“Companies will have to make it possible for consumers to build their own meanings into products and services.”

An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Time To Think

Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?

Olesen: I would define it as something that goes beyond self-satisfaction and looks to have some benefit to society and the wider world.

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

Olesen: In many parts of the world we have experienced a long period of high economic growth. Yet although we have become richer and richer we have not become happier and happier. Meaningful consumption is a means of filling this gap between our wealth and our expectations.

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

Olesen: Consumers tend to be less influenced than before. Whereas we were very driven by product stories and branding, now our interest has waned. Many of us don’t know what choices to make – how to consume. In Denmark at the moment every penny people earn is being invested in the home environment. That tells us something.

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?

Olesen: We have become so wealthy, acquired so many possessions. Perhaps we don’t feel we need as much around us – and certainly there is less pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Because we can do what we like – please ourselves – this has fostered this new form of hedonism.

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

Olesen: Perhaps the self-educators. By that I mean the growing contingent of the adult population who seek out privately-financed education by studying for an MBA or other qualification. There has been a global growth in this kind of personal development.

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

Olesen: The impact will be that companies can’t rely on existing brand or market knowledge – the same old stories won’t work any more. Companies will have to become facilitators, making it possible for consumers to build their own meanings into products and services. Consumers will influence how the objects they buy look and how they work for them. There will be much more open source, offering personalisation and customisation opportunities for customers.

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

Olesen: The single most important change will happen when the Baby Boomers hit 60 or 70 years old. This generation will continue to have money and good health. You may have consumers who are 75 or 80 years old going on holiday and dating. In the past it was young people who were the pioneers of change. The future will see the elderly as pioneers.

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

Olesen: They have to learn how to develop a role as facilitators, rather than drivers – a far more passive position. They have to retreat and become less pushy with their brand messages and ‘solutions’. They need to act as consultants rather than solution providers. It is consumers who will choose their own solutions.

Questions on: Time and Meaning…

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

Olesen: Anything can be done at any time. This is a huge change. Yet a lot of people feel they have less time than before because they have so much more choice. Time was more fixed because there were conventions about when to eat, shop, work and so on. Without this framework we have greater freedom, but we also have to make far more personal choices.

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

Olesen: I don’t have a fixed definition. Maybe boredom, it’s a rare sensation!

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

Olesen: With leisure there are round-the-clock opportunities, endless possibilities for doing something to fill up each spare moment. And although officially we work less hours than we did, in reality we spend more time working – be it sitting in a traffic jam or being constantly available via a mobile phone. Therefore our actual leisure time is shorter.

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

Olesen: I’d say it has in some respects. A lot of established companies are not 24/7, so we have a sort of parallel universe of ‘office world’ and ‘outside world’. In other sectors there have been notable successes – banks have managed to go some way to bridging the gap. The retail sector is, however, lagging.

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

Olesen: Yes in theory, but in practise I’d have to say no. Supply creates its own demand, so if we have a mobile phone we simply talk more!

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

Olesen: A bit of both. Of course it has improved our overall quality of life. On the other hand it has also contributed substantially to the challenges we face when we try to balance work and leisure.

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

Olesen: More time and space to look beyond individual need and find the bigger picture.

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

Key Notes on CIFS
*   CIFS (Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies) was founded in 1970.
*   It was set up in co-operation with a number of visionary organisations who wanted to qualify their rationale for making strategic decisions by using futures studies.
*   It is a not-for-profit research institution with some 15 researchers among its staff and affiliates.

Profile: Professional strategist Axel Olesen advises companies and institutions on the best way ahead. As Managing Director of the Copenhagen Institutes for Futures Studies, his core fields of expertise are economy, human resources and strategy research. A frequent contributor to the FO/futurorientation magazine, he is also a regular speaker at international conferences as well as undertaking project work.


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