Marketers Need to Embrace Peer-to-Peer Activities

The sharing economy

Illustration: Kyle T. Webster

There’s a group of hardware store employees in the San Francisco Bay Area who embody that sage observation that we humans are not “cisterns made for hoarding—we are channels made for sharing.” They also happen to personify a trend that’s reshaping our service-based society, one that increasingly has top consumer brands jumping on board: the sharing economy.

On given weekends, employees of Hassett Ace Hardware in Palo Alto, Calif., join other members of the community for what’s known as The Repair Cafe, an event where the public can bring in a variety of items to be fixed free of charge. Hassett has five employees who help organize crowds and divvy out tools to volunteers doing repairs while a store manager peddles a bike festooned with an Ace Hardware flag between Hassett and the cafe, picking up and delivering sockets, washers, plugs and spackle. Among the 130 items repaired during the most recent event in April (there have been three cafes so far): a lava rock garden fountain and a 200-year-old sewing machine.

The Norman Rockwell-esque scene ties in neatly with Ace Hardware’s current national marketing campaign, which touts the chain’s personal service and neighborly advice. In the purest sense, the Repair Cafe is also what the sharing movement is all about: people serving other people. And it shows that when consumers anywhere are transacting with one other, big brands increasingly want to be riding the bike with the flag on back.

While “the sharing economy” has become a buzzword of our consumer culture, perhaps a better descriptor is peer-to-peer, since these transactions involve people providing their own goods and services to others, the two sides often hooking up via technology. By way of websites, apps and social media, you can find someone on the other side of the world to rent out your apartment for a week (Airbnb), or use your car (RelayRides) or run errands for you (TaskRabbit).

(In contrast, the car-sharing service Zipcar, which Avis Budget Group acquired this past March, is not an example of peer-to-peer, as a company rather than an individual provides the service.)

Marketers have largely been on the sidelines of what the agency JWT calls the “peer power movement,” but that’s changing. Peer-to-peer commerce tends to be direct, emotionally satisfying, personal, green and have a very “now” quality about it—all catnip for brands hungry for more intimate connections with consumers. Several major marketers—among them, Chevrolet, Gap, Pepsi, Unilever—have been sniffing around. Even Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has tried to find its way in, even though it ran into a buzzsaw of negative feedback and backed off as a result.

The peer economy is already having an effect on user-experience demands. Take shopping for a car.

“In Chevrolet showrooms, we see young car buyers look up the online profiles of our salespeople to pick out someone who has similar hobbies and interests to work with,” says Cristi Landy, product marketing manager for small cars at the General Motors brand. Peer groups have the power to impact brands and effect real change in social views of commercialism, materialism and marketing, according to Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang.

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