The New Mainstream

Creating a new
relationship between
people and brands

Consumers no longer simply consume. They’re active, skeptical, creative, entrepreneurial. This used to be a minority pursuit. Now technology has made it mainstream: it’s given consumers new powers to be agents.


New research by Wolff Olins and Flamingo suggests three particular behaviours are moving from the fringe to become common everywhere. These are not simply a Western, leading edge ‘techy’ phenomenon, the new consumer is an entrepreneurial 60-year old in Toronto, a socially networked mother in Mumbai, and urban migrant as agile and proactive as any tech savvy teen. These new patterns of behaviour demand we re-think what we mean by ‘mainstream’. And their effects are amplified as never before – people, ideas and movements mobilise and pollinate quicker than ever in hard to anticipate, uncontrollable ways. So while much has been offered about trends to watch and the impact technology has on our lives, we believe marketers have been missing a course of action.


This report sets up that very conversation.

In 2006 less than 10% of people actively created content online. Now, it’s 77%.
Source: Holly Goodier/BBC 2012

These new mainstream behaviours show that, in the long power struggle between individuals and corporations, the battle lines are being redrawn. People are reshaping their relationships with companies. And it no longer has to be a fight. New opportunities are opening up for companies to make much richer, more human and more multidimensional relationships with individuals. These relationships will give customers more than just products, and customers will give more than just money.

And in these new relationships, brands are centre stage. We believe the new role of brand is to create relationships of fair exchange, where consumers and companies meet as equals, where each contributes, where everyone gains.

This report suggest three ways that any company that’s up for the challenge can use fair exchange to profit in the new, post-consumer world.

People Are Sidestepping

In a world of sidestepping,
companies need to focus on enlisting,
not just selling to, their customers

Everywhere in the world, people are questioning authority — and finding ways to sidestep it. This is most obvious at the political level — where ordinary people are overthrowing governments, and at the click of a button a 30-year-old technical contractor can blow the whistle on the US’s surveillance operations. But it’s become mainstream across many dimensions of everyday life. People question, compare, probe, mistrust, even boycott corporations — and find alternatives.

Bypassing the phone companies, millions switched to Skype, and now millions more are switching to WhatsApp. Wikipedia sidestepped traditional authorities such as Encylopedia Britannica, and now it’s become the mainstream source of knowledge. Travel guides like Michelin have lost their influence to sidestepper TripAdvisor. Zipcar sidestepped traditional car rental.

And at the edge, sidestepping is going even further. For many small enterprises, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Zoomaal are new ways to attract funding that sidestep the banks by leveraging the power of the crowd to create new products. Pave is creating a funding community for young Americans by pairing them with investors who are paid back with a percentage of earnings. Through Kiva, people are sidestepping development charities and investing directly in enterprises in the developing world. In the UK, many consumers get their loans from peers, through Zopa, rather than the banks.

In the US, to avoid traditional banks and inflated fees, people are signing up for Simple Bank’s no-fee online checking accounts. In its first year, Simple Bank saw more than $1 billion US in transactions. Betterment is demystifying investment services with simplicity and humanity. Business students are sidestepping university education in favour of Hyper Island, SkillShare and General Assembly.


In China, citizens are coming together to form the Human Flesh search engine to uncover social injustice and government corruption. The adoption by many of Bitcoin shows the demand for a non-institutional form of currency. Ushahidi in Kenya provides crowd-sourced information in times of uncertainty like elections or unrest.

“What really excites me now is that people feel empowered to make a change… People form their own opinions through their own networks”
Priya Prakash, founder Design for Social Change;
former Head of UX Design, Nokia

In March 2013, the red equals sign in support of marriage equality in the US went viral all over the world. Thousands of adaptations proliferated on the Web.
Source: Google

This means that people are looking for a new, fair exchange. In exchange for their trust, they want new powers. They want truth, in a democratic rather than authoritarian form. They want openness and honesty. They want simplicity. And they want it as close to free as possible. And this fair exchange is built on brands, like Skype, Wikipedia or Ushahidi.

The opportunity for companies is to create, or acquire, ways for this kind of exchange to happen — and in that way to get a great deal more from people than just their trust.




Share your own sense of purpose, and find ways for everyone to take part in it, and to amplify it — like Tom’s Shoes, or the UK cancer support organisation, Macmillan. In achieving this purpose, see yourself as not a sole operator, but part of an ecosystem. Think less about selling to people, more about enlisting them.


In a world of sidestepping, companies gain trust by giving people a new power. Offer your customers new ways of getting inside your business. Reveal rather than persuade. Organize your business in a way that delivers your purpose; beyond profit. Measure your positive impact, and what you’re doing to reduce negative impact. Above all, don’t act like an institution. Find lucrative ways to be on the side of people. Everyone says: achieve commercial success. We say: advance social progress.

Google's “Hot Trends” tool and “Knowledge
Graph” open up their data, to give a view of
what's on the world's mind, right now.

Source: Google

People Are Making Meaning

In a world of making, to get people’s
money, companies need to give them a
platform on which to make and sell

The days when consumers simply consumed are over. People now have so many ways to create, use, adapt, mix things up, sell things and even build their own businesses.

Social media has been an obvious force for change. In the world of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, 77% of Internet users actively create content — up from 10% only seven years ago. The volume of digital content created grew nine times between 2005 and 2011. Chinese users create more content than professional websites. So in this world of free-flowing ideas and opportunities, people are making the most of what they have access to.

“We’re seeing the democratisation of technology where the user is becoming a producer. The tools for people to create new services themselves are increasingly simple.”
Martin Geddes, telecoms and IT analyst

Sites and services like Codecademy, catering to the learn-to-program market, now number in the dozens, many for free or close to it.

Millions more are joining the Share Economy to make things, and to find markets for them, through peer-to-peer platforms like Etsy and Airbnb. Taskrabbit has created a marketplace for getting everyday chores done in exchange for a percentage of the fee. Square makes everyone a potential entrepreneur. In what’s been called the Bieber effect, YouTube has turned self-made stars into household names.  Amazon is enabling an explosion in self-publishing. And 3D printing is about to bring the means to manufacture products inside people’s homes.

Where resources are constrained, people are finding frugal ways to make things — as in the Jugaad spirit in India (Hindi for clever improvisation), where people re-purpose the materials around them. Still in India, Arvind has created a new model to overcome preventable eye disease in rural India, by training women in the villages to perform the surgery.

Lapka is a “personal environment
monitor” that plugs into a phone
to let users measure and analyze
the qualities of their surroundings.


As makers, people are looking for a different kind of fair exchange.
In exchange for their money or effort, people want a platform on which they can make, share and even sell their ideas.

The opportunity for companies is to do much more than just selling: to equip their customers with knowledge, skills, tools and even marketplaces — and to let customers use their brand. And in that way, to get much more back in return.




Give people ingredients, rather than the finished article. When technologists pursue the ‘minimum viable product’, consider also building a ‘minimum viable brand’ that people can adopt, adapt and improve.

Give people skills — like the UK publisher Faber through the Faber Academy. Run seminars, masterclasses, open weekends. Think about creating your own free online courses.

Give people a marketplace — like fashion retailer ASOS, which enables customers to sell clothes they no longer want. AmEx is funding people’s project ideas, which anyone can submit just through a tweet. Engage DIYers and give them a platform so they can become brands themselves.

Help customers to collaborate with other customers and build communities.  Eventually, put more decisions in the hands of your customer.

Above all, don’t simply sell to people: find profitable ways to play a much bigger part in their lives. 
Everyone says: use your brand to help you sell more. We say: use your brand to help people do more.

MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based startup that makes 3-D printers,
was recently sold for over
$400 million. Their printers are
used by engineers, designers,
and hobbyists around the world.

People Are
Shaping Time

In an era of taking back, to get people’s time and data, companies need to give people the freedom to get everything on-demand

This shift is a complex one. It’s about the value of people’s time, access and experiences. Faster and more frequent communication has allowed brands to push too much at us — and people are looking for ways to control that flow, to get things when they want them, where they want them, and on their terms.

This is most visible in the way we converse: now much less in synchronous phone conversations, and much more in asynchronous social media. Making phone calls has dropped to the fifth most frequent use for smartphones.

IOS 7 has a “Do Not Disturb”
feature which, when activated,
doesn’t alert users to calls,
texts and emails until later.


This push-back behaviour is mainstream too in television viewing. More and more television is being watched, but less and less through conventional broadcast channels. Through on-demand technology like YouTube, TiVo, Hulu, Netflix and iPlayer, people are doing their own timetabling — sometimes consuming bite-size chunks, sometimes bingeing on entire seasons of drama.

Education is changing in a similar way, with online courses — at school and university level — enabling people to learn at their own pace, not according to an institution’s timetable. Coursera has raised $65 million in funding so far to bring online education to emerging markets. The MOOC movement has reached Europe too with a new platform, Futurelearn.


In China, the social media app Weixin has 300 million users, taking part in a group free-form chat which embraces video, voice clips and images. Elsewhere, Snapchat offers a way of sharing things without permanently keeping them — a way of living in the moment. Twitter’s video platform, Vine, gives you six seconds of content liberating both the audience and the creator. It’s being embraced by brands from automative to retail who respond to customers’ tweets with real time video.

Above, Toyota Spain uses Vine to take its cars off the road
Source: Vine

In areas like health and wellness, it is less about managing time but rather deepening the experience in that period of time. In this area there’s been a huge upside to our always-on, always connected lifestyle. Advances in digital health are providing access to medical services to people in remote areas, and wearable technology is creating a multi-billion-dollar industry with brands like Nike+ Fuelband, FitBit and Jawbone’s UP.

In 2012, U.S. President Obama answered citizen’s questions
about the State of the Union
over the White House’s first-
ever public Google Hangout.

Increasing concerns about data and privacy are accelerating this. Most consumers are willing to tick the box on terms and conditions, and to accept that they’re giving away valuable data on their behaviour and location — but they want more back in return. And much more than the ‘rewards’ offered by traditional loyalty schemes.

This means that in exchange for data, people want freedom over their time.

The opportunity for companies is to provide more open-ended, flexible, nuanced experiences, and in return to get even deeper insights from customers on what they want, and how they want it. And brand becomes the fulcrum — owned jointly by company and customer — through which this fair exchange happens.





Let people do things on their terms, in their time: total convenience to create the experience they want. Target is introducing simpler CityTarget stores designed to minimise shopping time. Conversely, Starbucks is experimenting with food and wine options that help people slow down and spend longer in-store. How could your interactions with customers become more asynchronous?

Rethink segmentation: consider how different people in different moods want different things. Then let them choose, rather than thrusting things at them. Give people a menu, from quick snacks to longer, deeper experiences.

Think not just about ‘customer relationship management’ but also — to use the phrase of tech guru Doc Searls — ‘vendor relationship management’. How could you help your customers manage their relationship with you, and with your peers, so that they’re in control?

Be generous — particularly in giving people insights you’ve gathered from the data they’ve given you.

Above all, don’t try and control people’s time. Don’t be demanding. Instead, find ways to be completely on-demand. 
Everyone says: manage your customer relationships. We say: engage on your customers' terms.


Defining the
new relationship

These behaviours are signs that people want, and are creating, a new kind of relationship. One of exchange, not of broadcast. One of give and take. One where people and companies meet as equals, where each contributes, where everyone gains. This creates huge opportunities for organisations, through their brands, to enlarge their relationships, to everyone’s benefit.

There’s a spectrum of ways to do that.

At one end, be yourself, openly declare your exchange, but don’t aim for a deep emotional relationship. Make a brand that honestly sets out a tightly defined exchange. This is the secret of Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair.

At the other end, become boundaryless. Share your brand across an ecosystem of organisations and individuals, and let them all shape what you are. This is the secret of the world’s fastest-growing brand, Android.

Of course, people have always sought a minimal kind of fair exchange — quality in exchange for cash. And brands — as trademarks — were invented as a guarantee of that exchange.

But our research suggests that there are now many more dimensions to that exchange. The opportunity for organisations is to magnify their exchange — to offer more, across more dimensions, and in return to get more back.

In this post-consumer world, brand becomes the joint property of the company and the customer — the badge under which the customer makes things, just as much as the company.

This is the opportunity to expand the idea of value by creating one to one human experiences to find new ways to grow. What new value can you create for people? And what new value can they create for you?



In our conversations with business leaders we’ve been hearing a sense of uneasiness about ‘giving up control to consumers’ in the age of social media. Some are embracing it, finding new ways to connect with their consumers on an individual level — but most are nervous at the thought of their consumers being in charge of their brand.

For that reason we decided to look at the evolving ways people are consuming products and interacting with brands in our 2013 Game Changers report. The Game Changers series is an annual exploration of what’s driving change in the world of brands. Last year Wolff Olins looked at the organizational behaviours of the world’s high-growth companies in order to help others learn from those game changing businesses. We found that the top performing companies were driven by purpose, useful in their customers daily lives, experimental in their offer, boundaryless in their operations and value creative in making money. This year, we set out to determine how new mainstream consumer behaviours are creating opportunities for game change by demanding a new deal in their relationship with institutions, organizations and brands.  






Over the course of three months (Spring 2013), we interviewed top behavioral experts, cultural thinkers and social anthropologists, as well as consumers, to identify the emerging mainstream behaviors that are shifting the way people and brands engage. 


Founder & CEO, LUXENOMAD, enabling people in South East Asia to plan curated luxury holidays
Author of How to Thrive in the Digital Age, Technology Consultant, Journalist
Insight, strategy, innovation consultant working with senior executives across telecoms, media and IT industries.
Professor Modern History and Chinese Studies, Oxford University. Author Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation
Professor of Chinese, University of Ohio, specializing in the interactions of media and contemporary culture in the PRC
Founder Story Things. Finding new, innovative ways to tell stories.
Marketing Director, CLUB 21
Communications Director Airbnb
Futurist, Innovation and Digital Strategist
Founder Lemonade Money TV production agency, specializing in Youth and Music
Founder ‘Priyascape’ and Design for Social Change. Designer of tools, conversations and experiences through digital platforms
Co-Founder Albam Clothing. London-based British brand of ‘modern crafted clothing’
Author of Present Shock and Program or be Programmed, media theorist and commentator specializing in how we behave with technology
Founder & MD, Snap Lion, India
Founder Shirland Ventures, Retail Consultancy
Professor of Sociology Manchester University, Editor of the Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture
James Tan
Head of Mobile Search Sales & Strategy, APAC at Google Singapore
Founder Prehype, product innovation and corporate start-up innovation agency
Founder, The Smithery, marketing and product innovation studio