Stefano Augello
Jul 8, 2014

Marketing and the sharing economy: Get smart before someone else does

The rise of services like Airbnb and Uber reveals a new consumer trend toward sharing and reuse. Is it a threat or an opportunity?

Stefano Augello
Stefano Augello

Take out a pen and paper and start making an inventory of everything you own. How much of it do you use? How much do you want? How much do you really need?

I’m not just talking about hunting for a pair of trousers you haven’t worn in seven years or a picture frame you never unpacked. What about that drill you use only once every two years (and with generally embarrassing results)? How about your lawnmower? You didn’t even think those purchases were a good idea at the time—you knew they weren’t—but buying was your only option when you needed to use those goods.

Now, networking technology and shifting cultural mores allow us to investigate an alternative model: the sharing economy.

It’s natural to desire

Let’s start by dispelling the common myth that advertising is to blame for making us “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” The truth is, despite what we may think of our powers of persuasion, advertising is not all-powerful, and it has never been as much about “inventing desire” as about inventing responses to desires people already had.

The fundamental human motivations related to wants and needs are timeless. What has changed is the availability of new solutions to those old needs. A service such as Hong Kong’s LuxTNT.com, for instance, still gives you access to high-end designer handbags that let you stand out—but you rent them for three, seven or 30 days instead of buying and owning them.

Of course, this all could have happened 10 years ago. Why are we only talking about it now?

Events change minds

Environmental activists spent the best part of the last decade trying to persuade us to buy less, eat less, consume less…but they failed.

Then the financial crisis hit, and many people found themselves forced to downgrade and downscale. Unable to afford more, we rationalized sharing as having been the better option all along. This was the catalyst that changed our view of consumerism. It’s a shift confirmed by Havas Worldwide’s recent global study, The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy, which found that 46 per cent of consumers in 29 countries prefer to “share things rather than own them” and 56 per cent now resell or donate old goods rather than throwing them away.

While we’ve arrived at these views due to circumstance, it’s entirely possible that some of them will leave roots deep in our minds, and we won’t revert to the same old habits even once we have the means to do so. And just as the financial crisis gave millions of people the motivation to experiment with new consumption behaviours that may prove long-lasting, these new behaviours are motivating marketers to experiment with new go-to-market strategies. The decrease in consumer spending, combined with more open attitudes toward new economic models, has given marketers license to pursue innovation more radically than they would have in a stronger economy.

IKEA, for example, ran a two-week promotion that turned its Facebook page into a digital flea market, where customers could buy and sell their used IKEA furniture. The UK’s DIY leader, B&Q, created “Streetclubs,” a service that brings neighbours together to improve their communities, including sharing tools and other household items.

The lesson here: Conservative marketing culture tends to fixate on selling the same products and fulfilling the same needs, while underestimating how radically an alternative model can reshape whole industries and ultimately leave consumers better off. It’s time to shake those old habits.

A call for “smarter marketing”

There are plenty of people calling for “smarter consumption,” but let’s not absolve marketers of their responsibility. As long as human beings long for the “new and shiny” (which is to say, always), consumers will desire the new. To drive sustainability, it’s up to marketers to figure out how to make the old feel new, how to produce just enough to keep consumers happy and keep the market fresh, and how to make better use of the time and resources we liberate. That’s why “smarter marketing” is not just a moral call, it’s a competitive requirement.

It’s already happening. Some brands are finding success not just with the clichéd “doing more with less” but really “doing it better”:

  • While hotel groups were busy building more hotels—because that’s the business they saw themselves in—Airbnb created millions of accommodations without laying a single brick.
  • Shanghai Tang is giving young designers the chance to create up-cycled collections for China’s leading luxury brand, challenging them to cut waste out of fashion.
  • Drugstore chain Walgreens partnered with TaskRabbit, an online small-jobs marketplace, to deliver over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to customers unable to make it to the store, effectively growing a ubiquitous sales force without hiring a single new employee.
  • Zopa, the UK’s leading peer-to-peer lending service, has issued loans in the amount of £500 million without any branches or upfront capital.

An old marketing quote says, “People don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter-inch holes.” There are now more potential alternatives to drills than ever before—including the choice to not even buy one. So what’s the smarter way of giving consumers their quarter-inch hole?

Stefano Augello is Havas Worldwide’s chief strategy officer, Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter @stefanoaugello.

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