A New Concept of Value

America’s aesthetic has always had to do with having “more.” And given our vast resources, habitable landscape and culture of plenty, we never paused to reflect on what this meant — we just kept on going like the Energizer bunny.

Now, thanks to terrorism, recession and war, the pillars of American optimism are wavering. New words like “sub-prime,” “derivatives” and “ponzi” have been added to our lexicon, the earth has shifted and all we have is what FDR called “heedless self-interest”: more distrust, less money. The American mythology of “bigger is better” has been blown out of the water. In fact, we’re scared. We’re scratching our heads wondering, How did this happen?
 
When a culture of high expectations finds itself between mythologies, it really is between a rock and a hard place. So, where do we go from here?
 
The media talks about the financial meltdown as a crisis, a disaster. But it can also be a wake-up call to step into a new world where power and comfort are not measured in simple units of “more.”
 
A fledgling dynamic is taking shape. People are sobering up to the fact that what’s below the surface is what’s important — that we shouldn’t judge things simply on appearances. And they’re saying they need to better understand themselves by better understanding the world around them.
 
As I travel around the country speaking to everyday folks, I’m hearing similar stories about a period of readjustment, about people who feel things they once counted on are no longer available, and how they have to change the way they interpret and make decisions.
 
One person told me, “I have to feel my way along; intuit and then take action.  …  I don’t want to be buffaloed anymore.”
 
Another said, “We need to be open to a wide range of possibilities. We need to hear a wider range of voices. We need to see with a different set of eyes. The tried and true, the conventional wisdoms, [no longer guarantee] success.”
 
The changes they feel they’re going through also affect which products they buy.

People are now more “meaning-seeking.” They’re more selective in what they buy and buy into. This ties into a heightened quest for authenticity. One person put it this way: “I want things now that will show me my heart.”

Another woman said, “I’ve wanted to buy a great fountain pen for as long as I can remember, but I never have until now. Despite the economy — or maybe because of it — I thought I should buy one. I did and I’m so happy.  It feels so sensual, so luxurious in my hand. …  It helps me get down to my deepest thoughts and feelings.  I find ‘me’ with this pen in my hand.”

That’s the real experience of luxury, no matter what a product costs. Today people value experiences that provide venues for recognizing or elaborating on something in them that they’ve yet to fully realize.

Here’s another recent story, this time from an artist who bought a Louis Vuitton purse: “When I saw it I had to have it, but at first I didn’t buy it. It was too expensive.  I went home that day and I couldn’t stop thinking about that purse. So, I went back the next day to see it again. It made me happy just to look at. It’s candy-apple red. My grandmother made me candy apples when I was young. … That purse gives me an appetite. It’s the color of the sports car I always wanted, but I’m beyond sports cars now. That purse was dazzling.  It’s the color of life. … It will protect me against solitude, like my pets do. And you know, it’s a small bag, I can always carry it with me and I can look at it, unlike the clothes on my back. … This bag says to me that there is some meaning or order to life. That meaning or order is ‘beauty.'” 
 
Value is now found in experiences and products that make people feel more authentic, makes them feel they’re crafting and expressing their individualities. Value is now seen as an investment in self.  That’s meaningful consumption. 
 
America, as can be seen in the election of President Obama, is always one step ahead of the expected. This can also be seen in the shift from “give me more” to “I want more of me.”  For marketers, that could be a consumer palette as ravenous as any before the economy fell through the roof.

 Dr. Robert D. Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist and founder of the consulting firm, Brain Sells. He can be reached at dr.bob@brain-sells.com.