Feb 18, 2008

Commodity vs Experience

New York Times columnist David Brooks, author of the most excellent BoBos In Paradise, had a fascinating column last week that deserves some exploration from a marketing POV.

Although the column itself was a take on the Hillary vs. Obama contest, Brooks framed it in terms of how our increasingly class-based society has bifurcated retail shopping into two very different experiences.

The first, which he calls "Commodity Providers" deliver just that: the product you want at a low price, no bells and whistles. Brooks uses the Safeway supermarket chain as his example, though just about every industry has its equivalent: Walgreens, Airtran, Holiday Inn.

The second are "Experience Providers" - all the brands I call "Prom King Brands" plus all the other BoBo (Bohemian Bourgeois) faves: Starbucks, Apple, W Hotels, Virgin - where the retail experience is just that: an experience.

Now Brooks attributes this to liberal guilt:
They want an uplifting experience so they can persuade themselves that they’re not engaging in a grubby self-interested transaction. They fall for all that zero-carbon footprint, locally grown, community-enhancing Third Place hype. They want cultural signifiers that enrich their lives with meaning.
But I don't really buy that. I think that for this cohort, shopping is just plain entertainment. They have enough money that paying $5 for a coffee drink or $1500 for a laptop computer isn't really that big a deal. And if they're going to be spending their hard-earned money on things, they want to be entertained while they're doing it. Experiential marketers make them feel special. They add a certain value that allows the BoBos to justify the extra $4 they just spent on a Venti Caramel Latte. So in a sense, it's all about entitlement, not guilt.

But either way, what's telling here is how quickly we are moving towards a two-part society. Now mind you, there's no hard line and people will move across the barrier depending on what's important to them or what's more convenient at the moment. But the either/or framework of this division is of great importance to marketers. People seem to want one or the other and to identify with their choice. It's a phenomenon that seems destined to extend beyond the retail industry into just about every sort of product out there. The upper classes get the image-drive experiential products and services while the rest of the population gets the no-frills generics. Psychologically that drives us farther apart than ever, farther apart than Hillary vs. Obama.

Something to think about, for sure.

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