Ringmasters and Conspicuous Consumption

The role of the Marketer is more than a simple Director who brings many players to act in coordination; more than even a Conductor orchestrating harmonies in real time; the role is that of a circus Ringmaster who has the master plan; has crafted the content sequenced in cadences; and manages the performance wrestling then ceding control to the actors and audiences. Their success depends on their ability to keep the performance in balance without interrupting the flow; and on their ability to exert influence without robbing the audience of unpredictability and interaction. All great performances are rife with tension: consumers choose a great brand not because of what they know, but in spite of what they know.

In the circus that is marketing in China and across emerging markets in Asia, I seek comfort in structure, clearly assigned roles and well defined ecosystems – they are the best panacea to the daily mayhem.

It was in the context of ordering some of this chaos that I was thinking about the cycle of “conspicuous consumption” – this is an inflection point in the development of all emerging markets and categories that splits the winners from the losers and one that demands a complex orchestration of messages and actors.

Conspicuous consumption is “the buying of things, especially expensive things, that are not necessary to one’s life, and which are done in a way that will make people take notice of the spending of money.” It is a term coined by Thorstein Veblon in 1899 – at the height of an explosion of wealth, post industrial revolution, and around the time that many of Europe’s now iconic brands like Hermes, Dunhill, Burberry and Louis Vuitton were formed. The cycle’s tension exists because success by one metric – sales growth – leads to “over consumption”, blind consumption, that eventually robs a brand of its intrinsic value.

In emerging markets most consumers are driven by value as a differentiator. As people acquire relative wealth, they use their purchase behavior to symbolize success. As more people move into the middle class and adopt “conspicuous consumption” to mimic those richer than themselves, the behavior becomes unfashionable. In the space of just a few years brands become too coveted by too many consumers willing to buy them and their value becomes muted.

In China we’re beginning to see some desire for inconspicuous consumption. Sophisticated consumers are shifting away from the obvious “symbolic” brands and seeking brands with subtler codicil. Consumers however need help to build this more intimate appreciation – they need information, stories and access from brands if they are going to become capable of shifting their affection. If seduced and romanced by brands, inconspicuous style becomes the new fashion.

There are two critical rules for brands entering this inflection point: Firstly do not to get caught as the idol of conspicuous consumption without an exit strategy; and secondly learn how to architect multi-layered stories and information to fuel context for inconspicuous enjoyment among a minority; or, even better, across multiple minorities.

This second lesson – the need to architect brand and product stories in a more sophisticated  and structured way – is where many brands and agencies currently fail. Most brands underestimated how much information and minutiae consumers want – and how much they need. An Avon salesperson in China told me recently that consumers are voracious, they want to know the ingredients, where they came from and how they made the product better – far more information than in western markets. Part of the information hunger comes because people have not been brought up with these brands through their childhood, so they lack the million little signs that help build the magic of brands over time.

So, the brands that are succeeding now are those that are taking the opportunity to reimagine themselves from the eyes of the consumers themselves; those that create new ways of telling their stories, those that educate people about their brands in multiple layers, across multiple channels; architect a brand ecosystem that people can navigate by themselves – or with the guidance and gumption of a Marketing Ringmaster who can help orchestrate which content reaches which audience at the right time.

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