There's been a lot of head scratching in recent years about why the same proportion of millennials aren't replicating the buying patterns of previous generations. As this cohort matures, their peculiar consumer habits have taken established companies and small businesses by surprise. What was initially thought to be a tendency to delay the trappings of adulthood has now been identified as a comprehensive "ownership shift".
Think about it. Those of us who came of age before smart phones, streaming apps, and high speed wifi learned to consume through proudly buying a range of tangible items that are now largely obsolete. We tucked baseball cards into albums, made mix tapes for our Walkmans, and collected towers stacked with CDs and DVDs. As we got older, we saved up to buy our first cars, and planned for the down payments on our first homes.
But today, people are starting to become more ambivalent towards the idea of ownership in all areas of consumption. In a crisp, neat digital world where a terabyte of data can be bought cheaply on a hard drive smaller than an old floppy disk, mountains of dusty collectibles feels like a burden in our lives. And because of online marketplaces, we're now able to find pretty much anything we want at anytime, altering the balance of supply and demand in favour of the consumer who no longer feels the sharp pang of scarcity.
From music to entertainment to car buying, the acquisition of stuff for stuff's sake is becoming passe. Buying isn't really about the thing anymore - a product or service is powerful because of how it connects us to people, to an identity of our own, or that of a group of which we would see ourself a part. In order for a thing to matter we need to be able to do something worthwhile with it, tell others about it, or have it say something about us.
As entrepreneurs, we need to recongise this and sell stuff in a new way. So how can we tap into this power?
1. Sell empowerment. If a product or service helps people feel less like spectators and gives them a sense of autonomy and action in their lives, it holds intrinsic value. Think about how your business helps people curate what they love, teaches them a new skill, or makes a cumbersome task easier. Clearly communicate how connecting with your business makes your customers' lives better and keep your focus on creating an air of simplicity around your brand; overwhelm is the antithesis of empowerment.
2. Sell a story. People buy things so they can tell other people about how cool it is. The social component to owning something is still (and will always be) relevant. As the old adage goes, the joy of having is in the sharing. When we share something we like with someone who likes it too, it creates a bond. The goodwill forged in that moment will expand to include your brand, so do your part to help the process along. Give your customers the stories they crave about why what they've bought from you is special and build a community of enthusiasts around what you do.
3. Sell identity. Connect people to something bigger than themselves. If you sell bikes, you're really selling a non-car life which taps into a sense of being environmentally conscious, socially aware, and locally rooted. Almost every business can connect to their customers' greater sense of purpose if they remember to communicate on an identity level.