Custom everything: The slow, painful death of mass-market goods

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/ Ad Age

About a month ago, I went looking for organic all-natural peanut butter. No sugar added, no preservatives, no additives, nothing but pure peanuts ground into a delicious, buttery paste. My trip to the supermarket was instructive.

First I saw brands from my childhood with labels that said "all natural" on them. I got very excited because I trusted those brands as a kid, but the reason I was looking for organic all-natural peanut butter was because I didn't want all the stuff that Big Food puts in peanut butter, and a quick scan of the labels confirmed my worst fears. Yes, the front label said "all natural," but the nutrition facts listed the ingredients and the preservatives. I was on a mission, so I decided to read them all.

In the end I walked away with a jar of organic all-natural peanut butter from a brand I'd never heard of that met my expectations. (I also scanned the barcode into my nutrition app before I made my decision, just to be sure.)

Fast forward to last week. I was on Amazon looking for a USB-C cable and just for fun, I searched for "organic all-natural peanut butter." There were dozens of choices (sortable and filterable by price, relevance, best-selling, etc.) with verified reviews, tons of product information, and two-hour free shipping available to my apartment. Do you want to guess where I placed my organic all-natural peanut butter subscription?

I haven't told you the name of the peanut butter company because I'm not shilling for them, but the company offers custom formulations, other nut butters, and an astounding assortment of high-fat, super-low-carb options. I will never even consider purchasing mass-produced peanut butter again. There's absolutely no reason to. In fact, as long as Amazon continues its subscription service, I'll never have to shop for organic all-natural peanut butter again.

Mobility, consumer expectations, and technology are evolving exponentially, and there is huge appetite for low-friction user experiences, on-demand delivery, and personalized manufacturing. These are the technologies that are completely reshaping this century's consumer behavior, and they point to the slow, painful death of mass-market goods.

Back in the day, the ability to manufacture thousands of cases of identically packaged, quality controlled consumer goods was an engineering wonder. The ability to distribute them nationwide in a timely fashion was a great enabler, but it wasn't until the addition of mass communication (national radio and television networks) that marketers were able to create demand and drive consumption at a mass scale. This tri-lateral ecosystem worked perfectly for over 65 years. That was then.

Today, other than during a few tentpole television events, TV ratings are down to the point that a national brand could spend $500 million on airtime and only reach 20 percent of its target audience. Google and Facebook offer excellent transactional advertising tools, and Amazon can sell anything you'll let them sell. But there is currently no new medium that can deliver mass-market scale anywhere near the effectiveness of television even five or 10 years ago (forget about the '80s and '90s). With no replacement in sight, creating demand and driving consumption at a mass scale have never been harder or more expensive.

What happens now? The short answer is, we evolve. Some big corporations will be able to adapt; others won't. Entrepreneurs will keep entering various businesses with pitches like Warby Parker or Zenni, or Harry's or Dollar Shave Club, or Casper or Tuft & Needle or StitchFix, UNTUCKit or Allbirds. Then they will be disrupted by totally custom micro-manufacturers and distributors who master frictionless, just-in-time, on demand, personalized, custom goods and services.

As with all gazes into my crystal ball, the nightmare I just conjured up is only a probable future. No one knows how this will play out. But a cadre of super-tech-oriented startups has seriously disrupted every market where the founder could look into a camera and say: "Hi, I'm _____ the founder of _____. I used to have to buy _____, but it was too expensive and I hated the experience. So I founded _____, etc."

The tech is democratized, manufacturing is democratized, distribution is democratized (many startups sell directly to consumers). The marketing can be super-targeted, social based, or even paper flyers on telephone poles, because businesses are not going to try to make (or sell) 2 million cases per day. Over the next few years, I expect to see an explosion of startups and new business units trying to fill every gap and inefficiency in every market. I'm excited. This is a paradigm shift that I, as a consumer, am going to love!

Author's note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

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