Inconspicuous Consumption Will Motivate Consumers in Next Decade

Marketers Must Find New Ways to Appeal to the Financially Cautious if We Want to Speed Recovery

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If it's true, as the Wall Street Journal reports, that the new consumer is "embarrassed by flashy shows of wealth," then it's marketing's job to encourage inconspicuous consumption.

That means getting consumers to spend on things that last a long time, things that help the environment, things that help other people, and things that improve consumers' lives without showing it.

"Companies are tackling the change by turning their marketing upside down," the story said, "with a range of strategies from more-cautious financial advice to a focus on experiences over possessions."

It's not an option for consumers to sit on the sidelines until they are more confident. Consumer spending accounts for over 70% of U.S. economic activity, so the consumer, even battle-scarred, must play a crucial role in recovery.

But the same old blandishments won't cut it; consumers are getting used to saving again, and they won't part with their money unless they're given pretty good reasons.

Here's how one operator is trying to pry loose some travel dollars: "It may seem paradoxical to speak of 'work' and 'hardship' within the confines of a brochure promising 'indulgence' and 'luxury,' but this boutique luxury travel company is the first to admit that their kind of travel isn't necessarily of the obvious, conventional kind. Their approach to luxury is more about the richness of experience than the cost of the hotel room, is more about tasting wine from a barrel than sipping it from a crystal goblet, and is more about sleeping under the stars than slipping between 500-thread count sheets."

What the travel operator is promising is more a spiritual rejuvenation than a physical one. Religion, it seems to me, should improve its market share over carnal pleasures in this environment.

But some marketers are focusing on physical well-being, especially if ObamaCare takes away some health-insurance coverage. Procter & Gamble has just acquired full ownership of MDVIP, a concierge network of 350 physicians, according to our own Modern Healthcare.

A release issued when P&G bought 48% of the company in 2007 stated that MDVIP "works with the nation's finest physicians to give them the tools they need to practice preventive and personalized healthcare for patients who consider their health a priority. The MDVIP model is based on three pillars: exceptional doctors, exceptional care, and exceptional results." The purchase, is "consistent with P&G's mission to improve the lives of consumers in the important areas of health and wellness."

David Burda, editor of Modern Healthcare, told me that his guess is that P&G sees the physician network with its high-end patients as a good way to directly market its health-care products to consumers. I asked whether the doctors' services were insured, and Dave told me that routine care when you're sick or injured would be covered. But MDVIP specializes in preventive care, which typically isn't covered by insurance (and certainly wouldn't be under ObamaCare). "That means their high-end patients would be paying out of pocket for those services (and P&G products) at list prices. No discounting allowed!" Dave said.

Some companies are reckoning that consumers can't be expected to go back to their profligate ways: Between 2002 and 2007, they saved only 2% of their income. And even if consumers don't return to the economy of the '50s when Americans saved more than 8% of their income, "their balance-sheet repairs will still weigh heavily on demand," The Economist reported.

So marketers are looking at ways to get revenue from sources other than consumers. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Best Buy plans to launch its own ad business by selling spots on all the TV sets, PCs and cellphones on display in its stores. Sony, Toshiba, and Samsung have already signed up. Best Buy's Brian Dunn said the ads will "grow into a big piece of what we do."

But keep in mind that what we do isn't the same as what we did in the first decade of this century. Let's hope it makes a difference.

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