Global consumerism means that distance does not mean difference

In 2007, Thinktopia® conducted business in every continent on the planet, except Antarctica. An intercontinental sweep from New York City to Amsterdam to Cape Town to Beijing to Paris to Moscow to Bogota reveals some similarities (and differences) that exist in our 21st Century.

Departing the Ngala Game Reserve in South Africa on a two-hour drive to the Nelspruit airstrip, our African driver slipped a Jimmy Reeves CD into the player. As we listened to Jimmy’s warbling honky-tonk woes, we passed containers (the kind usually found in ship cargo holds or on the back of truck semi-trailers) that are village cell phone sites. Hot sites where remote villages can call friends and family on other parts of the planet. Cut to Moscow. The container-cum-cell phone trendspotting was contrasted by a young woman in Moscow who flaunted her new iPhone—still unavailable from Apple in Moscow—which had been purchased in New York, then uploaded with pirated software that not only connected her with Moscow mobile phone company Beeline (check out their online television programming), but also enabled her keypad with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

In a grocery store in Cape Town, we saw Lays Oven-Roasted Chicken with Thyme potato chips. Doritos in Poppy Seed with Roasted Garlic and Italian Cheese flavor. A trip to a Moscow market revealed Moscovites not only have a fondness for Bentleys and Rolex watches (they’re competing with China for largest number of billionaires), but also for Danone’s Activia. We had already seen Activia launch in Paris (before it launched in the U.S. later in 2007). A hallway chat with Danone product managers in Bogota learned that Danone’s exclusive Bifidus regularis will not launch there until sometime in 2008.

Cold turkeyed from Starbucks in Africa, we were forced to attempt tasty African coffee from our safari tent, as lions—rather than Starbucks iTunes downloads—roared in the background. I also savored fine espresso at an Italian café in Cape Town, European roast at the National Hotel in Moscow, and in Bogota (home of legendary Juan Valdez—Juan Valdez coffee cafes are sprinkled like Starbucks throughout Bogota), I learned about a coffee drink with the questionable name Perico (half milk, half coffee) and consumed the best cappuccino of my life.

The stark contrast of tribal innocence against the Age of Starbucks continues today in the context of global consumerism. Similar contrasts are evident in mental snapshots: native South African women wearing Aeropostale t-shirts carrying oversized loads on their heads. An elderly Russian grandmother swaddled in heavy layers crammed into a blue porta-potty, peeing with the door open. The Russian army lining up in formation in Red Square for the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, in front of a block-long Rolex billboard. Shopping at the Albert & Victoria Mall in Cape Town, just a few minutes from widespread slums in the Cape Town Flats–and the highest murder rate in the world.

Globalization is not new. The Mongols and Chinese spread trade from Vietnam to England in the 13th century. The Portuguese, Dutch and English followed suit centuries ago. What is new is the speed to markets and the ubiquity of primary brands. Even mundane staples like potato chips, yogurt, pizza, blue jeans promote an overall sameness. The more we come together, the more we become the same.

We are trained as consumers to anticipate new things. When they do not come from existing brands, we are disappointed. As consumers, we are addicted to the stimulus of the new, the dopamine drip that stimulates and satisfies us. What we seek traveling to other places is a refreshed thrill. As frustrating as it is to find Coke, McDonald’s, Levi’s and Starbucks wherever you go (there is even a Sbarro a few blocks from Red Square), they exist because of the most fundamental marketing truth of all: we trust them. When we put down our money, we know what we are getting. And, globalized or not, that’s as true in Chicago as it is in Beijing.

The appreciable point of global consumerism is that distance does not always mean difference. Because we can find the same products on the shelves even after flying 18 hours, we need to appreciate the experience that we experience. If we cannot be stimulated by new things to stimulate our dopamine drip, we must rely on existing brands to continually excite and titillate us.

Predictably, what becomes rare and remarkable is the unfamiliar. In Bogota, I tasted fruit (still unidentified) I had never seen before. We brought back microwavable pappadums from South Africa. Le Petit Ferme chardonnay from a Franshhoek winery founded in the 17th century. Some things are not transportable. The smell of Africa. Moscow has some of the best bread on the planet, incredible fish, and an unimaginably tasty crab dish unanimously agreed worth flying 10 hours for. A small South African soap store called Rain that could become the next Body Shop. A bookstore in Cape Town that had its own unique charm, in a world curiously without Barnes & Noble or Borders booksellers. And back in the homeland, a wonderful gift shop named Watson Kennedy on a street corner in Seattle.

I remember a picture that appeared in the German publication Stern 30 years ago. In the photograph, a naked New Guinea woman leans against the shining aluminum of a jet airplane, a visual culture collision. She smiles into the camera lens, blithely unaware of DKNY, the potential sociological consequences that might come if we really can’t buy fake “Made in China” Kate Spade, Gucci, or Chanel purses, or the differences between this year’s Jimmy Choo bag and last year’s.

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.