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CHOI Soon-Hwa

Breaking Bread with the "Anti-sumers"

CHOI Soon-Hwa

May 23, 2011

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Today's consumer is exposed, willingly or not, to more information about products than ever before. Accelerated product life cycles mean that new products can come online not only every day, but many times a day. As this glut of information overwhelms more and more consumers, a growing number have taken up the banner of rebellion. These "anti-sumers" have varying motivations, from personal frustration at the complexity of modern life, to social protests against pollution and injustice. Their common thread, however, is disenchantment with the modern consumer lifestyle.

Anti-consumption, no less than the products it resists, comes in several varieties. The first kind is "fatigue anti-consumption." For these people, desire to consume is hampered mostly by the proliferating complexity of products, oversupply of information, and especially the time requirements needed to consume. Highly-educated professionals fall into this category. These anti-sumers are increasingly turning to things that provide emotional satisfaction, simplicity, and community rather than the status attained by conspicuous consumptions. This can lead to consumers that purchase only the things they consider indispensable.

The second kind is "trauma anti-consumption." This kind of anti-consumption arises when a person has negative experiences or feelings concerning a particular brand. In the US, for example, 55.7% of Android phone users said that one of the reasons they bought their phones was because they "just did not like Apple."

The third kind of anti-consumption is "enlightenment anti-consumption," which refers to conscious attempts to eschew purchases in general for social and environmental ends. This anti-consumption movement is spreading globally via social media, and has a more playful tone than the typical boycott movement. This movement is represented by groups like Adbusters of Canada, with its "Buy Nothing Day," and "One Day Without Shoes" from footwear provider Tom's Shoes.

The final type of anti-consumption is "activist anti-consumption" which resists specific products and brands based on ideology. This trend has become prevalent as more people prioritize environmental-friendliness and the moral ethics of companies. Products can become the object of collective resistance due to the background or image of the company. The retailer Target, for example, had little difficulty opening stores in New York City, while Wal-Mart met strong resistance by local civic groups, because of Wal-Mart's less friendly social image.

Companies need to recognize that today's anti-consumption movement is not a momentary fad but constitutes a genuine change in the business environment that needs to be addressed. Consumers fatigued by incessant marketing campaigns may be mollified by providing "high value low stress" marketing that can make purchases less draining and complicated.

Consumption also needs to be more meaningful. GM, for example, has involved customers in designing the engine of its iconic car, the Corvette, significantly boosting interest among drivers that want to relive memories of their youth.

For trauma anti-consumption, companies can rebuild relationships with customers by "reverse-storytelling" of the events that caused the bad feelings in the first place. Canon, for example, deployed advertising that challenged perceptions of DSLR cameras as heavy and intimidating, giving it a new customer base that included women and older people.

Enlightenment anti-consumption can be addressed by inducing participation in a more advanced consumption culture. Companies can address these complaints by producing more durable products and products that serve the public interest.

Finally, for activist anti-consumption, companies need to ensure that their brand does not attract negative attention. Companies need to deal with their negative image openly and publicly. Proctor and Gamble, for example, promoted corporate citizenship activities to rescue wild animals after it was criticized for performing animal testing.

As anti-consumption sentiment grows, companies need to abandon near-sighted thinking and reach out to the growing demographic of anti-sumers. To deal with this challenging market, businesses need to genuinely understand that in an age of increased complexity, for many consumers "less is more."

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