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magpie

In his book Enough, John Naish begins the chapter on ‘stuff’ by quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’

The passage refers to hedonic adaptation: the process by which we constantly strive for the next shiny object, only to be immediately disappointed when we acquire it. Naish attempts to trace this reflex back, past Josiah Wedgwood and the advent of ‘instant obsolescence’, to Neolithic hand-axes. We have long been a ‘species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things’, he tells us, but in recent times our society has become much better at giving us what we want.

On this subject, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides the meatiest snippets: ‘Our ancestors lived with far greater external constraints and had far fewer opportunities. The paramount importance of self-restraint has only now arisen in its pressing entirety before mankind.’ And so on the cover of Enough, Naish goes on to cry, somewhat less eloquently, ‘It’s time to evolve again: for our sake and the Earth’s.’ To his credit though, Naish does not put all his eggs in the evolution of a greater, nu-puritan consciousness (it is a slow process, I heard), but acknowledges that there are other levers to pull. I will focus on two which are relevant to marketing.

Things that last

In the self-help, five-step-style section of his book, Naish urges us ‘to be more materialistic’, to ‘care for our material things, rather than just using and discarding them,’ to appreciate their value. In fact, it is quite common advice these days: ‘if you must buy something, buy something slightly more expensive than you are comfortable with, and cherish it for longer’, we are told.

In marketing terms, while this message used to always come with a dollop of smug exclusivity (‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’), it is now the domain of humble, almost-highstreet Howies.  If such promises are ever going to win over the Primani army though, it is important that they are able to continue to provide and justify their worth. Perhaps this is what Rory Sutherland meant when he said ‘intangible value is probably the most sustainable form you can create’.

Things we use, but don’t own

When you stretch this concept further though, it is clear that you need a completely different form of transaction in order to break the old hedonic cycle of ‘want, buy, be disappointed’. One possible solution is a shift towards a rental, or membership based model. Think Lovefilm rather than Zavvi, and Zipcar rather than a dealership. Generally speaking, the advantage of these models is twofold: firstly, goods can be shared, so fewer have to be made in the first place (each Zipcar takes 15-20 household cars off the road); and secondly,  it becomes in the interest of the manufacturer to make stuff that doesn’t need to be replaced (no more ‘built-in obsolescence’, Arthur).

These ideas are very much in vogue, but they are not new: in 1999 Electolux piloted a pay-per-use rental scheme for washing machines in Sweden, but it failed due to lack of interest. According to Worldchanging ‘The program was met with a decisive yawn by consumers, who apparently didn’t want to change the way they paid for doing the laundry. The company… hopes to reintroduce it someday with better success.’ It seems that there is a need to familiarise people with these ideas and to stimulate demand, to beat a path to their door.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from *_*_*_*_*_* on flickr.

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