Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taking a byte out of life

Having an iPod in my ears yesterday evening got me thinking about how we compress everything these days to get more out of life.

As a poor man's audiophile, I was actually evaluating the quality of the sound out of the iPod relative to what I have experienced through my years via stereo, quadrophonic (remember that!), surround sound, vinyl, cassette tape, CD,  and now, of course, digital. This is a continuation of an age-old debate that arises every time there is a tech evolution.  I remember very lofty arguments with school mates over whether cassette tapes delivered the same audio experience and quality as reel-to-reel. Now you wouldn't bother with either!

The mpeg files that drive iPods are made possible by removing digital information to make the file size compressible and manageble. It's the audio version of jpeg files, which derive from much larger eps, tiff and other graphic files. There is no doubt that in both cases, we sacrifice quality for convenience. The sound out of that iPod yesterday was a convenient, mobile sound, with nowhere near the quality of either of the modest sound systems inside my home.

It is a sign of the times. This is a product that shows we're prepared to lower our standards, even our enjoyment levels, to fit everything into our busy schedules. We become more volume-driven rather than quality-driven. We commoditise everything, even trample over copyright and IP laws in the rush to pleasure ourselves. This is something the music, movie and fashion industries are battling with as I write.

It will mean a dramatic change in the type of consumer with whom we'll be communicating as Gen Z and beyond increase their buying power. These will be generations whose experiential benchmarks will be set by iPod sound, jpeg images, fake designer fashions and so on. They will have unprecedented access to a range of, shall we say, compromised sensory experiences.

This is a challenging scenario for brands that have traditionally invested in innovation, quality and durability when they address consumers who are pursuing volume, price and disposability. Issues of quality will take second place in the value hierarchy of the 'whateva' generations, just as the hollowness of Britney's lip-synced concerts is lost on them. Their values are being built, not on quality, but on accessibility and convenience.

As marketers and communicators, we will need to understand this changed value set and focus on instant gratification rather than Instant Karma.

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