How Micro-Communities Transform Aspiration

In the modern aspiration economy, status looks a lot like a quarantine

When disgraced Russian oligarchs make a hasty exit out of their country, they are often forced to leave their private planes behind. In a uniquely Russian entrepreneurial twist, these grounded Gulfstream G650 jets then became a coveted backdrop for Instagram photo sessions. The Moscow-based Private Jet Studio offers sanctioned jets rentals for two-hour photoshoots with a personal photographer for $191. Private Jet Studio’s Instagram features women in lingerie casually hanging out at the plane entrance (as one does), dreamily staring through the window (looking at the tarmac), or casually reading newspapers. Some are even sleeping, which, given the 2 hour rental limit, seems like a giant waste.

Renting a grounded private jet for the sole purpose of sharing images on Instagram is peak status affordance. It allows sharing the external codes of an aspirational lifestyle, minus the actual lifestyle itself. No matter, main purpose is to accumulate a social following, likes, and to maintain an online persona, in hopes that this social capital can be monetized. 

Veblen described how aspirants mimic affluents in their habits. Trends start among the upper class and then trickle down. The modern aspiration economy is not only about the reversal of this trend, but about its erasure. 

Once aspiration moved into the domain of intangibles, it became invisible. How does one register “elevating the world’s consciousness”? More from the WeWork files, Adam Neumann’s wife allegedly requested for an employee to be fired because she didn’t like their “energy.” In the modern aspirants’ world, where a person’s “energy” is something to be invested in, nurtured, regularly checked upon, and evolved, this makes a perfect sense.

As aspiration, invisibility is different than dressing down or downright shabbily that’s has historically been exhibited by the British Upper class. A lack of concern for one’s clothes and appearance and for “what people think” is still social signaling, and conveys confidence in one’s social standing and is expression of privilege of not caring. 

This is the post-signaling time. The affluent today neither signal their status nor share on social networks their tangible and intangible capital. In its invisibility, and in its planned lack of social reach, modern status is like a self-quarantine.

If you think this is extreme, consider luxury bunkers and survival kits; in the age of emergency, which is increasingly becoming not an exception, but the norm, it’s the richest that survive. A side note: if I were in investor, I would be all over luxury survival kits, remote destination evacuation routes, and survival hideouts.

“It is so good that I DON’T want to tell anyone about it,” my Japanese facialist said about her new beauty routine. Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé recently wrote about NOT sharing the best of Tokyo nightlife with anyone but the Monocle team, and about recently taking a Zurich restaurateur and his wife on a secret private tour. Threat of the reverse network effects is real, and Mr. Brûlé has been avoiding it for years.

Japanese do secret and private well. There are more secluded, 3-seat, no-photos bars then anywhere else. These places are small worlds: hard to get in, local, intimate, curated, and private. It’s hard to see an economic rationale in having a 3 seat bar, but volume and scale is not the business they are in. Unlike the Big Luxury’s logic of producing more products to make more money, the business of the small and secluded is social distancing. Their value is in atmosphere, an experience, and a ritual. No wonder those who know about them protect their knowledge.

The other weekend I read a profile of a director of a major art show who talked, with pride, about her collection of snow globes: the tourist kind, not the high-end ones, although she can certainly afford them. Modern aspirants are Insta curators, Hodinkee community, Depop resellers, participants in menswear forums. Not always the richest, but the most plugged-in people around. They move in narrow, but influential circles where they get access and social standing thanks to their knowledge, interest, cultural participation, or expertise. Their status in these small groups may be invisible to anyone outside - and that is the point. Their social influence happens in small worlds, and from there trickles on to the wider culture.

The invisible and the small is rapidly spreading as a desirable, status-signaling social experience beyond Tyler Brûlé’s world, Japanese bars, and menswear forums. Two things are driving it. 

First, consumers increasingly assume that what they are seeing on social media is not real. Physical appearance can be altered and filtered, a lifestyle can be fabricated

Second, a carefully cultivated online persona is today the social norm. Having an uncultivated one is a way of conveying social distinction. Being one’s “true self” - or its near approximation - is more aspirational than blending into the mass of aesthetically and materially similar online profiles. It’s increasingly hard to tell the difference between, e.g. Arielle Charnas, Chiara Ferragni, her mother, her sisters and their countless lookalikes: the communication codes are all the same. 

Many opt instead for a more real, meaningful, and uncultivated micro-network presence instead. In a micro-network, posing in a rented private jet becomes ridiculous, so different forms of social distinction take place, like closeness and belonging, knowledge and expertise, or talent and skill. Discreet and intimate social media groups are springing up everywhere, from finstas to selected WhatsApp groups, accompanied by the small-world apps (e.g. Kinship and Cocoon). Influencers also recognized the trend, and started charging premium for a more intimate follower interactions, via Close Friends and WeChat paywalls. Being oneself and freely sharing with a selected few seems to beat the effort of being a fake self with a mass. It’s the social media iteration of private clubs, and again, the intimacy and the quality of experience and the atmosphere are the draw.

Nowhere is this shift from mass model to value model more visible than in the modern restaurant scene. The National Restaurant Association claims that a sixty percent of restaurant meals are now consumed off-premises. Ghost kitchens - establishments set up for the purpose of preparing food for delivery or pickup - are springing up in empty malls and parking lots and are shaping up into a big business. The trend of self-quarantine now spreads from Generation Z to millennials and the wider culture.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are supper clubs and home cooking groups. Eating is neither their focus nor the most important purpose. 

Supper clubs, which have in the past decade gained in popularity, are a uniquely American restaurant genre that dates back to the Prohibition in the 1920’s. Little has changed in their format since then: a combination of dining, live music, and a social club, they are an all-evening entertainment destinations. Pop-up dinners are a more recent development, and a lot of them sprang around sharing one’s culture, family history, and a local culinary tradition with an immediate micro-community of strangers. 

Just like Japanese 3-seat bars, supper clubs and pop-up dinners offer the ritual, the atmosphere, and the experience around that UberEats cannot deliver. Once this scenario evolves further, the restaurant industry will split in two: the middle will disappear (the restaurants with ok food and ok setting, which is most of them right now), and those remaining in business will become very differentiated, very exclusive or very expensive. They will offer either a food that doesn’t travel well or an atmosphere and a ritual that can’t be replicated. Some may even charge admission fee or have a cover charge. On the other end, there will be ghost kitchens, providing an infinite variety of food options and their fast and convenient delivery. 

There are the three implications for brand strategy:

Strategic bifurcation, or splitting all the brands’ product and service offerings in two. This strategy mimics what is already happening in a number of markets, where the middle is increasingly being hollowed out (fashion, apparel, travel, hospitality, media, furniture, food). On one end is the covetable experience, high-end product quality, and human-to-human interaction (Japanese 3-seat bars model), and on the other is speed, convenience, scale, and a minimum viable product (ghost kitchens). Airlines and automotive industry are already doing this. In other categories, like CPG, this strategy is costly as it requires splitting a company’s value chain in two. In a less costly iteration, high-end offering can exist in the form of a limited-time, periodic, value-add.

Strategy of controlled access. Modeled after supper clubs and pop-up kitchens, this strategy provides access to product, services, and experiences bundles to a small number of customers. Keywords here are not only “access” but also “bundle,” which - like pop-up dinner’s focus on heritage and story of food, wraps the offering in a narrative. Tyler Brûlé’s secret Tokyo is a version of this idea, where those close to the brand, willing to pay premium, or are trusted brand collaborators gain access. Another way is a version of “cover charge” where customers can select to pay (or earn) extra services, like speed of delivery, expanded product selection, or seat reservations in a restaurant. Examples are the food delivery monthly subscriptions, like Uber’s Eats Pass, or paying fitness clubs extra to secure a preferred spot in a class.

Reviving the middle. A counterintuitive strategy is for a brand to strategically and purposefully focus on reintroducing the middle. This model has a strong social component: for example, in a bifurcated restaurant industry we will lose gathering places for people from different backgrounds (this has been voices in the critique of Sweetgreen’s cashless policy, which has since been reversed). A lot of DTC brands, across categories, adopted “reviving the middle” strategy in the form of good quality items at affordable prices and excellent service. The downside of this model is that it’s costly, and most of these brands emulating it are VC-funded and not yet profitable. Scaling this model is also a challenge, as costs of supply, production, and distribution increase.

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