Activating the taste map

How to create, deliver and capture social distinction

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In the first part of my Taste Map analysis, I explored the taste territory that replaced traditional taste dichotomies (good vs bad taste, highbrow vs lowbrow). In the second part of the analysis, I focus on how brands can capitalize on their customers’ evolving social codes and status needs, and provide new ways of signaling distinction and belonging.

As a reminder, the four quadrants of the Taste Map are:

Q1: The domain of collaborations, one-off items and limited editions that have to be known about, chased, waited for and found. Social approval is not openly sought, but is critical for success. Examples: Matthew Williams, Black Buzz Rickson MA-1 Flying Jacket.

Q2: The domain of Big Luxury, Big Art and Big Real Estate. Marked by lack of irony. Often the domain of expensive kitsch. Economic power beats social approval (“I have money and I don’t care what people think”). Example: Melania Trump.

Q3: The domain of faux-taste and lack of irony. Closely linked to Big Luxury via mimetic desire. The only thing separating the two is price. Craving for social approval is high. For examples, open Instagram.

Q4: The domain of experimentation, creativity and aesthetic innovation. Here’s where new trends are born. The MO is one of subversion and irony. Craving for social approval is low. Example: MSCHF.

The social signaling strategy

Operationalized, the four taste quadrants model translates into the specific production, distribution, merchandising and marketing approaches. Thus model is applicable to the vast array of brands, from Brooks Brothers to Ralph Lauren to Everlane to Zara.

Successful brands often play in all four taste quadrants, while emphasizing one or two of them. Different quadrants also have different roles in brand and market growth; a combination of quadrants puts a brand on a specific growth trajectory.

The top two quadrants (collectibles and capsules) adhere to value strategy ; the bottom two (collections and outlet) to the volume strategy. When consumers shop in the bottom two quadrants, they want to belong; they show off their conformism and a desired group association. When consumers shop in the upper two quadrants, they want to signal their difference; they show off their individualism and deviation from a group.

Brand strategy, mapped against the taste quadrants, looks as:

Collectibles: Collectibles create brand halo and build brand equity. They are cross-category and include monogramming and made-to-measure services. All collectibles are made in small quantities, selectively distributed and priced high.

Capsules. The role of capsules is to constantly renew the brand and make it fresh and newsworthy. Inspiration for capsules is modern life (e.g. Me-Time Capsule, Petswear, Home Capsule, Countryside Capsule); trends (Icons Capsule, Studio Capsule, Emily in Paris Capsule) and/or social good (Sustainable Capsule, SRPLS).

Collections. Collections ensure brand continuity. They apply brand aesthetics to seasons and trends.

Outlet. Low-priced, fashionable items.

The social signaling cycle

Brand strategy is powered by the circular, cyclical dynamics between quadrants. This dynamic reflect the wider cultural movement between taste layers and social codes. The cycle can start in any of the quadrants - collectibles, collections, outlet or capsules - but its movement is always clockwise. A mass trend won’t turn into a collection: it can only mimic it. But a mass trend from one era, e.g. Disco or grunge, regularly serves as the inspiration for capsules. Similarly, a collectible - a rare sneaker or a piece of furniture - doesn’t become a capsule. But it often inspires a collection, like streetwear’s current influence on luxury fashion.

The other week, I spoke with Olivier Moingeon, Managing Director of TRAUB and the host of The Luxury Weekly podcast. We touched upon everything worth mentioning in modern luxury strategy today - from content and influencers to sustainability and omnichannel. Per Olivier: “Ana shares with us the framework she created for brands to be relevant and win in the modern economy. From the 4Cs, to taste bubbles and social capital, Ana has a unique and visionary take on the consumer goods landscape and what it takes for brands to capture the zeitgeist, as well as the minds and hearts of this new wave of customers!” Listen to our conversation here.

Make sure to sign up for The Digital Content Masterclass Series, coming January 11-21st and learn how a new generation of leading-edge online writers, creators, and marketers are rewriting the digital engagement rules and forging exciting new career paths through the power of storytelling. Full agenda is here.