Crises have a way of exposing patterns usually hidden beneath the hustle of everyday life. An example: My newsfeed tells me people are no longer spending money on non-essentials. That rings true in my life. Like everyone else, my wife and I are very careful about how we spend money in these uncertain days.
Then again, we just bought a Moscow Mule drink kit complete with two copper mugs. I don’t even like Moscow Mules. My wife does, but she has about three a year, tops. Logic tells me we should’ve saved that money. Or spent it on rice, beans and toilet paper. But there I was last Saturday evening walking through the door with a pair of drink kits under my arm I knew we would barely use.
They’re selling drink kits. But what we’re buying is community.
The truth is, that drink kit was put together by my hometown craft distillery owned by a couple we’ve known for over a decade. We meet friends there for happy hour. We go on dates there. They regularly donate to the school auction my wife helps organize. The distillery is a part of our community and we don’t want to see it go away.
That’s also why we regularly order from the restaurant that hosts my daughter’s cross country banquet every year. And why I buy whole bean coffee from the shop that, during non-pandemic times, always has my order waiting for me the moment I walk through the door. We’re spending this money not because we’re frivolous. But because when this pandemic is over, we want our community back.
Community has always been big part of what people buy
When I talk about community, it’s not really about buying local. There are plenty of local businesses I’m not buying from right now. Companies that simply sell stuff people need. And they happen do it near my house. Nothing wrong with that. But nothing that makes me want to support them either. Community isn’t proximity. Community is shared beliefs and values.
There are businesses thousands of miles away that I buy from for the same reasons I ordered that drink kit. Supporting them through my purchases makes me feel part of a community. When I pass a runner on the trail wearing the same Patagonia Houdini jacket as mine, I know we’re both part of a community formed around the belief that if wilderness is something you love, you need to come to its rescue.
Part of the price both of us paid for that jacket was for a quality piece of running gear. Part of the price was to support a company who volunteered to do the hard work of leading the world toward a sustainable future.
Communities gather around beliefs and values, not unique selling propositions
We all appreciate higher quality and better performance. But we also expect it. What people want right now are products that bring us together. Clothing that helps bring about a sustainable supply chain. Skincare that makes us feel beautiful for just being ourselves. Backpacks that empower the factory workers who build them. It’s not higher quality or lower prices that inspire us. It’s the better world companies make their products about.
In the book I F**king Love that Company Bayard Winthrop, founder of American Giant, warns “For brands stuck in the mushy middle, a frightening future looms.” Thanks to the current global crisis, that future is now here. There are lots of terrible downsides, but one upside is it will filter out a lot of those “mushy middle” companies building meaningless mass market products for no one in particular. And that, fingers crossed, will make room for companies that understand why beliefs, values and community building matter.