JM: We are all consumers. We buy and use products and services, each of which has a life cycle for us spanning from purchase to useless. The way we consume has come a long way from the earliest beginnings, when consumption consisted of a crude transaction or debt: for example, exchanging the corn harvested in autumn for furs to keep the family warm in winter.
Nowadays we buy things on a whim, impulsively, to satisfy an emotional desire which has been constructed by influences embedded in a complicated social hierarchy. This hierarchy has evolved alongside the basic features of modern life such as money, markets, advertising, and its sole aim is to target and inspire consumers to buy the goods that have been created.
This evolution has created many jobs, a great deal of wealth and, you could argue, a certain purpose for the billions of people that now populate this planet. But it has its downside: occasionally and often in the long term, it fails.
The physical aftermath of our consumption of products can be seen in the problems of pollution. Plastic litters the oceans, we discuss the warming of the planet while ice melts. These are the bad outcomes from our consumption, the aftermath that we fail to capture before it leaks into the natural environment around us.
In the world of services the goods supplied are less tangible. They could be the healthcare you receive from a nurse, the plane ride you buy from a travel company or the money management carried out by your bank. Instead of physical waste, here the bad outcomes are less tangible: mis-selling in banking, lost pensions and locked-in gym membership.
“Bad outcomes” arising from the digital landscape
Even less tangible are the bad outcomes from the relatively new landscape of digital. You can see examples in the software you have on your computer, the apps you download to your phone and the social media applications you use. The problems arising from this industry often get ignored as they are invisible, hidden on servers, and in your data that companies keep and use in ways that may well cause you anxiety in your daily life.
I see the problems that arise from these different industries of consumption as having the same source. Endings are no longer part of the overall consumer experience. We have moved the source of the problem away from the cause.
As consumers we are able to overlook endings. In business we have built a culture of ignoring them. As students we are taught they are not important. Endings are dodged and left for someone else to clear up. They are broken away from the rest of the experience.
It would be simplistic to assign blame. This is in fact a deep societal problem which has developed over hundreds of years. From the shock of the plague in the 14th century, to the emergence of the Protestant religion. From the removal of organised fasting to the distancing of our relationship with death. Out of these changes a societal framework has emerged that endorses consumption and blinds us to acknowledging consumer endings.
We need to understand the position we now find ourselves in. It’s not enough to design better endings, although that would be an excellent start. It is about understanding the full significance of the position we are in: emotionally, environmentally, socially and commercially.
To do this is no small task, but I have attempted, in this book, to put together the arguments, evidence and potential solutions for what I believe defines this enormous problem with endings.
The consumer lifecycle
The consumer lifecycle is a model used in marketing to define stages through which a person goes when purchasing and consuming something. We will build on this and adopt a common vocabulary for the discussion in the remainder of the book. To do this we’ll simplify the consumer lifecycle into three phases:
On-boarding, usage, and off-boarding.
In this context, on-boarding is made up of starting experiences. These are the actions that persuade the customer to commit to the product or service: they form the start of the relationship between consumer and provider. Examples of starting experiences are advertising, that attracts you to a product or service, marketing that orientates you towards the decision to purchase, packaging that enhances the product and makes it look more attractive.
The usage phase completes tasks, empowers people and orders chaos. It is the stable committed relationship between the consumer and the service they use, or the product they own. Examples of usage experiences are paying into or drawing from a pension scheme, daily usage of a car or regular usage of an app.
Off-boarding is a less well-acknowledged part of the product, digital or service lifecycle. It is made up of closure experiences of different kinds, such as the effort needed to neutralise the effect of the closure, to terminate the relationship between consumer and purchase. Typical closure experiences are the completion of a mortgage, the deletion of unwanted photos online, the appropriate disposal of an unwanted product, saying goodbye or closing unused accounts. Off-boarding acts to tidy up the impacts of consumption, and neutralise it’s ills.
The consumer awareness of endings
Although many producers make great efforts to counter the negative effects of consumption at an industrial level through legislation, improved materials and corporate governance, they are terrified of sharing, or even acknowledging endings with the consumer. Both producers and consumers have learnt to deny that endings happen.
By failing to acknowledge the importance of dealing with endings we lose our ability to improve them. The beginning, or on-boarding, of a customer is now a complex ritual that, as consumers, we navigate confidently. But the ending of that process has been distanced from the consumer and is now haunting our ability to deal with personal and global issues.
The Ends book, by Joe Macleod, is available on Amazon from the 8th of June.