Recent shifts in consumer behavior reflect a changing perception of meaning and purpose among today's consumers. Faced with global uncertainties, middle-class consumers are detaching from traditional aspirations of homeownership and family to embrace flexibility and access over ownership. This shift towards "liquid consumer security" indicates consumers now perceive stability through adaptability rather than through fixed assets, according to a recent study by Dr. Aleksandrina Atanasova of Bayes Business School (London, United Kingdom).
Macroeconomic shifts from product- to service-consumption underscore this development, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Specifically, according to the WTO, the services sector burgeoned from 53% to 67% in the period between 1970–2021, suggesting that consumers rely increasingly on experiential and flexible consumption, rather than on product-ownership. Additionally, a growing services sector opens new trade routes that are not subject to tariffs, allowing for more intercultural communication and open trade between countries.
A prototypical "liquid" consumer might own only a backpack full of belongings, but access a plethora of services through digital platforms, from renting short-term housing, to hailing a peer-to-peer ride, ordering food, and accessing entertainment and medical options online. Meanwhile, with healthcare costs soaring, consumers are self-medicating with cannabis, psychedelics, and other mind-altering substances at record rates, according to an article published in New Scientist. The popularity of these drugs likely stems from desperation as much as shifting attitudes. However, their increased use also shows consumers exploring new paths to meaning and distancing themselves from established traditional pharmaceutical and medical solutions, which may have disappointed them in the past.
A provocative finding is this vein was recently reported by associate professor Spike W. S. Lee of the University of Toronto, Canada. In Lee's study of ideology and pain sensitivity, he found that more (versus less) pain sensitive people tend to endorse moral values that oppose their officially stated political ideology. For example, pain sensitive conservatives endorse more liberal values, whereas pain-sensitive liberals endorse more conservative values. Perhaps in reaction to persistent divides that have characterized the United States political landscape, research led by University of Wyoming psychology professor Ben Wilkowski recently explored the values and vices associated with both conservatism and liberalism. The study aimed to provide a balanced perspective on these ideologies, allowing for more meaningful dialogues between political factions. The research reveals that both conservatism and liberalism exhibit both positive values and negative vices. Conservatism is associated with the unifying value of tradition but also the divisive vice of elitism. Liberalism is linked to the unifying value of inclusiveness but also the divisive vice of rebellion. Traditional values can lead to prejudice against unconventional groups, while rebellion is linked to animosity toward conservatives. The researchers emphasize the importance of considering both sides of the political spectrum in a balanced manner.
Connecting these trends is a rejection of old definitions of purpose and a search for new sources of meaning. Companies must adapt their strategies and messaging to align with these cultural shifts. The rise of remote work and digital nomadism has enabled the detachment consumers now favor. Companies catering to remote workers with flexible, on-demand services will thrive in this environment. Firms that emphasize freedom, adaptability, and experiencing life to the fullest will connect well with this segment of consumers. Brands perceived as fixed or rigid will struggle to attract today's meaning-seeking consumers.
Psychedelics and cannabis promise not just distraction but self-discovery and personal growth. Forward-looking firms will position themselves to ride the wave of acceptance rather than fight it. That may mean partnering with therapy and retreat providers or finding other ways to embrace the conscious-expanding quest of this emerging consumer segment. Even consumers not taking mind-altering substances are reconsidering life's purpose. Framing one's life story as a "hero's journey" boosts well-being and life satisfaction, studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology show. Brands can integrate storytelling and transformative narrative into their messaging. The hero's journey structure offers a template for communications that will resonate with consumers on this mission of self-discovery.
In all aspects of business, companies must demonstrate an understanding of the cultural moment and consumer mindset. People are not looking to the old guideposts of status and stability for purpose. Today's quest is internal, seeking meaning through experiences that challenge preconceptions and foster personal growth. Brands able to capture this zeitgeist in their offerings and marketing will earn consumer attention, loyalty and dollars.