HBR: The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing at All

ATN-300InsightaaS: I've highlighted material on the Sharing (or Collaborative) Economy a number of times on ATN. It's been fascinating to see the concept evolve - from the groundbreaking work of Jeremiah Owyang, who has mapped (and re-mapped) the segments and players, to reactions from thought leaders like Andrew McAfee and Nicholas Carr. Through that time, we've seen the rise in the concept, the corresponding rise in valuations for firms like (and especially) Uber, and the backlash of those, like McAfee and Carr, who wonder what this does to the concept of work, careers, and fair compensation.

In this context, today's feature post seems almost like a step forward. In it, two UK-based marketing professors look at the core concept of the collaborative economy, and conclude that it isn't actually about "sharing" at all, but rather, about access. Working from observations drawn during a study of Zipcar, the authors note that many users of collaborative economy services aren't looking for a shared experience or interaction with other users, but rather, a low-cost alternative to ownership or traditional rental options. The piece, posted on HBR, then talks about the marketing implications of this realization. The authors highlight two main conclusions. One is that "competition between companies will not hinge on which platform can provide the most social interaction and community" and that instead "companies that emphasize convenience and price over the ability to foster connections will have a competitive advantage." The second is that marketing will need to adjust to access economy drivers. Consumers, they say, "think about access differently than they think about ownership. And most of our best practices in marketing are built upon an ownership model." The piece highlights the idea that while "being a part of a brand community is important to consumers for many products and services that they own," when they use an access economy service, "they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion. They would rather sample a variety of identities which they can discard when they want." 

It's possible to agree or disagree with the authors, or to conclude that they are focused on the wrong issue altogether, but I think the context of the piece is important regardless: HBR is now carrying serious discussions of marketing tactics important to success in sharing (/access) businesses. It may be easy to dislike or mistrust Uber, but it seems clear that overall, the approach to business that it represents is gaining traction in the broader economy.

The sharing economy has been widely hailed as a major growth sector, by sources ranging from Fortune magazine to President Obama. It has disrupted mature industries, such as hotels and automotives, by providing consumers with convenient and cost efficient access to resources without the financial, emotional, or social burdens of ownership. But the sharing economy isn’t really a “sharing” economy at all; it’s an access economy.

Sharing is a form of social exchange that takes place among people known to each other, without any profit. Sharing is an established practice, and dominates particular aspects of our life, such as within the family. By sharing and collectively consuming the household space of the home, family members establish a communal identity. When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.

Our own research on Zipcar demonstrates this point. When consumers use the world’s leading car sharing service they don’t feel any of the reciprocal obligations that arise when sharing with one another. They experience Zipcar in the anonymous way one experiences a hotel; they know others have used the cars, but have no desire to interact with them...

Read the entire post on HBR's website: Link

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