Alex Steer

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Can buying feel more like making?

644 words | ~3 min

You Are Not An Artisan is a cracking long read from Venkatesh Rao's Ribbonfarm blog. In short it argues cogently that younger (Millennial) people, especially in developed markets like the US, apply consumer-style judgements to their choice of career, which leads them disproportionately to seek out careers that feel creative or artisanal. It's a much more cogent analysis, in a single post, than older work on the concept of a creative class.

This bit of the post caught my eye:

The future of work looks bleaker than it needs to for one simple reason: we bring consumption sensibilities to production behavior choices. Even our language reflects this: we “shop around” for careers. We look for prestigious brands to work for. We look for “fulfillment” at work. Sometimes we even accept pay cuts to be associated with famous names. This is work as fashion accessory and conversation fodder.

This interested me because it also applies the other way round.

A couple of years ago when I was working with The Futures Company on what eventually became their research stream on leading-edge Millennials, we observed that decisions about consumption and brand choice were strongly influenced by feelings about productive creativity. This was true of Millennials more than of older consumers, and especially of 'leading-edge' Millennials (what you might call hipsters if you're feeling unkind).

In other words, Millennials  bring production sensibilities to consumption. They seek out consumption choices that reflect their desire not just to be seen as creative (that's the cruel interpretation) but to feel as if they are creating. And, in particular, to be creating artisanally. They are disproportionately willing to choose brands that reflect an artisanal work ethic.

This has been noticed to some extent by marketers but has not much been applied with specific reference to leading-edge Millennials (who are an oversaturated target market but a lucrative one). It tends to come out either in terms of ideas like 'crowdsourcing' (which very, very rarely produces much of value beyond PR headlines and the odd gimmicky competition), or in terms of embracing a general 'authenticity' aesthetic - typically, re-doing all your shops in wood and leather, putting out some ads about how you support local farmers, and leaving it at that.

To make the most of this tendency, brands would need to start thinking of themselves, for this audience, less as producers of finished products and more as enablers of artisanal craftsmanship. There are plenty of brands that are well set up to do this - think anything in homeware, consumer electronics, cookery, spirit alcohol, or anything else with a 'do-it-yourself' aspect - but few are making the most of it, largely due to the fact that the economics of those industries are heavily weighted towards the mass market.

As for the brands that make more of their revenue from leading-edge Millennials (ahem, 'cool' brands), their operational and marketing models tend to be a bad fit for this way of thinking. Ironically, most of these involve ultra-refined material production with end-to-end supply chain control (think sportswear, shoes, personal computers, smartphones, etc.) and have maintained their credentials due to some fairly heavy-duty brand management. Neither of these lend themselves easily to rendering up control of product, process or brand experience in any way, let alone giving people the raw materials and letting people hack around with them in fundamental ways.

One day, some major brand is going to nail this one, but it will take a disproportionate amount of courage to slam the history of 20th-century consumer capitalism into reverse, and move from being a seller of things to a provider of raw materials again.

# Alex Steer (13/07/2013)