The Dream of Living Lightly: What’s Next for Marketing When Less Sounds Better than More?

Marketing exists to sell more things to more people. That has long been the deal.

Today marketing faces a paradox: that people increasingly aspire to have less, not more. The sales figures from Black Friday and Christmas 2015 suggest more circumspect buying. Consumption of physical materials in the UK has fallen by a third since 2001*. Ikea reflect publicly on whether we have reached Peak Stuff. Affluenza is now a subject for college courses.

Of course the trend is relative; the desire to buy certainly hasn’t left us. But when we talk to consumers, especially younger and more affluent consumers, they often crave having choices taken away and find that pleasure comes disposing rather than consuming (or perhaps ‘consuming’ in the more literal sense of using and using up). We see this manifest in several different ways, some more evident than others.

Most obvious is the move towards renting not owning – houses, music, films, of course, but increasingly other areas like clothing, where services like Girl Meets Dress allow people to rent from a vast wardrobe, rather than amass one of their own.

It is also seen in the zeal for decluttering, driven in part by the rise in urban living. Over 10 million Americans rent a self-storage place to keep their possessions out of their lives, away from their homes. The multi-million selling books of Marie Kondo urge readers to dispose of the majority of their possessions and liberate their homes.

And if you visit any property website and you are likely to see the same images repeated: white walls, minimal objects, wood floors, clear sight-lines; a dream of living unencumbered by stuff.**

Software has in the last decade evolved along parallel lines. Apps and social networks have converged around an almost uniform aesthetic which banishes clutter and reassures users with white space, flat colours and simple, textureless typography.

Meanwhile detoxing is also increasingly aspirational both on and offline. Food is sold and bought in terms of what is removed, whether this be meat, sugar, dairy, or trans fat. Digital Detoxing is moving from an idea to an activity, as services like Flipd allow you to block your phone from any app use and Apple markets Night Shift as a way of filtering out the ‘digital toxins’.

These examples are varied, but they reflect the same essential shift: that often less feels much more exciting than more. Smart companies are increasingly finding ways to respond to this trend. And other opportunities are yet to be exploited. Below are five ways that organisations can help people to consume differently and to live more lightly.

Streamlining routines. There is increasing value in helping people to automate their daily decisions. This can be seen in stored shopping lists, services like Hello Fresh, in H&M’s Times Square store that lets you tap to buy an item the second you’ve tried it on. There is growing buzz around ‘deep link’ businesses like Button that make smart links between apps: book a restaurant and it’s one tap for Uber. You think it and it happens.

The physical becomes invisible: As we pass peak stuff, why have a phone in your hand, a dashboard in your car, a screen on your wall? So Audi are experimenting with purely virtual dashboard, ‘brown goods’ are becoming invisible goods, the interest in wearables, where it exists, is sparked by technology slipping into the background.

Better and fewer: Clothing brands like Nudie and Patagonia are recognising a trend towards buying fewer, better items, and encouraging people to keep their products for longer, backing this up with services like repair shops.

Disposing as fun: Huge amounts of money is spent by brands like Apple and Net a Porter to make the arrival of the product special, magical even. Very few companies seem to be considering how disposing of it could also be pleasant, or even a pleasure too.

Selling an asset: Companies will increasingly need to think about how consumers can share their product or service with other people. Where will the value lie for consumers? In connecting us with other people who want to buy it together? Insurance that covers us for lending it to others? Helping us to find sharers and then taking a stream of revenue?


*Although these figures are partly explained by shifts in the production side of the UK economy – from manufacturing to services – and by the slow pace of home building in the UK see the guardian

**The sociologist Roger Burrows summarises this aesthetic as ‘lite modernism’, “all about wooden floors, white walls and display-sized glass. It is a global, generic design. They want it to be a liquid asset they can sell quickly if they want to.”. blogs lse