This post has been written before the current crisis, and now seems prescient. It looks into how the fragility of the modern aspiration leads us to find fulfillment in the mundane. It was something I felt we were going towards anyway, and this crisis accelerated it.
Nice Things is a monthly that features items like Hina dolls and rice bowls, photographed against a clean, monochromatic backdrop. There are also images of people cooking, foraging, farming. Everything is simple, artisanal, understated, wholesome. It promotes “good life with nice things.”
There are more periodicals like this. Ordinary is a fine art photography quarterly focused exclusively on creative riffs on a single everyday object (cabinets, a mop, a sink). &Premium is a “guide to a better life.” It is dedicated to artisanal coffee roasters, hand-crafted knives, flower bouquets, and ceramic bowls. There are entire pages on a “nice scent,” “spring bouquet,” “beautiful shoes.”
What links them is their focus on the ordinary. “The ability to see great beauty in the everyday objects around you is a rare and precious gift.” For this, thank (or blame) our post-growth age. Climate emergency, global pandemic, aging population, and the new cultural, social, and environmental capital create new sources of value.
In the past, more was always more. Brands promised us to be more attractive, more accomplished, more affluent, only if we bought more of their products. “Buy more, save more” was marketers’ favorite call to action. Similarly, bigger was always better: a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger sofa, a bigger logo.
Today, more important than a Mari Kondo lifestyle is a general shift to micro in our relationship with the world. There’s micro-socializing, micro-attention, micro-experiences, micro-focus, micro-expectations. Unable to succeed economically, millennials are turning their attention to everyday things with an almost obsessive, laser-like focus. Can’t afford a home? Get a great mattress. Cook with nice cutlery. Don’t have a retirement account? Enjoy looking at your sill filled with plants. Invest in a beautiful spatula.
Modern brands turned millennial existential anxiety into a taste regime.
A taste regime shapes how consumers use objects in everyday life. “We want not just to be a provider of Japanese coffee equipment, but to focus on the education of the Japanese way of home brew, the Japanese coffee culture, and the art of coffee itself,” says the founder of Kurasu, a specialty coffee and artisanal brewing equipment site.
Originally coined by authors Zeynep Arsel and Jonathan Bean, a taste regime defines how consumers create routines and meaning around objects. A taste regime turns a particular taste into practice through different consumption patterns, leisure activities, vocabulary, and ways of socializing. For example, a taste regime around Peloton defines how and when and why a person uses their bike, what they wear while riding it, how they interact with it, and how they talk to others about it. A taste regime around Great Jones kitchenware articulates the specifics of how and when to use it, what other cookware or dinnerware to use it with, what to cook with it, and the exchanges with the community that’s created around it.
Kurasu pairs its subscription coffees with stories and photos of the people behind the beans. Every time brands includes photos of artisans in their packaging, have a carefully curated Instagram account that conveys a particular aesthetic, or put their social mission at the front-and-center of their messaging, they contextualize their products in a taste regime. Haus’ homepage features attractive photography of attractive people drinking aperitif and having fun.
Through taste regimes, modern brands introduce new meanings in our everyday activities: cooking, socializing, bathing, decorating, dressing, caring for pets or plants.“Power and pleasure of making food with your own hands” replaces cooking. “Minimizing environmental impact” replaces buying a dress. “Boosting our creativity” replaces buying plants. Through meaning and values, a taste regime makes our interactions with everyday objects more intentional. It transforms our home and our daily routines, and it cultivates our taste and refines our sensibilities.
It also renews our relationship with everyday products by making it more creative: having nice kitchenware inspires us to cook more elaborate meals. Having a artisanal coffee equipment and speciality coffee shipped to us from across the world inspires us to create a coffee-drinking daily ritual. Thanks to taste regimes, we get more joy out of the everyday. We also adopt a mechanism for social distinction and status signaling. A taste regime provides social links and holds a taste community together, and sets apart one taste community from another. Lululemon’s taste regime is vastly different than Monocle’s is vastly different than GOOP’s.
In addition to pushing their taste regimes forward, modern brands actively aestheticize our everyday life. Products we buy, our faces and bodies, our experiences and leisure, our living spaces and bookshelves are all increasingly transformed into works of art. “Everyday life is an art, as art is part of everyday life” is the modern branding’s mantra, fed by the massive offering of Instagram inspiration.
The current construction of life as a visible work of art has been decades in the making. It is an outcome of simultaneous deinstitutionalization and commercialization of art that took place when the pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana made its way into museums. The fine art simultaneously spread into fashion, design, pop culture, and architecture. Back in the ’80’s New York City designer Willi Smith invited artists, architects, performers and graphic designers to join his project of making art part of daily life. Today, Virgil Abloh transforms mundane objects (t-shirts, boots, rugs) into works of art through quotation marks. Fashion stores are displaying art, and museums are selling merch. Moschino took inspiration from Picasso. Undercover worked with Cindy Sherman on a collection. Zadig & Voltaire shop in New York City’s Soho neighborhood features a stone sculpture with the “do not touch” sign.
In its 2020 iteration, pervasive investment in the aesthetics means constant internal and external self-perfecting (in my Tribeca fitness studio, I often see women at various stages of this process). Makeover shows like Bridalplasty, Million Dollar Decorators, or 100% Hotter, tell consumers how to redesign their face, house, or life. Nothing is ever redesigned at random, so the makeover shows emphasize a sense of purpose: an aesthetically worthy life is not lived spontaneously, but stylistically. (An outcome is that a total lifestyle image put forward is often more impressive than a person behind it).
GOOP is the prime example of aesthetically worthy living. GOOP fans are prompted to be continuously attuned to appearance, as even the smallest and the most mundane details of the everyday can be reworked into a sensorially and stylistically pleasing experiences that come with intention (self-care, self-actualization, a more loving home, a more fulfilling relationships).
Today, aesthetic innovation gives competitive edge. Innovativeness is not in having superior product properties or novel tech, but in the emphasis on aesthetics and experience (consider how GOOP-endorsed products have been accused of deceptive health claims yet continue to be popular). Successful brands ingrain themselves in the cultural context, not a market segment. Off White, Kanye, Glossier, White Claw, Haus, GOOP all introduce new meaning in society and culture by linking social trends with their products. They create cult objects - Balm Dotcom, Jade Egg, Tesla, Jordan 1 x Off White - that serve as totems in their taste communities. (Peloton advertising regularly depicts their bikes as cult objects in shrine-like settings.) Modern brands are innovative because they combine the aesthetic experience, identity building, and social display.
There are three implications for brand strategy:
Create collections (rather than product ranges). A collection gives everyday products identity. In the crowded industrial goods landscape, an identity is the key product differentiator: packaging, naming, color palette, signature design details and product shapes make products stand for something more than their function and differentiates them from commodities. A collection enforces product identity, ensures its continuity, and connects products into a narrative.
Trade in exchange value, not in use value. Use value is defined by a product’s functionality. Exchange value is defined by a product’s social appeal. These days, a competitive advantage is not in how it works, but in how it looks. A usable product or a functional tech are almost a given. It’s the aesthetic and stylistic properties of products that matter. A social hit becomes a market hit. Focus your competitive strategy on how to insert your products in the socio-cultural exchange system, not on their market position based on performance and price.
Invest in the aesthetic innovation. Infuse taste and meaning into ordinary consumption. Think how your products and services do not only fulfill their basic functions, but add an aesthetic and social dimension to their attributes and turn them into social links that hold together taste communities. Together with editorial content, retail environments, messaging, images, symbols and social engagement, product aesthetics creates taste regimes that shape our everyday life. Creating a taste regime takes time, practice, an ongoing social engagement, and images and symbols - and distinguishes brands that endure from those that don’t.