The marketing landscape is changing at an ever more rapid pace, and one of the principal reasons for this is that consumers no longer buy things. As demonstrated by the market dominance of universal subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and Scribd, the concept of buying a discrete product (a DVD, a CD, or a book, for example) is steadily losing relevance. It is being replaced by a subscription model in which consumers are charged to bypass a single paywall (often supplemented by further paywalls for premium user experiences), after which they obtain access to a huge digital library of products.

What does this mean for the future of marketing? Products will not, as is sometimes suggested, lose every last vestige of distinguishability as they dissolve into an expansive and flat “long tail”. It has always been a characteristic of the market that flagship products with a higher profile attract the attention (and money) of consumers, with the revenue from such products being used to subsidise smaller, more specialist products. In the past, before the rise of the subscription model, this dynamic was exemplified by book publishers’ reliance on money-making bestsellers to fund the printing of riskier, perhaps completely unknown authors. Today, the same thing is at work at Netflix: hugely popular franchises such as Game of Thrones drive subscriptions to the streaming service, allowing Netflix to reinvest in the production of “Netflix Originals”, which are often critically successful and enjoy a degree of artistic prestige (the recent second season of sci-fi drama Stranger Things is a pertinent example). This extends the product range offered by Netflix and justifies the service’s paywall.

It is evident, then, that there is still a role for marketing in the new subscription-centric world. People may not buy things anymore, but they will still need convincing that signing up to services like Netflix and Spotify is worth the money. This involves a shift in tone, from emphasis on the benefits of purchasing and possessing a discrete product to focussing on the experiential and lifestyle benefits of being able to access, on demand, a broad array of products. In the case of Spotify, the lifestyle benefit of paying for the premium service is that intermittent ads are gotten rid of; in a recent campaign, the streaming giant chose to target students and emphasise that, during an all-night essay crisis, the ad-free premium experience makes it a lot easier to get immersed in a motivational playlist “without interruptions”. This kind of vaunting of the experiential benefits of the service as a whole – with campaigns drawing attention to discrete products (artists and albums) pushed to the background – is going to become ever more common.