'The Millennial Consumer Values Access, Not Ownership' | A Q&A With Ken Hughes

12 October 2017

One of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, with over 15 years’ experience as CEO of a consumer insight agency, Ken Hughes helps his largely blue-chip client base better understand the needs of the future consumer and to find their creative and innovative niche.

Blending his understanding of consumer psychology, shopper immersion, digital anthropology and retail futurology, he is able to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.

We asked him to share some of his fascinating insights with us!

Hi Ken. Tell us – what does the role of a consumer shopper behaviourist involve?

Ultimately, it means that I’m a social scientist studying why consumers behave the way they do, why they buy, and how we can make them buy more.

I started in a marketing research agency, and I quickly realised that there’s no point studying markets (market research is a funny old word!) because it’s all about people, and I was interested in the psychology of why people behave the way that they do. I would blend a lot of the social sciences, behavioural economics, archaeology, anthropology, digital anthropology, and neural marketing, to understand why people do the things that they do, and then apply that to brands.

I work all over the world, developing strategies for brands in terms of where the future is going, where new consumerism is going, and how we can continuously add value in those new economies to those new consumers.

The fundamentals of businesses satisfying customers is to deliver value – and what is valuable has continuously changed every 15-20 years

How has what consumers value changed over time?

If you look at the baby-boomers post-World War 2, they valued availability - just ‘having stuff’ after the rationing. Then, mass production and mass consumption were fuelled in the 60s, and price became a value – with relatively luxury goods available at lower prices than they had ever been before. In the 90s, good quality became important, in addition to that low price.

Nowadays, convenience is what is valued. For millennial consumers, everything must be seamless, frictionless and just one click away.

It's important to understand that what value is changes continuously from a consumer’s point of view. What I do is continuously study existing and new consumers and prepare businesses for the challenges that lie ahead. I help them restructure their business, their service, their way of working to continuously deliver that value.

What is the future consumer interested in?

There’s a scary thing happening in consumerism because the next generation – Generation Z particularly and probably half of millennials – want access to what they want, rather than ownership. Spotify, AirBnB and Uber are obvious examples – they give you access to what you need, but you never actually own the products. We’ve gone from owning cassettes and CDS to owning digital music to now streaming.

Unlike for the baby boomers in post-World War 2, who valued ownership of things as a sign of status, and Generation X, who were reared by those individuals to have the same sort of values, the next generation want something different, they want to share a car, to share a holiday home, etc.

This is a huge challenge to consumerism, as the entire consumerist capitalist society is built on “I will make stuff and I will sell it to you”.

The next generation are 'blue dot consumers'. They expect everything to happen with just one click.

How is this affecting industries, and what changes are they making as a result?

Take clothing for example. We now have companies like Le Tote , a subscription service for clothes targeted towards the female market, which has flipped the value proposition for clothing. Rather than buying clothing to have in your wardrobe, a lot of which you might rarely wear, you instead pay $80 a month and get sent items every month in the post chosen based on who you are. These are always on trend and on season, and you send them back at the end of the month without having to wash them. It gives you access to new looks and the items that you want, but you don’t have to own them.

Another example is the car industry. Millennials are the first generation that doesn't value car ownership. In the States particularly, owning your first pick-up truck used to be a big deal, but, nowadays, the 17- and 18-year-olds coming out of Generation Z know that they will need to own it, insure it, tax it, when they could instead turn to Uber and car-sharing. So the car industry has completely flipped from building cars to sell to building cars for car-sharing pools.

Banks used to make their money out of mortgages, of 40-year loans, but the next generation want geographical freedom – they want to change homes, change jobs, move all over the world. The mortgage product doesn’t do that.

It’s the same with the pension product. We’re all going live longer and have different careers – and you’ll need that pot of money every time you change careers. So the pension product that pays out at the end of a life is going to change.

What key takeaways do you want your audience to take away with?

One of the first things is to put the consumer at the centre - in a way that we’ve never done before.

I use the metaphor of an old roadmap. If you take an old roadmap out and spread it out, to make that work, you need to know where you are on this map - because otherwise, it’s just a bit of paper! You also need to know exactly where on the map that you want to go. You need to know the geographical points already, so that you can navigate your way from A to B.

That’s the way that old technologies and old businesses were built. We built them on where we know we are and where we know the consumer is, and that’s the line that we used to draw between two things.

But the next generation are ‘blue dot consumers’ (think about that blue dot on your Google maps). They don’t need to know where they’re going because they are the world, they’re at the middle, and everything is shown from their perspective.

Blue dot consumers assume everything that happens is all about them. They expect everything to happen with just one click; they don’t understand why brands don’t respond to their Twitter question within 30 seconds. They have grown up in a culture that has placed them at the middle. They go online, and people respond as if they know them and suggest things that they might like. They go into a physical store, and nobody knows who they are. So that’s a key challenge for brands.

Secondly, people always talk to me about disruption. What’s the next big disruptive thing? I always tell them that’s why it’s called disruption, because we have no idea! It would be called predictive change if we knew what it was!

Just as the smartphone came along and disrupted everything, the driverless car will come along and disrupt everything beyond what the smartphone has done. It will change how we move around the world, how we distribute our goods and services, and they'll be a huge ripple effect that we don't fully understand - just like we didn't really understand the smartphone.

It’s exciting, but also terrifying.

Scary stuff indeed! Thanks Ken.

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