The world was a lot less complex in well heeled times; everyone assumed all there was left to do was to grow uneventfully more prosperous. Fukuyama confidently declared it the end of history, Lily Allen sang about being a weapon of massive consumption and Brand Dubai lured all the world's greatest architects with its promises of excess. People wanted more of everything, bigger cars and louder sound systems. Brands were all about having a cool name visible on your T-shirt, and luxury was as simple to create as following a recipe: decadence, scarcity and a touch of mystery. The more expensive something looked the better. And status and recognition, those most basic of human needs, were simple to satisfy.
But all that has changed. The recession and the environmental crisis have forced a new frugality on many, making excess and waste distasteful. When faced with friends who lost their jobs, flashy opulence became insensitive and inappropriate. And even before the crash, those in the rich world were searching for new ways to stand out from others who had just as much 'stuff'; ways to gain recognition that were more subtle than bling, more exclusive than expensive. Marketing has been stripped of spin as people wisen up to what they really need, and what constitutes status is in transition.
The most obvious change would seem to be the death-knell of status itself; a shift away from consumption and a recalibration of what constitutes real value. But consuming less is not only motivated by altruism and concern for the planet. While many people are searching for an antidote to clutter for personal satisfaction, there is still a burning desire for recognition in a lot of the new consumer behavior. It is becoming cool to be resourceful in your ability to make the most of what you have, throw together old things to make something new and to discern between superfluous flippancies and real value-adds. As the war to save the planet gets underway, the moral highground becomes the ultimate status symbol of those who think of themselves as educated, intelligent and cutting edge. Consuming less, or wiser, is the badge of recognition to chase and brands that allow consumers to tread lightly in subtly recognizable ways will attract the attention of a new generation of status-seekers. Today's Hummer is a Prius or cycling to work and only those in the know pout as they drop their organic chocolate box into a recycling bin at the Neighbourgoods Market.
Another shift taking place is that from having to doing. This is particularly the case in South Africa where crime is a disincentive for investing in material goods, but experiences are impossible to steal. There is huge status attached to a story of remarkable adventure and discovery. Those recently returned from hiking the Otter Trail will proudly tell you about it, as will the person pulled out of the crowd at a music event and dragged on stage. The need for recognition is manifesting itself more and more in what people do rather than what they own, and where before someone may have bragged about a new piece of art she bought, she can now boast of an art class she is attending. Picking up skills and harnessing natural talents are sure ways to gain attention from peers, and so businesses that enable their consumers or clients to do this are sure to flourish for the next few years. Think about what activities or experiences will make for memorable or impressive stories around your product. Could building in a DIY component achieve this? Or is there a unique event that would make your users proud?
There is no longer a need to wait to tell your status stories anymore. The digital revolution has ensured a live commentary on everything from product reviews to brand failures, and the most popular activity on the web, as everyone now knows, is social media. South Africa is a country of mobile phones, and the mobile internet is only just beginning to take off. Nothing is an experience these days unless you're lifestreaming it - because what really matters is your network of friends and colleagues knowing just what an amazing experience you're having right now. Status is to be achieved through your context; the party you are at, the person you are talking to at your meeting. Your tweets and facebook updates and mobile uploads all scream one thing: look at what I'm doing. Smart businesses need to keep up with this if they want to retain loyal customers, especially those whose products and brands rely on a level of exclusivity.
Endowing your consumers with status and making them feel good and proud to use your products or services is no longer only about letting them show off how wealthy they are. This paradigm is still alive and well in the rapidly developing world, as Chinese luxury brands will attest, but it is increasing anachronistic in the developed world and the upper echelons of societies as mixed as our own. Status means being able to do something; learn something or make a difference, and that activity needs to be unique, relevant and add value to the consumer's life. If you get it right, the twittersphere will be awash with gloating that has your name on it.