What are Blurring Boundaries?
In research that Marco Bevolo and I conducted in 2007, we posited the “Blur” between work and urban leisure as two polarities on a continuum. Where behaviors, activities, and categories overlap and complement each other. In this new world of “collage consumption,” business categories as we know them will cease. They will increasingly blur into new blended propositions beyond linear innovation, determining the Blurring Boundaries. Accordingly, enterprises will need to rethink their strategy to gain, regain or retain their leadership role by leveraging social innovation and digital impact and not by suffering its consequences passively. The coming of age and rise to the executive power of Millennials, with their nomadic lifestyles and project orientation, as the first generation of true digital natives, will only speed up and amplify the effects of this paradigm change. In a nutshell, enterprises will need to transform their DNA and strategic processes to address the future by design. This is both at a socio-cultural level (e.g., future trends and foresight) and at the people, customer, and consumer insight level.
In the description of the “Blur,” one might say that the integration of technology and increased connectedness into all aspects of life has led to the hyper-availability of content regardless of setting, breaking down the traditional wall of separation between work and home. Today’s professional has access to work emails from the amusement park and social media at their work desk. This phenomenon will continue to progress in our 5 to 10-year timeframe. This will be further triggered by the coming of age of Millennials and the disruptive introduction of the project-based, nomadic lifestyles of digital natives into the work, leisure, and urban spheres. Based on the above, we posit that this transformation process, which until now has already been blurring the boundaries of categories and cultures, will redefine our understanding of consumption and lifestyles.
Consequently, the lines of division between leisure and work, home and office, among lifestyles and categories will seamlessly, pervasively, and inevitably “Blur.”
A meta trend for future lifestyles: “Blur.”
At the beginning of the new millennium, we observed a technological convergence. Whereby, news, and content in general, moved beyond their traditional “device of fruition” to become multi-platform. One might say that the “Blur” goes well beyond such convergence of digital platforms. However, with this new digital media paradigm, enabled by the rise of smartphones and the end of mass communication, the “Blur” could be seeded in advanced economies. Marketing communication and advertising constitute the field where converging digital technologies most drastically disrupted the status quo. This has happened already to the point that one might state that Millennials have a radically different relationship with both media channel context and channeled content than Generation X. Since the 1950s, the traditional advertising model was based on the concept of prime-time; a block of broadcasting television programs who exerted a TV set gravitational pull. Of course, prime time was not the only block and, therefore, not the only advertising opportunity. TV was not even the only media TV sets started proliferating beyond the living room, and, consequently, TV lost its role as a “family come together” at the end of the 1990s.
Nonetheless, from the point of view of advertisers, broadcasters, content producers, and viewers/ consumers, there were time frames, blocks, windows, and occasions that defined our day’s pace and rhythm. Audiences knew when they would get the news, get entertained, etc. Even the rise of thematic channels or the proliferation of TV sets updated and complemented but did not disrupt that model. And those occasions went beyond the media and entertainment consumption. They clearly defined the time for oneself vs. the time for family, the time to work, and the time to play. The event went to develop consumption rituals that helped switch from one occasion from one window to another. Just as the drinks after work or the long urban and sub-urban commutes with the radio or a book. In short, one might describe the TV set as the “factory clock” of the postwar society, and such a social clock, synchronizing all of us nationally since the late 2000s, is no longer.
As digitalization has developed into a large-scale phenomenon, the boundaries between the product and service categories have started to blur. Initially, productivity devices belonging to the “work” sphere, personal computers, and laptops have become gaming and entertainment devices. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are not the only screens in the living room when the TV is on; people watch TV while chatting, skyping, tweeting, or while active on other social media. People don’t look at just one screen at a time any longer.
What was a consumer electronics-related, media-centric phenomenon later converted to a broader set of consumer categories? Just as a few FMCG examples might be described in our mundane everyday lives. Since the mid-2000s, wet shaving (blade) and dry shaving (electric) converged into a continuum. Flavored beers and ciders are growing faster and faster in refreshments and meals, traditionally owned by soft drinks. Historically, male categories are becoming more and more conscious and oriented towards female audiences (such as whisky, cigars, and gin). This pertains to Western markets and advanced economies. However, no need to add that the very notion of “West” has dramatically changed, with the former Eastern European block converging with the European Union, the rise of China as an experiment of super capitalist Communism, and the problems raised by the integration of postmodern lifestyles within traditional cultures and vice versa. The latter are all examples of Blurring Boundaries,
Manifestations of the Blurring Boundaries
The Blurring Boundaries is manifested in the convergence across product category boundaries observed in the past 10-15 years. Of course, different outcomes have resulted from this process in different regional contexts. However, universally, the emergence of digital solutions enabled and multiplied phenomena underpinning this macro-tendency. At the consumer experience and consumption level, this meta-trend can be best characterized as the emergence of eco-systems beyond the product. Breaking with the traditional paradigm of category-based consumption. A TV-centric living room in early 2000, which delivered news and entertainment, has been superseded by many larger and smaller displays and devices connected to content distributors via IP.
The most solid point of evidence might be in the changing blueprint of our work-life balance and the blurring boundary between “work” and “play.” Most companies no longer impose a dress code. Even those in the late 90s asked their lab employees, exempted from formal dress for safety reasons and convenience, to wear a prescribed attire for lunches at the corporate cafeteria. When there is a code, it is part of a mutual understanding between employees and employers. To any further extent, it is not forcibly enforced through HR policies. Increasingly “internal start-ups” and the adoption of modalities experimented with within accelerators and incubators are part of the HR mix of multinational corporations to retain and motivate new generations of their workforce.
Moreover, the shape and form of the office are changing beyond cubicles and meeting rooms. It is becoming more and more common to have informal work areas, adult-size playgrounds with slides, football and videogames, hammocks, and putting greens instead of meeting room chairs and tables. Giving away that the boundary between work and play is disappearing. On the other hand, the computing power we carry on ourselves in the forms of tablets, phones, and laptops, combined with increasing wireless broadband connectivity, enables work in parks, bars, cafes, or commuting routes. We can conduct work from almost anywhere and at any time. In a nutshell, the boundaries that separated the professional and personal time are becoming indistinct, while the consumption rituals that marked the passage from one to another are also disappearing.
The “Blur” has been the context in which the Millennials have grown up and have already started generating new businesses, practices, and rituals. Such cultural ground, rich with professional talent and enriched by a new vision of leisure, from serious (e.g., volunteering) to abnormal (e.g., semi-legal behaviors that might go unchartered), will determine a new paradigm, setting a stage where social norms and values will mature into new standards. Such standards will specify new notions of value, status, and prestige. For example, in the mid-term, owning a car may become a negative status marker, as cutting-edge individuals will move into autonomous vehicles with new shared ownership business models firmly in the rearview mirror.
Brands and the “Blur”
The emergence of the “Blur” within lifestyles principally put an end to the notion of “consumer need” and “consumption occasion.” The idea of “consumer” is already worn out for decades. In research and business, this is increasingly replaced by the awareness that people are people beyond consumption and in holistic terms. The need/occasion pillar has become too vague as a concept to be actionable, both from a consumer and a producer standpoint. There are no clear and actionable ways of identifying the traditional border between working life and leisure, holiday and business travel, or personal and professional sphere. Today, gamification is already pervasively used as a marketing and innovation tool or productivity platform. Gamification is also used to promote better lifestyles and improve education in the private sphere. The caveat is, of course, that neither the need nor the occasions cease to exist. Although they become almost intangible, we can’t describe them any longer through deterministic equations.
Dealing with Blurring Boundaries
With the need/occasion model shattering into pieces, brands can only trust the gravitational pull derived from their reputation. Brands need to become beacons, and beacons will be such because of three critical aspects: relevance, purpose, and sensory network:
- Relevance will cease to become a concept of fit to a consumption context, to become a filter for people’s ambition. Beyond needs and occasion, people’s purpose will be measured by how well an experience fits their values, drive, and goals. Should that refer to fitting in or standing out, improving their health or creating a better world for their children, and so on?
- On another level, potent purposes will enable communication platforms with efficient and effective targeting. They will become a strategic screener of the content management strategy, beyond the current non-sense of brands tactically tapping on news and gossip.
- Finally, since the 2000s, brands have developed their sensory network. On the one hand, that will help identify weak signals at the consumer level, and on the other, it will induce co-designing of tactical responses with end-users. Since, in a turbulent environment, the only notion of equilibrium that makes sense is dynamic, brands need to develop a capability of perceiving the tiniest changes in the marketplace to ensure they can move and survive in the dynamic equilibrium.
Within this context, the increasingly sophisticated trend research competencies enterprises developed internally and leveraged in outsourcing mode prove mission-critical in anticipating the future. In particular, understanding people and their socio-cultural landscapes of values proved a key asset to rethinking innovation from the viewpoint of human priorities further than the mechanical execution of technology roadmaps. This will increasingly be mission-critical in reaching new audiences and connecting to their lifestyles and ambitions.
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