Back in the days of yore, if you wanted something you had to do it yourself. If you wanted to eat, you had to hunt, gather or farm. If you wanted clothing, you had to weave or sew.
Then, a massive wave of consumer outsourcing began with the industrial revolution. Individuals found that companies could do many things much better and much more cheaply than they could. So much so, that we began to believe that wealth is created by companies and merely consumed by “consumers”; and that while production is difficult and complex, requiring the input of experts, specialist departments and functions, consultants, best practices and so on, being a consumer is easy. All you have to do is consume.
Yet, in some very important ways, individuals have always remained producers – in the business of making our own lives, turning inputs such as products and services into outputs such as fulfilment and happiness, and incurring costs such as stress along the way. And this challenge of maximising “value in my life” is far from simple. Indeed, according to an important new book – Complicated Lives by Michael Willmott and William Nelson (both of the Future Foundation) – it’s getting ever more complicated.
Here are a few examples. The declining role of traditional collective institutions, and our reduced deference to them, is creating a “routeless society” – where there is no clear, obvious or laid-down route through life. At the same time, the rise of individualism means we expect, and look for, more choice. Together, this is making “life choices” and the management of important life transitions both complicated and stressful.
Key tasks along the way are also becoming more complicated. Individuals are realising the value of developing their intellectual capital (what we know), social capital (who we know), and cultural capital (what we are interested in). But building each one of these is a complex challenge in its own right. Add in heightened expectations – we want and expect greater return on such investments – and you get increased stress as well as complexity.
Then there’s technology. We turn to technology to simplify things and save us time. When it does, it’s a godsend. Yet the same technologies are often difficult to understand and use as well as being a source of new and difficult choices. Marketers aren’t helping matters much with increased message and choice overload: new challenges forcing consumers to invent new coping mechanisms.
And don’t forget parenting – a terrifyingly complex challenge in its own right. There’s what Willmott and Nelson call “professional parenting”: the desperate struggle to give children the best experiences, education, etc. There’s “paranoid parenting”, where hard-pressed parents worry about their children’s development over an ever-increasing range of dimensions (safety, health, education, etc). And the “negotiated family”, involving tense discussions about who spends what time with whom doing what, plus the stresses and strains of being a “forever parent” to offspring who never really seem to flee the nest (whether it’s literally, by staying at home, or in terms of demanding financial support).
In addition, the very fact that we are better educated adds another dollop of potential complexity and stress. In reality, our lives are much, much safer and easier than any generation that’s gone before. But we also have much easier access to information about more potential dangers to worry about (crime, the environment, food poisoning/quality, terrorism and so forth).
Put all this together, and what do we get? The inescapable conclusion is that there is a wide range of important “consumer” needs that are scarcely being addressed, if indeed they are at all, by today’s companies. Meeting these needs could open up explosive growth in what are, effectively, new markets for customised, individual solutions, richer experiences, community formation and facilitation, life-planning and -management services, choice-management services that genuinely help consumers to access or manage choice, technologies that save people more time (such as robotics) or give people ever greater control (information) – plus everything and anything that helps people use time better. According to Willmott and Nelson: “The commercial world can help people not only to manage their time better and be happier as a result, but to be successful too… Consumer empowerment remains an unrealised opportunity.”
But all this raises a question. If the needs are so big, why aren’t companies already trying desperately to meet them? Two other recent books pick up the baton here*. One possible obstacle is the disguised corporate narcissism of marketing’s mantra of customer focus. A customer is someone who buys what we make; therefore, the more intently we “focus on the customer”, the more intently we focus on ourselves and our own needs – on what we make and how to sell it. Which means we tend to ignore other needs that don’t fit this agenda.
Another, deeper answer is that perhaps today’s corporations are not geared up mentally or operationally to face the challenge of “value in my life”. Making and selling discrete products and services is actually much simpler than helping individuals manage personal complexity.
Besides, there are some forms of personal value – such as alleviating stress or finding happiness – that simply cannot be made in factories and sold in shops. They don’t fit today’s business models, which revolve around maximising the value corporations generate in their operations. The harder these companies focus on the challenge of maximising corporate efficiency, productivity and profitability, the easier it is to overlook the challenge of personal efficiency, productivity and profitability.
Which simply means that huge opportunities still await genuine innovators able to create new markets by tackling these unmet needs. Complicated Lives begins to map this vast and largely unexplored territory. In the process, it defines themes that will dominate the marketing agenda in future decades.
Complicated Lives, by Michael Willmott and William Nelson, is published by Wiley.
* The New Bottom Line, by Alan Mitchell, Andreas Bauer and Gerhard Hausruckinger (Wiley), and The Support Economy by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin (Penguin).