But many consumers are still buying brands and products as status symbols
The pursuit of an envy-worthy social status has undoubtedly been one of the most important drivers of growth and markets over the last 70 years.
An enviable social status used to be the reserve of the elite but beginning in the post-war period and especially during the 50s and 60s, a middle class emerged that could claim a lifestyle of which they could be proud.
Possessions became symbolic. A person’s house, car, colour TV, etc. – all these objects, products, and brands became social markers that expressed who they were on a social scale.
While these motivations are still very present in society today, they are far less embedded and ubiquitous as in the past.
What’s more, these motivations have been in overall decline for several years.
In Canada, two in five (40%) consider it very (10%) or somewhat (30%) important to feel recognized and admired by others.
This leaves a clear majority (60%) who are not very or not at all motivated by this kind of need for social distinction. This was not the case even just a few years ago.
Indeed, the need for social recognition has declined dramatically in recent years, as the following graph clearly demonstrates:
Unfortunately, we have only been tracking this specific indicator since 2014. Before then, we used different, more or less satisfactory indicators.
However, we can confidently state that this trend took hold well before 2014. Based on those other indicators that we monitored, it’s clear that the tendency to define one’s relationships through the filter of one’s social position had begun to decline since the 1980s.
The need for authenticity has surpassed the need to define one’s self-worth via one’s social roles. People feel a need to be “real,” to have relationships with “real” people, not set pieces conforming to societal expectations and roles.
A major paradigm shift is taking place. We are unshackling ourselves from the social constraints of roles and status in order to freely express who we truly are. This major trend of self-expression now characterizes a large majority of Canadians.
Note, however, that the youngest cohort still display a very strong desire for social recognition. While 40% of Canadians overall evince this desire in some measure, among 18–34-year-olds, this percentage rises to 63%!
At an age when they are building their social identity, recognition is essential to them.
It is important to note that this is not a generational phenomenon. The need for social recognition observed among today’s young adults occurred in similar fashion among the same age group a decade ago, according to our databases. This need is related to age, not specifically to the current generation of 18–34-year-olds.
But as we can see, this need gradually diminishes, particularly after 35 years of age, and this has been the case for several years.
On the other hand, one in five Canadians (26%) still buy products, brands and services to show off their enviable social status. Producing a platinum credit card at a restaurant after dining with friends, driving a prestigious car (electric to boot), owning a house with a “Scandinavian” décor, hanging out in the coolest, trendiest spots in town while sharing videos of one’s life on TikTok, etc. are all social markers that serve to communicate to others where you stand in society and that you aspire to an enviable status.
Brands play a key role in this social ostentation. People want to associate themselves with prestige or “masstige” (mass prestige) items. They are willing to pay a premium for brands that give them a certain status in the eyes of others, instead of using cheaper brands could meet their practical, utilitarian needs just as well.
For these consumers, the need to show off their enviable status is well worth the premium they have to pay to appear with symbolically prestigious brands.
And, despite the decline in the desire for social recognition in society as a whole, this segment of ostentatious consumers has been growing slightly since the pandemic (when it regressed slightly):
Note, too, that young adults also stand out on this indicator. They seek status experiences through the brands and products they buy as a way of building their social identity, in addition to their desire for recognition from others. Brands, innovative products and unique experiences are all markers, tools to build what they want to become in society and a way of displaying their pride.
When we incorporate all the indicators in our databases into an overall model to measure the importance that people attach to status experiences in their lives, whether as citizens or consumers, we get the following index, which does a good job of summarizing this trend:
We can therefore conclude that authenticity clearly prevails, and increasingly so, over social status
However, this overall trend camouflages the ostentatious consumption that we discussed above.
In this regard, we refer you to our previously published article, The Rise of the New Conservative Consumer, which deals with the phenomenal rise over the past 12 years of a segment of very conservative consumers who are driven by a desire for social recognition – a group of Canadians that we named The Proud.
This segment largely includes the group of individuals who still use brands and products and the display of enviable experiences to bolster their social existence, as demonstrated in the following table:
It would be tempting, based on the overall trends, to conclude that the only correct communications and marketing position would be authenticity. That would certainly hit the hot buttons of the majority of Canadians.
Casually dressed corporate or institutional leaders speaking sincerely to their audiences, admitting their bad moves while demonstrating their “authentic” passion for their vision and efforts to ensure benefits for society and communities.
In marketing communications, letting audiences partake, in very simple ways, of the art of living of certain consumers, illustrating their rituals and unique subcultures, all as authentically as possible.
Such recipes would appeal to large swathes of society and its markets.
However, the success of an extremely large number of brands still relies heavily on status experiences. Consumers buy these brands so they can show off and wear/own them before anyone else.
The social identity of these individuals is built on the signs and symbolism that the brands they wear/own communicate socially.
The challenge for brands is to know who exactly they are addressing. This applies to both their current customers and the prospects they hope to convert.
To reach The Proud or anyone else displaying this desire for social recognition, you must play the status-experience card to the max, even if that involves incorporating some elements of authenticity.
On the other hand, if you are addressing audiences unmotivated by this need for recognition, you must avoid all symbols of ostentation so as not to offend their sensibilities.
The key is understanding the motivations and hot buttons of the audiences you are addressing.