Ideas and insights to take your marketing to the highest level

March 18, 2015
Russ Klein

Marketing and the Rise of Individualism

For 75 years, marketers have been accustomed to generational cohesion. The Greatest Generation was glued together by their common fight against world tyranny in WWII. Baby boomers were joined by peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. For a while, it looked like there might again be certain transcendent values that would cleave to the next generation of consumers, millennials who are 82 million strong.

Some say that these are consumers who are distinguished by their confidence in themselves and in their peers, and, conversely, their mistrust of politicians, experts, authority figures and mass media. Conventional wisdom also asserts that millennials expect to do business with companies that are purpose-driven enterprises, good corporate citizens, and transparent about their social values. Then came the rest of the story.

The Paradoxical Plurality

On one hand, there’s a powerful strain of collectivism and global citizenship, and a pronounced, even emotionally charged, social agenda among millennials. On the other hand, there is a conflicting force. It’s what social scientists are observing as a certain selfishness fed by hyper-personalization, intolerance for service failure and delayed gratification, the phenomenon of user-generated social currency such as “selfies,” and an emerging neo-individualism.

I’m sure that this audience understands the important evolution from the best practice of a market-driven approach to advancing their business compared to the “next” practice of a customer-driven approach, which is no longer about selling what a company has, but instead, helping customers buy what they need, ushering in the era of personalization. I hope that you all got the memo on this.

Personalization is one thing, but self-centeredness is another. The author of an article on political backlash regarding children’s vaccinations recently opined, “the anti-vaxxers’ prominence speaks to something deeper in American society.” After quoting an Arizona man who blithely waved off any concern for the children who might die if infected by his unvaccinated child—reportedly saying, “It’s not my responsibility to be protecting [someone else’s] child”—the author noted that “something deeper” was going on, a “simplistic, romantic understanding of individualism that permeates American society.” So much for the greater good.

Now let’s be clear: I’m not staking out a position on this social issue, but as a marketer, or even as a citizen, you must agree that it reveals a potential collision, a paradox, between individual rights and the so-called greater good, which ultimately weighs into every decision that a person makes.

So I ask you, which is the more compelling force in marketing: purpose-driven enterprises that reflect shared values with their customers, or customer-driven marketing that is ultra-personalized and always focused on the individual? Will privacy and security concerns run at crosscurrents with our steady march toward hyper-personalization, or will it just be social roadkill flattened by our voracious appetite to have what we want, when we want it, exactly the way we want it?

One hundred and fifteen years ago, shopkeepers and merchants knew what a personalized and accountable customer relationship was all about. Two industrial revolutions later, and now amidst a third, we have returned to a personalized and accountable relationship with our customer after the era of mass media had disintermediated that connection in the name of consumerism.

Now, thanks to the future of connectivity driven by the Internet of Things, I predict that we will see a cadence of new industrial revolutions that will wash over us every five years, and that marketers will continue to contend with consumers’ increasing interest in navel gazing while fostering their expanded worldview. It’s also possible that the machine-to-machine, human-to-machine and human-to-human connectivity will again be disrupted by “smart everything,” potentially endangering the company-to-customer relationship that we only recently rediscovered.



Russ Signature




Russ Klein, CEO

Copyright 2014 American Marketing Association
This site content may not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the prior permission of the American Marketing Association or its affiliates.