Real value in business may not be the thing we fixate on

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A few weeks ago, the world watched as a 69-year-old airline customer was yanked from his seat. The passenger was man-handled, but it was United Airlines that really took a beating. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion. But here’s my key question: in our pursuit of business efficiency, are we missing something important?

We know that efficiency can lower costs for customers in a competitive market. For many, this is enough. The primacy of efficiency underpins the intellectual arguments for lessening of federal regulation of business, the utilization of technology in substitution for human workers and an acceptance of economic concentration of many industries such as airlines or media.

But, is that right? Are efficiency and resulting lower prices all that matter to consumers?

Last week, I interviewed Thor Cheston, the founder of Right Proper Brewing Company on What’s Working in Washington. Right Proper makes beer and operates a brew pub in the Shaw and Brookline neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Food and beer giants such as McDonald’s and Budweiser have proven that capturing efficiencies is rewarding. Yet, Cheston’s small business is succeeding as well.

The ingredients for his success are driven very much in the personal connection his business creates with its customers. Cheston says his customers can sense the authenticity because when they drink his brew or eat his food, they know that there is a person behind the product — and an intentionality in what they experience.

Intentionality and personal connection — where consumers connect with product creators — was the subject of a subsequent conversation I had with author David Sax. He recently wrote The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.

Sax noticed that as music he enjoyed became easier to access online and through devices, his interest in listening to it declined. Music became a commodity that existed in the background of his life, rather than an experience in the middle of it. He found himself making a conscious decision — to acquire vinyl record albums by his favorite artists and take the time to read album covers, listen to the pops and crackles of a less-than-perfect sound, and hold the record in his hand.

This realization that business efficiency could actually devalue the experiences led him to wonder whether what he had experienced was more widespread. He learned that as a music lover, he was not alone: vinyl records sales were increasing dramatically. Physical book sales were growing while sales of e-books declined. Moleskin, a company making high-quality blank-paper notebooks, was sold for 500 million Euros.

His conclusion? “People will pay for an experience that is superior” to what they can get in the mass market. There is a difference between a thing and an experience. One can be possessed. The other can be felt.

Sax thinks our economic discussion around efficiency misses the point. People promoting efficiency are like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, focusing on the “logic” of business, and assuming that efficiency is all that matters. In his view, we as a society are actually more like Captain Kirk: illogical, but driven to respond to “beautifully flawed things” that appeal to our humanity.

Efficiency can give us better stuff, but how consumers truly experience that stuff is where the real value is.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.


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