06/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Goodbye, Consumer

This is an important distinction for brands to make:

Say goodbye to consumers.

Create customers instead.

Here's why:

Consumption is so last century. Consumer-oriented brands' only meaningful metric is how much merch they move, and consumers tie their status to how much of a scarce resource they consume. The model is unsustainable. It is a zero sum game. If we keep playing it, we are like arsonists watching our own homes burn.

The creation and honoring of customs and customers, on the other hand, is an engine that can drive the sustainable economy. This is a generative process. It is designed to conserve and be productive in the world by making more efficient use of increasingly scarce resources.

Consumers consume. Customers customize. That's it in a nutshell.

Here are some of the implications:

Consumption is a hot dog eating contest. It is a drinking binge. It contributes to obesity, both mental and physical. Consumer-oriented brands represent an ever-larger drain on the planet's resources. They introduce a lot of useless crap onto the world by manufacturing illusory needs. They associate levels of consumption with status. The biggest of this. The most of that. The shiniest. The latest and greatest. These brands buy the audience's attention. Most significantly, they use numbers to define the relationship between the brand and the audience.

I, Consumer, am a number of numbers. A demographic. A psychographic. I push one for this and two for that. This is my number of average waking hours per day. A percentage of those waking hours belongs to you, a brand. During the percentage that belongs to you, I consume a percentage of the yearly sales of your brand's product in my geographic region, Region SL405. You spend a number to hold my attention. If that number stays below a certain acquisition price relative to the yearly value of the percentage of my day that I devote to you, you will keep spending it. If it gets too high, you will let my attention drift elsewhere. A computer program will tell you what to and then cover your tracks so that you'll be blameless. No one will be able to lay a wiener on you.

Customer-focused brands serve a purpose that cannot be defined as numbers (even as numerical values for what they contribute and receive as a result of their participation, must be assigned and evaluated continuously). They see more value in earning attention than in paying for it. They create customs, and participate in customs that already exist.

Brands with customers understand that consumption of their products or services represents part of, but not the entirety of, their value proposition. A widely accepted custom, picnicking, for example, has unlimited numbers of narrative elements, only one of which is a ritual glorification of gluttony broadcast on ESPN. By contrast, there's a restaurant in Los Angeles called Wurskuche that serves a wiener made of rattlesnake. You only have to eat one of these to be some kind of hero to your tribe. Customer-focused brands have many more options for marketing and communicating their value proposition than Consumer-focused ones do.

I, Customer, am an individual. One of a kind. All my friends are one of a kind. I got my thing, you know, just like you got yours, just like everybody's got their own. I am basically awake 24 hours a day, because I got plates in the air, you know. My homies in Bulgaria are coding some tracks we're going to run off a honeypot server for which we are getting paid by a new label in Atlanta call Tso-Tso that does B-Boy tracks for mall shows and competitions all over the Southern U.S., Australia and the Philippines. Shit is off the hook. We get a dollar per download, and already this month we've made five thousand dollars. First thing in the morning, I am catching a plane to Fort Myers to work with some friends down there who have a band and play clubs at night, and weatherize houses during the day for twenty bucks an hour. I'm producing their next three tracks and they are paying me by getting me a job weatherizing houses for the summer. One weekend we're going to take out one guy's girlfriend's family's boat and party and shoot video for one of the tracks. Any brand that's down for this scene is welcome to roll with me.

In a sustainable economy, how we roll is going to be much more important than how much we roll. It used to be about the size your boat. Now it's about boating like only you (and your friends with the band in Fort Myers) know how.