What Niche Magazines Can Teach Us About Taste

The meaning of taste in the modern aspiration economy

Rostro is a coffee shop near Yoyogi park. Sit down at a bar, and you are faced with an option of different flavors (sweet, nutty, fruity, tart) and different strengths, depending on the grounds-to-water ratio. Make your selection, and you are in for a carefully choreographed ritual. It starts with hand-grinding the coffee beans with a device seemingly dating from the turn of the last century that I last saw in my grandmother’s house, followed by a lab-like system of syphon tubes. Each step is done with a lot of care, skill, and technique. The coffee, once it arrived, was great, as was the members-only feel surrounding it, but the nuances of its flavor and texture were lost on me. I am not a coffee connoisseur.

There are a lot of those who are. There are also foodies, audiophiles, vinyl lovers, fitness junkies, sneakerheads, fashionistas, soccer fans, global nomads, wellness aficionados. In each of these self-identifies taste groups, taste is an activity that engages them on more than a casual level. Coffee, food, travel, or exercise are not passive leisure activities. Instead, they require investment of consumers’ attention, time, and money. The more time, attention, money, and skill consumers spend on them, coffee making, cooking, traveling, become more enjoyable. Specific techniques and rituals emerge. Community is formed. A vocabulary emerges (“beaters,” “deadstock,” “upotwns”) Those obsessed with their vinyl collections, sneakers, or fitness regiment can speak for hours about it. 

In the modern aspiration economy, taste is not given. It’s not a passive play of social differentiation. It’s an activity that is continuously developed, cultivated, and refined. 

It’s an activity that includes objects (e.g. sneakers, coffee beans, food), other participants (e.g. sneakerheads, menswear forums, friends, a local coffee barista), specific ways of doing things (e.g. syphon or drip coffee, getting info on sneaker drops), written materials (e.g. reviews, magazines, Instagram), history (e.g. a specific tradition or role playing), tools and devices (e.g. cooking and fitness equipment), and attention and sensibilities (e.g. expanding one’s wine or coffee or food palette).

All of the above - objects, community, methodology, history, technique, and tools - increase, argument, and give feedback on taste. We develop our taste by absorbing social and cultural capital around us. For example, through its content, conversation, products, techniques, reviews, and um, devices, GOOP increased and refined our individual and collective sensibilities around self-care.

Historically, taste has been linked to aesthetics or class. For French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote the book titled “Distinction” on the topic, social class determines creation and expression of taste (“nor quite our class, darling”). For Veblen, taste acts as a social barrier: upper class uses it to distance itself from the lower class. The moment that lower class adopts certain tastes, upper class abandons them and moves towards the new ones.

Both class determinism and social signaling are passive: a person is born into taste; a way of dress is signal of social standing. Today’s rental and resale economy upended all of that, but beyond the new accessibility of luxury and the new forms of capital, there’s a bigger play here. 

Taste is still a boundary-making mechanism (my unrefined coffee palette excludes me from having any coffee-related status) and is an engine of social difference. But it’s an active one: were I to decide today to become a coffee junkie, I would start watching YouTube how-to videos, order a stack of coffee magazines, find online forums and offline communities, learn tricks, make a pilgrimage to an infinite number of kissatens, subscribe for ordered an equipment, both syphon-based and drip-based, and start working on my skill, technique, and methodology. I would adopt a new social role and develop a ritual around my coffee drinking. I’d train my sensibilities, perceptions, and a palette. Very soon, I would be able to confidently order nutty-medium roast and to enjoy it, too.

Due to the serious investments of time and money and attention that I’d make in order to develop my competency and become well-versed in all things coffee, there’s still a heavy social hierarchy surrounding taste. But taste is decoupled from class.

Instead, taste creates new social formats. The coffee culture - and all the spaces, rituals, communities, methods and coffee-making instruments it contains - is one example. Niche magazines are another. 

At the last year’s Magazine Innovation Center’s annual conference, the future of magazine media was proclaimed to be niche, specialized content produced with excellence. Indeed, like indie bookstores, niche magazines seem to be thriving. 

There are magazines covering tennis, outdoors living in Canada, Jane Dickson in Times Square, modernist Detroit, food and art, mental health, craft beer, contemporary feminist witchcraft, cannabis, farming. These days, chances are that there’s a magazine somewhere in the world that speaks directly to just about anyone’s taste. 

The Plant magazine is “a remarkable ode to botanical beauty.” A Dance Mag comes from Beirut and aims to transcend cultural differences via dance. Record is a bi-annual publication for niche music communities. Buffalo Zine is a 400+ page book fusing food and fashion. MUNDIAL was initially launched as a one-off for celebrating Brazil’s 2014 World Cup. Today, it’s a magazine, a store, and a brand consultancy that’s “a market leader in understanding modern football culture and how it affects brands, consumers, and fans around the world.” Come in for a t-shirt, stay for a consulting gig.

What unites all of these magazines, regardless of the taste niche they cater to, is that they change consumers’ relationship with the world. Taste fills products with meaning. “We wanted 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 Yozo Otsuki, founder of the Japanese specialty coffee and artisan brewing equipment site Kurasu. These days, it’s never just about coffee (or food, or wellness). It’s about the art of living. 

There are four ways that brands can capitalize on this.

Start with empathy for a particular group of people and their particular tastes. A good number of niche magazine founders are part of their targeted audience, and they themselves recognized a gap in part of their lifestyle. The outcome is that readers feel like there’s nothing out there like the niche magazine they subscribed to (and there probably isn’t). It takes commercial magazines longer (if at all) to recreate this feel. Application for brands is to see if they can create or market or package a subgroup of products that caters to a targeted subgroup of their overall audience. 

Introduce creative flexibility. Niche magazines have a lot more creative flexibility than commercial ones: they can change their font, cover art, features, etc. from issue to issue. This creative flexibility generates iconic looks and differentiates them from commercial publications. Having a one-off magazine issue that doesn’t look like any other one appeals to a collector’s mentality and turns items into collectibles. Application for brands is to experiment with creative flexibility in a cost-effective way: to invest in limited-edition packaging, limited-edition colors or patterns, or one-off products that not only differentiate the brand from its competitors but the products within the same collection.

Create a taste regime. Niche magazines help consumers exercise their taste in their everyday life. They provide a framework - a set of tricks and hacks and reviews and tools and a community - to practice one’s taste. The Plant magazine transforms one’s home and one’s self and creates rituals and routines that guide everyday action of caring for plants. Application for brands is to give consumers a framework for exercising their taste, either through an online magazine or blog or Instagram account, through events and partnerships, or through curation of best practices, mentors, and role models. The idea is to put forward content and events that influence how people relate with a brand’s products and what they do with them.

Define taste communities. The production of taste makes its own collectives with a shared lifestyle, ways of dressing, speaking, diet and nutrition, spending time. (For example, see how Rothy’s community developed around the shared consumer lifestyle: “it’s more than a shoe, it’s sisterhood”). In developing taste, the community is the necessary springboard: it includes mentors, role models, and reference points. Taste is a most efficient group-maker.