Imagine a day in the life of a shopper in the year 2050. Jetting to work in a flying Uber. Ordering breakfast from a range-top replicator. Taking a virtual family vacation to the ammonia lakes of Neptune.
Or maybe not.
We’re currently riding a wave of technological advancement like humanity has never seen. This wave’s size and speed is hard to gauge. As wild as our dreams might be from this exciting vantage point in 2018, the next few decades will surely hold surprises we couldn’t possibly predict—just as our world couldn’t have been anticipated in the pre-internet 80s.
While we avidly monitor the development of new technology, there’s another factor at play here from a marketing perspective: consumer acceptance. The worlds the Jetsons and Star Trek foresaw share one crucial limitation to the scope of the visions their creators could conjure—they were made for and by the consumers of their present day.
We the Consumer
Consumers act, in most ways, as a simple, unconscious, completely connected blob of an organism. As a collective, we don’t think rationally. We act instinctively, reflexively to find the highest quality goods and services at the lowest possible price.
People like to joke about the unfulfilled promise of the flying car. Practically speaking, there seems to be some fairly compelling arguments against them at this point, chief among them the fact nobody wants two-ton steel birds skimming 30 feet over our heads until engineers have figured out a virtual fool-proof autopilot system. That’s finally, thankfully, on the way for ground bound vehicles—thought not without some significant bumps in the road—and there’s no reason to doubt airborne cars will have their day in the sun. But it doesn’t seem like something to hold your breath on. (Hey, at least we’re finally going to Mars!)
That question of safety is another driving force in the collective psyche of the consumer. It has an innate appetite for better versions of it we already likes, but also a risk-averse predisposition, even down to matters more trivial than flying cars. A faster, more powerful smartphone? Yes, please. A new flavor Coke? GTFO. Products that are too novel or weird may not catch on despite the rational arguments that could be made in their favor (e.g., alternative energy sources are still…. the alternative).
At the same time, weirdness isn’t always a deal-breaker when convenience, efficiency or quality are sufficiently improved (and safety is guaranteed). Just ask the horse-and-buggy guild.
To see around the bend of technological progress, we’ll need a good mirror—a point of reference to reflect on how we got here, today—to better understand both the lay of the land and our own prejudices. As marketers, we of course need to consider the potential impact of nascent innovations. We also need to factor in the ever-evolving nature of the consumer.
As an exercise in this age-old gambit of prognostication, let’s go through the looking glass to scope out three emerging trends that might hold world-defining potential for the next generation of shoppers:
This one seems obvious—VR is already becoming commonplace in the retail environment, and made-for-the-masses hardware such as the Oculus free-standing headset (under Facebook’s all-seeing guidance) will soon begin to pull virtual reality into the mainstream. Fast Company is calling 2018 the Year of VR 2.0. Many, many words have been written on this technology. But most people haven’t yet experienced it for themselves.
Whether VR seems like “your thing” or not, remember the smartphone wasn’t instantly heralded as a world-changer. Smartphones are not just for calling people, and that turned out to be the key. For VR, mass appeal will arrive when the technology manages to define its value beyond gaming.
VR’s true potential is nothing short of a revolution. Imagine seeing, handling, feeling and smelling just about any kind of product before you decide to buy it. Imagine not caring about “real” products at all, beyond the necessities. Imagine a true dissolution of the barrier of distance between people, for work, play and shopping. Some of these tactile experiences will require additional hardware and innovation, but the core experience is within our reach today.
In all likelihood, VR will go down as the defining technology of the next era of our digital society.
“Clean meat” is the new-and-improved handle for “cultured meat,” a lab-grown innovation decades in the making.
The process is pretty simple, scientifically: You take a biopsy of muscle cells from a living animal (cow, chicken, pig, you name it), feed the cells nutrients, and then coax the growing mass into a meat-like structure. But, why? you may ask. Beyond the fact that regular meat production is secretly disgusting, the environmental benefits could be huge. Factory farming accounts for 14.5% greenhouse gas emissions and churns through a massive amount of water and grain that could be better used by humans. Also, no animals die in the making of clean meat, which seems like a good thing.
A few companies are close to bringing this emerging technology to the market (at a price that is at least slightly less than $350,000 per hamburger patty). Consumer acceptance will then become the big question—and it’s a big one, as evidenced by a well-documented “weird-out factor.” Advocates for clean meat are confident that consumer acceptance will happen when the taste and the price are right. But shoppers have a way of being irrational, and stubbornly so. Endorsements from social media influencer and high-profile restaurateurs—who could be convinced to put clean meat meals on their menus—could be the strings marketers pull to help bring the wider public on board.
The future of meat is already being reshaped by sciency plant-based burgers, but clean meat will bring a quantum shift in how the world eats.
If we consider the power individuals will possess as creators and distributors of ideas and actual things, we just might have to rethink the entire term ‘consumer.’ We all must consume to survive. But by decentralizing the fabrication of goods (with the designs and schematics for anything you might need being, most likely, open-source), the models in use today for logistic, economics, and even politics, may be forced to evolve in a way we’ve never seen before.
Now, 3D printing isn’t all that new. Some have even said its chance at becoming a revolutionary technology has already come and gone. But a lull in excitement shouldn’t be misinterpreted as tepid potential. When you can turn an idea into a design and a design into a thing—with the ability to share the design it for limitless replication—the world becomes a lot less centralized. Want a house? Just download it from the internet. Need a new kidney? Hungry for noodles? The designing and construction of these things will no longer be beyond the reach of the average person—you just need a printer with the raw materials.
Expect major consumer goods retailers like Amazon and Walmart to invest heavily in 3D printing in the coming years as a way to offset the financial risk of this pending disruption to their channels.
Along for the Ride
When it comes to the future, nothing is guaranteed. And our best predictions can miss the mark, as the dream of flying cars taught us. But flying cars are becoming a reality, and soon. So is that colony on Mars. And one thing’s for certain: The wave is only growing.
As shopper marketers, we’re playing a role in the revolution too—charting the wave’s course, anticipating the intersections of technology and value, and working with innovators to foster consumer acceptance, wherever the future might take us.