Inconspicuous Branded Consumption Is the New Business Buzzword in Retail

06/02/2014 12:52 | Updated 07 April 2014

As strange as it may sound, being seen to be inconspicuous is on the rise. I have been tracking this trend internationally, along with Professors Russell Belk and Giana Eckhardt.

At the same time, innovation and research advisory firm Stylus have watching with interest and that's how our paths crossed. On the 6th of February, Stylus published their report based upon an analysis of recent consumption habits and retail patterns in a climate of austerity. I was lucky enough to be one of the key figures that they consulted and quoted.

The report offers a selection of case examples that highlight a shift in how we are behaving as consumers, and what businesses are doing to meet our needs. It is of no surprise to read that one of the drivers for change, as they see it, has been the smog of austerity that we are still trying to navigate through.

Previously, economists have coined the term the 'lipstick effect' to describe consumers' desire to increase their purchase of goods, like lipstick and chocolate, when faced with an economic or social crisis. Within this context, these less costly items assume the status of being viewed as luxuries. They are strictly non-essential, but nevertheless important to us - making us feel better, and we use them as markers to judge the quality of our lives.

Also, more recently there have been new additions to our list of must-haves. Coffee and olive oil are items now that we can't do without. We might cut down on the number of coffee shop skinny lattes and ready-made salads that we buy in a recession, but our in-home consumption then increases.
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Perhaps this is also why post 9/11, just as there was a reported increase in lipstick sales right afterwards, there has also been a noticeable increase in Muslim consumption patterns of Halal food, cosmetics, fashion and tourism. The difference with this segment and other ethnic groups, I argue, is the fact that there is a greater emphasis on consumerism being used to overcome negative stereotypes and perceptions.

What is particularly interesting about the Stylus report, which takes a broad view, is this idea that the choices we are making are not so much about frugality, or just simply feeling good; but they are more about a sort of thriftiness spearheaded through the use of social media - that allows us still to enjoy those little luxuries with an element of secrecy and desired inconspicuousness. Larger social networks and hyper-communication have made us more sensitive of the spaces and opinions around us.

Of course the report goes into more detail, and it's aimed at industry. So what I'd like to do here is focus on some of the things that would be of interest to a wider audience. Within this phenomenon, I've noticed some interesting trends that can be grouped roughly into four areas:

One

Tall Poppy syndrome - a perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life. Or alternatively, you could view it as the Goldilocks effect - looking for 'just right'.

This applies to brands and people. Those are the reasons why the successful are at pains to remind us of their humble beginnings, or for example we wear faded and ripped jeans accessorized with a touch of bling.

It's not that people or brands want to be anonymous, rather, it's part of a quest for communicating authentic identities and personalities - and that means being careful not to stand out for the wrong reasons. Showing a sense of sophistication in our choices, actions and identities communicates that we're ahead of the curve and luxury consumption in austerity won't be our folly.

Social media keeps all of our thoughts and actions for prosperity. So now, there is such a thing as bad news; and we are becoming risk adverse, cynical and need more reassurance from wider sources. Also, social media and globalization are showing us that there we're not alone, or as different as we think. These tap into our natural human disposition of wanting to fit in.

Now we are connected to more people, fitting in, or dissonance-reducing behaviour, means we have to keep more people happy so that we can feel happy. That's not to say that globalization is making us all the same, it's making us more nuanced and sensitive to cultural meaning. We want to have our feet on the ground, remaining down to earth with strong roots - but at the same time standing tall, and becoming memorable for as long as possible. It's less about having a moral compass and more about a dynamic cultural compass.

Two
Ideas of modesty, class, ethnicity, luxury are plastic and move like Quicksilver. They change with the times and context.

This is a step beyond how the Burberry beige check, for example, was co-opted by Chavs as a branded uniform. A recent case in practice being Mipsters (Muslim Hipsters), who are out there with a sense of swagger and allure, juxtaposed with the constraints, conservatism and orthodoxy that a headscarf symbolises. Until recently, the common perception has been of Muslims trying to be inconspicuous in their branded consumption. But a trip to Dubai, or Harrods in the summer is showing us something different. To outsiders, this new sub-culture is faux-modesty, or oxymoronic: the idea of wanting to be seen and not seen at the same time. However, hiding your hair and proselytizing a faith, which encourages a nomadic spirituality and a stronger connection to an afterlife; and still celebrating beauty and branded consumerism in the here and now is a phenomenon. It's a mindset of balancing the shallow and the deep.

They show that whilst branded consumption is there, it's taking more of a back seat behind crafting tribal identities. Tribes are controlling brands, rather than tribes converging around brands. Traditional social bonds being broken down and reformed through sentiments and feelings manifest in the brands and objects that we consume.

We are empowered more to decide what various things mean to us and our networks. Everything has a meaning beyond functionality, and terms have become debated, and collaborative brands open to all. Furthermore, this doesn't just apply to high-price purchases. When we think of those little luxuries like lipstick, chocolate, going to nail bars, or buying 'finest' pre-packed sandwiches; luxury doesn't necessarily mean exclusive or expensive - it's relative. Self-defined value, desirability, attractiveness, customizability, and richness of experience, according to your intricate social reference groups are bigger influencers.

Three

More of us that ever live in cities, and city life is sedentary and encourages consumerism and branded consumption. This is also blurring notions of masculine and feminine consumerism.

If we think about boyfriend cut jeans, CK One and CK Be fragrances, and more recently from Tom Ford's private collection, we see at least our consumption is becoming more unisex. We've also heard of metrosexuals, and the Japanese term Shōshoku kei danshi (herbivore men). But there again you could argue that in the Middle East and Asia they have maintained a tradition of things, like unisex fragrances and men wearing kohl.
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There does seem to be a renewed interest with the East, with a blending of Western brands. As quickly as the West is expanding its palate to dining on noodles and rice for breakfast, the East wants Western brands. The difference now is that it is less about token tropes and motifs - we all want goods which are authentic, and communicate subtlety, sophistication, and quietly confident.

Four

Private space - space to think, space to decide, space to be who you want to be, and how you want to be.

With so much openness and transparency gifted to us now, we want the freedom to be voyeurs and participants, but on our own terms - which means having enough space to retreat away from the glare of scrutiny when we choose to. This about playing the long-game and long-tail economics - creating paradoxes that make us cautiously optimistic, and openly secretive.
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Consumers and brands don't want to be swarming ants - interactions and interludes that can offer the personal touch, and customizations, supported by enclosures make us feel special. Special doesn't just mean paying more either - because you can now create and customize products in Nike ID for no extra charge. This challenges the 1980's view of globalization, meaning mass-market standardization for lower prices, which will make us all the same.

I would extend this argument to online shopping. It's not just that you can check prices, choose more, and shop anytime and anywhere you want - it's because you are in control and you can plug in or out of the parts of the shopping experience. We use and trust technology, and we are used to being marketed to; but we still trust people even more - which is why we reach for forums, Amazon and YouTube reviews that deviate from a corporate script. I'm sure in the future we'll be able to shop online with our friends, using multi-user video messaging and negotiate a discount in real time.