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Friday, 19 December 2014

Ego-socialism and the implications for MR

The recession is leading to a new model of consumerism – one still motivated by self-interest, but where people are coming together to form their own structures and systems for getting what they want. Brian Tarran reports.

What image comes to mind when you muse on the state of the economy? In America, according to a recent study by Olson Zaltman Associates, sharks, straightjackets and prisons are the visual metaphors used by consumers to explain how they feel. Fearful and fretful about a lack of control, others worry about not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a way out. “It’s just ambiguity and not knowing about the future. All that stuff is very scary for me,” says one respondent.

Over in the UK, at a breakfast seminar this week held in a private members club where delegates indulged on rich mini pastries and smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, the idea that we’re somehow living through dark, troubling times seemed fanciful. Yet as guest speaker and author Charles Leadbeater talked about the state of our own economy, about “shrinking horizons” and the “increasingly cramped lives” we’ll all be living, the resplendent surroundings grew increasingly stuffy.

Brands need to start understanding people within the framework of their social constructs. “We have to understand the collective to understand the individual,” says Flamingo’s Jackie Hughes

Leadbeater has come up with his own metaphor for the state of the nation. “In the next 10 years,” he said, “living in Britain is going to be like taking a very long journey in standard class in an overbooked train.” The lack of seats (read ‘opportunities’) creates an air of fractiousness, which in turn leads to vengefulness, where people denied ‘things’ seek to deny others as their only means of achieving satisfaction.

“The London riots,” he said, referencing the outbreaks of violence in the capital last year, “had an underlying vengefulness to it.”

Much wealth and prosperity was lost in the financial crash after 2008, but along with it, Leadbeater says, “we have lost the idea of structured hope”. After a decade of prosperity people came to rely on a jobs market that could provide them with a job, and a welfare system that would look after them if necessary. “There is still hope, but it has lost its anchors,” says Leadbeater. “Now, it attaches itself to windfalls or luck.”

But people don’t respond well to uncertainty. As modern humans, we struggle to survive without structure or “systems”, says Leadbeater, returning to the theme of his Research 2011 keynote. “Civility will be our saving grace,” he says. “We need to understand that if we just get on with one another we can get through this.”

People, as consumers, are starting to come round to this idea whether consciously or not, it seems. Jackie Hughes, group strategy director of Flamingo International, says that consumers are increasingly looking to form their own structures and systems for getting what they want amid the economic and structural decay seen in parts of society.

She describes this new model of consumerism as equal parts “trade unionism” and “ego socialism” – consumers are still motivated by the pleasure principle, but they recognise that “I am stronger if I am part of ‘we’.”

For brands, this has one important implication. Hughes says: “People are going to demand that the brand reflect the collective.” Some groups already define themselves by the products they buy, like Apple fanatics, but otherwise the brand must find a way to create a community around itself or to ingratiate itself with an established community. Hughes’s colleague, Alfie Spencer, a semiotician, gives the example of Nike Women: “It puts you in a gang, creates a system, to help you get fit,” he says.

This might seem easier for aspirational brands, like those already mentioned, but Flamingo CEO Kirsty Fuller gives the familiar example of Dove, a bar of soap that succeeded in creating a movement around “real beauty” which people could get on board with. Persil, the washing powder, is seeking to do the same thing with its “Dirt is good” campaign. It is trying to stand for an idea.

However brands seek to align themselves with these groups, it will require new demands on researchers, says Hughes. Brands need to start understanding people within the framework of their social constructs. “We have to understand the collective to understand the individual,” she says.

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