In a complex and unstable global environment, consumers are becoming the leading players on today’s marketplace which is more and more based on value, simplicity, attention to nature and quality of life.
The Smart ConsumActor
The IMF, OECD and ECB all agree that the global economy seems to be emerging from the worst recession in modern times. They warn, however, that the recovery will be “slow” and “fragile” and invite governments to “continue with their economic stimulus packages” because “rising unemployment and the weakness of the property market are still squeezing consumer spending”. While it is true that crises have always caused spending to fall, it is also true that current economic conditions have brought about a huge ground shift in the entire consumer culture. In recent years, consumer behavior and purchases were manipulated and modified by producer brands, our thinking was dominated by products, advertising stimulated our desires and the market satisfied those desires. The arrival of the economic crisis found, on one hand, consumers under siege from slogans, endorsements, icons, promotional messages and special offers, and, on the other, producers out to capture consumer attention and steer purchasing decisions. The pre-crisis period was a time of easy credit, consumer-oriented marketing, production geared not to consumers’ real needs but to what they thought they needed.
Above all, it was a time when we presumptuously assumed the banks would finance all our desires. Now we know they won’t. The property bubble, the financial crisis, the economic depression and now the speculative credit card bubble.
The recession is forcing us to “re-educate” our desires in other directions, to take a fresh look at what’s important and what isn’t, to finance genuine dreams and distinguish them from ephemeral, transitory flights of fancy: simplicity, quality and value become the key factors when making a purchase. What’s more, the new consumer no longer seems prepared to allow the market and advertisers to decide for him: he uses web forums and communities, discounts and promotions to gather information, compare offers and then make a decision on his own. This “intelligence” is the real innovation of post-crisis consumerism: and it is not a prerogative of the classes hardest hit by the recession but is also spreading among the sections of society with greatest purchasing power. What is happening is not so much a contraction in spending as a re-routing of our needs toward intelligent consumer areas, where the “smart” approach is to buy sustainable goods, produced by companies who safeguard and empower their workers, protect the environment, listen to and care for their customers. Companies in touch with the feelings, thinking and pockets of Homo consumens.
The question remains whether this intelligent behavior will continue once the crisis is behind us: some commentators believe the return to frugality, in the sense not necessarily of poverty or curtailed spending but of a focus on the non-superfluous, will impress itself on our implicit memories, influencing our future behavior at a subconscious level; others believe the desire for simplicity is nothing more than a cover for an unavoidable necessity, a psychological defense mechanism that enables the subject to deal with a damaging situation in a more appropriate, dignified manner.
Whatever happens in the future, however, the crisis has taught us to re-model strategies and visions on the basis of indices that measure growth in happiness rather than growth in gross domestic product. After all, “Of desires, some are natural and necessary, others are natural and not necessary, others are neither natural nor necessary, but come from vain opinion” Epicurus (341-270 BC).