The Sharing Economy’s All-Access Pass

As I left my rented house this morning in my leased car to visit a prospective client in a shared office space after buying a Mont Blanc pen in a pop up store, it struck me how much life has changed.  No longer is there inherent “good” in the ownership of things as there once was.  Instead we find ourselves firmly planted in the rental era.  Ease of access and shared experiences in the now trump lifelong ownership and a five-year plan for a certain future.  I believe this is a new plane of existence that marks a philosophical shift as much as a monetary one – let’s call it transient transcendence—and the implications for brands are huge.

What does it mean for a brand to give you access? Today’s technology and the rise of the sharing economy has put a premium on access over ownership; mobility over fixity, and experiences over acquisitions. With millennials marrying and having families later in life, delaying or altogether eschewing car and home ownership, and often choosing self-employment or a freelance lifestyle over more traditional office-bound trajectories, as a society we are diving headfirst into the rental era with great enthusiasm.  Look how we’re sharing cars (Uber, Lyft, SideCar, RelayRide, Zipcar, Enterprise), loaning out our homes (Airbnb, HomeAway), and putting our goods and skills on the marketplace (Etsy, Poshmark). Crowdsourcing and funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo help people realize creative projects, charities, and start-up businesses. Even those on limited budgets can choose to get housekeeping and shopping chores done for them by the busy bunnies at TaskRabbit, Washio, and Instacart—paying relatively low hourly rates for services and getting more time back in return. Indeed, the slogan of gear-borrowing service Snapgoods encapsulates the entire ethos and attraction of the new sharing economy: “Own Less. Do More.”

While some have argued that the rise of the new sharing economy is a response to an uncertain job market and millennials coming of age during the Great Recession, I’d suggest looking elsewhere to explain the movement’s popularity. For a generation so comfortable dissolving the boundaries between the private, the public, and the professional, the cooperative sharing of goods and services makes perfect, intuitive sense. Millennials believe in a cooperative, co-shared, and co-lived life. The notion of true parity between buyer and seller, producer and consumer—united in their needs and desires—is some kind of utopian dream, but it’s one that’s different from communal life of the sixties. It’s a preference driven by hard-nosed pragmatism as much as do-goodism.

This demand for access places significant new stresses on the relationship between customers and brands. Brands need to learn how to share better, and provide customers with unique experiences, not just transactional encounters (i.e., X dollars for Y product). Three ways brands can bolster access are: flagship stores, sensory experiences, and customer events.

Flagship stores that are tailored to locale, cultivate brand equity while engaging with local patrons. Brand houses are also sensual experiences that flatter analogue sensibilities while fixed in a digital world. “The world deserves experiences and it’s our job to give it to them,” said UnderArmour CEO Kevin Plank about the opening of his flagship stores. Similarly, Dunhill’s global brand director Jason Beckley explained: “Consumers have come to relate flagships to brand power and presence, so if they don’t exist you are not in the game.”

Sensory marketing, or the ability brands have to engage all the senses, use technology to better interact with consumers. After studies showed that people’s sense of taste decreases 30% in the air, British Airways introduced a 13-track “Sound Bite” menu that matches meals with specially paired music tracks to enhance food flavor. Similarly, Marriott Hotel introduced Oculus Rift 4D technology, heaters, and water sprayers to allow guests to virtually explore holiday destinations like Hawaii.

Finally, brands that are smart and authentic about customer events and philanthropic efforts will be better able to define their business with purpose, emotion, resonance. Consumer events such as the Intel Science Talent Search, Pillsbury bake-off, and the Electrolux Design Lab celebrate customer creativity and ingenuity while deftly reinforcing core brand attributes.

Fostered by the sharing economy in the rental era, our emboldened sense of access has changed what it means to be a consumer. In return, the brands that respond best will win from consumers that which is most prized: emotional access.

Image attribution/source: Carlos Maya /

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