What You Buy Is Who You Are

Bloomberg View , August 25, 2016

The bearded guys in muted-plaid shirts and the lean women with low-maintenance hair may look like they’re on vacation, but they’ve come for serious business: the Outdoor Retailer show, which this month drew 29,000 attendees to Salt Lake City. There, deals get done for mosquito-resistant shirts and night-vision scopes, along with every imaginable form of hiking shoe, water bottle, tent, kayak, lantern and backpack, as well as the materials to make them.

Although the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial Thursday, the U.S. outdoor industry is a relatively new business -- about as old as personal computers, with similar anti-establishment roots. “Most of our parents wondered why we couldn’t get real jobs,” says Steve Barker, who in 1975 founded travel outfitter Eagle Creek and in 2007 sold it VF Corp. The industry’s pioneers were outdoor enthusiasts like Barker. They developed the specialized products they wanted to use themselves, including gear suited for the American West rather than European terrain. They taught customers how to rock climb and cross-country ski and even how to get passports for “adventure travel.”

Navigating the Outdoor Retailer show’s maze of display booths, you get the idea that the industry is selling stuff, and lots of it. But when the industry association boasts that U.S. consumers spend $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation, that figure includes four times as much money for travel and related expenses as for products. The gear is there to enable the experiences -- and, at least as important, to make customers feel like the people they want to be.

The industry is just one example of the shift from function to meaning as a source of economic value. It’s a change with enormous cultural ramifications for how we think about consumption and employment. It transforms what once was, or at least appeared to be, the value-neutral marketplace into a competition among ideas. Instead of at most signaling wealth (“conspicuous consumption,” “keeping up with the Joneses”), what we buy now carries value-laden significance.

When outdoor enthusiasts shell out for the latest odor-killing socks or that solar-powered phone charger, they aren’t just buying functional products. They’re buying meaning: the “freedom to pursue the adventure of life,” the “right to roam,” the “freedom to travel” and “discover your world,” among just a few of the inspirational slogans bedecking booths. Yes, the goods solve technical problems, but they also express aspirations and identity.

The summer and winter Salt Lake City extravaganzas are gatherings of the outdoors clan. Despite consolidation in retailing, manufacturing and brand ownership, Barker said, his “is still very much a values-driven industry. That's probably why we still have a trade show, when so many other industries have been blown apart by the change of the supply chain.”

The outdoor industry isn't the only one seeking to make a statement in the meaning economy. Consider Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” or Cadillac’s “Poolside” commercial touting an aggressive Americanism. Think about upstarts like Toms shoes and Warby Parker that built successful new brands using a “buy one, give one” global-philanthropy pitch. And the ramifications go beyond marketing campaigns. The meaning economy explains why we find the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the religious rights of a private company. Hobby Lobby isn’t just selling craft supplies. It’s expressing values and identity.

The “big sort” has also come to labor markets. Rather than seeking to be a neutral place of blandly inoffensive corporate efficiency, each workplace increasingly celebrates the values of its tribe. That makes work more satisfying and, as in the outdoor business, encourages employees to identify with customers. But it also excludes people. Employees need the right beliefs, the right heroes, the right idea of a good time, even the right attitudes toward dogs. If you don’t fit in, your skills alone won’t qualify you.

The meaning economy poses an unavoidable dilemma. Consumers hold diverse views and attitudes, and they derive real value from expressive consumption. But abandoning lowest-common-denominator branding feeds tribalism and cultural conflict. A diversity of workplaces lets workers find more interesting, congenial employment. Yet that diversity requires more homogeneity within a given organization or even a whole industry -- this one is “family friendly,” that one “macho,” this one embodies “Christian values,” that one expects employees to be “fun and quirky.” Tech companies regularly get blasted for their cultural homogeneity, because they’re where the big money is, but the phenomenon is widespread.

Nowhere is it more obvious than in the outdoor industry. Aside from the East Asian suppliers, pretty much everyone looks the same (not just white but northern European white), dresses the same, and, with the possible exception of some hunting types, probably votes the same. A tent designer who supports fracking or thinks some federal lands might be better off with the states had better keep quiet about those deviant views.

In an article in Outdoor Retailer magazine, Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Recreation Industry Office, explains that Latinos are camping and hiking in increasingly large numbers, but in different ways from the enthusiasts who built the industry. “The wilderness is seen as a vacation, a place to celebrate, as much as to recreate,” he writes. Latinos take the day hikes that aficionados scorn as “for tourists only” -- “tourist” is a bad word, signifying superficiality -- and they go camping in large family groups. “Shouldn’t companies start focusing on making gear for them?” Benitez asks.

In the meaning economy, the very cultural affinities that make incumbent businesses successful may blind them to changing markets or, even when they recognize those opportunities, make it hard for staffs to adapt. That opens up possibilities for new players attuned to underserved audiences with different values.