We are in the early stages of an evolution that will impact the culture of every enterprise. Eventually, this will be a global phenomenon, but it is emerging first in the U.S. Ultimately, it will change what motivates your employees, their core values, and how they work with each other.
I am 68 years old, born in 1945, as the Post WW II economic boom started and one year ahead of the official start of the Baby Boom. My entire life I have been bombarded by one basic message: to buy something. To be a consumer. This has in fact been the same message that has been communicated to everyone my age and younger – basically the entire population – for the entirety of our lives. Although started and perfected in the U.S., this messaging has become global, creating the same impact throughout the world. It initially arose from the emergence of the manufacturing revolution, as the productivity of goods increased by an order of magnitude. When that happened, it became necessary for the producers to expand their markets and sell as much as they could. And they did that by encouraging people to acquire their goods not simply because they needed them, but because they wanted them.
So, is it any wonder that we have become a consumer economy? What else would be rational to expect from an entire population that has been inundated with “buy” messages the entirety of their lives? Buy this because it is newer, cheaper, makes you look sexier, has more technology, is bigger or smaller, is more prestigious, – whatever the reason, you should want this and then buy this – even if you do not need it.
Think about how pervasive that basic “buy” message has been to your life. Just today: the commercials you saw when watching TV morning programs, the ads in your morning newspaper (whether printed or digital), the ads thrust in front of you on the screens of your various devices, the radio spots you heard on your commute to work, or the billboards that you saw either on the road you travelled or on the train or bus you took to work. All around you. Non-stop. Every day. Since you were an infant. Without letup. So pervasive that we don’t really notice it, like air. Buy.
But the messaging that we are getting is undergoing a major change, right now, that is accelerating, and that will have as much impact on our lives and culture as the inundation of “buy” messages have been. We are beginning to move from a consumer culture to a supporter culture. That’s a fundamental change.
If you imagine “messages that reach us” as a pie chart, over the past several decades virtually the entire pie has been “buy” messages. Now think about the messages that have started to reach you more frequently: Support messages. Support this energy solution. Support the fight against this disease. Support these controls on how the Internet is used. Support this policy about wages. Support this military expense. Support this action to protect the environment. Support ignoring the issue of the environment. Of course, such messages have always been a part of our culture, but now you are seeing those messages more frequently through advertising, through social media, through the instruments of the 24-hour news cycle. And as these “support” messages are becoming more frequent and more powerfully constructed, they are starting to grab more of that pie chart of “messages that reach us.” And as that evolves, our culture is changing – fundamentally, not on the margins.
With our consumer economy, people have largely defined themselves by what they own and how they spend their money: the house they live in, their car, their new TV, the vacation they take, the clothes they wear, where they dine – the things they can point to that tell everyone else how big and smart a consumer they are. More often than not that equates to success and is a primary motivator of how people act. But more frequently, they are defining themselves by what they believe in and the communities they belong to, whether serious political movements, coalitions of a certain type of hobby, or fans of a certain performer. Name an interest and there is likely to be an online-based community that caters to those who share that interest. And as people inside these communities increasingly find it to be an easy and enjoyable experience to communicate with each other, the communities will become more and more important to them. People will begin to define themselves by what they support the way they have traditionally used the products and service they consume to define them. There will be many consequences that need to be considered in anticipation of this change, but one basic question is: How will people define success and what will motivate them when what they support is as, if not more, important to them than what they consume?
There are at least three major reasons for this: 1) the political gridlock that has become the new normal in our political system, 2) the continuing devolution of the Middle Class, and 3) the explosion in the availability of distribution channels to get messages to targeted audiences.
Gridlock. The really shocking aspect of political gridlock in Washington is not that it is happening, but that it is not likely to get any better for a variety of political reasons. Nothing is getting done – even considered – except for a very few major headline-grabbing issues. Where does that leave organizations that want to win policies and laws that support their vested interests? They can no longer rely to such a great degree on their lobbying efforts, as indicated by the three year decline in the lobbying business as measured by both total revenues and total employees. They are trying to reach their goals in a different way. They are building their grass roots, social media, advertising and PR efforts to try to coalesce communities of supporters to become their de facto lobbyists by mobilizing them to pressure their political representatives directly. And to do that, they are turning up the volume and the frequency of their support messages. As political gridlock continues to characterize our government, such campaigns to build support for issues will continue to mount. Today, we’re still in the early stages of this movement. But it will grow, and as it does, the slice of the pie chart that represents support communications will grow bigger and the messages that support the consumption of products and services will decline.
Middle Class. Now let’s look at the state and direction of the Middle Class. Their buying power has been – and continues to be – in a state of decline. As that happens, those who have been the core of the consumer economy are losing their ability to consume. The growing inability to consume will gradually render inane those messages that promote the concept that wanting something is more important than needing something. Against that economic situation consider the basic appeal of a new message that says: support this group/belief/interest/policy that doesn’t need to cost you a penny, which can captivate your interests, and where you can find and build relationships. The Middle Class will transition from a culture of consumers to a culture of supporters.
Increase in Distribution Channels. The third reason for this overall phenomenon is the explosion of distribution channels and the ability to reach precisely identified targets. It wasn’t that long ago – in the heyday of consumerism – when a message could be communicated through three television networks, a small number of local television and radio stations, one or two important local newspapers, and some national magazines. The lack of competition drove up the prices for the time and space those distribution channels sold. It also made it very difficult to earn the attention of a reporter to get your story told. Contrast that with the situation today. There are many distribution channels that are available to those who want to communicate their messages, including but hardly limited to social networks, bloggers, online publications, viral videos, and more to come. The costs for them are often quite low. Furthermore, these channels often serve small audiences, so the communicator’s message can be tailored to the specific interests of small groups, making them incredibly powerful. Plus, it’s easier to sell an editor or reporter on a story when your idea appeals directly to their narrow interests. So, those who want to get out their “support this” messages – those who traditionally were shut off from accessing media channels because they couldn’t afford it and because their stories didn’t appeal to enough people – now have the ability to conduct very efficient communications campaigns. And that means that there will be more and more messages asking for support, further propelling the cultural shift to more of a supporter culture than a consumer society.
And that is going to rock corporate cultures to their very cores.