a different kettle of fish as far as marketers are concerned. Product quality can be created and controlled in a factory. But it is but one ingredient of a superior experience – “quality time” – which can only be created in real life. Increasingly, the challenge facing marketers is how to craft moments of quality time for their customers.

The other side of the coin is eliminating the time wasted doing chores and other things which play no part in the quest for self-actualisation. Seen from this perspective, the monetary price we pay for a product represents a tiny proportion of what we have to pay to realise its value. The real cost includes all our investment – in terms of both time and money – in searching for, choosing, shopping for (including travelling, loading, unloading, packing, unpacking), paying for, preparing to use, using, disposing of waste and so forth.

What the inner-directed consumer really wants is not more functional attributes embedded into products, but help in re-engineering the whole process of consumption – to make room for more quality time. This involves a lot more than doffing a cap to marketing clichés such as “convenience”. It implies that our current industrial division of labour between manufacturer, retailer and media owner, each with their own respective brand, is obsolete. Enter home delivery pizza-style operations which effectively combine all three.

But the implications don’t stop there. Currently, there is endless debate about the need for companies to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. This, too, could reflect the rise of an inner-directed marketing environment. Whereas before, people saw work as a means to an end, inner-directed citizens inevitably want to feel that the enormous number of hours they spend at work help in some way to achieve the meaning and fulfilment they so crave. Compartmentalising my “private” values and the values I or my company apply publicly at work into two separate boxes is untenable. The emerging challenge for companies, therefore, is to become vehicles for the expression of citizens’ values: through the products and services they produce; the way they market them and create them in the first place. The inner-directed consumer wants inner-directed companies.

According to a recent report on social responsibility for BT by the Future Foundation, this is precisely what is happening. “We can map the individual’s hierarchy of needs with the corporate hierarchy of responsibilities as they have developed in Britain over the past century,” it declares. The products and brands that were successful in the Fifties and Sixties chimed with the socialisation phase in society’s development, while the products that were successful in the Eighties marked “the search for status and the development of positional consumption” (such as designer labels and upmarket brands). Now, it argues, the dominant trend is towards self-actualisation: where the companies and brands that add to “people’s personal development and quality of life” reign supreme.

None of these changes are expected to happen overnight. As Synergy stress, it takes decades for populations to shift just a few percentage points from one values group to another. But it is precisely these slow, creeping changes that are the hardest to manage. In the hurly burly of modern life we haven’t got the time to really think about them.

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