In 2011, Time magazine lauded the “sharing economy” as one of their “10 Ideas that Will Change the World”. By providing customers with an alternative to traditional ownership, this business model was proving itself to be profitable. It was an apparent win-win as consumers were offered a way to save money through resource sharing, each individual accessing the goods or services they required on a part-time needs-based basis only. Zipcar and AirBnb were two of the original big name players in this field, and they were soon joined by competitors offering everything from the ability to share cars, accommodations, tools, designer accessories, and other tangible goods.
At the time, Time magazine suggested that the emergence of a sharing culture, also referred to as collaborative consumption, was largely socially driven, was popular because it allowed individuals to make meaningful connections with others, and to participate as part of an enlightened community of sharers. Time cited research suggesting that people “get a spike of the pleasant neurotransmitter oxytocin when they’re entrusted with another’s goods”. Perhaps society had finally come to a place where we could see the wastefulness of our mass consumptive past, and were moving towards a more kumbaya future.
In 2015 however, Harvard Business Review presented an opposing view of the sharing economy in the article “The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing at All”. HBR suggests, from a marketing perspective at least, that businesses should be focusing entirely on the price and convenience of their product or service, and that the language of a sharing economy may be more detrimental than helpful in achieving business success. As an example, HBR sites the company Lyft. Have you heard of it? I hadn’t, but I’ve sure heard a lot about its direct competitor, Uber, lately. The difference in marketing between the two companies? Uber has positioned itself squarely around pricing, reliability and convenience, whereas Lyft attempted to capitalize on the social sharing concept without nearly the same scale of success.
Unfortunately, it would seem that the value of sharing may not be as altruistic as Time magazine had hoped for. The sharing economy, or as HBR suggests is more appropriately described as “the access economy”, is successful because it provides a means for consumers to save money, period. The value of making connections to others, or feeling as though you are part of a sharing community, is not the primary motivation for consumers, nor should it be the marketing angle that businesses should take if they wish to be successful in this field.