“Remember that when marketers talk about meaningful consumption they are focused on a very small proportion of the planet.”

An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Think To Think

Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?

Talwar: I believe we need to think about it on three levels. We’re all looking for key purchases to have meaning on a personal level. Our consumption has to fit a self-image and a story we tell about ourselves. On the second level we are beginning to understand that globally, consumption has to have meaning. All six billion world citizens have to be allowed to consume – it’s not just a privilege for the rich West. Thirdly and most importantly, many of us now recognise that we have to have environmentally sustainable consumption. If the rest of the world consumed as much as Europe does right now we’d need three planets!

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

Talwar: This taps into our current obsession with self. It’s all about ‘me and my stuff’. So manufacturers can’t just sell a product anymore, they have to sell their product in the context of the experience we’ll have with it in order to satisfy us. The term ‘meaningful consumption’ is interpreted in a pretty shallow way – it’s just about how we attract the attention of the laziest and most self-indulgent generations the planet has ever witnessed. That said, there are pockets of hope as some of us are becoming much more aware of the rest of the planet.

Remember that when marketers talk about meaningful consumption they are focused on a very small proportion of the planet – around four billion people who still earn less than two dollars a day are not included in this conversation.

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

Talwar: The further we move beyond necessities into clothing, luxury and lifestyle goods the more we expect a story to be built around these items. And even with staples, such as food, there is a growing tendency to present the product as having greater intrinsic meaning in terms of health – often backed by potentially spurious health claims for the product or its ingredients. Some may argue that consumers are more sophisticated but I’d argue that there remains a wide variation in levels of consumer discernment. Many people are still seduced by these claims.

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?

Talwar: There is a trend in society towards personalisation. It’s all about the me, the now, the individual’s brand. The focus is on putting brands into a cultural context – we are buying into a story.

As far as consuming culture goes, I’m not sure just how massive the growth in museum and gallery attendance really is. My sense is that we’ve made them more interactive and contemporary in order to maintain the attention of adult and child visitors, but I’m not sure that we’ve broadened the group that attend.

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

Talwar: Those people who have created a brand identity via promotion of a particular lifestyle philosophy. One good example of this is Richard Branson, whose brands have all been built around a ‘rebel’ image. Stelios Haji-Ioannou has gained popularity through his positioning as a reasonable chap offering reasonable service at a reasonable price. Anita Roddick -although no longer with us – pioneered a ‘save the planet’ and green consumption image.

On a corporate level, I think Primark is an interesting example of meaningful consumption. Here we have a store that has managed to cross societal divides – it’s seen as smart to shop there whatever your budget and status. Not only is it OK to talk about your latest discount bargain but Hampstead dinner parties are now full of people showing off their latest Primark numbers and boasting about the savings.

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

Talwar: This is a very dangerous place to play unless you are willing to stay in it for the long haul and really reflect the brand promise through all you do. Those that do reflect true meaning throughout their company culture – for instance Innocent – will succeed because people are prepared to pay for the authenticity.

However, at a time when we’re trying to load meaning into brands many are also taking service away from behind the brand identity. This leads to a sharp dichotomy between the pre-sale experience and the post-sale reality. A lot of companies come across as ugly and cynical in the way the sell a lifestyle without really having any substance or service behind it, but people will now walk away from poor service providers much more readily.

Interestingly some have developed a much deeper interpretation of meaningful consumption – the slow food movement and the no shopping year campaign are gaining popularity. The latter idea is simple: buy nothing except basic foodstuffs and toiletries for a year, although secondhand purchases are allowed.

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

Talwar: A very real prospect will be that consumers have less money. Currently many of us in the West are living in a credit card-supported fantasy land. In future we could have to get used to having a lower standard of living as automation takes away more jobs and wealth creation activities continue to migrate to markets in Asia and, over time, Africa. This will gradually seep into all aspects of society, resulting in a lack of funds and lower service levels in public services such as the NHS as well as higher crime rates and falling education standards.

Already you see that government definitions of what constitutes poverty are changing. There are still a lot of genuinely poor people out there we have just changed the definitions. There’s a whole raft of jobs disappearing never to come back – ticket clerks, travel agents, bank tellers – we are not creating new careers for these people. For them meaningful consumption is defined as: can you afford it?

The other big issue is the ageing population. The over 80s are the fastest growing sector of the population and the majority of people currently under 50 are likely to live to 100. And our children could live even longer because of medical advances. At present life expectancy is increasing by at least a month every year.

Not only are we getting older but the over 65s in the UK and US own over 75 per cent of all our wealth – and 75 per cent of that is in the hands of women. Marketers haven’t really reached this group or worked out what meaningful consumption means for them.

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

Talwar: First is authenticity, companies’ actions must reflect their marketing and branding messages. Second is how they interpret the consumer’s attitudes, intentions and behaviours because advertising in its current form is dying. What companies require for future success is insight plus innovation. They have to really get under the consumer’s skin rather than just replaying tired old marketing messages in new adverts.

Questions on Time and Meaning…

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

Talwar: Time is no longer our own. We are always available as a 24/7 commodity, although we do have more flexibility about when and where we are working. You could argue that time has become one of our most valuable commodities – we grant ourselves ‘time off’ as a reward.

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

Talwar: Any time when I’m enjoying what I’m doing and not feeling under too much pressure to have a decent conversation.

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

Talwar: It’s partly because rather than planning work properly we just grow people’s agendas. There are certainly more interruptions in the working day but we are also very inefficient because we don’t teach people time management. When we allocate new tasks and start initiatives we rarely ask what we will kill off or stop doing in order to make time for the new activity.

Another key issue is that we don’t show people how to use the technology on their desktop. Microsoft Office is the product of a multi-billion dollar investment yet we are too busy, or too arrogant, to factor in time to learn how to use the key programs and features properly. The equivalent would be handing the pilot of a 747 the keys and saying: ‘there you go, Japan is north, there are 400 people in the back and if you have any problems call the help desk’.

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

Talwar: Some companies have mastered the concept and blended automated and human service provision. However a lot have gone into reverse by automating so wholeheartedly that they throw all the responsibility back onto the customer – who can become frustrated when they want anything out of the ordinary or have a problem that requires human intervention. I routinely boycott firms where it becomes hard work to get basic service.

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

Talwar:Yes, but only if you spend time working out how to use it properly. You have to be persistent to get there. For many people convergence has just meant more inefficiency.

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

Talwar: Again this depends on whether you’ve organised the technology to work for you or you’ve become a slave to it. Being always on makes it hard to maintain the balance. For example, I’m doing this interview while on holiday.

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

Talwar: I’d encourage people to learn to manage the technologies that surround them to make time for themselves.

Ultimately, I think we have to face up to the most meaningful test of all. Are our current levels of consumption sustainable across the planet? If not, something has to give.

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

Keynotes on Rohit Talwar
* Rohit Talwar is an award-winning speaker who has entertained audiences from Beijing to New York (via Barcelona, Helsinki and Cardiff) on topics ranging from China’s future to environmental challenges.
* Recently he was voted ‘stickiest guru’ – a prestigious award given to the best speaker at Asia’s largest travel conference.
* Recent projects include the largest horizon scanning and futures programme in Europe, undertaken for the UK government.

Profile: Rohit Talwar was recently profiled as one of the top ten global trend watchers. Talwar specialises in working with companies and institutions to develop strategies – and spot market opportunities His client base includes the UK and US governments, Shell, and IBM. He is writing a book on China’s impact on trade in the 21st century.



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