Consumer behaviour has evolved. The growth of the 'sharing economy' tells us
that access to goods and services, as opposed to ownership, is of ever greater
importance to consumers. Where much of existing consumer behaviour research has
focused on ownership, this paper introduces the concept of liquid
consumption to explain what drives access based consumption.
The paper draws inspiration from eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's work
on liquid modernity, in which he uses the metaphor of liquidity to explain how
everyday life has moved from a state of stability to one of rapid change. Life
is now organised around consumption, is subject to rapid technological
advances, and has witnessed the expansion of the market to a global scale. With
all aspects of life now subject to market logic, and social structures becoming
more liquid and providing less stability and certainty, liquid consumption
facilitates an appropriate lifestyle that is flexible, quick, and light.
Liquid consumption has three primary characteristics:
- Ephemerality - liquid consumption offers value to
consumers in particular contexts, and the expiry date of this value is
increasingly shortening. In contrast, solid consumption is more enduring.
- Access - access is valued in comparison to ownership and
possession, whether for material or immaterial consumption. In contrast, solid
consumption is ownership-based.
- Dematerialisation - this is a preference for digital
products over physical, for lighter and smaller products, and a preference for
experiences over material forms of consumption.
Using liquid consumption to conceptualise increasingly common forms of
consumption, such as we see in the sharing economy, is important because it has
implications for a wide range of practices.
For example, in liquid consumption a strong connection to one's identity is no
longer necessarily a motivator for purchase. We see a preference for access to
a wide variety of brands, through car sharing membership rather than car
ownership as an expression of identity for example.
Marketers need to identify whether their consumers engage in liquid or solid
consumption and design their plans accordingly. Liquid consumption values fast
resource circulation rather than acquisition and appropriation. Therefore,
marketers need to design infrastructure and distribution systems for the quick
acquisition of products. As liquid consumers have a flexible attachment to
possessions, they see value in convenient market places (either digital or
physical) where they can redistribute or recycle these resources. Marketers
also need to provide equally convenient and viable alternative acquisition
options, such as long or short-term renting, peer-to-peer, or borrowing
Liquid consumption has implications for branding. It implies that consumers
will want to access a variety of brands for different situations, rather than
exhibiting loyalty to a few brands which demonstrate their personas to others.
Liquid consumption also has implications for understanding how big data and
quantification are becoming part of our daily lives.
Additionally, there are implications for luxury marketing. Will experiences
take over from prestige products such as luxury watches or handbags to become
the ultimate symbol of distinction?
Finally, the paper considers potential negative consequences of liquid
consumption, particularly with regards to consumer welfare. It remains unclear
how consumers that have spurned ownership and possessions in favour of
liquidity will establish security in their advanced years. Further research
into how liquidity can be managed to avoid storing up problems in the long run
Professor Fleura Bardhi delivered a presentation on Liquid Consumption at the
Digital Consumption Symposium at Cass
Business School in late 2016.
A draft version of the research paper is available for download at the link