THE NEW SOPHISTICATES

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If information gives power, then consumers will be more powerful and control more economic decisions in the future. By 2020, 60 percent of all consumers in the United States will be actively participating in the generation of information involved in day-to-day purchasing decisions. This will mean more consumer control over economic decisions, a reformulation of the basis of all business communications with the consumer, and a change in how we advertise, build brands, market, and sell. The basis for all of this change will be the gradual emergence of a sophisticated consumer who understands the vital power of information in household lifestyle decisions. The emergence of this consumer can be traced through at least four demographic characteristics: education, income, work experience, and access to communication technologies. We can quantify the number of new consumers by using concrete measures of attainment:

Education: Training in an academic discipline instills a belief in the effectiveness of information in making more enlightened decisions. Our new consumer will have gone to college for a year or more.

Work experience: Working in an information-intensive environment builds a pattern of behavior that carries over to decisions made at home. Our new consumer will be working as a manager, professional, or technician in an information-intensive job.

Income: Living in a household with enough purchasing power to make discretionary decisions on a regular basis means information will be a useful tool in tailoring consumer choice. Our new consumer will be living in a household with spending power of more than $50,000 (in 1999 dollars).

Access to technology: Technology empowers people to gather, analyze, and communicate information. Our new consumer will have access to high-speed, interactive, multimedia communication devices at home.

We define a new consumer as one who has at least three of the four characteristics mentioned above. Given longer-term trends, the number of these sophisticated new consumer households, which accounted for about 20 percent of all households in the U.S. in 1980 and 45 percent in 1999, will reach 60 percent by 2020. But the demographic characteristics by themselves are not important. Rather, it is the patterns of behavior that these new consumers are likely to have that will matter most. New consumers will be much more likely to gather more information before they make a purchase or the decision to experiment with a new product or service. They are likely to use a greater variety of sources to gather that information, and at different times, through different channels, and at different locations. So they will be much more skeptical of any single source of data. And they are much more likely to value information when they themselves initiate the search process.

This mean big changes are in order for how businesses communicate. Any single message on a individual media channel will have less impact; more messages via a variety of channels will be needed to have the same impact. An increasing portion of the information flow will be interactive in nature, involving a direct response to a consumer inquiry. Brand-building will be much more complex as it migrates to multiple messages in many channels. The role of consumer agents who track down information for consumers will be of increasing importance. And consumers will use filters more actively to bypass intrusive or irrelevant messages.

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