City City Bang Bang, Columns

The marketing of frugality?

Discussions about sustainability more often than not look upon consumption as the enemy. With good reason. The idea that the world has enough for our need but not for our greed is one that strikes a resonant chord amongst many of us. As the market economy grows and as many more countries begin their journeys towards becoming economically developed, it is feared that the ecological impact of progress will be devastating. Since perpetual growth is market economy’s central purpose, and since perpetual growth can be imagined only in a context where consumption is forever rising, consumerism becomes a necessary condition of our times. The more we consume, the more we grow, and the more developed we can claim to be.

The economies that are already developed are consumption and energy intensive in character, and those that are emerging now want to experience the same pleasures. There is a sense that the developed world, after having consumed without restraint is now lecturing to the others who are just beginning to follow in their footsteps about the need to cut back consumption. This is one of the defining fault lines of our time, as the world tries to formulate strategies to reverse what is otherwise an inexorable force that will inevitably put intolerable pressure on the planet’s resources.

Faced with a daunting, and indeed potentially overwhelming challenge of this kind, something fundamental needs to change. While consciousness about cutting back consumption is on the rise, and while some progress has certainly been made in limiting the ill effects of unchecked consumption, there is a long way to go. The world is locked into a discourse of growth, and however well intentioned the effort to challenge this, it is too powerful a force to be reversed so easily.

Is it possible then to turn the market against itself? Can a concept that fuels the greater exploitation of resources be reframed so that it serves the opposite purpose? Can we reimagine the role marketing plays and get it to serve the interests of the planet? The idea of brands is today part of a system that propels aspirations and makes us want more- can this concept now point in another direction?

Brands are the engines of desire in a market economy. At a fundamental level, brands are nothing but devices that produce meaning. They are structures that add abstract value to products and services, which make us covet these. A cola is sugared carbonated water, while Coca-Cola and Pepsi are so much more. They deliver complex meanings that we consume in the guise of consuming a soft drink. Strong brands offer us desirable versions of ourselves in the form of a product/service- we have an inexhaustible appetite for consumption, not because we need it at a material level, but because we cannot have enough of ourselves.

There is little difference in what is functionally delivered by the most expensive car in the world as against the cheapest product on offer. We pay up to 200 times more for what is essentially the same function, because of the extra meaning that the expensive car delivers. To be sure, the fancy car moves a little faster, looks nicer on the inside and cushions us really well from the world outside- but in pricing the car, we overvalue these advantages. The real benefit lies in how the car makes us feel, and what it says about us. This is true across product categories- we buy meaning in the guise of things.

If this is so, why should we not be able to deliver this meaning without using up too much of a material product? Why not buy the meaning and drop the disguise of the thing it comes wrapped in? Why not deliver meaning using as little material resource as possible?

We know how to do this— traditionally cultural symbols served the same purpose; they were material-poor meaning-rich devices. Take for example, the rakhi, the little piece of string that binds together brother and sister in a powerful way. Or the wedding ring, which at its heart conveys extremely rich meaning compressed into a little band of metal. With time, the money spent on the ring has become a powerful signifier, but at its heart, a ring is a ring, making the promise of a lifelong intention.

Going forward, the real contribution of marketing would be to give us ever richer, nuanced meaning that make us value ourselves even more, but do so without using up too many material resources. The return to a simpler world could well be packaged in the language of consumption. If the value shifts from the cost of the material that goes into a product towards the idea that it brings to life, then surely it becomes possible to valorize frugality. Think of the selfie- the much-disdained sign of our times. It is a relatively cheap way of getting what we really, truly want- a world full of versions of ourselves. Every additional selfie comes at very little extra cost, but it delivers meaning that we cannot seem to do without.

We need a new set of symbols that lead us away from the path that we are currently on. If the world today is increasingly being driven by ideas rather than by material resource, then consumption too should be about the power of the idea rather than the quality of the physical resource. We should pay more for finer ideas, rather than softer cloth. Luxury should mean a rarefied consciousness and not just a rarefied product or experience.

Consumption is a system of organized illusion. The more we consume outside of ourselves, the more in fact we are consuming of ourselves. The meaning-rich resource-poor brand represents the ultimate form of creativity- to make something valuable out of virtually nothing. We might not be able to cut back on consumption entirely, but perhaps we can modify its meaning.