Does the Decline of Ownership Hinder Marketing Research?

Filed Under: Multi-Modal Research, Qualitative Research, Quantitative Research


Bob Relihan

The internet has been buzzing the past few days with the story (rumor?) that Bruce Willis intends to sue Apple for the right to leave his iTunes library to his daughters. I hesitate to provide a link; there are so many. The story has even popped up on Forbes. Clearly, the story resonates with people, even beyond the image of John McClane vanquishing an internet tyrant. We all have a love/hate relationship with Apple, don’t we?

The story crystallizes a trend that has been growing over the past couple of decades. Willis, or his mythical stand-in, feels he owns all of those songs he has on iTunes. But, of course, he has really just bought the right to listen to them. This is a parable of the death of the culture of ownership.

Wealth, status, and position have been defined by one’s possessions, by what one owns. When this country was founded, being a citizen meant owning property. We haven’t all moved to communes yet, but…

iTunes is only one instance of the shift away from ownership of media. I once had a huge collection of VHS tapes and my library of books covered an entire wall of my living room. Now I get all the movies I want through Netflix and what I read is on the cloud somewhere accessed on my iPad.

Think of the proliferation of sites that will rent you anything from a car to a designer handbag. To be sure, we have had car rental agencies for a long time. But, Hertz and Avis have represented themselves as a convenience for the traveler or as the answer to an emergency. Zipcar positions itself explicitly as an alternative to ownership.

Even the development of community gardens and tool sharing programs suggests that a livable community can eliminate some of the elements of ownership.

It is even possible to see the trend toward eating out as one that allows a households to have small pantries and own fewer utensils. Maintaining a larder is no longer a requirement for having a home.

And, Millennials apparently are abandoning car and home ownership as much to avoid the hassles of ownership as to cope with the weak economy.

We are moving to a culture where experiences and sharing define who we are more so that what we own or have. In effect, we are developing a culture that values the values of sharing and collaboration that my mother taught me more than those values of paternalism and distance that I learned from my father.

And what does all of this have to do with research? Much of what we do is predicated on ownership. In almost every case we recruit individuals who “purchase and use” a product. The acts of purchasing and owning are taken as signs of commitment to a product. They identify an individual as serious about a product or category, someone to listen to.

What do we do if society places less value on ownership? What do we do when there are any number of individuals who friend a product on Facebook or follow it on Twitter without ever actually buying it. I may never own a Porsche or an Omega, but I love finding out the latest news about these two brands; I know as much about them as any owner. So, the next time I want to talk to brand champions, do I need owners. I don’t think so.

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