Predictions for the future of marketing by Russ Klein, CEO of the American Marketing Association
Part of The Year Ahead 2020 special web issue
Futurists and trend spotters will always do a thorough job of identifying forces at work in our culture that will influence the way we live. But there is a certain force that will do more than merely recontour our cultural landscape; it will shake our world to the core, and marketing as we know it may slip into the crevices to its death.
I’d noticed the rumblings of a growing anti-consumption movement for a few years as the sharing economy has grown and concerns over climate change have sparked some to reconsider their habits. But when our academics even began exploring the idea—via a recent special section in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, titled “The Domain and Intersection of Anticonsumption, Marketing and Public Policy”—it seemed my gut feeling was right. The topic has clearly garnered enough momentum that our academics are exploring the concept.
On the surface, it would appear to most onlookers that these behaviors are just a healthy recalibration and moderation of how we fill our needs and desires, but few of us are consciously trying to consume as little as possible. Rather, we’re becoming increasingly aware of how our behaviors leave a mark. We’ve realized how finite time and space are and we’re evolving to make better use of both. Efficiency and economy are motivating our use of resources and—for now—many enterprises of all sizes benefit from the consumption of new tools and techniques that can help us live these values. Marketers and brand owners may not realize it, but they have the tiger by the tail.
The very idea of marketing presumes the existence of consumption. Western economies are powered by consumption. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting this constitutes something bad. But it does constitute the end of business as usual for both modern enterprises and their employees. Researcher and author Jim Collins’ mantra of “built to last” will give way to a new mantra for today’s companies, whose survival will depend on being built to adapt. But there is still an anathema from marketing professionals to anti-consumption because we are still largely behaving, measuring, rewarding and even canonizing based on growth.
A few years ago I coined a phrase for an ideal world in which marketing is 100% for good, whether at for-profit, not-for-profit, private or public organizations. In this world, the craft is applied with fairness, transparency and co-creation, and marketers use their newfound technology-enabled superpowers to do the right thing at every juncture. It is a world in which everything is bought and nothing is sold. I now see an emerging world in which everything is rented, borrowed, re-used or shared until the marginal utility of a product or service approaches zero. Then and only then will that product be somehow atomized or reconstituted into the ether, perhaps even with a positive environmental impact.
In this world, we will reach a new form of singularity, a new nexus where the needs and desires of both the individual and the community are served with minimal trade-offs. Today, there is a palpable tension between individualism and collectivism. That tension will eventually be broken and discharged by the emergence of anti-consumption and the corresponding adaptations that civilization must take to survive. We can only try to imagine how the tip of this iceberg will eventually cut an indelible swath across our planet.
This new world will be one in which social impact is no longer a marketing strategy, but a moral imperative demanded of every enterprise or individual proffering some type of value to the consumer. The new age will not arrive with a bang, but will, like a glacier, continue its relatively quiet, indomitable and unstoppable crawl.
In the interim, there’s plenty to which we can all look forward. For example, I believe we’ll see another decade of what I consider to be regrettable virtue signaling and assertions of moral superiority by many brand owners. In too many instances, we learn that brands aren’t necessarily “walking the talk,” which goes to another lamentation of mine that marketers are addicted to storytelling to solve every problem or capture every opportunity. “Marketing used to be about creating a myth and selling it, and is now about finding a truth and sharing it,” says Marc Mathieu, former senior VP of marketing at Unilever and CMO of Samsung.
This trend may actually be what sobers industry leaders to the reality of negative growth: If companies continue to position their brands around sociopolitical stances for which there are legitimate alternative points of view, the possible result will be an era of fractionalized tribal brands. Tribal brands would ostensibly enjoy fierce loyalty from those who share their social or public policy opinions, but by definition, it will shrink their penetration and likely lose market share to competitors who are either explicitly or implicitly of an opposing view, or no view at all. A recent Korn Ferry Institute post by author Daniel Goleman reaffirms my logic: “From ‘greenwashing’ to ‘pinkwashing,’ companies who use purpose as a marketing tactic risk the same fate as other responsible business trends,” he writes. This may be the first shockwave that forces both Wall Street and Main Street to rethink what constitutes acceptable corporate performance. Should the world evolve in this way, it will be the beginning of changing expectations regarding profit motives and open the collective conversation on anti-consumption.
Bob Dylan’s 1964 lyrics in “The Times They Are a-Changin'” will echo for eternity, and it’s only through change that we have the opportunity for defining moments that will reveal our very best and very worst. Whatever happens, I believe anti-consumption will change everything. As unappealing as it might sound to many, it will probably be a good thing.