How can you categorize consumers who keep remaking themselves?

By

Marcie Merriman

EY Americas Cultural Insights & Customer Strategy Leader

Student of human behavior, lover of transformative design. Living at the intersection of culture, commerce and technology to build human-centered experiences. Catalyst. Entrepreneur. Mom.

3 minute read 24 May 2018

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Consumers are using disruptive technologies and evolving social norms to define themselves in new ways.

If you wanted to sell soap powder in the 1950s, focusing on your target customer was easy. One fixed characteristic filtered out half the population: gender. Women bought the product, and women used it.

Today, US women still do twice as much housework as men. But traditionally assigned gender roles have changed. And the idea of gender itself has evolved. A binary distinction between male and female is not rich enough to reflect our lived experience. I think we’ll see more customer categories become increasingly irrelevant.

From the rise of ambiguous identities to advances in virtual reality and wider shifts in social structures, consumers are starting to reshape their lives. Our FutureConsumer.Now program is exploring the challenges and opportunities this will create.

We want to understand how the lives of future consumers could change, and what that means for companies now. I think many of today’s assumptions about consumer aspirations will no longer apply. In the years ahead, consumers will likely live longer and spend more of their time online, or in virtual realities. They’ll have more opportunities to shape and inhabit different identities.

Markers like nationality, social class or even their age could become more fluid, and have less influence on what consumers think, how they behave and what they value.

Perhaps there won’t be a “mass market” for consumer goods anymore; just a mass of individuals who are increasingly difficult to categorize, and who reinvent themselves from moment to moment, from platform to platform.

People will still want to gather in groups with like-minded people. But they will find them through technology and data and connect with them based on their shared values and interests rather than practical connections, such as living in the same area. Rather than being defined by markers such as gender, age or location, they will express themselves in ways that are more fluid and flexible.

In one of the future worlds we modeled at our hack week in Berlin, these groups – or “tribes” – broke down physical borders and formed their own communities, both real and virtual. They started to pool their purchasing power and demand a different relationship with brands.

Today, consumer-facing companies try to tailor offers and discounts that will appeal to individual consumers, based on their purchasing data – with varying degrees of skill and success. In the future, will products themselves be individualized?

Could consumer goods companies meet the individual needs of people in real time, rather than making assumptions about what they want based on what they bought a few months ago?

In two worlds modeled in our London and LA hacks, our teams explored the potential for vitamin-fueled, bespoke energy shots that were tailored 100% to the individual’s nutritional needs – manufactured at the point of sale to a recipe that reflected real-time biometric data.

I think the relationship between a consumer and retailer or manufacturer will matter just as much, if not more than, the product or service on offer. Value for money will shift to value for time, and consumers will only spend that time with the people, products and brands that meet their needs.  

In many of our future worlds, successful goods and services are those that are tailored to the needs and preferences of individuals, not to groups. But in the future these individuals will become harder to categorize. As people shift their priorities and their focus, brands will have to respond much faster to a changing audience.

Summary

Future consumers will use new technologies to reshape their sense of identity. The categories that companies use to understand consumers today will become less relevant.

About this article

By

Marcie Merriman

EY Americas Cultural Insights & Customer Strategy Leader

Student of human behavior, lover of transformative design. Living at the intersection of culture, commerce and technology to build human-centered experiences. Catalyst. Entrepreneur. Mom.