Powerful forces are changing how consumers think and act. As we look out over the next 15 years, we can highlight critical shifts that will change the way branding, marketing, producing, advertising, and retailing are done. Winning businesses will reckon with these forces by transforming how they produce, market, and sell their goods. It won’t be enough to just make minor adjustments—we will have to get beyond the low-hanging fruit.
What are the changes? Here are six:
1. More consumers will be born digital – The next generations of consumers include the tens of millions of today’s children who have lived their lives digitally—most of that time with a mobile phone in their hands. Even before they got a phone, they probably had Xbox, Wii, or Playstation, or a parent’s device.
They were born digital, and are growing up digital. They have habits and expectations on how they want to communicate with people and systems. Their digital lives are social too, with instant connections and inputs from their friends and “friends” being integral to what they do in the marketplace.
The bottom line for business. It’s time to look at the consumer differently, to recognize that the consumer’s interactions with you and your products and services are part of a bigger picture of his or her digital life. You cannot expect to do well with the born-digital consumer if you lag behind their routine expectations from technology and for social-connectedness. Growing up with video and computer games means the digitally-born expect the systems they use to be multi-sensory and interactive—that they can communicate with gestures, not just a keyboard. That they can touch a screen and scroll, zoom, and so on. Why should the systems they find in the marketplace in 2026 be less intuitive, interactive, and lively than their Xbox 360 or Wii?
2. Enjoying continuous digital access – Living a digital life means carrying a mobile device that gives people ubiquitous access to the ‘net. Most well-off people have that and far more have basic mobile communications with at least texting (SMS) capability. And with that is the power of social networking, which changes the dynamics of what people do while connected.
Network access, instant information, and social connections will be part of nearly everything people do. In their consumer lives, they will be essential tools and powerful influencers of what people want and buy. New information tools and channels will submerge traditional media—and advertising, in a cacophony of new, powerful influences.
The bottom line for business. Selling will be about tapping into social networks, harnessing buzz, finding what resonates with specific groups. You will need to find consumers in the cloud—you can’t wait for them to enter your store, whether that’s a brick and mortar building or a website.
Consumers will become even more “brand fickle”—the forces of digital communications, social networks, and the pace of change in the marketplace move them off of long-term brand loyalty. You will be able to win over consumers to your products, but it will be hard to keep them.
3. The focus is shifting to market niches of one (“N = 1”) – The consumer’s interest is in his or her individuality. Consumers have come to focus on themselves and business has supported that. Consumers care about their uniqueness and specific needs, and expect the products and services they use to fit closely to that uniqueness. This value is integral to US Baby Boomer sensibility, and America’s younger generations, steeped in it too, and are even more likely to have the digital tools and habits to do something about it. They won’t just crave it, they will have lived it.
The bottom line for business. The “N = 1” shift results in changed relationships: firm to individual consumer, instead of firm to market niche or mass market. Ultimately, consumers want to have a hand in creating, or at least identifying and fine-tuning the products businesses offer them. The relationship becomes two-way. Each sale will be about showing the consumer you recognize who she is and how your product fits her uniqueness.
4. We’ll be “free range” shopping – Anywhere/anytime network access leads to what I like to call “free-range shopping”. You don’t have to be at a shopping place to buy things, you can do that wherever you are, and increasingly, you want to. One key reason: encountering products out in the world shows them at their truest and best, and that’s probably when you recognize how they might fit your needs.
Because products have a digital life too, it will be possible to take a mobile phone picture and automatically identify the product for purchase. Consumers will embrace this ability, freeing them to find and choose products whenever and wherever they want. And they will be impatient with sellers who don’t make it that easy. Meanwhile, smart speakers add another tool to anywhere (or at least anytime) shopping: voice-command ordering.
The bottom line for business. Since the consumer lives in and wants to shop in the cloud, you will have to make more mobile purchases possible. Brick and mortar stores can continue to offer thorough, immersive experiences that are hard to replace, but convenience and ubiquitous access will often trump the qualities of store shopping. Finding ways to tie the physical with the virtual will pay off, but often brick and mortar stores will be the show-rooms for people who want to touch a product before they buy it. But does having them in the store guarantee that store gets the sale? And where else should your products appear? The answer is, everywhere.
5. We are reconsidering consumption – More consumers show at least some post-materialist values in their consumption and that value will grow. That means that they at least sometimes think, “Why do I want more stuff?” and make choices that are not about having more material goods.
They focus instead on how what they consume improves the quality of their lives. Consumers other values into this too, including interests in the environment and social justice. The “sharing economy” idea, notably seen with urban car, bike, and scooter sharing, shows how quickly not owning things can take hold.
Post-materialist thinking may mean consuming differently, not necessarily less. For example, more people want a new, authentic experience in what they consume, not just the latest product. But that could mean buying more expensive, more authentic, and higher quality things, such as hand-crafted clothing or furniture, or patronizing businesses that add a lot of personalized service and customization to their products.
The bottom line for business. More consumers will want products that offer them something special: greater feelings of safety, wellbeing, a match to their values, authenticity, a new experience, and overall, a product that adds to the quality of their lives. They may look hard at your full value chain, not just the end product. While people will continue to buy mass-produced commodity products—ordinary things that don’t aspire to offer much beyond basic utility, it’s dangerous to assume that changing values won’t matter to consumers for your products. They will.
6. More are greening it up – Soon regulatory and social pressures will meet economic pressures to drive greener lifestyles. People are already subject to local recycling laws and often laws relating to their use of energy and water resources. But higher prices are an even surer way to wake up consumers to the need to conserve, reuse, etc.
The bottom line for business. Though it’s not a majority of consumers who are acting on green values as they consume, plenty are. And sometimes the green option is the choice when two choices are otherwise about equal. At some point a company’s overall profile is a critical brand attribute, and if that profile looks anti-green in the marketplace, that company loses. Sustainable practices will be an integral part of corporate processes and a prominent brand matter. And the sustainability bar is regularly raised, as we gain knowledge and awareness of what matters.
Conclusion: A lot of change is unfolding now and will probably accelerate in the next five to ten years, reshaping the competitive landscape for producers, distributors, and retailers. This is not a time to wait and see—it’s time now for business to game out the possibilities and figure out how to win in the new competitive arena that’s emerging.
Note: part of my work is to lead groups in workshops exploring how the future consumer will shape their businesses. I also present to trade and corporate groups on this and related topics. Contact me for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Tia Henriksen, via Flickr, CC attribution license.