News & Views

Why consumers don't care

by Contagious Team

With Airbnb’s latest round of funding destined to make billionaires of the founders - the first to be spawned by a ‘sharing economy’ startup - a Cass Business School breakfast event provocatively titled Why consumers don’t care, don’t help, don’t save the environment and aren’t creative in London on 9 April, was certainly timely. 

Dr Fleura Bardhi, professor of marketing at Cass Business School, kicked off by sharing her research findings on access-based consumption, showing just how mainstream non-ownership has become. ‘Startups are disrupting traditional economies because you can live a life where you don’t have to own anything. In China you can even rent a dog or a family for the day,’ said Dr Bardhi.

But when people don’t own products, what is their relationship to them? Dr Bardhi’s research among 40 Zipsters (users of car-sharing service ZipCar) in Boston suggested that, far from being politically engaged, eco-conscious community-minded folk (an image suggested by the brand’s marketing, see picture) Zipsters in fact don’t tend to identify with the brand at all. Dr Bardhi said that in fact, because people don’t own the car, they didn’t relate to it and would behave in it in ways which they wouldn’t in a vehicle they owned, for instance smoking pot. 

She compared access-based consumption versus ownership to marriage versus an affair. One survey respondent, Ashley, said: ‘ZipCars are like hotel rooms… clean, anonymous, comfortable, but not really cosy’. Another, Chuck, went one stage further ‘You can just beat the hell out of it and you don’t have to change the oil.’

Dr Bardhi’s findings debunked myths around collaborative consumption: Zipsters didn’t want to hang out with each other in the same way as guests in a hotel room wouldn’t want to hang out with the room’s previous occupants. ‘It’s just a different way to access products,’ said Dr Bardhi. 

Dr Marius Luedicke, senior lecturer at Cass Business School, followed arguing the seemingly tricky proposition that driving a Hummer is good for the environment. Dr Luedicke expanded his title to consider how American consumers make moral sense of their resource-depletion consumption practices, referring back to the Everyman morality plays of the 15th Century, where the protagonist must account to God for the good and evil deeds in his life.   

Despite there being a host of Hummer haters - being just one example - Dr Luedicke explained the morality that American Hummer drivers identify with. Morals are multi-faceted, and while Hummer drivers may not align with the anti-gas guzzling lobby, they do subscribe to 'American exceptionalism' - the idea that Americans are always under siege and ready for action, stemming back to Pilgrim founding father John Winthrop's covenant with God when he landed in the US.

This idea allows Hummer drivers to pursue collective ideals. Examples such as the Red Cross Hummers shown above, with vehicles donated for rapid response by the brand, and Hummer drivers donating their time and resources in emergencies confirms that they are ready for anything and therefore choosing to drive this car can be a moral choice that benefits a wider community.

Dr Luedicke advised that marketers looking to deter Hummer drivers, or lure them with other vehicles, should offer this kind of audience alternative ways to affirm their 'American exceptionalism' and to avoid extreme positions that 'we're all going to hell in a handcart' that might be met with an extreme opposite reaction.

Dr Rhiannon MacDonnell, lecturer in marketing at Cass Business School, addressed how we respond to images of people in varying degrees of need. Perhaps illogically, her work had found that people were genuinely more responsive to people who were in moderate need as opposed to dire need. Images of starving children, for instance, evoked feelings of helplessness, paralysing people into feeling that they couldn’t do anything.

She advised marketers to be sensitive to issues of fairness when appealing to consumers because being on the receiving end of messages communicating intense need could be overwhelming, and therefore ineffective. She also suggested that the line of sight needs to be specifically linked to justice issues: if there’s a deep-rooted injustice, for instance, a particular position could be adopted by a marketer to help restore justice. Dr MacDonnell used Fairtrade goods as an example of how injustice can be redressed through purchases.

Finally, Dr Irene Scopellitti, lecturer in marketing at Cass, spoke about her research into why constraints can actually make people more creative. A massive 95% of the 30,000 products launched every year fail, but Scopellitti explained that the ones that survive are creative: both appropriate and novel.

Although offering people unlimited choice and encouraging them to 'think outside the box' can often lead to paralysis, Scopellitti's research found that adding creative constraints such as limiting the number of available materials or imposing a budget can actually lead to more creative solutions. Interestingly, the research discovered that the more innovative people are, the more they benefit from imposed constraints and the better their creative solutions. Her research involved asking chefs to devise recipes using either a limited number of ingredients or sticking to a certain budget and seeing how creative ideas for children's toys were when produced with a limited number of props or resources.  

Encouragingly, Scopellitti's research found that solutions devised under a constrained budget were just as creative as those solutions devised under other limitations, but with cheaper results. 

Motivation, morals and constraints play into all of these examples, alongside the importance to marketers of trying to understand complex and contrary consumer behaviour patterns.