The Advent of the Agile Consumer

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

We can all agree that companies and their marketing have evolved, including an evolution from a more sequential “waterfall” process into a more agile one. Now let’s explore some of the developments that have transformed the customer experience and consumer behavior.

1. Interconnectedness

It may feel overhyped, but it’s hard to downplay the transformative impact on civilization of the Internet’s invention and widespread adoption. While the entire world does not have equal access, even minimal access improves many things in the lives of those who use it.

In fact, a 2015 Internet use study by Pew Research Center of 36,619 people in 32 emerging and developing countries found that 64% saw it as a positive influence on education, the most positive benefit when compared to other influencers such as the economy, personal relationships and morality. Adding to that, a 2014 analysis in Time Magazine saw a .41 correlation (note: correlation does not guarantee causality) between Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) score increase and access to the Internet. PISA measures 15-year olds’ knowledge in reading, math and science.

While interconnectedness doesn’t guarantee greater knowledge or intelligence, it does pretty much guarantee a few things. First, we have quicker access to information and there’s more information to access. Second, information can be verified (or refuted) more readily. Finally, new information can reach more people more quickly, thus assisting with innovation and the implementation of novel ideas, which in some cases may simply be novel, but in others can be life-saving. In a couple chapters we’ll discuss how Tesla was able to help those in areas affected by Hurricane Irma with something as easy to share over the Internet as a software update.

It’s important to also note that it’s not simply the Internet connecting us all which has allowed this. After all, what good is being connected if there’s nowhere to access and store all of the information being created? 

2. Creativity in the mainstream

As a marketer and having worked in the agency world for nearly two decades, the term “creative” comes up a lot, and there are generally two camps of people believing it to have one of two meanings:

  1. “Creatives” are people who engage in the fine arts, or artistic endeavors

  2. There is creativity in everything, from business dealings, to coaching a sports team, to yes, painting a picture

While there have certainly been many advances and opportunities created by technology to support the more traditional definitions of creativity, from Etsy, the community of artists and artisans that allows anyone, anywhere to sell their goods, to software tools giving aspiring artists, photographers, and filmmakers greater opportunities to create works of art, it goes broader and deeper than that. 

The Internet has allowed creativity in searching, curating, and compiling various elements together. 

It’s not just the traditionally creative and artistic aspects of life that are expanded in this collaborative, creative world. There are plenty of brands that gain fans and adopters by allowing their customers to be creative. Mini was a pioneer of this with car shopping, and Scion (Toyota’s now-defunct brand targeted at millennials) allowed a large amount of customization as well. The idea was to give consumers the power to make a product “their own.”

3. Iterative mindset vs. perfectionist mindset

While it is common these days, the idea of “sampling” or taking small bits of music recordings and inserting them into other music recordings, was at one point novel. A book could be dedicated to this topic, and discussion of how sampling is the natural progression of the jazz culture of “borrowing” riffs combined with a separate but related culture of music collage, but let’s go with a simplified history.

Starting with the Chamberlin, the first “tape-replay keyboard” in the 1940s, through the decades that followed with musicians like Herbie Hancock, Grandmaster Flash, and on through today, this idea of juxtaposition has permeated our culture in every way you could imagine. Food, fashion, every type of entertainment (including music), and even many university programs, are a mix of elements.

This “sample culture” has freed us from the constraints that everything we do must be completely and wholly original. After all, when it really comes down to it, there’s “nothing new under the sun.”

For those that believe lasting perfection is truly possible, my answer to that is another question (or perhaps a series of them): at what point is something perfect? Is perfection a state of being, a point in time, or something else?

Instead, an iterative mindset is the idea that perfection is impossible, but the way to achieve the closest approximation of perfection is to continually adjust and improve or iterate. We’ll explore this idea more in the pages that follow.

I think of someone like Steve Jobs as a great example of the ultimate, yet realistic, perfectionist. He didn’t just pay exquisite attention to details on one or two products that Apple put out during his tenure. Rather, he paid exquisite attention to every detail on every product and continued to demand improvements with every release. The true perfectionist knows that something’s state of perfection is continually in flux.

4. Collaborative culture

One more key aspect of the agile consumer is an openness to collaboration. Collaboration is often with others who are not in the same room, the same city, or even the same country. All of this has been made possible by the advent of the Web and, more recently, social media and real-time and asynchronous Web-based software that allows participation from anyone with an Internet connection.

While this happens plenty outside of the workplace, collaborative culture has had a major impact on business productivity as well.

Ten years ago, creating a collaborative document in the workplace meant sitting around a giant conference room table, emailing attachments to everyone on the team time and time again, and utilizing a shared network drive that could only be accessed in office during work hours. In other words, collaborative work was complicated and time-consuming. 

Today, thanks to Google Docs and other cloud platforms, barriers to collaborative processes have been broken down.  As a result, the potential for collaboration in the office is bigger and better than ever. 

5. Importance of values

Nike, with its 2018 advertising campaign featuring Colin Kapernick, who famously kneeled during the national anthem at football games, or Starbucks, which shut down all its stores on May 29, 2018 to host racial sensitivity training, have recently taken big (yet very differently motivated) steps towards aligning corporate values with those of their core customers.

Why take such actions when they also risked backlash by doing so? For instance, the logic of burning $100-plus shoes notwithstanding, YouTube videos surfaced of people burning their Nike shoes in protest, and many criticized Starbucks for doing too little, too late.

They did so because values are deeply important to the modern, agile consumer. In an age of abundant choice and interconnectedness it’s not enough for brands to be recognized or remembered. The majority (64%) of consumers who claim to have a relationship with brands say it is because of shared values.

This post is based on ideas from my latest book, The Agile Consumer. To learn more or purchase the book, you can read more on my website.

Greg Kihlstrom