Unlocking the zeitgeist

This is a follow-up piece to my article “To Hack Growth, Startups Have to Hack Culture First

Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present, said Albert Camus. Success of an idea, product, story, or a trend is hidden in our present: in our social interactions, what we pay attention to, who and what influences us, and where and how we spend our time.

Regardless of the signals available to us in our present, we are much better in explaining our past. Hollywood, fashion, food, and other taste industries spend inordinate amount of money and talent on betting what’s going to resonate with the zeitgeist, with mixed results. Success stories are usually retroactive: we claim that something succeeded because it “captured the atmosphere,” only once it did. The question of why is often secondary.

The real challenge is to detect the mood while it is happening. To answer the question of how to get something to resonate with the atmosphere of the times, we should look for contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences in our culture, society, and economy. They are the indicators that change is ahead.

Contradictions are when two irreconcilable things coexist. Maybe the most currently visible cultural contradiction is simultaneously having niches and monoculture. On one hand, we have content streaming, fragmentation of interests, and rise of niche products, across industries. There’s lament that our world is becoming a fragmented collection of tribes and fervent fandoms of otakus: people with obsessive, laser-like interests. On the other, there’s the existential dread of aesthetic gentrification in the form of Instagram Face, Airspace, Airbnb Style, and cultural homogenization. Consumers want choice, but in order to navigate it, they rely on others and so end up enjoying the same fashion trends, movies, diets, and songs. Mimicry and imitation are the decentralized mechanism of cultural production and social cohesion. Implication for brands is to offer choice, but also use social signals to steer it.

Inversions are novel reversals in a trend dynamic. Today’s relationship between conspicuous consumption and wealth are one such reversal. Less affluent individuals tend to acquire products that make them more socially visible and devote a higher share of their total spending to conspicuous consumption than the rich, who prefer to spend more discreetly and are less drawn to obvious status symbols, opting in for subtle signals of status, wellness and inner transformation instead. Implication for brands targeting HNWI is to reposition around work-of-the-human-hands artistry and excellence versus the wannabe-rich, in-your-face communication codes.

Oddities are out-of-ordinary occurrences that make us search beneath the surface or a trend or pattern. There is a number of Internet communities that are part social club and part marketplace. They can emerge around specific brands (e.g. Outdoor Voices, Glossier) or around shared values and interests of its members (e.g. sustainability, running). They are settings for bonding, sharing advice, and shopping for people who do not know each other, but use their common interests, beliefs, and tastes to link up. These multi-purpose “imagined communities” are an alternative to the purely commercial retail models, as they enforce social interactions as much as product transactions. The task for modern brands is to appeal to both social and individual dimensions of consumption.

Coincidences are about simultaneous appearance of distant and unrelated trends or patterns. If I find myself in an Airbnb in Europe or Asia, no matter where, there’s a good chance there will be a photo of my Dumbo apartment building to welcome me. The resulting experience is both known and new; diverse and familiar; authentic and recognizable; unique and replicable; wabi-sabi and polished. Technology, through the immediate social feedback loops, brings those disparate tendencies together. Recognizable and accessible cultural reference points, like Supreme, the Dumbo neighborhood, or Baby Yoda work best here.