Neo Essentialism

August 8, 2018 Daniel Langer-Hack

An iconic moment during the tech renaissance of the early aughts saw Steve Jobs on stage in 2001, introducing the very first iPod and touting the merits of carrying “1000 songs in your pocket”. At the time, this statement seemed almost space-age in its outlandishness. The idea of having virtually unlimited choice at your fingertips seemed too good to be true. While the iPod and its impact on the world of music was particularly iconic and noteworthy, this same shift was beginning to happen with many different mediums simultaneously (books, films, news, etc) and more generally, with access to information as a whole. This was followed by the parsing of that information into increasingly smaller, more “snackable” pieces in order to cater to shrinking attention spans. But this simply exacerbated the issue. What we didn’t realize at the time was the far reaching effects of the choice exhaustion that accompanied this upheaval.

There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy about the notion that social media and smartphones have created an abundance of information. Or even the fact that said information has forced intake overload and paralyzing inaction on the part of many consumers. We call this phenomenon infobesity, which is a pervasive macro-cultural trend that we’ve referenced many times before as it relates to the content ecosystem. The result, as we like to say, is that we’re all standing in the middle of a metaphorical Times Square - with thousands of brands, publishers and individuals vying for our attention. Winning the Battle for Time has become a driving force behind our agency and the problem of infobesity is relevant to many of our client’s businesses.

What is perhaps more interesting is when we start to examine the consumer reaction and backlash against this trend - or how their micro behaviours begin to change in response to shifts in macro cultural forces. In one sense, Infobesity has resulted in a state of learned helplessness. People no longer think they can control their own lives to the same degree, so they allow and even encourage others to do so. Another type of helplessness is one that is the result of constant activity and stimulation - the mindset that “I need to do everything” has become popularly referred to as FOMO. But in planner speak we’ll call this “the undisciplined pursuit of more”. In a sense this is also a symptom of infobesity through a behavioural lens. In a world with so many great things to do, how do I choose?

In response to these emotions, the majority of us have become what we refer to as non-essentialists - those who have difficulty prioritizing how to spend our precious time, often accompanied by feelings of overwhelm or the inability to focus on anything for longer than a few minutes. This has presented an opportunity for brands to help guide consumers through the decision making process.

Essentialists, on the other hand, are those that are thoughtful and discerning about the things they choose to spend their time on. These are the people that thrive in the Information Age, because in a world of infobesity, we actually need and crave deliberation in our lives (despite what we might say outwardly). In order to save their scarce time for the things that matter, essentialists rely on a carefully selected tribe of brands, people and services to tell them what to do and what content to consume.

Smart, data-driven brands have catered to the essentialist mindset in order to rise to prominence in the second wave of digital marketing. Google has taught us that the first mover advantage may be overrated, especially in tech. It’s those that learn from first movers and improve the consumer experience who will thrive. Netflix and Spotify are two prominent brands who have harnessed data in powerful ways to create seamlessly great recommendations. As any user would attest, a curated Netflix queue is an infinitely greater user experience than having to download a torrent for every movie or TV show. Algorithm-backed playlists based on your personal tastes from Spotify are better than a terabyte library of downloaded .mp3s that we stare blankly at, trying to decide what to listen to. It should be said that while media is the most straightforward application, this is true of almost every category from food to fashion.

Brands who can help consumers transform from non-essentials into essentialists should thrive in the next wave of marketing. And while content is an obvious lever which can be pulled in order to achieve this, the truth is that every touchpoint has the potential to guide the decision-making process in some helpful way.

After all, winning the battle for time begins with respecting it.

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