Ownership Vs Usership: How far are we willing to let go? - Bitop Das Gupta

“Does the guy have his own house in the city and a car?” - A 20th Century sub-continental movie dialogue that still insolently exists at the heart of our society today. It’s a very orthodox question that is often thrown to the girl by her family should she express her wish to get married to the man of her choice. This actually happened in my friend’s case. His then girlfriend, now wife, was faced with the same question and she wiped out even the slightest possibility of suspense by boldly standing her ground and saying that he did, knowing that he owned none of the two. Her parents didn’t dare to object further seeing the resolution of their daughter, but my friend understood one thing that day – he was accepted by force, not choice. A rising star in the journalism sector, he discovered his ‘short-coming’in the eyes of society. He then decided to buy a car, taking a significant amount in the form of a bank loan. Now you might be thinking why it was so critical for my friend to buy the car. Here comes the magic of ownership and what it brings along with it. The car made him feel complete with greater respect from his in-laws. It also worked as the signal to them and to society that he has stepped onto the stairs of permanent progression and he is going to achieve more. A few months later, over dinner, he was jesting over the fact he was growing ever fonder of the car as he didn’t have to be contingent on the mercy of the auto drivers and rickshaw pullers anymore – the car was at his disposal whenever he needed it and wanted to use it. 

So, owning things defines our space in the world, extending our physical existence. It also drives away our sense of vulnerability and insecurity stemming from the fear of not being able to control our own fate in the time of need. 

Do we really stop there? We also make a conscious effort to flaunt our ownership in regular life. We keep chauffeurs to drive our cars. When we ride alone with him, we sit in the back seat to create a moving billboard of our ownership of the car. Likewise, many other symbols mark ‘ownership’ in our everyday life. In a family-owned company, separate elevators are kept for the owners. An office cabin marks the superiority of the cabin holder and draws a line between him/her and the rest of the employees. Besides, houses are branded after the owner’s name; car parking spaces are allocated for designated people in an office building; flats are given ‘names’ with nameplates; expensive gifts are photographed and posted on social media; and so on. Therefore, by owning things and creating rituals around them, we achieve an edge amongst the many, fortify our sense of security, and enable our roots to spread only to make our presence stronger in society. 

What if we don’t want strings attached to objects? What happens when they start appearing as pique? What happens when possessions no longer make us feel fulfilled? In a society of surplus, it is likely to happen. A year or two earlier, I was travelling to Delhi and made plans to visit a friend of mine there. He invited me to his place for dinner. After entering his apartment, (I will be completely honest) the first thought that crossed my mind was ‘Wow! He is very well-sorted’. The whole place was better than I ever expected – the size, the décor the locality – and in my mind, I was counting his money. In the middle of our conversation, all was revealed and my earlier thoughts burst like a bubble when he informed me all his furniture was actually from Rentomojo! He didn’t want to purchase any as he and his wife might move to Bangalore in few months time. Along came the concept of usership – using something when we need it and want it. Also take Uber, Airbnb and Spotify, for example. A car is just a tap away when we need it, but without having the tension of maintaining it. Without staying in hotels, now we can enjoy the comfort of staying in someone’s home when travelling. With Spotify, the way we listen to music has transformed. Instead of buying tracks like we used to do on iTunes, we now can stream any track whenever we want to. 

Before Justin Bieber and ‘usership’ happened to us (it really doesn’t matter if you are miffed about either of them, because both of them are the new reality), we lived in the holy grail of a manufacturing economy, where a product is made, bought, consumed and discarded. What is happening now is often called the sharing economy, which relies on share, exchange and the use of products in the form of service. We don’t need to buy a car, a bike or a holiday home – we can share or exchange it instead. 

What changes then? Everything or only some of the things? Does the manufacturing economy decide to continue to grow their businesses with the end-users? Will they sell more? Or will they sell less? The concepts of ‘usership’ and ‘sharing economy’ are the offspring of a new breed of business concepts, where the product-service providers such as Uber and Rentomojo are found. But if the product-service providers are catering to the need of tens of people with only one car or one set of furniture, then what becomes of the unit economy of the manufacturers? Should the manufacturers redefine their targets and bring the product-service providers into the equation? Should they redesign their offerings? The usage of products in the form of service signals the requirement of transformation in the business plan of the product manufacturers. But by how much and in what form – that is the question. 

The manufacturing economy so far has been producing for the traditional form of product consumption, but the new product-service economy brings in new dynamics. However are the current product offerings equipped to cater to this new breed of need? Let’s take Uber as a simple example. An Uber car may have to run way more miles than a regular car, which is driven for personal and not a commercial purpose. I would also guess that a car that gives greater mileage yet comes with a strong body can serve the Uber business model better. This may mean car manufacturers have to take these types of insights and demand into account when designing and selling their cars. 

These avenues of ideas peep out quite often, leading us to some gripping questions. Should the traditional business model porously embrace the emerging business models? Is it necessary for the luxury and budget hotels to expand into the sharing economy? If they need to then what should be their business model? Many giant businesses have been built on the thousand years-old concept of ownership. But in only one decade the tables have turned and more questions are asked on what the most successful business models should be. How should a manufacturing company adapt to the sharing economy? How much should they let go of their time-old   successful business model? 

All the answers are unfolding slowly as demand for each business model is revealed with successful purchases. 

(Bitop Das Gupta is Director - Strategic Planning at Grey Advertising Bangladesh.)

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