Magazine article Marketing

The Essay: Think You Know the Middle Class? Try Again

Magazine article Marketing

The Essay: Think You Know the Middle Class? Try Again

Article excerpt

New demographic forces are driving a transformation in the paradigm long embraced by brands, which means marketers need to rethink their approach, writes Giles Hedger.

Marketing has always thrived on the concept of the middle class. The section of the population that occupies the swollen centre of the socio-economic bell curve has formed the demographic basis of most brand-building for 150 years.

The middle class has been a perfect storm of aspirational consumerism in which gentrification, education, professionalisation and domestication have combined to create the ideal conditions for brand-building.

Most branded goods carry a premium, the justification of which has been one of the principal tasks of marketing since the 19th century.

Good products that mark you out as a better consumer with superior values and a desirable social identity. Soap for the cleanly. Food for the wholesome. Hoovers for the houseproud. Nappies for the nurturing Banks for the prudent. Cars for the safety-conscious.

Establishing which came first, the human sensibility or the marketing psychology, is itself the sort of parlour game that one could have imagined being popular among the, er, middle classes.

It has been a cosy paradigm, but it is changing. New demographic forces are stretching beyond recognition of the old taxonomy of British society, with profound implications for brand-builders.

Firstly, as Professor Danny Dorling has brilliantly documented, wealth has polarised to an almost ludicrous degree. The UK has a 1% elite whose wealth has emerged austerity-proof from the recession of 2008 and whose average household income is more than 10 times the average of the remaining 99%. More than half of all the personal tradable wealth in the UK is in the hands of this 1% pinnacle of households.

The chasm of spending power between the 1% and the rest is feeding a system of consumer behaviour as powerful as any hierarchical class dynamic. The 1% may not be so different from the rest, but live very differently, interacting little with the public sector, compensating lavishly for the arduousness (or mundanity) of their high-earning jobs, and aspiring to references of wealth that make their own circumstances seem modest.

When HSBC talks (brilliantly) about 'Your personal economy', it is the 1% it is addressing. The ability to control the parameters of your economy, and to conceive of your personal wealth as a self-contained system, is perhaps the defining psychological feature of this quasi class. …

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