What marketers can learn from collaborative consumption

By: Jeanie Hendrie

Consumption is at an all-time high – we’re on a drug and it’s not called Charlie Sheen, it’s ex(cess). Activists are begging us to right-size our lives – to go back to the sandbox and learn to share. Being female, I am predisposed to the collecting of stuff (shoes, dresses) and such behaviour lands me smack dab in the middle of the group to which these activists are speaking. They are encouraging a shift in attitude, from maximizing possessions to maximizing benefits and all in the name of what is “right”.

For those who aren’t up on this new, hip buying mechanism, collaborative consumption describes an economic model in which groups of people harness their collaborative power to consume goods efficiently through sharing, trading, renting and lending. Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine is Yours, coined the term collaborative consumption in 2008 and presents a fantastic crash course of the model in her TED talk.

While there is incredible merit in this new way of thinking, my purpose today is not to evangelize collaborative consumption, but to learn from it:

  • Market the benefit, not the feature. Cars, parking spaces and gardens – collaborative consumption works because it affords an individual benefit while spreading the cost (monetary and environmental) across a group. The concept is a reminder of one of the oldest pieces of marketing wisdom – sell the benefit, not the feature. Why? Because benefits address needs…and needs are recurring (every day I need to get to work and park my car) and often, universal (every day I need to eat). Moreover, by focusing on the benefit, you are forcing a new relationship with your customer – I’m no longer buying a Camry, I’m buying a safe ride to school for my kids.
  • Turn consumption into creation. Collaborative consumption is more than cashing in Groupons and sharing bikes. Think about it backwards and discover a whole slew of companies consuming the collaborative wisdom of their customers. That little green stick that stops your Tall Skim Latte from slopping all over your shirt? Made by Starbucks but ideated by customers in the company’s online forum. Companies everywhere are dunking their hands in the proverbial suggestion box (Trend Watching called “Particibrands” one of the top trends for 2010), and while they gain a product benefit, the consumer is empowered to interact with the brand.
  • Engage your consumers. In the end, it comes down to engaging the consumer. Via collaborative consumption, consumers with shared interests (whether protecting a new shirt from a dribbley coffee or saving the ozone from unnecessary exhaust) are banding together. Consciously or not, companies are shifting the dialogue to consumers and in doing so, creating buzzing brand microcosms. In these mini brand worlds, the conversation is current, authentic and inspires action. And at a time when consumers would rather find things out for themselves than have a company tell them what’s up, this dialogue is extremely powerful.

I suppose the real jewel in this sandbox is that you don’t need to be in the business of collaboratively consumable goods to learn from the trend. Stimulate the conversation and let your customers do the rest. Consumption may be up, but smart marketers will have their ears to the ground.

In the end, collaborative consumption is so much more than a new approach to buying. 70% off a pedicure and great marketing lessons? Some might call that bi-winning.