Brown University student Maha Atal wrote for the Brown Daily Herald back in March 2007 entitled “A mainstream that is hard to pinpoint.” It’s an interesting read from a cultural standpoint and a business standpoint as the “mainstream” has relevance to both.
Youth movements from the 1950s to the 1990s, though always championing the rhetoric of individualism against an impersonal “system,” were also always about group identity - young people have traditionally banded together against a clearly identified “establishment” consisting of the government and their parents.
Generation Y takes individualism more literally - our act of youth rebellion has been to reject all allegiances, be they political, social, cultural or even generational.
There can be no doubt that we’re living in the Age of the Individual. Time even named you the Person of the Year last year. Individualism has always played an important role throughout history, especially in the United States, but the extent to which Generation Y has taken individualism to a new level has profound implications for our culture and businesses. I call Generation Y’s new breed of individualism New Individualism. Clever, no?
Culture and New Individualism
Culture is defined as “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” Maha notes that “In a paradoxical way, the unifying cultural preference of our generation is to reject the need for a unifying culture.” This is an interesting, significant observation. While individualism plays a key role in culture and has contributed to the evolution of our culture, the notion that we’re experiencing an upheaval in which an entire generation is rejecting the need for a unifying culture is a scary, yet fascinating one.
I would not argue that a homogenous culture is desirable. Quite the opposite; diversity is ideal. However a unifying culture is very important for our society, as it is only through collaboration and collective effort that we can advance. The United States serves as a case study for the importance of some form of unity: a nation of immigrants bound together by a culture that values hard work and whose members aspire to build better lives for themselves and their families. Without this culture that brought people of diverse backgrounds together, it’s unlikely that the United States would have evolved as it has. Consequently, it stands to reason that if we cannot sustain a culture that brings us together, society could devolve. Many theories as to why the Roman Empire collapsed hint at assaults on Roman culture. Military historian Vegetius, for instance, believed that a dilution of traditional Roman culture occurred when German mercenaries became a key part of the Roman army and that this played a major role in the fall of history’s most celebrated empire.
If we reject the need for some unifying culture today, are we doomed to follow in the footsteps of Roman Empire? There are two perspectives here:
- The fact that so many members of Generation Y seem to eschew any sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves is disturbing. When individuals become apathetic and isolated from their communities, their nation and the world, there is cause for great concern, as apathy and isolation have typically been precursors to social disaster in the past. Will the apathy and isolation that we currently see lead to social disaster in our time? As English author Edmund Burke once commented, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
- On the other hand, without a certain level of individualism, it is hard for society to evolve. For instance, while Mahatma Gandhi was not the first person in history to promote resistance from oppression through civil disobedience, his willingness as an individual to become a champion for civil disobedience at a time when violent resistance was the status quo contributed greatly to humanity, as his individual effort inspired future leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Is it possible that increased individualism will create new legions of independent thinkers who will change the world for the better? Will it help free us from much of the groupthink that has been a bane to society?
Only time will tell if New Individualism is going to benefit or hurt society. The outcome of New Individualism will likely be rendered in shades of gray, not black or white.
What New Individualism Means for Business
Cultural trends always affect business, and New Individualism is having a major impact on today’s business landscape. As noted in the article:
For the last several decades, it has always been possible to identify major trends, to single out a few dominant countercultural voices - underground rock groups or populist politicians - as separate from and opposed to an established culture they sought to critique. Once upon a time, a well-meaning parent could switch on MTV or open Rolling Stone and be reasonably sure to find out what his teenage child was listening to.
These days, there are no clear demarcations. As a group, young people in America don’t turn en masse to any one TV show or blog for news, music or fashion. In today’s decentralized world, where a band can rise to fame through Web downloads and never appear on MTV, every individual can have a personalized encounter with pop culture. Similarly, we customize our news, setting our homepage preferences to report only on the subjects that interest us.
The effects of this dynamic are apparent today:
- Markets are increasingly fragmented. Consumers are more elusive than ever and reaching them is often extremely difficult. The number of mediums and properties a business needs to be visible on can be significant and some of these mediums and properties are not easy to break into. And even when businesses are able to reach consumers, there’s no guarantee that consumers are going to be receptive to their messages. Today’s consumer is often highly sophisticated and knows when he or she is being marketed to. The rules of engagement have changed and in many cases, the consumer is in complete control.
- Trends are difficult to identify, especially on a micro level. Nobody knows what “the next big thing” is going to be and who is going to create it. Change in many markets is exponential and therefore a logical, thorough analysis of a specific market may not always lead to the creation of a product that is going to “stick.”
- Consumers are often difficult to retain. They quickly change brand allegiances and in many markets, brand loyalty is rare altogether. Many consumers won’t patronize brands that they perceive as being too “mainstream” and thus a brand that becomes too popular may actually implode because of its popularity. In the technology space the fickle nature of Internet users is well-established. Users were as eager to flock from Friendster to MySpace as they will be to flock from MySpace to the next hot destination.
New Individualism creates significant challenges for consumer-oriented businesses, but I think there are several strategies that companies can leverage to succeed in today’s consumer market:
- Be prepared to play darts. If we accept that it’s almost impossible to predict what is going to hit and what is going to miss, the mantra “fail early, often” is very relevant to any company offering a consumer-oriented product or service. You have to be willing to get something to market, see if it’s likely to sink or swim and then make a decision as to whether or not it’s a viable business venture. Do note, however, that there is a fine line between giving up too soon and knowing when some strategy adjustments can be effective drivers for success.
- Build products and services that you’re passionate about for markets that you’re passionate about. Sophisticated consumers are adept at discerning whether the people behind a product or service are “real.” If you’re operating an online social network for pets, for instance, but aren’t an animal lover, your service is likely to be uninspired. Don’t be surprised when consumers consciously or unconsciously pick up on the intangible traits that are reflected by your own passion (or lack of it). I truly believe that passion can be one of the strongest sources of value creation for businesses today.
- Think niche. With markets more fragmented than ever, attacking the difficult-to-pinpoint mainstream market right off the bat is a significant challenge. Apply Warren Buffett’s “circle of competence” approach (”invest in what you know”) to your business ventures by leveraging your passions and expertise to target a niche market that you personally belong to. If successful in establishing a strong position in a niche market, then you may have the ability to “cross the chasm.” MySpace is a good example of this. It first became popular with the Los Angeles music and clubbing scene before extending its popularity to a larger market.
- Invest the consumer in your product and service. Companies that treat their customers like their most important stakeholders have a significant advantage over those that don’t. Give the consumer the impression that he or she really owns the product or service. Let the consumer feel that he or she has a tangible impact on it and its future development. Obviously, this philosophy has always been a component of a good customer service and retention strategy but it’s never been more important than in today’s market. In many cases, consumers already feel like they own businesses because they create all the value. Look no further than the Digg revolt.
- Become a platform for expression. There can be no doubt that because of New Individualism, products and services that enable individuals to express themselves are likely to have more appeal than services that don’t. In fact, many products and services can be reduced to the consumer. You are MySpace. You are YouTube. For better or worse, from vodka to handbags, products today are frequently branded to represent a certain lifestyle or way of thought and are, in essence, serving as platforms for individual expression. The Stolichnaya Elit vodka you drink says something about your lifestyle. The $1,000 handbag you sport says something about who you are as a person. Almost any product can be positioned to take advantage of New Individualism. Businesses that can mold themselves into platforms for expression are more likely to have appeal in today’s market.
New Individualism is having a large impact on both culture and business. Whether the overall impact on our culture will be positive or negative remains to be seen, but regardless of that, it is a reality that businesses have to deal with. There are some significant challenges, but great opportunities exist for the businesses that can successfully deal with those challenges by understanding the dynamics of New Individualism.
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