“What do you mean you only have the (one version ago) version of your phone? Why haven’t you upgraded yet?”
This was an actual question that a member of the Postconsumers content team got recently, not once but twice! Once in real life, and once when somebody was commenting on a Facebook photo. The version of her phone is one iteration old. And while the Postconsumer member was able to brush it off (in fact, use it as a teachable moment about the consumerism of upgrades), it was a perfect example of one of the biggest marketing traps and tricks of all time. The upgrade game.
The upgrade game, if we’re being honest, isn’t significantly different from the low cost, disposable clothing game. The idea is that the only way for the consumer machine to continue to make money is for you to continue to buy things, and to buy them at increasingly frequent intervals. The electronics and technology sector, in particular, has employed a calendared marketing strategy of tiered releases of upgraded products. While you’ll find this in almost all technology products, including televisions and computers, where it’s obviously most prevalent is in the smartphone sector.
The first thing that you need to ask yourself about an upgrade game is whether you believe that the “upgrade” was a true upgrade or was a strategic decision by the company. For example, using a well-known smartphone brand as a reference, do you truly in your heart believe that the manufacturer of that phone required a year in between to develop panoramic photo options and time lapse photo options? Or do you believe that both of these pieces of technology were being worked on and were intentionally scaled out so that if you bought a phone in order to get panoramic photo capability, you would then a year later need to buy a different phone if you wanted time-lapse photo capability? If you truly believe that a company so innovative was not able to provide both pieces of functionality on the same phone, then we applaud your basic trust in corporate America. The reality, however, is more likely that there was a list of many features that the engineers were working on. At some point in a meeting, it was decided that rather than release all of those features at once, they would be staggered out over multiple releases so that people would need to buy newer products in order to access the features. If you feel taken advantage of, you should.
But you can’t put all of the blame on marketers or manufacturers. The typical American consumer contributes to this addictive game. The reality is that most of the “features” that get released in your average electronics upgrade aren’t significant. They’re small bonus improvements, some increased storage capacity, maybe some improved speed. The question that consumers need to begin asking themselves is “Are these upgrades really worth the money that I am about to spend and the waste that I am about to generate?” The answer, more often than not, is going to be “no.” And it seems as though it would be so simple to look at finances, environmental concerns and basic need and realize that (in most cases) the upgrade isn’t needed. So why is it that so many people rush out to get upgrades on just about every item possible?
It’s because marketers have done a great job of making people associate status symbols with upgrades. And nobody wants to “look poor.” (Which is a phrase we hate, but which unfortunately is a real description).
Pause for a moment and think about your thought process the last time that you went for an upgrade as soon as it arrived. Was it because you were completely excited about new functionality? Or was it because everybody was rushing to get it and you didn’t want to be “left out?” How would you feel if somebody said to you, “I can’t believe you’re still using the last version of that phone?” Do you think that’s even an appropriate thing to say?
What would we like? It’s actually not for you to use every item that you have until it is falling apart and an upgrade is not an option (though we admit that we often do that). We simply want you to think things through, fall in love with your own idea of enough, and make informed decisions rather than follow the consumer media messaging machine. Before you rush to buy your next upgrade, please take the time to ask yourself the following questions.
Do I need this? It’s fine to buy something just because you want it and not because you need it, but if you want to start to claim independence from the consumer marketing machine then you’ll need to start being specific with your language. So really be honest about what you want versus what you need when it comes to upgrades.
Is this a wise spend? If you are paying for it with cash and not impacting the rest of your budget, good for you! But if you are putting an upgrade purchase on a credit card while your existing version is still in good working condition, you should take a moment to consider the wisdom in your purchase.
What is the environmental impact of this purchase? Because there is one, particularly with electronics. Even if you are recycling your previous electronic equipment, the toxins created producing the new version have left a very real imprint on the planet.
What are my alternatives? Likely your alternative is to wait a little longer, but it may also be to buy refurbished equipment. Think all of the alternatives through!
There’s nothing that says that every upgraded purchase you make is by default “wrong.” But many of them are unnecessary and can be harmful to your budget, the planet and your destination on the postconsumers journey. All we ask is that you go into upgrade purchases packed with knowledge!
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Photo Credit: Scott Beale via Flickr