Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending

Whereas shopping and accumulation once promised a golden pathway to happiness, now consumers are getting unexpected pleasure hits from cutting back and making more considered consumption choices.

~ Andrew Benett & Ann O’Reilly

When you read this review of Consumed by Andrew Benett and Ann O’Reilly, you will recognize many of the major themes we address at Balance Junkie. I loved this book, and I’ll have a chance for you to win a free copy if you think you might feel the same – details at the end of the article. It’s been my contention that our society has become quite unbalanced on many levels. The financial turmoil of the past couple of years is a symptom rather than a cause of these imbalances.

Hyperconsumerism is arguably at the root of many of these problems. If you’re tired of running on the consumption rat wheel, you are not alone. According to the authors of Consumed, we are already starting to witness seismic changes in the way people evaluate, purchase, and consume all types of products and services. These changes will affect all of us, whether we’re running a business or a household.

Andrew Benett is Global CEO of marketing communications agency Arnold Worldwide and Global Chief Strategy Officer of Havas Worldwide. He has nearly 20 years of marketing experience. Ann O’Reilly is a strategic planner and content director of Euro RSCG Worldwide’s Knowledge Exchange. She has more than 20 years’ experience in marketing and publishing. The two have also teamed up to co-author a book called Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporationwhich addresses similar themes.

Unleashed: The Shopper Within

Part I of the book chronicles the birth of consumerism, its global proliferation, inevitable climax, and unfolding denouement. This is the story of how we got here. The authors describe the “strange alliance between government and retail” that began even before the Great Depression of the 1930s with Herbert Hoover advocating consumption as a means of increasing happiness and preventing social unrest. It culminated in New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraging people to go out and buy things after 9-11, and U.S. President George W. Bush asking Americans to go shopping to support the economy in a 2006 press conference.

Far from spending to truly enhance our lives, consumption gradually became our patriotic duty. With a full two thirds of U.S. economic activity resting on consumer spending, belt-tightening by American families could have a huge impact on the global economy. We’re starting to see that already in Canada as our trade deficit recently hit the highest level since record-keeping began in 1971 due largely to a decline in U.S. exports.

The authors offer tons of really great quotes to punctuate their ideas, including this one from Mignon McLaughlin: “Be glad you’re greedy; the national economy would collapse if you weren’t.” Consumer support for the economy ballooned in the post war era due to 3 main factors:

  1. Increasing Incomes
  2. Easy Credit
  3. T.V. Advertising

We have recently begun to see all three of these top out and show signs of unwinding. The growth in “purchasing power was increasingly based on credit and borrowing, not the growth of real disposable income.” As we moved from a “pain-now-pleasure-later” to a “pleasure-now-pain-later” model of consumption, we gradually came to realize that “infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” (The latter quote is from E.F. Schumacher.)

The 4 Paradigms of the Mindful Shopper

According to the authors, the new era that is just now emerging will be characterized by a more mindful shopper as opposed to the mindless consumer who was emblematic of the previous era. In Part II of the book, they describe 4 paradigms that will dominate:

1.  Embracing Substance

Many of us have become victims of the “Paradox of Modern Times”: owning more, but having less. We have collected piles of stuff to match our piles of debt, yet we feel emptier than ever. The pursuit of stuff has crowded out more enlightening and fulfilling activities. Studies show that loneliness has reached an all-time high.

“We are witnessing a historic turning point” where marketers, manufacturers and governments are going to have to ask: “What can we offer people in terms of merchandise, services, and communications that will satisfy them and, ultimately, increase their happiness?” Increasingly, consumers are hungry for products that are manufactured in a sustainable, environmentally and ethically sensitive context and offer more authentic, fulfilling experiences. They will choose quality over quantity.

2.  Rightsizing

This paradigm gets at the core of the balance theme. Many of us are finding that our lives are dominated by excess. We have too many things and not enough places to put them. We have too much to do and not enough time to do it. New consumers will rightsize their lives by eliminating clutter. They want fewer, but better choices. They want to eliminate waste from every aspect of their lives and they are looking to partner with brands that embrace a similar philosophy.

3.  Growing Up

New consumers are ready to grow up. They are willing to accept responsibility for their choices and their future. It is finally becoming fashionable to act like an adult again. A new pragmatism has surfaced and is evident in trends toward frugal living, more formal dress codes at work, and environmentally responsible shopping.

4.  Seeking Purposeful Pleasure

“Following the mindset of “see-buy-consume-discard  – what’s next?” we rarely if ever paused to consider the more substantial, long-term, and purposeful pleasures that might be available if only we took the time to cultivate them.” Following the recession, we have had to think harder about how (and whether) we spend our money and our time. The new consumer will be looking to support brands that offer them pleasure with a purpose rather than hedonistic satisfaction.

The authors describe 3 main characteristics of new consumers:

  • They are smarter: New consumers use new resources like the internet to learn about products before they buy. They band together to learn from one another and they feel that “fellow shoppers are more truthful than corporations and even the media when it comes to evaluating products and companies.”
  • They are more mindful: New consumers care about where things come from, about quality and freshness, and are more skeptical in general. Mindfulness feels good to them.
  • They seek relationships: New consumers want companies “to stand for something other than profitability”.  They prefer to buy from companies that share their values.

Marketing to the New Consumer

Part III describes how companies can successfully market to the new consumer, and gives some examples of those who are already doing so. The authors warn that the changes they describe are only beginning and will take some time to play out. They do, however, also contend that while “some observers dismiss current trends such as downsizing and sustainable shopping as no more than temporary aberrations brought on by the downturn, we strongly disagree: They are permanent.” Let’s hope so. Whether you run, work for, or invest in a business, these macroeconomic changes will affect you.

This book is extremely well-written and offers so much more information than I can describe in this short review. If you are interested in a copy of Consumed, just leave a comment below. I’ll randomly choose one commenter to receive a free book and announce the winner next Saturday, September 18th, 2010.

What are your thoughts on the themes discussed in this book?


Written by Kim Petch

21 Responses to Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending

  1. Karen Cockshutt says:

    Having worked in the retail industry off and on for the last 20 years, I am always interested in what will make someone buy an item and adding to that sale. Consumers are researching their purchases, although I find that the internet provides alot of misinformation and it is often a challenge to convince a customer that their references are either wrong or not suited to the area we live in. As a sales person you have to earn the trust of the consumer and make them feel comfortable with their purchase. Times have changed.

  2. @2cents Would you comment on some of the changes in marketing strategies businesses are making to adjust for altered consumer spending preferences?

    • 2 Cents says:

      Part III deals with that topic. Obviously, I can’t cover it all here, but there are a few main ideas that stand out. Many companies want to let consumers know how they’re helping the environment (less packaging, more efficient manufacturing processes, etc.). They are also modifying the actual products they offer. For example, some car manufacturers are promoting smaller vehicles and marketing them as a way for consumers to simplify their lives and shrink their carbon footprint. Others are offering simpler choices, much the way Apple has only a few types of Macs as opposed to PC makers where you have to choose all of the components.

      In general, people don’t want to feel like they’re being sold on something. They want real value for their dollars, and they are even willing to pay a little more to get it. Again, see Apple.

      The book also includes an appendix that provides data from consumer surveys. The trends they outline in the book are very evident in the survey responses. Anyone who markets to consumers could learn a lot from it.

      Hope this helps! :)

  3. Sounds like a great book. I hope to win it! Thanks for another great read! I’ve often said that we can’t spend our way out of these economic times because the public and the government are tapped out (Although the governments, especial US, aren’t acting that way). I hope the mindful shopper practices fiscal responsibility!

    • 2 Cents says:

      I’ve often wondered whether government profligacy is just reflecting consumer habits, or is it the other way around? It’s sort of a chicken or egg question, I guess. I haven’t really come up with an answer, but I do know that while I can’t control government spending, I can control my own. If enough of us start to practice mindful spending, maybe our government will too?

      Thanks for stopping by Jim and good luck in the draw! :)

  4. SophieW says:

    It sounds lke an extremely interesting read and I know I completely agree with the concept, however I just don’t know if consumers as a whole are ready to grow up yet… I sure hope they are!

    • 2 Cents says:

      I think you’re right. A lot of people don’t yet realize that these changes are happening. Unfortunately, I think a few will likely grow up by necessity rather than by choice.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Wayne says:

    Our modern society has overconsumed, using debt as the instrument. Buying now, paying later (or will they even pay in the future?).

    Governments are no better. Spend your way into power and let the next gov’t worry about the debt issues. Buckle to interest groups.

    All this will end badly.

    • 2 Cents says:

      Agreed. But I think there are opportunities for those who are prepared to navigate these changes – more on that on Monday! ;)

      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Thanks so much for the great review, 2 Cents!

    SophieW, one of really interesting–and most promising–aspects of our research was that many people are finding real pleasure in cutting back. It actually makes them feel good to save money and simplify their lives and also to use their money in more mindful ways (e.g., reducing carbon footprint, supporting local artisans, avoiding impulse buys they’ll later regret). That’s one of the reasons we believe we’re beginning to move beyond hyperconsumption.

    There’s lots more info on the study at http://www.TheNewConsumer.com.

    • 2 Cents says:

      It’s so great to see hard numbers demonstrating the pleasure of doing the right thing. The research in the book is truly eye-opening. I hope that consumers and businesses can begin to understand that less really can be more.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I just found you on a Twitter update! I support Ms. O’Reilly’s observation that people to get satisfaction from the ‘stop-silly-spending’ therapy that one gets when one has no money. It gives even more satisfaction when one has less money and can begin before there is no money. Taking a minute to consider “Do I really need/want that.” even on a small purchase is empowering and can be as rejuvenating as a day at the spa. I drive a 15 yr. old pickup, cut my own hair and was pleased to find similar habits among some billionaires. I work with an industry that promotes reclaiming existing concrete and support alternative housing. A copy of the book would be well appreciated in my social and economic network!

    • 2 Cents says:

      I love the idea that making a mindful purchase can be as satisfying as a day at the spa! Thanks for your comment and good luck in the draw!

  8. NFlagen says:

    I’ve just found your blog and have been finding it really interesting. I am a recent DIY convert and am trying to come to some conclusions about how to approach money from here on in (on behalf of our couple). We escaped from the “crash” with our capital and about 1% compound return for the last 15 years of investment life.

    I meditate and study Buddhist teachings and so your balanced perspective is appealing. And so is this book.

    It’s a challenge to both take information in on the subject of money – information that comes from so many points of view – and to attempt to understand what your personal needs/views are. I like to be frugal, want to contribute to my society’s well-being and am trying to balance that with the fear evoked by so many “threats” (bubbles, inflation, deflation, etc). As you’ve pointed out, your financial choices depend on your view of certain economic factors. But I certainly don’t feel well-informed enough to have an opinion on them.

    And I am concerned that I will likely make decisions based on my brain’s in-built mechanisms to fool itself (as outlined in books like “Mistakes Were Made: But Not by Me.” How much of my pessimism about the future of our economy and society is rational and how much is distorted thinking? I’m not sure.

    I will continue to read the blog and attempt to keep up!

    • 2 Cents says:

      I struggle with many of the same dilemmas and doubts that you do. After years of listening to experts, however, I realized that they usually don’t agree at all on the best way to handle finances. In the end, I decided to stay informed about both sides of the major financial debates and make the best choices I can for my family. I realize that some of them may prove to be wrong, but the same would be true if I handed our money over to a professional.

      Thanks for reading and good luck in the draw!

  9. I’m not sure where you get the time to read books and do such excellent posts… do tell, please… Anyway, I probably won’t be able to read it until next summer if I win, but here’s to another book on the shelf!

    • 2 Cents says:

      Actually, I took a little time off this summer and that allowed me to catch up on some reading and writing. It helps when I actually enjoy the books I review! ;)

  10. JudyAnn, one of the most interesting findings from our New Consumer study, in my view, is the fundamental change in how people are defining “the good life.” Whereas it used to be about material possessions, now these possessions are seen as an encumbrance by many. Our view of the “ideal” lifestyle has changed: Whereas 70% of our global sample say they “respect/admire people who live simply (minimal purchases, debt free, etc.)” only 19% “respect/admire people who live a high-luxury lifestyle (lots of indulgences, expensive possessions, etc.).” (In the U.S., those numbers are 79% vs. 15%.) Consumer aspirations have been turned on their head–and that’s a good thing.

  11. Anthony says:

    After reading your review, I can say that the book sounds interesting enough to read, especially for the Part III section. I definitely agree with the trend that we are seeing now in the U.S. and in many of the other developed countries (Europe, Japan, etc.), but what about the developing/emerging markets? Does this book compares/contrasts the US consumer, with say, the Chinese consumer, where “consumerism” is starting to gain traction? It seems to me that for any global firm to succeed, marketing should really be geared to this dichotomy of consumers across the globe and not just to this “new” consumer type.

    • 2 Cents says:

      I don’t recall any lengthy or direct comparisons, but there is a lot of data in the Appendix where answers to survey questions are broken down by country. There are 7 countries included, with a “Global” measure as well. China, the U.S., Brazil, France, Netherlands, U.K.,and Japan.

  12. Hi, Anthony. We include the data for some emerging economies in Consumed (Brazil, China, India) but the book focuses primarily on the more developed markets because those are the markets that have lived through hyperconsumerism and found it wanting. If you visit http://www.thenewconsumer.com, you’ll find two posts regarding modern consumerism in China; they contain insights from strategists at Euro RSCG. In coming weeks, we’re expecting to have posts with analysis from agency strategists in India and Japan, plus other markets.

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