The sharing economy has been widely hailed as a major growth sector, by sources ranging from Fortune magazine to President Obama. It has disrupted mature industries, such as hotels and automotives, by providing consumers with convenient and cost efficient access to resources without the financial, emotional, or social burdens of ownership. But the sharing economy isn’t really a “sharing” economy at all; it’s an access economy.
Sharing is a form of social exchange that takes place among people known to each other, without any profit. Sharing is an established practice, and dominates particular aspects of our life, such as within the family. By sharing and collectively consuming the household space of the home, family members establish a communal identity. When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.
Our own research on Zipcar demonstrates this point. When consumers use the world’s leading car sharing service they don’t feel any of the reciprocal obligations that arise when sharing with one another. They experience Zipcar in the anonymous way one experiences a hotel; they know others have used the cars, but have no desire to interact with them. They don’t view other Zipsters as co-sharers of the cars, but rather are mistrustful of them, and rely on the company to police the sharing system so it’s equitable for everyone.
This insight − that it is an access economy rather than a sharing economy – has important implications for how companies in this space compete. It implies that consumers are more interested in lower costs and convenience than they are in fostering social relationships with the company or other consumers. Companies that understand this will have a competitive advantage. For example, we are currently seeing the rise of Uber in the short-term car-ride market. Uber positions itself squarely around its pricing, reliability, and convenience. This is encapsulated in their tagline, “Better, faster and cheaper than a taxi.” In comparison, Lyft, which offers an almost identical service, positions itself as friendly (“We’re your friend with a car”), and as a community (“Greet your driver with a fistbump”). Lyft has not seen nearly the same amount of growth as Uber, and a contributing reason is because they are putting too much emphasis on consumers’ desire to “share” with each other.
By this logic, AirBnB’s recent rebranding, which highlights ‘people, places, love and community,’ will be a misstep. AirBnB wants its new logo to be a universal symbol of sharing, yet the reason why most consumers use AirBnB is the value they can get for their money, especially in expensive cities. Additionally, when choosing a place to stay, most consumers opt to have the entire place to themselves, meaning they don’t share the space with the owner at all. AirBnB provides the means for travelers and owners to engage in a market transaction of short term access, and their brand should reflect this.
In the access economy, there will be two key elements of success:
- Competition between companies will not hinge on which platform can provide the most social interaction and community, contrary to the current sharing economy rhetoric. Our research shows that consumers simply want to make savvy purchases, and access economy companies allow them to achieve this, by offering more convenience at a lower price. Companies that emphasize convenience and price over the ability to foster connections will have a competitive advantage. Start-ups that have tried to facilitate direct connections between consumers have found low levels of trust between strangers when there is no market mediation. For example, Eatro, a food sharing start-up in London, discovered the hard way the challenges of getting consumers to pay for food cooked by other consumers, due to hygiene concerns. Eatro has now morphed into the market-mediated One Fine Meal, where consumers can order meals prepared by professional chefs and delivered to their door in 30 minutes.
- Consumers think about access differently than they think about ownership. And most of our best practices in marketing are built upon an ownership model. For example, being a part of a brand community is important to consumers for many products and services that they own, as they represent who they are, and consumers appreciate being able to share identity building practices with like-minded others. When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more “them” than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion. They would rather sample a variety of identities which they can discard when they want. Thus, trying to foster a community of consumers around an access economy brand is rarely successful, as we found with Zipcar. Zipcar tried to foster a brand community by sending out chatty newsletters and facilitating meet-ups, but these were not received well. Consumers are not looking for social value out of rental exchanges with strangers.
The access economy is changing the structure of a variety of industries, and a new understanding of the consumer is needed to drive successful business models. A successful business model in the access economy will not be based on community, however, as a sharing orientation does not accurately depict the benefits consumers hope to receive. It is important to highlight the benefits that access provides in contrast to the disadvantages of ownership and sharing. These consist of convenient and cost-effective access to valued resources, flexibility, and freedom from the financial, social, and emotional obligations embedded in ownership and sharing.
Giana M. Eckhardt is a professor of marketing at the School of Management, Royal Holloway University of London.
Fleura Bardhi is a professor of marketing at the Cass Business School, City University London.