Are Swedish consumers no longer “lagom”?
Western consumer cultures produce social norms formerly created by the Church, the State or the class society. Norms produced on the market change rapidly and are created to increase production and consumption. In the Swedish setting market-based norm production is reflected in 3 themes; Significance, Self-importance and Moderation, which have implications for how Swedish consumers behave.
In Sweden consumption is Significant
In a world of mass-produced products and services we have a need for a personalized way of consuming. This is a reflection of an increasing individualized world where collective and stable norms of the past, based in religion and social class, have been replaced by fluid and ever-changing norms produced by dominant market actors. In the Swedish setting social democratic values are paired with very little religious influence on our moral stance. In such a context, the Swedish “folkrörelserna”, have had a big impact on norm production. As an example, in the Swedish food retail market, the cooperatively owned Coop (historically developed the cheap no-logo products called “Blå vita varor”) has taken the lead in developing and selling organic and fairly traded products and has influenced competitors in food retailing to take up the fight over the eco-conscious food consumer. Thus, in Sweden there is a very wide range of sustainable food items on sale and the competition between organic food items is fierce. All 3 dominant actors in food retailing have developed a large range of private label organic foods which are important marketing tools. In addition, Svenska Naturskyddsföreningen (runs the eco certification schemes “Bra Miljöval”), Fair Trade and KRAV (the Swedish certification schemes for organic food) have been very active on the Swedish food retail market. All these organizations are highly visible in the media and cooperate with the big food retailers. Given this background it is not surprising that Swedish consumers want to consume in a responsible and socially “good way”. In a market where sustainable goods are regarded as marketing tools and where certifications schemes as KRAV, Fair Trade and SNF are highly visible, Swedish consumers respond by increasingly want to buy products and services that reflect fairness, solidarity and sustainability. Buying eco-friendly and fairly traded goods is meaningful and authentic on an individual level in a world of abundance.
In Sweden poverty is fought, and equality is viewed, in terms of the ability to consume. The strong social democratic tradition in cooperation with the unions and the business community have fostered a view of the normal life – the so called “folkhemmet” – as one including specific products. Today, a in a middleclass Swedish household, everyone above the age of 6-8 yrs has a cell-phone (Sweden and Norway have most cellphones/capita in the world), large flat TV:s is the norms (everybody replaced the fat TV:s with flat ones half a decade ago), espresso machines, MacBooks and minimum one car (not in the city center).
Sweden is a very trend sensitive country and Swedes are very quick to pick up new products and trends. That is why P&G Nordics has its head office in Sweden – to be able to follow what products that succeed and what do not, in the Swedish setting. Maybe this is linked to Sweden being seemingly homogenous when it comes to style and design. Almost everyone have white walls indoor and if you walk the streets in Göteborg and Stockholm you see that all girls have the same haircut, same type of jacket, same jeans design etc.
In Sweden consumption is important for the Self
When norms are produced on the market (of which consumers are part) individuals face the challenge of finding out themselves the answers to existential questions like “who am I?”, “what is right and what is wrong?”, “what is the meaning of life?” etc. Thus, identity-making becomes individual, something that every one of us must deal with (as compared with the past when the church or stable social classes provided answers to these questions. In our consumer focused societies we undertake this identity work in the marketplace by reacting to products and product representations (advertisements, media dependent product accounts). In a secular country like Sweden, which is considered to be the most individualized country in the world consumers tend to be excited and are cheered up by consuming – style and creativity is important. Needless to say, we live in an experience marketing age, and from a Swedish perspective, consumers must be provided with emotional benefits in order to consume. Why? Because Sweden is one of the most affluent countries in the world on average and in order to convince people who already have everything, to buy something new or more, there must be a socially valued experience connected to the product or service. The work rich, time-poor Swedish middle class have little time for reflection and they tend to go with the flow – i.e. they consume according to the latest trend, a kind of existential quick-fix. Those people that oppose consumption norms have the time and ability to scrutinize market communications and ask themselves “do I really need this?”
But also Moderation matters
In an era of individual norm production the assurance of brands is important. Brands can be perceived as providing security when the world goes insane, they can make us feel at home, confident that we have and are what is considered normal. Brands have in a sense replaced social relations in the provision of security and togetherness, and this development is enforced and sustained by social media (brand communities etc). Swedish consumers need continuity and “tradition” in a Swedish society that quite fast has moved from a collective view on welfare (social democratic old school) to a highly neo-liberal and individualized political scene.
What about the future?
It is probable that in Sweden the market and its mass-produced offerings will cease being the main meaning-providers in the future. One reason behind this statement is the industrialization of for example ecological food which implies constant price-sustainability negotiations. As a consequence there will be debates like “can mass produced products be sustainable” and subsequent doubts among consumers. Hence it is probable that products produced in smaller quantities, in non-industrial settings, maybe to the advantage of local employment and environment will take on meaning producing qualities and gain significance among consumers. Collective social norms will gain importance as climate change, migration and other serious issues will become more threatening. We already see fast fashion turning into slow fashion and probably the market will take advantage of more collective moral understandings. Swedes will trust brands for many years to come but brands will have to change in terms of how they source their goods (sustainability!) and appearance.
Cecilia Solér, Senior Lecturer Associate Professor,
Marketing, University of Gothenburg