The sharing economy has exploded and is altering the way we travel, where we stay, and what we wear, which has important implications for marketing thought. The sharing economy challenges traditional views regarding the nature and role of marketing institutions, processes, and value creation. In this paper, we provide a broader view of the sharing economy by offering forward-looking guideposts which offer insights for marketing scholars to not only keep pace with the sharing economy but also shape its future direction.
At its core, marketing enables exchange between buyers and sellers. Traditionally, these exchanges involve the permanent transfer of ownership. Over the past decade, though, a growing number of exchanges are taking place in the sharing economy where temporary access replaces ownership. Empowered by the tools of the digital revolution (e.g., Internet access, smart devices, peer-based reputation systems), the sharing economy has proliferated across a wide range of products and services, including transportation (e.g., Lyft), lodging (e.g., One Fine Stay), clothing (e.g., Rent the Runway), financial services (e.g., Transferwise), food services (e.g., Deliveroo), and office space (e.g., WeWork). Given its impressive growth, it is not surprising that the sharing economy has been heralded as a global transformation. As a result, several commentators have declared that “the sharing economy changes everything.” Yet, even with the breadth of goods, services, business models and goals seen across the sharing economy, it is not entirely clear what we even mean when we refer to the “sharing economy.” Moreover, how does the sharing economy impact the way that we apply existing marketing models, develop new ones, or engage in the practice of marketing?
We seek to address these questions by taking a deep look at the sharing economy and how it impacts what marketers think and do. We begin by offering a marketing-focused definition of the sharing economy. Specifically, we define the sharing economy as: a scalable socio-economic system that employs technology-enabled platforms that provide users with temporary access to tangible and intangible resources that may be crowdsourced.
We also identify five defining characteristics of sharing economy firms:
- Access oriented
- Economically substantive
- Technology-based matching platform
- Enhanced consumer role
- Crowdsourced supply
We propose that pure forms of the sharing economy, such as an Uber ride in a car owned by the driver display all five of these characteristics. However, some other examples of the sharing economy may display fewer. For example, an Uber ride in a car owned by Uber exhibits the first four characteristics, but not the fifth (i.e., crowdsourced supply). We suggest that firms that possess only one or two of these defining characteristics can likely rely on existing marketing frameworks and practices developed for the traditional economy. For example, rental car companies provide access and engage in economically substantive transactions, but don’t use a technology-based matching platform, don’t expand the role of consumers, and don’t crowdsource their supply.
We use the characteristics to form important research questions about the nature of marketing in the sharing economy. We organize these questions around the definition of marketing offered by the American Marketing Association: “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” As seen from this definition, marketing can be thought of as an activity with three key components (i.e., institutions, processes, and value creation). Across these three components, we identify ten specific topics (Marketing Institutions: consumers, firms and channels, and regulators; Marketing Processes: innovation, brands, customer experience, and value appropriation; Value Creation Outcomes: value for consumers, firms, and society) and propose a set of important questions for each topic. Examples of these questions are:
- Institutions: What is the role of trust in the sharing economy and to what degree can it regulate sharing economy transactions?
- Processes: What is the nature of the customer experience journey in the sharing economy?
- Value creation: How does the sharing economy impact a traditional firm’s product-line and pricing decisions?
We believe that the answers to these questions will help marketing scholars and practitioners understand and appreciate the potential impact of the sharing economy. In addition to defining the sharing economy, identifying its key characteristics, and outlining specific research questions, our article also explores the future of the sharing economy. First, we examine the coming maturation of the sharing economy, its inherent paradoxes, and its relationship to technology. Specifically, we challenge marketing scholars and practitioners to keep a close eye on the paradoxes because for all of its lauded benefits, the sharing economy may lead to exploitation. Thus, our thoughts about and actions toward the sharing economy should consider both its positive and negative effects on consumers, firms, and society. Second, we propose that the changing life-stages of the sharing economy deserve increased attention. What has been learned in the early days of the sharing economy may no longer apply as this economic system matures. Third, given its high degree of technological dependence, marketing scholars and practitioners should monitor how this economy will be shaped by the emergence of new technologies such as autonomous driving and blockchain. Our hope is that this article helps marketing scholars and practitioners not only keep pace with the sharing economy, but also shape its future.
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