The New Marketing Paradigm: From Lack to Abundance

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Schuyler Brown Founder and Strategy Director @ Sightful (, faculty @ Design for Social Innovation program at School of Visual Arts, writer

How would things be different if people actually believed there was enough to go around? Until recently, it was a concept too profound -- and too far from our constant state of anxiety -- to imagine. So ingrained is the 'psychology of lack' in our consumerist culture that the idea we might just have enough now has been...anti-American.

But we do. Have enough. Most of us.

Maybe not the woman profiled in the New York Times this weekend who is raising her daughters on food stamps; and maybe not the women in the DR Congo who have lost husbands and children to war and famine; and maybe not the man I saw on the subway yesterday who stood in a crowded car and started his tale of woe only to taper off in despair when he could see that no one was listening.

These people are exempt. But, the rest of us are living in a time of unparalleled prosperity (despite sensationalist news to the contrary). So, if we have enough already, why do many of us feel so unsettled?

Because we want and we don't know why. Because we have more choices than ever before and we can't make a decision. Because we have mistaken material abundance for true abundance. Until now...

One of the acknowledged blessings of the current economic downturn is that it has opened eyes. A new message is emerging, breaking through the dominant and crushing commercial agenda. It's about people doing more with less, prizing experience over material objects, and spending more time with friends and family. What is behind the current buzz around the concept of 'sustainability' if not the acknowledgment of abundance? Sustainable action is an active appreciation of all we've been given; the raw materials that exist for making a system work and work and work. The storyline is changing and the resulting fissure in the cult of "new and improved" has revealed a fatal flaw in a psychology that has sustained us for generations. Our psychology of lack is being eroded by a sensation of abundance that has arisen despite our financial "woes."

Maybe it is the emergence of this new attitude towards our natural resources and human resources that is making the old game played by so many advertisers ring false. Advertisers who insist on using manufactured 'need states' as a crutch are setting themselves up for a backlash as people wake up to the fact that what they have already is plenty. What was once clever marketing is now -- or will soon be -- revealed for what it is: manipulation.

My conviction is growing that the old style of marketing -- manufacturing a need, only to fill it with a product -- is not only damaging and destructive, but strongly tied to the period pre-Recession when people spent less time assessing their actual needs versus their impulsive, ego-driven, and "artificial needs." Playing to insecurities is so 2009.

So, what's so 2010? Providing. What can you provide? And to whom?

The better consumers get at identifying the difference between artificial needs and real needs-a.k.a., body and soul needs-the more resistant they will be to manipulation. False needs (longer eyelashes, bigger homes, faster cars...) can be implanted, real needs (nourishing food, shelter, enriching culture, a purpose...) cannot. A real need is felt in the gut and is accompanied by a pretty good sense of direction. A real need does not need a sales pitch, it needs an answer.

The Old Way:

Advertiser: Psst...hey, you. Aren't you tired of those other sodas with their same old flavor?
Customer: Well, I never thought about it, but yeah. I guess I am tired of that old flavor.
Advertiser: Try the drink that has all the cool kids talking.
Customer: I'm a cool kid. I should be talking about this.
Advertiser: It's different. Just like you.
Customer: Thanks for noticing. I always thought I had a little something special to offer. Now other people will know that, too, when they see me drinking your new soda.

The New Way:

Customer: I'm thirsty.
Advertiser: We sell a beverage.
Customer: I don't like artificial ingredients and I am trying to cut out plastics.
Advertiser: This beverage is natural and comes in a glass bottle.
Customer: I need something convenient and low impact -- on my wallet and the planet.
Advertiser: Here's where you can find us, and once you're done we can be recycled.
Customer: This seems like exactly the product to serve my need. I think I'll tell my like-minded friends about you.
Advertiser: Likewise, you seem like just the type of customer we're in business to serve. Glad we could help.

The new way is about bringing the right answers to the right people at the right moment. The result is true satisfaction.

The beauty of the old way was that you didn't need to know all that much about your actual customer to sell them product. You told them what their need was and then you filled it. In the new way, you can see that the brand has already worked out what they are selling and to whom. They have aligned themselves with the body and soul desires of a particular type of customer. When that customer's need arises, they are clearly positioned to fill it, without too much hype or effort.

As the scales tip from lack to abundance, the things we purchase and the brands we patronize will become partners in our lives. This may be the beginning of a new era of brand loyalty. When 'real needs' are served by 'real providers,' the need for anything else, anything other, disappears altogether.