“We are looking for fulfilment that isn’t based around consumption.”

An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Time to Think 

Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?

Greatrex: Today we are constantly being bombarded with brand messages – and eventually everything blends into one. Meaningful consumption is about people wanting experiences not messages. They want to be defined by what they do, rather than what they buy.

Q: Why is Meaningful Consumption so much in focus at the moment?

Greatrex: Everything has become so ‘mass’ that branding has gone into overdrive. I think the defining moment was the bling phenomenon. Typified by Burberry wearers it pitched the message ‘if you’ve got it flaunt it’. And what that proved was that anyone can buy brands but they can’t buy style. This is why meaningful consumption has come into focus. People are choosing to move away from conspicuous consumerism towards knowledge-based purchases, typified by what is happening in the travel industry. People want to learn something, immerse themselves in another culture – and maybe put something back.

Q: In what ways do you think consumption is driven by consumer experience?

Greatrex: ‘Blinglash’ – the backlash against bling – is evidence that we are affected by consumer experience. The LSE economist Richard Layard talked recently about the nationwide desire for happiness and I see this as a part of our need for meaningful experiences. We are looking for fulfilment that isn’t based around consumption – being engaged in social issues is one facet of this. For instance, food has become the new politics – as witnessed by the arrival of fast-moving gourmet foods. I would also cite ethical travel because there is a new cultural currency based around bettering ourselves and finding personal fulfilment, both of which raise our self-esteem.

Q: Why do you think we have moved from product-focused consumption towards cultural consumption – and what are the key social drivers behind this shift?

Greatrex: People are asking themselves why they need more ‘stuff’ when our planet is in danger and our landfills are almost full. We’ve had our fill of ludicrously priced fashions and now people would prefer to ignore the constant media messages and buy unbranded clothing. Or they may choose to abandon shopping in favour of educating themselves at cultural events or by visiting museums and galleries. I’ve also noticed that whereas party conversations used to centre around shopping or brands, now people are talking about their garden wormeries or their tomato plants!

Q: Who would you single out as leaders (both people and companies) in Meaningful Consumption?

Greatrex: Definitely the travel industry is leading the way on this. Companies such as Responsible Travel give people a chance to immerse themselves in another culture, trekking through the deserts of Mongolia or learning more about traditional Aborigine skills such as living off the land. I would also mention modern philanthropy – we can see this in action and learn from powerful people such as Bill Gates and Bono. Having achieved everything they could want in their professional careers, their new ambition is to give something back.

Q: What will the future impact of Meaningful Consumption be for brands, services and products?

Greatrex: Meaningful consumption means brands have to re-establish what the consumer is all about. Consumers are changing and they are tired of bland messages. The more you engage with your customers and talk to them, the more impact they will have on shaping your products. Even multi-nationals are learning this – and talking to their end users.

Q: What lifestyle changes do you think will be the most important in years to come?

Greatrex: There will be more focus on investing in holidays and travel and a big move away from branded goods. Consumers will take a far more ethical standpoint about everything they buy.

Q: What is the biggest challenge companies face in the future?

Greatrex: Having a meaningful dialogue with customers. If they don’t do that they will fall behind. It is vital to get consumers involved.

Questions on: Time and Meaning…

Q: How has modern society changed your notions of time?

Greatrex: The way we sleep, work and do business has completely altered. We are always accessible, always available and we face increasing pressure at work. All this has had a huge impact on the amount of time we spend with friends and family.

Q: What is your definition of ‘quality time’?

Greatrex: I’m always working or researching so my ideal downtime is to simply sit back and think or spend creative time chatting with friends. I guess my version of quality time is escapism.

Q: Why do people today feel they have less time?

Greatrex: Because we are always available. Society and employers have become more demanding – fuelled by modern technology and efficiencies – and we all feel more pressure to ‘go for it’ and build a career. And working patterns have changed – I remember when emails first crept into offices, now they have completely reshaped our working lives. All this ekes into our free time and means we have less space for family and friends.

Q: How do you feel the 24/7 culture has impacted on brands, products and services?

Greatrex: Curiously the ‘always on’ society has had a big impact on the sleep economy and in the past couple of years people have been buying into products related to relaxation. Sales of pyjamas are up along with really plush duvets. Add to that our obsession with installing spa bathrooms and entertainment spaces and it shows our homes are becoming a hub where we retreat for peace and precious ‘me time’.

Q: Convergence technology is supposed to save us time. Is this your perception?

Greatrex: Yes, it allows companies and organisations to make things much more simple and accessible for consumers. The only question I would ask is: will the consumer thank you for it? More important than time saving perhaps is the empowering properties of certain technologies, notably phones. When 7/7 happened the BBC used films made by passengers – the first major example of citizen journalism.

Q: Has technology improved our quality of life or made achieving work/leisure balance more stressful?

Greatrex: There are far more possibilities now because of technology. But it has also made people stay later at work and take work home with them. Technology isn’t going to go away and it will continue to evolve so we can’t fight this. One of its chief benefits is that it allows like-minded people – special interest groups – to find each other. One place where it could do better is with the elderly. This is the sector of society that would really benefit from home-delivered groceries or cheap online holidays, but many of them are not even aware of technology’s potential to improve their lives.

Q: Can you give us a speed conclusion on Time and Meaningful Consumption?

Greatrex: More haste, less speed. I’d give this to you in Latin but I never paid attention in class!

Interview: Questions by Kjaer Global for the Time to Think Conference (UK), August 2006

Keynotes on Anterior Insight
Clients include Beck’s, Brand Strategy magazine and Vauxhall.
* Combines investigation, interrogation & intuition to ‘fix’ brand directions.
* Based off Brick Lane – possibly London’s hippest alley.

Profile: Formerly with The Future Laboratory, Tom Greatrex is an expert on style and fashion history – as well as being attuned to current and future trends. He is familiar to Viewpoint devotees, but his byline also appears in titles ranging from Arena to The Independent. He is also a guest lecturer at Central Saint Martins.

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