Brands can prosper by making consumers work harder

Indulgence and convenience are readily equated with value. Generally speaking, consumers are encouraged to treat themselves, not to push themselves.

Is this the natural state of the market, or a symptom of uninspired commerce?

The Oxford dictionary defines convenience as “The state of being able to proceed with something without difficulty”. But then to assume that convenience is good, would be to assume that difficulty is bad. And that would be a mistake.

The very thing most brands tacitly or explicitly claim to promote, happiness, is not merely difficult to obtain – difficulty is somehow intrinsic to happiness. Effort, exertion, work – whatever you call it – it’s as a key source of meaning and satisfaction for human beings. Marx called it “life’s prime want”, and Freud put it second only to love in the order of human desires.

If day jobs are becoming increasingly automated, de-skilled and less rewarding as a result, brands may come to play a different role in our lives. They may become the principal purveyors of meaningful projects.

Love, labour and value

Failure to realise when effort is an indispensable value can have disastrous consequences for brands.

The most fabled example of a brand getting convenience wrong is Betty Crocker. In the 1950s it launched a new ‘cake mix’ targeted at American housewives.

All the baker had to do was add water, mix together, and pop it in the oven.

Formerly fresh ingredients like milk and eggs had been incorporated into the mix as powders – all for maximum convenience.

The product bombed.

Baffled marketing execs scratched their heads... then the penny dropped. By reducing the housewife’s work to a mixing motion, they had unwittingly discarded an essential value of home cake making: its value as a labour of love. Focus groups confirmed that the lack of effort made the housewives feel fraudulent and guilty.

Their ingenious remedy? 'Just add an egg'.

By removing the egg powder, requiring the baker to add one herself, (it did not escape the attention of those behind this move that the egg is a signifier of femininity) Betty Crocker struck a balance between ease and effort.

The cake’s credentials as a labour of love were sufficiently restored – and the product flew off the shelves.

The opportunity economy

The market is the convenience engine par excellence.

Huge advances in material wealth are a function of diverse specialisms connected through the marketplace. Given current tastes, if each of us had to produce everything we wanted for ourselves, we would all be very stressed – and poorly dressed.

A less fortunate consequence of commercial society is that many forms of work become increasingly specialised, repetitive and unrewarding as a result. We are compensated in the form of electric massage chairs, custom trainers, copious varieties of dessert wine, VR headsets, fidget spinners etc. It’s all there on Amazon.

And yet, even in a super-consumer society such as ours, one’s own efforts can be uniquely rewarding. As Henry Ford once said, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice”.

Herein lies the opportunity for brands.

Brands such as Nike have excelled in trading on effort and reward.

Nike is almost unparalleled in this space, having engendered what could be called a cult of effort. This dopamine-powered bond with its customers has allowed it to transcend the rank of mere sportswear manufacturer, and occupy a quasi-religious status as an institution of self-betterment.

'We’re Loving It' elicits a warm and fuzzy sense of wellbeing. 'Just Do It' hums with the protestant work ethic.

Few brands get anywhere close to achieving this kind of relationship with their consumers. Why?

The domains of life that people deem worthy of their exertion are not fixed but constantly in flux, and they are heavily influenced by advertising and marketing. Nike’s marketing team were instrumental to the rise of non-competitive running, or “jogging” as it came to be known in the 1970s.

This uncharted space of possibilities should excite brands, and invite them to shape it and prosper from it.

On the subject of luxury markets, one commentator on The Drum recently claimed that “value is no longer found in tangibles and material goods. Instead it is found in the intangibles. Time, space, freedom, personalization and possibility”.

Not quite. Both alienated toil, and the ennui that would arise from an intangible world, are the enemies of possibility. We may desire freedom in the abstract, but we dream of tangible opportunities.

Perhaps most brands underestimate people’s penchant for a challenge, an opportunity to perform and find acclaim, to test or better themselves, to help someone else, or make something of enduring value.

As philosopher Alain de Botton has pointed out, brands could do a much better job of serving people’s higher needs for things like community, friendship, self-development and so on.

These are effortful domains that many of us would dedicate more time to if only the right opportunities were in place. If only the opportunities were convenient.

Many of these so-called higher needs, far from being the spoils of lofty and introspective pursuits, are achieved through social and practical activity. Cooking is an obvious example, and here companies like Blue Apron have created new territory by encouraging people to “discover dinner”, or rather the making of dinner, via their service.

Perhaps there are two kinds of convenience that brands can offer. Convenience can mean optimising for instant reward (luxury microwave meals) or earned reward (Blue Apron). The two are qualitatively different.

The later requires a blending of ease and effort, skillfully arranging them in the right places and in the right doses. Imaginative, alchemical innovation of this sort represents fertile ground for brands.

Admittedly, encouraging people to work for something in an edifying and non-patronising way requires a good deal of tact. As another commentator on this website says, the best brands act as sage parents, “They combine the thoughtful confidence of the Mad Men with genuine concern for promoting our best interests. They are neither arrogantly authoritarian nor obsequiously obliging.”

If we accept predictions that (for many of us at least) the world of work will become less intrinsically rewarding, the masses may look to the market for meaningful opportunities.

Will life’s prime want be left wanting?

Sam is The Drum's assistant publisher

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