The consumer society is at a crossroads. It is not only the consumption of a commodity that creates happiness, but also its non-consumption: This is because we communicate social distance and proximity to certain social groups not just by the consumption of certain things, but also by the renunciation of certain other things. On the basis of this thesis, Ernst Mohr in his book questions a central paradigm of traditional economics: happiness that is driven only by the consumption of ever greater quantities. But if the ever-increasing throughput of material is not a prerequisite for increasing happiness, then not only does the current consumerism show itself in a different light but it opens up a perspective for the future of the consumer society.
The consumer society at a crossroads
The conventional view, in which only consumption matters, is contrasted with the view that takes into account both consumption and renunciation on a par – which is a view of the consumption of qualities instead of quantities. The banker and punk styles highlight the crossroads of the consumer society: The banker consumes the suit and avoids the mohawk hairstyle and the punker avoids the suit and consumes the mohawk hairstyle. So, are both happy because they consume positive quantities of what they consume, the more the better, or are they happy because they just don’t consume the same? This is the key question about the present and future of the consumer society. It involves the present and future of social exclusion and inclusion, the ecological footprint, materialism, the happiness of renunciation as well as brand management. All these questions require a unified answer. Die Produktion der Konsumgesellschaft delivers it.
The non-verbal communication sector of the economy
In this view, the consumer and lifestyle industries are a service provider of an all-encompassing non-verbal communication of its customers and non-customers, such as the banker and the punker. The industry’s business models are processing this value chain of communication. Firms and brands navigate in the wake of a consumer-driven cultural selection of the speech-like characteristics of the world of things and of behavior. The aesthetics of the individual styles of consumers, e.g. of a banker and a punker, and the common style of elective affinities in which consumers merge with their individual style, e.g. of the banker style and the punk style, are the speech-like forms with which consumers produce the social. The shared culture, including that of bankers and punkers, as the lingua franca that makes this communication possible, is continually transformed under the impact of consumption. Because different consumption styles are not all equally efficient in creating social distance and proximity. The non-verbal lingua franca of consumption is thus exposed to a constant pressure of selection towards cultural efficiency. Its in-depth comprehension is decisive for the success or failure of business. For the companies in the non-verbal communications sector, human capital that is familiar with this key cultural process is a key resource for enduring success.
Consumer society in fundamental criticism
The consumer society and its industries are being criticized from two sides: the ecological side, regarding the ecological footprint, and the culture-critical side, regarding the banalization of life. However, this criticism can affect the communicative core of the consumer society and its industries to only a limited extent. Firstly, it is because the semantic component of communication services of the consumer and lifestyle industries does not incur thermodynamic costs. Hence, their ecological footprint is smaller than that of other industries of equal size. This allows for a partial but systematic decoupling of the brand value from the ecological footprint. Secondly, the criticism that life is banalized by consumerism also applies to industry only to a limited extent. This is, because the style system sets the consumer and lifestyle industries also an incentive to reduce stylistic boredom in the mainstream. The rigorous orientation of business as service providers for non-verbal communication thus leads firms into a future that is both ecologically and culturally more lasting.
A fundamentally new theory of consumption
With a fundamentally new theory of consumption, Ernst Mohr shows that social distance and proximity are communicated through consumption and produced through communication. He positions styles of postmodernity – such as hip-hop, punk, skinhead, hipster, pop – with those of the mainstream in an overall style system of society and analyses their encounters. This approach casts a new light on the cultural and social evolution and on the business models of the consumer goods industry: Characteristics of the consumer society and the business models of its industries, including singularity mass production, fashion and its cannibalization, the edition business with consumers’ collecting passion, the de-uniformization of society, but also the neo-Marxist critique on consumerism have their joint origin in the cultural selection of consumption, trimmed for efficiency. It is also shown how this cultural selection affects the evolution of the social: towards the opening up of the formerly closed society, towards the equalization of individuality and happiness despite the ever-increasing variegation of the world of style, towards the destabilization of elective affinities and towards cellular division out of the mainstream.
Die Produktion der Konsumgesellschaft is based on empirical and theoretical findings from sociology, semiotics, social psychology, art history and art criticism, philosophy, archaeology, evolutionary biology, economics and marketing. On this basis, it offers the cultural, social and economic sciences a common approach to a field of interest that has so far been treated with contradictory paradigms.
Recommendation for action
Die Produktion der Konsumgesellschaft thus opens up new perspectives for marketing.
1. Branding must assess which position the brand currently occupies within the overall style system and must determine which position it wants to occupy:
Like elective affinities, brands occupy certain positions in the overall style system and are part of the artisan “how” and the expressive “what” of various style formations formed by different common styles. Brand equity is therefore not only affected by competing brands (industry view), but also by brands in the same style formation (formation view).
2. The brand can also be given a brand value-enhancing function in the stylistic innovation process:
The brand is not only a statement in the communicative overall system itself (the traditional branding perspective in industry comparison), but can also be a mediator of communication between different style formations in the overall system, e.g. between fringe and mainstream. In this second function, brand equity is influenced by the capacity of moderating the diffusion process of stylistic innovation from the fringe of society to the mainstream. Here, the competing brands are not (necessarily) those of your own industry, but rather those from all industries that co-moderate the innovation process at the same point of diffusion. Industrial moderation gradually makes stylistic innovation of the fringe of society usable for the mainstream. Brand value is thus also driven by its contribution to the scalability of stylistic innovation.
3. Brands must find their optimal role in the stylistic signal cascade of coolness:
With a brand, customers not only signal their (desired) identity, but also occupy a certain position in the signal cascade from standing-out coolness to fitting-in coolness to active and passive uncoolness. The diffusion process of stylistic innovation traverses the signal cascade in steps. Therefore, the function of a brand in the stylistic innovation process is to play a role in the signal cascade. When enhancing the brand value, a tradeoff must be observed: The role of a standing-out cool brand is per se more profitable than the role of a fitting-in cool and even more so than the role of an uncool brand, but uncool brands benefit from a greater scaling effect of stylistic innovation. When choosing that role of a brand, the risk of brand erosion must be taken into account. This is the result of a brand upgrade towards standing-out coolness, which cannot be sustained by the cultural resources branding avails of.
Prof. Dr. Ernst Mohr; firstname.lastname@example.org
Open Access Link: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-4909-3/die-produktion-der-konsumgesellschaft/?number=978-3-8394-4909-7