We’re Not Keeping up with the Joneses Anymore

By Rick Kiley, Co-Founder of SoHo Experiential

Remember January, 2001, when a little rectangle with an LCD screen started showing up on billboards and magazines with the simple statement, “1,000 songs in your pocket.” With that game changing claim, the iPod was born. At the time of its launch, while other mp3 players were available, none looked this good, and none came close to delivering on the promise —  1,000 songs in your pocket seemed otherworldly at the time!

Now, more than 15 years later, even given the ground-breaking nature of that promise, the iPod is not even manufactured anymore. Yet, in its wake, the iPod spawned the now huge digital music industry, and gobs of other consumer electronics companies designing and selling their own mp3 players. As innovative as the iPod was, numerous other products from companies like Sony, Microsoft and Samsung were able to match the offering of the iPod in short time.

On February 28, 1954, Westinghouse introduced the first color TVs to the United States, at the low price of $1,295 ($11,373 in 2015), and their first to market advantage lasted roughly a month, until RCA brought another, cheaper version on the market. 60 years later, there are more styles, brands and sizes of color televisions than I care to count; each unit falling along a spectrum of television sets that provide essentially the same function.

No matter the product, no matter the industry, the same truth exists; with the exception of the brief “first to market” period following a true innovation or invention (i.e. light bulb, internal combustion engine, mobile telephone), no product is singular.

There is always a chief competitor (think Coke and Pepsi) and there is always a cheap alternative, (think Yugo vs. Mercedes). In some cases the cheap alternative emerges as a generic substitute (acetaminophen vs.Tylenol), or a private label brand that a retailer has simply created to repackage something you already buy.

The various marketing machines associated with the thousands of products we see and use help make us feel differently about each brand or type of product, but at the end of the day, a slice of pizza (or four) will fill your belly up, be it from Grimaldi’s or DiFara’s.

The fact that the pizza will “fill your belly up” is one of its functional benefits. Additional differentiators or descriptors are that it may have a “thin crust,” be “deep dish,” it might be “original recipe” or be “made with organic tomatoes.” Regardless of these descriptors however, functionally speaking, pizza is some combination of dough, sauce and cheese, baked in a really hot oven, which fills your belly up.

Let’s consider for a moment your favorite pizza. The one you love above all others. Some soulful tastemakers may agree with you, while some taste-bud challenged cretins might disagree. So, while you may contend your favorite pizza is THE best, it is unparalleled… that’s only true for you. And, whether you know it or not, that truth is based in an Emotional Benefit derived from EXPERIENCE.

Perhaps you first tasted that pizza on your baseball team after getting a game winning hit, and you’ve carried that special moment with you forever, and that’s why you love it. Perhaps you’ve never been to New York before, and only had Canadian pizza topped with canadian bacon and maple syrup (sorry Canada), and your mind is blown by tastes you’ve never experienced. Or perhaps you just burned your mouth on it, and it’s ruined for you. The through line here is that the product itself isn’t nearly as important your experience with it.

In 1913, a comic strip created by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand debuted called “Keeping up with the Joneses.” The strip ran until 1940, and then after WWII, the title because common vernacular for those aspiring to the 1950s and 1960s “American Dream.” In the ‘50s big brand names were synonymous with quality and trust, and consumers wore those badges with pride. People wanted the bigger cars their neighbors owned, the best tools, etc. “Keeping up with the Joneses” drove the economy for a long time.

As society evolved, however, and as the economy hit a few bumps in the road, a shift began to occur. There are simply too many products out there, and new ones coming out too quickly to “keep up” anymore. With the advent of social media in 2005, and smart phones taking off after 2009, people started to not care about the “stuff” anymore. Conspicuous consumption was replaced with “intelligent consumption,” and everyone become more interested in what others were doing on their social media feed, than the stuff they obtained.

Today, we aren’t keeping up with the Joneses, we are keeping up with what they are doing. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds are littered with images of food porn, feet on sandy beaches, concerts mid-encore, vacations; all designed on some level to promote the same sort of reaction that buying the bigger car did in the 1950s.

These social feeds are curated by their owners. They take time and are thoughtful about what they post. They edit it, they crop images, they enhance photos and edit videos, because the social media feed IS who they are, or at the very least, whom they want others to think they are.

A quick review of these feeds will shows you that they are filled with experiences; those that are unique, those that are interesting, those that spark envy, drive FOMO, and elevate social status. They are SHARE WORTHY. People aren’t sharing a photo of their new blender, and captioning it, “my new blender.” They are sharing a picture of their blender with all the ingredients necessary to make a Frozen Margarita with a caption that says “New Blender + Tequila + Lime + YOU = MARGARITA MADNESS TONIGHT!!!!!” It’s not about  the “thing” it’s about the “experience” derived from the thing.

Luckily, I think most brand marketers aren’t focusing on functional benefits, and they are thinking about how consumers experience their brand; however, the question marketers should be asking themselves today is “How do I enable consumers to experience my brand in a share worthy way?” Because with today’s consumers, if they didn’t share it, it didn’t happen.