Category Archives: Consumer trends

Check this out: Research methods on the Pokémon Go

Maybe the Pokémon Go craze has already peaked, but that does not mean we should stop thinking about what might be learned from it. What may Pokémon Go tell us about e.g. offline-online integration, in-game and through-game affordances or socialisation-through-gamification? And, importantly, how might we study Pokémon Go as such?

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The issue of the methodological opportunities and challenges that Pokémon Go poses has been  addressed by Clark & Clark (2016). They conclude that we may begin to understand the supercomplexity of the social intervention that is Pokémon Go by using mixed methods creatively.

‘The hipster effect’ (or: how to target the untargetable)

They have long beards and/or side-swept bangs, they wear plaid shirts, they ride bespoke longboards, they drink single-estate coffee. They are hipsters. They are anti-conformists, yet easily identifiable. They are anti-consumerists, yet one of the most coveted consumer groups. How does one identify a group of individualists and target a group that does not want to be targeted?

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If we think of hipsters through the lenses of segmentation, it is immediately clear that they can be delineated from other groups based on demographic traits that first and foremost have to do with age and dwelling place: hipsters are young(ish) and they are urban. Looking at the psychographic criteria, hipsters share the important personality trait of wishing to stand out from the crowd, which – somewhat paradoxically – leads them to share a number of lifestyle choices. Jonathan Toubal (2014) has termed this ‘the hipster-effect’: “[the] non-concerted emergent collective phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different.”

The history of the very term ‘hipster’ may illustrate this point. First used in the 1940s and ‘50s to denote a group of youths who searched for alternatives to the conformist and traditionalist lifestyles of their parents, it is now used somewhat pejoratively to point out a certain type of pretentious trendiness. Remember, the true hipster would never use the term about him- or herself – or rather, would only do so in deep irony. What unites hipsters across time, then, is the constant search for positions that are in opposition to the majority. This search makes the group dynamic and malleable, but hipsters (or whatever label might denote trendy anti-conformists at a given time) constantly end up grouping themselves around a limited number of anti-establishment alternatives; e.g. they prefer jazz when the majority listens to hip-hop, they drink beer when everyone else toasts in wine, they let their hair down and their beards grow when the mainstream is smoothed and groomed. And they end up being the perfect targets of certain types of products and certain forms of communication as their anti-conformist, anti-consumerist, and anti-commercial attitudes lead to identifiable consumption patterns and communication preferences.

The hipster, then, likes ideas and products that are definitely and defiantly not mainstream, but this actually leads to more, rather than fewer opportunities for organizations to target their business (be it commercial or otherwise) at hipsters. Hipsters like to stand out in a manner that demands a trained eye. To the outsider, a hipster may be wearing any old shirt, but other hipsters will recognise the unique details, specific cut or other ‘secret signs’ of the hipster uniform. Hipster brands, then, are not loud or glaringly obvious, but hold other and subtler attractions. This means that certain start-ups have great advantages in terms of reaching hipsters and may experience great benefits of this reach – as hipsters are almost by definition first movers. However, established brands may also become attractive to hipsters, especially if the brands are somehow on the wane or have an image that might need dusting-off. If the hipster can be convinced that s/he has (re-)discovered the brand, one has already come a long way towards reinvigoration.

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Hipsters, of course, are immune, if not outright allergic to traditional advertising, but given that they are very active communicators, they can be reached on various (digital/social) media platforms and by means of new and untraditional forms of marketing – not least word-of-mouth. Also, hipsters like quirky, tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive hints; communication that signals ‘insiderness’ – ‘I know that you know…and we are all playing around with it’. As when the clothing brand Khujo winks at ‘the shopping rebel’ or the microbrewer Brewdog crowdfunds its operations, inviting patrons to become shareholders – and ‘craft beer crusaders’ – through the ‘Equity for Punks’ initiative.

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A final word of warning, though: by the time you read this, the ‘real’ hipster is sure to be moving on to a new look and a different scene. The point, then, is not the content of the specific trend as we may spot it right now, but the constant act of trend spotting. The hipster effect means new targets constantly appear to those who know how to be in the know now…

The sharing economy

Is the sharing economy changing our modes of consumption? And beyond that, does it herald a new epoch of how we relate to each other and to the world? Is it the beginning of a new and more sustainable economic order as e.g. Rachel Botsman has argued?  Or is it, at best, more of the same and, at worst, a less rather than more responsible form of economic exchange as, for instance, suggested by Ehsan Zaffar? Before seeking to answer these highly charged and normative questions, we should probably take a sobering step back and simply ask: what is the sharing economy?

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Well, you have probably already heard the term plenty of times and you are most likely familiar with many of its specific manifestations. Services like Airbnb and Uber have become globally familiar brand names, but a plethora of more local (or at least smaller) initiatives are also blooming under the sharing economy umbrella: car sharing, redistribution of used clothes, books and the like, knowledge sharing…it seems only our imagination sets the limits. If you can think it, you can share it. But how? The sharing economy operates on the principle of creating possibilities for consumers to either share products or collaborate in processes. Or, in Botsman’s definition, the sharing economy is “an economic system based on sharing underused assets or services, for free or for a fee, directly from individuals.”

While there are some quibbles about definitions – when is something ‘collaborative’, ‘sharing’ or ‘on-demand’? – the basic model of the for-profit participants in this system is to find some way of making money out of facilitating contact between those who have an underused asset and those who need to use it.

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In one sense, there is nothing new or particularly revolutionary about this. After all, libraries are not exactly a recent invention, flea markets have existed for centuries and in some local communities there are long-standing traditions of borrowing from each other, just as ‘housesitting’ was hardly invented by Airbnb. However, because of technological innovations that free peer-to-peer transactions from previous constraints of time and space, the scale and scope of sharing is now greater than ever. The sharing economy, we might say, is the barter society gone online. Thus, what is different is not the act of sharing, but the mode of doing so – and the challenges (as well as the opportunities) this creates for traditional businesses. As an example, traditional players of the transportation industry, e.g. car manufacturers, rental companies and delivery services, are being challenged by new actors who base their business on the sharing model. In response, a number of the traditional companies have adopted sharing initiatives of their own; e.g. BMW forms part of the DriveNow car sharing initiative, Avis has acquired the car sharing network ZipCar and DHL has created the MyWays app that connects people who do not have time to pick up their parcels at a service point with people who would like to earn some money by delivering a parcel to the recipient’s address of choice.

So, is this a new beginning for how we consume, a new economic order? Well, the sharing economy does present new forms of exchange, but these can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As Chris Martin (2016) shows, the sharing economy is currently framed in at least six ways: as (1) an economic opportunity; (2) a more sustainable form of consumption; (3) a pathway to a decentralised, equitable and sustainable economy; (4) creating unregulated marketplaces; (5) reinforcing the neoliberal paradigm; and, (6) an incoherent field of innovation.  Further, big business’ current appropriation of the sharing economy, consumers’ tendency to combine sharing with traditional consumption (and not with less consumption), the controversy caused by Uber and similar events show that there is nothing inherently sustainable in the sharing economy – instead, its effects depend on how organizations and consumers alike make use of the new opportunities it offers.