There was a time when big was beautiful, more was better, and greed was good. If that time had a heyday, it was the 1980s. If it had a hero, it was Gordon Gekko. And if it had a big, important name, it was materialism.
Although Gekko and his shouting, his suspenders, and his love of more, feel out of place today, there was an era when, as Gekko might have said, it made a whole lotta sense. That era was the 20th century, the age which made sense of the counterintuitive idea that if we wanted to have more, we had to spend more.
The idea had first been floated hundreds of years before, in fact, by an Englishman called Bernard Mandeville. In his 1715 satire the Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, Mandeville wrote about a group of prosperous bees who lived, so the story went, a life of luxury and ease. But after grumblings that their lifestyle lacked virtue, they turned away from their fraud and greed and extravagance, to a new life of simplicity and honesty and temperance. You might think that would be a good idea. But, as the fable showed, if the bees gave up their vices, especially their greedy, high-spending ways, that would be the end of their easy, luxurious life as well.
The same logic that had worked for the bees in Mandeville's fable also made perfect sense in the 20th century. If people spent more, they would create a virtuous circle: more jobs, more wages, and higher standards of living for us all. It all hinged, as you can see, on people like you and me acting like high-spending, materialistic bees who thought greed was good, and more was better.
And it worked. Materialism delivered improvements in standards of living that were unprecedented in human history, giving us all washing machines, TVs, indoor toilets, cheap clothes, and a zillion other consumer gadgets and other knickknacks.
And back then, boy, was it easy to sell stuff. In the 20th century, the major challenge for marketers was less persuading people to buy, and more getting enough goods to the right place at the right time. “All you had to do back then was turn on the tap of advertising,” Kevin Allen, who worked for McCann, Interpublic, Lowe, and Rudolf Giuliani, once told me. “And then get the goods to market.”
But then, around the time the 20th became the 21st century, something happened. Or, rather, lots of things did. And they have all added up to what I think is the defining problem of our generation, a problem I call “stuffocation.”
Stuffocation is that feeling you get when you look in your wardrobe and it's bursting with clothes but you can't find a thing to wear, when you have to fight through piles of stuff you don't use to find the thing you need, and when someone goes to give you something and your gut reaction isn't “Thank you,” but “What on Earth makes you think I could possibly want or need that pointless piece of stuff”? Instead of thinking of more in positive terms, like we used to, we now think more means more hassle, more to manage, and more to think about. In our busy, cluttered lives, more is no longer better. It is worse.
After conducting the most comprehensive study into daily life ever conducted, the Los Angeles-based Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) decided that we are living in “the most materially rich society in global history, with light-years more possessions per average family than any preceding society.” As a result, they concluded, we are at a point of “material saturation,” we are coping with “extraordinary clutter,” and, as individuals and as a society, we are facing a “clutter crisis.”
So, why have so many of us had enough of stuff? Why isn't materialism working anymore? If you ask a different expert, you'll get a different emphasis.
A political scientist would tell you we're not so bothered about stuff because we've grown up in a stable society; we've climbed the first stage of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and we've become less interested in basic, material concerns. An environmentalist will tell you we've had enough of stuff because we're worried about our impact on the planet. A philosopher might say we've had enough because of the status anxiety that comes materialistic consumerism. A psychologist might chip in that we've had enough because materialism has given us affluenza: that mass production and mass consumption has led to mass depression. And a technologist might agree with all of the above, but say the real reason we're shifting away from stuff is simply because we can: why have a car when you can use ZipCar or Uber?
And what do I, a seasoned trend forecaster, think? Social media is changing things. Not only is it changing how we communicate, it is changing how we present ourselves and signify status.
In the 20th century, the best way to indicate your status was with the BMW on your drive, the Breitling watch on your wrist, or the Prada handbag on your arm. But, unless you made a point of telling them, no one would know that you had been to a concert, away for the weekend, or to this month's restaurant of the moment. What you owned was a much better way of expressing your identity and your status than what you did. Social media has turned this 20th-century truth on its head.
Now, only a relative few will see your car or your handbag. But with all your friends, fans, and followers on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook, many more will know that you’re at SXSW, on a chairlift in Tahoe, or you've just completed a Tough Mudder course. That means experiences are now more visible. They're better than material goods at expressing your identity, and more likely to contribute to your status.
None of these reasons for stuffocation are blips that will be here one year, gone the next. They're all observable, observed, long-term trends. Instead of blips, they are insistent storm waves that will keep crashing again and again against our mainstream, materialistic culture. That's why the problem of stuffocation will be the defining problem of the 21st century.
So, what does stuffocation mean for you? And what does it mean for your business?
Let's begin with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean the end of consumerism. If we still want a life of luxury and ease (and we do, right?) we all need to play our part as high-spending bees.
And it doesn't mean the end of material stuff. We're not all about to become ascetics, head for the hills, and go live naked in caves. (Even if that could be fun. For a weekend.) We are still flesh and blood, in-real-life humans. We will still need and use shoes, bags, clothes, cars, and cell phones. But as we increasingly respond to stuffocation, we will consume far less material things.
I don't think that this change will happen overnight. This is long-term cultural change. It is as significant as the shift our ancestors made when they gave up thrifty ways to become wasteful consumers in the 20th century—and that took a good half-century or so to really take hold. From the perspective of later historians, this change will be seen as revolution, but from ours, living it every day, it will feel much more like evolution.
So don't tear up your business plan, and let go of your legacy infrastructure—just yet. Instead, the first thing you should do is understand the new consumer, who is becoming ever less materialist, and, I believe, ever more “experientialist.” That is, because of stuffocation, instead of looking for status, identity, happiness, and meaning in material things—stuff—people are increasingly finding those things in experiences instead.
Understanding that is key, because, armed with that insight, you're ready to re-tool your modus operandi for the 21st century. Here are seven silver bullets for connecting with, and selling to, the new experientialist consumer.
In some ways, Apple is an old school, 20th-century behemoth. It's a hardware manufacturer. It makes a lot of material stuff. But Apple has become the world’s leading brand because of its ruthlessly brutal focus on experience. It makes everything pleasant: from the stores to the moment you open the box. “Not only do the guys at Apple make sure their products are products people love to use,” says Joe Pine, co-author with Jim Gilmore of seminal book The Experience Economy. “They even think about the packaging, about the ‘box opening experience’, so even that is unique and engaging.”
Touch people—not in a way that'll get you in trouble, of course, but in the way Pine and Gilmore advised in The Experience Economy. Make every interaction between your brand and your audience touch them “on an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level.” This is the difference, I think, between staying with a service-economy brand like Four Seasons—great, friendly, service—and experience-economy brands like The Standard, Grupo Habita, or Ace Hotels, which put their energy into curating and creating events and moments that stay with you.
Touching people is all well and good, but make sure the experiences you give people are the sort of thing people can't wait to share. A key feature of every event by London-based Bompas & Parr—where you might be playing crazy golf on the roof of London department store Selfridges, or eating pig's ears soup while watching The Holy Mountain in a former Masonic lodge—is that they are designed to give people social currency. “Everyone is an auto-biographer nowadays, it’s like everyone is actively writing their own biography all the time,” co-founder Sam Bompas told me. “So stories are becoming even more important. In the ’80s, people wanted a fast car. Now they want a good story to tell.”
Patagonia's new Worn Wear campaign is a great way to show how important it is to sell stories not stuff. But the brand's Common Threads Partnership with eBay, is, in my opinion, an even better reaction to the problem of stuffocation. It was launched with the company’s founder, Yvon Chouinard asking people “to not buy something if they don’t need it.” That is a radical, revolutionary statement. It is the antithesis of the “more is better” idea of materialism. And yet, offering to hurt your own profits in support of something bigger is the sort of thing that makes sense in this time of stuffocation. (As it turned out, it also helped the company make more money.)
Ditch as much of the material aspect of your brand altogether. Sportswear brand Puma did this when its designers made a bag that, rather than add to the clutter in your home, or the guilt you get when you throw it out, just disappears. Put the Clever Little Shopper bag in hot water for three minutes and it harmlessly dissolves, so you can pour it safely down the drain.
Take lessons from the rise of Spotify, Zipcar, and Airbnb, and from what is variously called the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, and the shift from ownership to access. They are all, in my view, versions of what Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization"—the idea of getting more experience from less physical stuff. Put ephemeralization at the heart of what you do: reduce your material inputs and costs, while increasing the experiential outputs and benefits. While you are about it, you will not only reduce your planetary impact, you may also create conversation and community.
You can slavishly follow each of the above, and still come up with average ideas. The ultimate place to find inspiration to connect with people, I think, is in the most fundamental human question of all—the question Aristotle asked in the Nicomachean Ethics almost two and a half thousand years ago. The question every one of us, as individuals, parents, policy-makers, and marketers should ask: how should you, and I, and the rest of society, live in order to be happy?
In the 20th century, as we progressed from scarcity to abundance, the answer was materialism. Then, people found happiness, status, identity, and meaning in material things. Now, in this time of abundance and so much stuff we are feeling stuffocation, the answer is what I call “experientialism.” Now, people are looking for happiness, status, identity, and meaning in experiences instead.
If you, and the start-up, business, and brands you work for, can help people find those things through experiences rather than stuff, you are more likely to connect with them, and sell to them.
James Wallman is a trend forecaster, author, and speaker. His new book, Stuffocation, is available from Amazon.com.
[Illustrations by Vashti Hallissey]