11 December 2022

We are what we consume. Are we?

Joshua Rawson-Harris

Tessa Laws

Chief Executive Officer



It’s one of those words, in the marketing world, which comes up with a disturbing regularity (when you think about it). It’s used as a de facto euphemism for person, in most cases. An audience of one. A customer.
I once had a client who refused, point blank, to use it. We are not only what we consume, they argued. People don’t want to be defined, especially by brands, purely by what they buy. People’s sole purpose in life is not purely to purchase, and they don’t want to be pigeonholed as such by organisations who want to communicate with them. You are more than the sum of your wallet.
Purchase patterns have been in flux for some time. Some of us (cough) are old enough to remember a time before online shopping, before Prime next day delivery. When a trip Christmas present shopping to London was a magical adventure, fighting through crowds on Oxford Street, dazzled by the lights, to Hamleys to lose yourself in childlike fascination at just about everything on the shelves.

It might be the time Christmas lights are being turned on in high streets around the country, but those high streets aren’t looking the same. New government data (CLICK HERE to read more) has shed light on just how different, shot through the lens of post Covid times. Department stores are in decline, alongside nightclubs, clothes shops and banks. The influence of interminable periods of lockdown, as well as the rapid rise of home shopping convenience. Opening up instead, tattoo parlours, beauty services, cafes and fast food. Again convenience meets the kind of in-person service which cannot (as yet) be provided through a search browser or app.

We’ve talked before about what happens to the dead department store shell – often vast and rambling spaces. Some of our clients see potential of turning them into cinemas, multi-purpose retail space, or community hubs.

 After all, the decline of the high street is also the decline of towns and cities around the nation, where communities start to fracture and households become more insular.

This is how, at a macro level, we become defined by our shopping habits, at least in person. Online shopping tribes evidence differently. Again, some of us (cough) can recall a time when recommendation algorithms introduced new bands or books you would otherwise never have encountered. These days there’s too much data for that, from purchases for others, or from necessity, muddling the mix. In these days of direct to consumer (there it is again), many brands are trying to cut out the retailer middleman and sell directly to people.
The bond between brand and shopper is a strong one – much weaker the numbers of people who identify with specific retail stores they love and will seek out in a world of relentless competition.
Online shopping is retail experience done micro – this service understands me, they have what I am looking for, the price is right for me. Ultimately, it is all about the transaction, or otherwise – not necessarily about what is said to be part of a demographic or tribe.
As retail continues to shift further from the search and discovery experience toward the direct transaction, will we start to see the decline of ‘consumer’? We’re deep in a cost of living crisis after all. Facing the third disrupted festive period, this time thanks to energy costs and avian flu instead of lockdowns and physical distancing from our nearest and dearest. Addressing the individual by their purchase power alone feels shockingly crass, when people are doing without. As brands increasingly seek a closer direct relationship with their audiences, personas or simply ‘people’, the language used to define them is also set to shift, and with it, mindsets from marketers as to making the relationships more meaningful and rounded.

CLICK HERE to read the BBC News feature by Mark Easton and Data Journalism Team

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