For many Americans, the world seems like a markedly different place than it was in 2008. They have experienced a global recession, sweeping changes in technology, and four seasons of Jersey Shore. In the context of all this change, what they want out of this life and what the American dream means for them has changed along with it.
Many of them no longer aspire for bigger and better things. Instead, the conversation has turned from having things to doing things. Suddenly, wealth, property, and an impressive career have become far less important than experiences, recognition, and impact. And with emerging services and technology, these dreams have become more attainable than ever.
So what does that mean for companies whose job it is to provide products and services that tap into our values and aspirations? How can your organization deliver the new American dream to the new American consumer?
Americans now value access over assets. They care about getting to their destination, not owning a car. Watching movies, not collecting DVDs. Looking great, not seeing clothes hanging in the closet. As material wealth loses its cachet, consumers will demand products that are less of a mantelpiece and more a portal to the right experience.
Service providers like Netflix, Zipcar, and Rent the Runway have already disrupted their industries by selling the experience without the ownership. Now, even companies with products to sell are starting to take big bets on this shift in consumer values.
Google, for example, took on the PC world by releasing the Chromebook in June 2011—the first "web-based computer" on the market. Stripped of many of the features that other companies compete on, the Chromebook is not so much a computer as it is a portal to the web. Instead of building in desktop applications, Google equips its computers with free wireless and 3G data, keeping users constantly connected. The jury’s still out on whether Google’s bet will pay off, but given consumers’ growing desire for convenient access, it’s likely that the market will only grow.
Whether your company has products on the shelves or a service to provide, think about how your product or service allows customers to get behind the velvet ropes of an experience they desire. If it can be replaced by a product or service that offers more access at a lower cost of ownership, soon enough it will be.
With the increasing ubiquity of social networks, people can access the eyeballs of others near and far. They want to declare who they are to the world (or at least their Facebook friends), and they want products and services that can help them do so. Instagram, for example, allows people to showcase their photos in a creative way and share them with an audience. Pinterest is an almost effortless way for people to show their taste and style without ever purchasing or creating a thing.
All kinds of companies can tap into this desire by designing their product or service to recognize the accomplishments and creations of their customers. Nike did just this when they transformed their running shoes, a decidedly unsocial product, into a platform for competitive fitness communities through Nike Plus. By tracking and sharing users’ running activity, Nike elevated an individual activity into a social one in which people can be congratulated (or heckled) by their friends at every mile. How can your product make your customers famous?
As Americans strive to identify themselves, they increasingly believe it is their civic responsibility to help make the world a better place, and technology is empowering them to do so. Citizen-driven movements such as the Occupy Movement reflect a growing desire among Americans to help shape the world around them; it also reflects their drive to get it done. So when it comes to buying products and services, they don’t just want to hear about how a company is committed to a cause—they want be on the front lines.
Rather than thinking about how your company can be more socially responsible, think about how your customers can directly affect a cause with your product. For example, when designing new toothbrush packaging for Preserve, an eco-friendly home products brand, we created a way for customers to get directly involved in their environmental cause with the Mail-Back Pack. The Mail-Back Pack is a toothbrush package that doubles as a return envelope, so customers can send the toothbrush back to Preserve after use. Preserve then turns the used brushes into plastic lumber for picnic tables and boardwalks for a third stage of use. Extending responsibility onto customers reminds them that they are the ones enacting change. Making their contribution quantifiable gives them proof that they made a difference.
The American dream reflects our highest aspirations and deepest values. During times of rapid change, companies need to look closely at these aspirations and values, as they drive the products and services people will want in years to come. It could mean the difference between staying one step ahead of the market or being stuck in the past.