Cars are one of the world's strongest
signifiers of social status and give everyone an opportunity to
compare social standing. Today many of the signifiers of our place
in society can be seen in the goods we own which provide helpful,
and often instant, indications of our place in the social
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen, a US
economist and sociologist, who became well-known for his 'Theory of
the Leisure Class', shaped the term conspicuous consumption'. That
is, spending money on visible goods for the purpose of displaying
income or wealth - or social status. According to Veblen, the
consumption of goods not only satisfied basic needs but also
provided a means to build reputation.
This not only promotes and justifies
limitless consumption since you can always climb one step higher on
the social ladder but also makes consumption a way of communicating
our - hopefully rising - status. For instance, we know that owning
a Mercedes Benz indicates high status based on income, education,
Just think how you react when you meet
someone new. You instantly categorise them based on their
appearance, their clothes, accessories and cars. We are all exposed
to the consumption patterns of those in our reference groups - and
seek to replicate the patterns. That is why people consume to keep
up with their peers and to impress people in lower social
Richard Centers, author of The
Psychology of Social Classes: A Study of Class Consciousness,
defines social class as follows: "A man's class is a part of his
ego, a feeling on his part of belongingness to something: an
identification with something larger than himself." This definition
still holds true but, according to the report 'Middle
Britain', the traditional markers of social class like job, family
background and wealth are fading away. Often people even assign
themselves into the wrong social class, e.g. 36% of builders
classify themselves as middle class and 29% of bank managers say
they are working class.
The traditional boundaries of social
classes are fading and they are becoming less significant. The
reason being that the traditional ways of differentiation and
demarcation such as nationality, religion, or education no longer
work as they did in the past.
Instead people search for new
reference groups, which results in a more fragmented affiliation.
You can be a banker at day and roaming World of Warcraft as an orc
at night. One does not rule out the other, since the current
profile depends on current reference groups. And in every situation
and every area of life, we can use different symbols to display our
From Physical To Virtual
As in so many other areas, digital is
providing new ways to consume, display and build reputation. In the
past, you had to pass my house to see my car. Today, you just have
to Google me! On the internet anyone can find enough information to
determine the status of others.
And there is a shift from physical
status symbols to digital ones. Of course, physical status symbols
retain their impact but status is now also conveyed by my Facebook
profile and the amount of friends I have or by the magical sword I
own in World of Warcraft. This is also the reason why people upload
photographs of their (posh) meals. The enabler of these new digital
status symbols is the smartphone (a status symbol in itself). It is
the physical manifestation of my ability to show my consumption to
the whole digital society within seconds.
In addition, if you post something on
a social networking site, you reach a minimum of several hundred of
people within a second. Digitisation provides the capability to
communicate to an infinite audience. On top of this, virtual goods
can also in themselves be used to display my social status and who
Digitisation has become an accelerator
of consumption. And all goods must now submit to the mechanisms of
this new way of distribution. Physical goods need to offer a fast,
ergonomic and effective way to distribute themselves via digital
media such as Facebook. This need to show off my physical goods
online means that the design of products is becoming even more
important, because my possessions have to look perfect in the
pictures that I share.
Tools like Instagram have responded to
this need by providing multiple filters that can be used to enhance
the pictures. Everything I photograph looks great in no time,
whether it is a retro sports bike or a meal at my favourite
New Currencies for a new
When we talk about virtual currency,
we mean objects in digital environments like game items (the
magical sword from World of Warcraft or the tractor from Farmville
etc.), that can be traded for real - that is, the old - money.
Taking this idea one step further, social media platforms like
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also provide their own virtual
currencies, namely 'likes', 'followers', 'views' and 'subscribers'.
Likes and followers are sold for real money, and an increasing
number of people have already 'paid with a tweet'. While the
digital immigrant may still distinguish between virtual and real
money, digital natives view this distinction obsolete. In the
future, it will make no difference, whether I own 1,000 Facebook
credits or US$100 because money is nothing more than an
The business of virtual goods -
especially within (social) browser-based games - has exploded in
the last few years. Even if we can play the game for free, costs
occur if the gamers wish to add to the game, be it with a bigger
farm or a superior spacecraft. Such virtual items have the
potential to become the new status symbols. In the US, the virtual
goods market already reached US$1,6 billion by the end of 2010,
while social gaming contributed US$835 million.
A Brand New
This development not only has an
impact on products and goods, but also on communication. The
advertising industry needs to embrace this new need to communicate
status. This happens both on the creative side - that is design and
embellishment - but also on the structural media level.
By integrating portable devices and
cloud services into our everyday life, we have already entered the
next level in the evolution of media. Media barriers have been
lowered and every piece of information (on signs, ads, products,
buildings, and even people etc.) is linked to further content via
constructs such as QR codes, augmented reality, or Shazam, to name
but a few.
Facebook has become a diary of status
symbols - or a 'museum of me' as seen in Intel's campaign (see QR
Code). All relevant content is easily gathered by using the
omnipresent like button. This mechanism is already heavily used by
brands, especially in campaigns with a participatory aspect. People
can integrate themselves into movie sequences and even
self-produced homemade video content can find its way on the TV
screen, as seen in the Deutsche Telekom's Million Moments campaign.
All these brand communications help the user look good to his peer
The Future: From Aspirational
To Meaningful Brands
In Germany, there is currently an
intense debate about forbidding the 'like' button. The key
argument being that it stores data about consumers who are
not Facebook members and have thus not agreed to the storage.
There is very little probability that
the 'like' button will be banned, but critical voices have been
raised and it has already caused suspicion. This is one of the
reasons why the 'like' button should not be seen as the holy grail
of advertising. It goes beyond the likes.
Brands that glue people together in
communities go beyond the fulfilment of conspicuous consumption. To
be part of a community one has to identify with others. However
"classic" prestige-driving or "aspirational" brands tend to stress
individualism or even ego ("look what I can afford and you can't!")
- which is not helpful in the formation of a community.
And let us not kid ourselves: Most
people wouldn't care if 80% of all brands disappeared tomorrow.
Products and services are not as attached to brands as we may
There are already clear signs of
people liberating themselves from the paradigms of the previous
decades - individualism, consumerism, mass society - as shown in
impressive ways in the uprisings in Spain, UK, and recently with
#occupywallstreet in the US. These netizens, digital natives,
pirates - or however they might be labelled - are highly suspicious
of the old economic structures without being "left", "green" or any
other form of classic anti-consumer-ideology.
In this new environment, trust is
established through mutual experiences which take place on social
media, no matter if it is politics, brands or products. The way
that these new consumers "tribalise" into communities over social
networks means brands need to be less pretentious, and make fewer
grand promises, and instead donate value and meaning.
In the future, brands will still be
able to leverage the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, yet
they will have to tap into the accelerated opportunities offered by
digital media by becoming meaningful brands.
So we see a shift towards brands that
give meaning, support consumers who show their sympathy with others
and thus foster community. As long as a brand focuses on being
aspirational rather than humble, it is highly vulnerable to
negative news that gets spread fast over social networks.
A brand that instead positions itself
in the community by helping, doing good, being of real value for
the community's members is more robust and less likely to be harmed
if someone posts a negative comment.
Conspicuous consumption by Thorstein
Definition of Social Class by Richard
Middle Britain Report by William
Virtual Goods and Currencies by Vili
Monetizing digital media by Ernst
Rethinking the Idea of the Brand by
DANIEL BISCHOFF (*1981)
Research Director at MediaCom
After studying Theatre, Film and Media
as well as Philosophy in Frankfurt,Brussels and Berlin, Daniel
started his professional career in journalism before heading to the
Berlin office of Trend Research Company TrendONE. He joined
MediaCom Germany in 2010 where he founded and heads up Innovation
Science, a research unit dedicated to applying trends and
innovations to media planning. He and his team work across a broad
spectrum of clients and industries.
Daniel can be reached at Daniel.Bischoff@mediacom.de.
DENNIS GRZENIA (*1979)
After graduating in economics,
business studies, and social psychology, Dennis started working for
MediaCom as a media planner. Thus he came in touch with various
clients from categories like telecommunication, FMCG, and
insurance. In early 2010, Dennis became Research Analyst at
MediaCom Science and is now responsible for trend research, social
media, and communication consultancy.
Dennis can be reached at Dennis.Grzenia@MediaCom.de.
THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS
EXPRESSED IN THIS DOCUMENT ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR.