How would you sell to people who never buy anything?

By Florian Huber

EY Europe West Sustainability Co-Leader; EYCarbon Co-Founder and Leader

Transformation enthusiast. Connector. Entrepreneur and mentor. Conference speaker. Softball and handball fan. Family lover. Father of 4.

5 minute read 5 Jul 2018

More future consumers will delegate purchase decisions or choose “on-demand” services. Discover insights from our Berlin hackathon.

Digital technologies have given people unprecedented levels of transparency, choice and convenience. But this is nothing compared to what will happen over the next decade. Imagine a future in which people buy almost nothing; instead, they use artificial intelligence to make purchases on their behalf, or pool their resources with agents who source whatever their tribe or community needs. Is that plausible? What business concepts could succeed in that sort of future?

An encounter with a “touchable” version of a future scenario is a quick and powerful way to kick-start creative answers to such questions. That’s why I was so excited to lead an EY hackathon in Berlin where we created and explored multiple possible futures as part of our FutureConsumerNow program.

  • How are we hacking the future consumer?

    With FutureConsumer.Now EY is helping business leaders make their organizations fit for a very different future, by thinking differently about the future

    Research and interviews with global innovators, futurists, business leaders and EY specialists identified over 150 drivers that could shape the future consumer.

    We used those drivers to create eight powerful hypotheses. Each one relates to a key aspect of the future consumer: how people will shop, eat, stay healthy, live, use technology, play, work and move.

    We then held a series of innovative hackweeks around the world to explore these hypotheses further and to model the kind of future worlds they might create. These took place in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mumbai.

    We invited an eclectic mix of futurists, entrepreneurs, business leaders and EY specialists to these events. Over the course of a week, they used the 150 change drivers and eight hypotheses to model three alternative versions of the future.

    The experience of creating these ‘future consumer worlds’ helped participants anticipate the direction of travel and the implications – and opportunities – for business today. It challenged all their assumptions about what it takes for a consumer-facing business to succeed – today and in the years ahead.

    By the end of the hack, they were better prepared to stay relevant as consumers evolve, and to shape that evolution.

We modeled a world in which consumers share all their data for the greater good of society and privacy is regarded as selfish; one where people make choices to maximize their quality of life while technologies show them the wider impact of everything they do; and a world in which people decide to limit what they own and instead subscribe to services that help them live a fluid, “on-demand” lifestyle. It was one of the most rewarding and challenging weeks of my career.

Life today is shaped by unprecedented levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In response, most organizations are trying to become more agile. That is an important mission, but to thrive in this new environment on a human level – both as business leaders and simply as regular people – we need something more: we need to experience possible futures now. Then we can familiarize ourselves with the forces driving change, prepare ourselves and our organizations for what might be to come, and actively shape the future we want.

Five insights from the future worlds we generated:

  1. Learn how to impress a bot. They will do most of the buying.
  2. When consumers can objectively measure product benefits, pricing will be about results.
  3. People living in virtual realities will need virtual products.
  4. On-demand service will be too slow for “before-demand” consumers.
  5. Engage empowered consumers. They will become the most powerful influencers.

To learn more about the three worlds we created in Berlin and the possible implications for consumer-facing companies, read on.

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Chapter 1

Society first

Consumers share their data for the sake of society.

Consumers share all their data for the greater good of society; privacy is regarded as selfish.

Data is already transforming the way we live. Look at the number of people using wearable technologies to track and share data about their fitness and wellbeing. If a chip in your arm could give you richer data – without you even thinking about it – then why not? And why not use that chip to gather and share information about much more than how far you ran this morning?

  • Questions for leaders

    • If mental health optimization is a critical objective in shaping the consumer environment, how will your organization excel in that area without creating a “Big Brother” culture?
    • How will you show that your products meet the healthy lifestyle needs of your core customers?

Some people do this already, as it’s a convenient way to share objective and real-time data with your physician. Their health data can be pooled and shared with pharma companies that are trying to develop new drugs and treatments. Sharing data in this way is not just for the private good, it serves the wider public.

This idea of public-spirited data sharing could extend into other areas of life. In Berlin we imagined a future world where everyone in a city makes their private data publicly available so it can be used to optimize every aspect of their lives – from more efficient transport systems, to better healthcare and improved education for all. Sharing data becomes a key step in tackling global or societal issues like poverty and climate change.

Analysis of the collective data pool would shape every decision.

In this world, every consumer purchase – or act of government – would be based on data and rational logic, not intuition, emotions or brand appeal. Crime would fall, because everything would be tracked. It would be a utilitarian world. Successful brands would be those that offered functional value. The desire for individuals to self-actualize would be perfectly balanced against the need to maximize the good of all.

I don’t think this world is for me though. It could require a huge sacrifice of personal choice, and even freedom. But I can see that it would appeal to some people who saw that as a price worth paying.

It would require a deep cultural shift in terms of attitudes to privacy. But a major social disruption – such as a health or environmental crisis – could force a sudden change to a completely new paradigm. We’d need new data standards for smart city infrastructure. There would be huge opportunities for trusted infrastructure owners, data analysts, technology platforms and companies that have the agility to adapt and modify products quickly.

New kinds of partnership would form with the healthcare, life sciences and consumer products sectors working together.

The biggest opportunities would be for companies that establish strong partnerships which combine two sources of value: a trusted authority and infrastructure owner; a data provider that also has the technology platform needed to reach large masses of population. We could see deeper collaborations between innovators and government; digital network and schools; pharmaceutical companies and the transhumanism movement.


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Chapter 2

Waste nothing

Consumers prioritize environmental and social sustainability.

Consumers make choices to maximize their quality of life and can see the wider impact of everything they do.                                     

Many people already prioritize environmental or social sustainability when they make purchasing decisions. But organic and “clean” labels are often less productive than mainstream alternatives, and in the years ahead it will become ever more difficult to feed a growing global population. Agricultural productivity is falling, the stock of land that could be used for food production is diminishing, and climate change is a growing concern.

Today it can take 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of beef. In Berlin, we imagined a future world in which this approach to food production would be unacceptable, where near-total supply chain transparency would mean an end to battery-farmed poultry.

The quality of food available to Berliners would still be very high. And much of it would be new and delicious forms of plant protein. But supply chains would need to become much shorter. Agriculture would shift from being a rural activity to an urban one. (Berlin is already a city with a record of innovation in urban farming.)

With land, energy and water becoming increasingly scarce, excessive consumption and waste would be socially unacceptable in this future world.

People would think differently about how they use their time, what they eat, their impact on the planet, and who they spend their time with. The desire to live in sustainable communities would shape consumer behavior. New technologies will make it easier for people to find, connect and collaborate with peers who share their values. Purpose-driven “tribes” would emerge. They would be attractive propositions for brands that provide the products, services and solutions that reflect the values of the tribe.

  • Questions for leaders

    • How will you service the needs of this next generation of buyers?
    • How will you communicate with them without any packaging?
    • In a world of transparency, do you need different supply chains for different tribes?
    • Will suppliers limit themselves to a single channel?
    • How do you shape your brand if the impact of your products is transparent?

In Berlin, we explored how new forms of self-governing community might evolve. This would be a world of smart homes, urban farming and no carbon fuels. Money would be only one measure of value. The wealth of the community and its members would be tracked in other ways, like how much time people had for non-work activities, or how happy people felt.

These community-spirited people would pool their resources and spending power, delegating most of their purchases to agents – either AI bots or human agents. To do business with them, companies would need to build deep and lasting relationships with these buyers.

There are two interesting areas of value in this world:

  • Own the contextual knowledge: Fewer consumers will make buying decisions based on immediate and short-term drivers that can be influenced by conventional marketing nudges. Instead, collective buyers will act on behalf of the community and in a way that reflects its agreed values. Companies that engage with emerging tribes at a deep level and reflect their values will be in a strong position to dominate the market.
  • Own the physical infrastructure: This world would need an infrastructure that enables urban farming to co-exist with living/working spaces. Technology will be mostly invisible, so the physical home will need to become smart. There are opportunities for companies that can lead the transition from dumb infrastructure to a connected smart environment, such as integrating energy production and enabling automated delivery.
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Chapter 3

Home anywhere

Consumer prefer on-demand services over traditional ownership.

Consumers consciously limit what they own and instead subscribe to services that help them live a fluid, on-demand lifestyle.

The rapid adoption of robotics and process automation is going to transform the way people work, and the kind of work that’s available. It’s happening already in some parts of the economy. We’re also seeing the emergence of “asset-lite” lifestyles – instead of paying to own assets, people are paying to use them (imagine the “Uber of Everything”).

The less people own, the less anchored they are to any one place. In Berlin, we envisaged a world in which more people will work as footloose freelancers, with the old lines between home and work eroding. In fact, they would feel “at home” wherever they happened to be, and would expect their service providers to recognize this automatically. Deliveries would be made to your current location, seamlessly. More products – like shoes – would be sent to you as instructional code, for you to “manufacture” yourself on a 3D printer.

  • Questions for leaders

    • How can we build trust between humans and AI that is strong enough for AIs to autonomously make decisions regarding privacy?
    • If consumers demand the ability to pay with more than money (such as data, time and skills), how can we fairly evaluate its value and how would business models need to change to incorporate this type of transaction?
    • Will a single player be able to manage consumer experiences across online, offline, work and leisure?
    • How could a company position itself in order to be trusted enough to take this role? 
    • How will you adapt your products to become services-based solutions?

Better transport systems and seamless ways of working while on the move could make travel time highly productive, not wasteful. At the more extreme end, nomadic professionals will move from country to country as they please.

Today, a virtual currency like bitcoin is replacing traditional currencies for some transactions. For this future world, we imagined entirely new kinds of currency. People might pay for products or services with a packet of their personal data or their time, if its value could be agreed and assured.

Anything consumers used or owned would have to be tailored to their specific context and needs – and they’d willingly share all their data with a company that could make that happen.

A lot would have to change for this world were to come about. Mobility on this scale would require a global tax overhaul. Multiple virtual currencies would need new business models. The human/AI interface would need to be seamless as more transactions happen through artificial intelligence.

Where’s the value?
  • Provide experiences that are joyful but improve the consumer’s innate capabilities
  • Morph environments to suit the customer’s needs rather than choosing the optimal environment
  • Provide the energy required to operate AIs and mine blockchain systems
  • Own the physical infrastructure in which services perform
  • Collect and manage data across leisure and work to optimize them harmoniously
  • Identify rich insights from low-fidelity metadata to offer low entry-point services to new customers
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Chapter 4

Five ways to win now

How business leaders can succeed now.

The three worlds we modeled in Berlin are all very different from each other. But here are five underlying insights that will help business leaders to succeed now:

  1. Learn how to impress a bot. They will do most of the buying. Unless you’re selling one of the very few products or services that people will actively shop for, in the future you’re likely to be doing business with a bot. They will make buying decisions based on data and fact, not emotion or instinct. Marketing strategies will need to change fundamentally. If you want to bypass the bots, and engage actual consumers, your offer will need to become super-engaging, and personalized to their unique needs and context.
  2. When consumers can objectively measure product benefits, pricing will be about results. From younger skin to better health, from a better partner to a higher paying job, consumers will use data and AI to judge whether the products and services they buy actually deliver the promised results. They’ll use this information when they think about whether the price they are asked to pay is fair. Companies would need to rethink their marketing claims. Is your business engaging with the technologies and startups that are working out how to measure effectiveness?
  3. People living in virtual realities will need virtual products. Future consumers will spend more of their time immersed in augmented and virtual realities. Games such as Second Life have already enabled people to develop better online selves. Newer platforms – like Sansar, from the company behind Second Life – enable people to build and inhabit virtual living environments. As this market develops, demand will grow for digital products that consumers use to enhance their VR environment.
  4. On-demand service will be too slow for “before-demand” consumers. Future consumers will expect a predictive shopping experience. The companies that meet their needs will understand their habits, movements and preferences. From a latte on the way to a meeting (without having to order or wait) to arriving at a vacation home in the mountains to find the fridge already filled with their favorite groceries. To achieve this speed companies will need to invest in data and AI capabilities that “connect the dots” and predict consumer needs in ways that confer competitive advantage.
  5. Engage empowered consumers. They will become the most powerful influencers. The more empowered and informed future consumers become, the more they will trust each other to recommend products and services – especially when it comes to questions like whether a product aligns with their personal values. In a way, consumers will have come full circle to where they were before the age of mass consumptions and advertising – taking recommendations from people in their ”community” and buying from local traders and craftspeople. But the notion of communities, the reach of influencers, and the accessibility of products will be global in the future. Companies will need to balance this global context with the need to engage influencers who can help them appeal to the shared values of distinct communities.

The goal is to trigger and accelerate transformation now.

Some of the worlds we created have aspects I personally find quite appealing. Others less so. But we are not imagining ideal future utopias, we are taking trends that are apparent today and extrapolating them to model the kind of plausible futures that might emerge. What kind of consumers will live in these worlds? Where will companies create value? What action will it take now, to ensure your business is relevant tomorrow?

The worlds we created are interesting and provocative, but to get the real benefit you have to experience them. So, we’re creating a series of immersive experiences that will give business leaders the ability to “touch” alternative futures, and then develop the ideas this experience sparks in design-thinking sessions and rapid prototyping/testing.

It takes time to build new capabilities, shift a corporate culture and get a team moving. And it’s always difficult to take bold action when the consumer context is changing so quickly. The only easy decision – which is invariably the wrong one – is to do nothing.


As shopping and buying become increasingly distinct activities, companies will have to rethink how they engage future consumers, and what goods and services they offer.

About this article

By Florian Huber

EY Europe West Sustainability Co-Leader; EYCarbon Co-Founder and Leader

Transformation enthusiast. Connector. Entrepreneur and mentor. Conference speaker. Softball and handball fan. Family lover. Father of 4.