A New Era of Status Symbols

Photo by Drew Stock from Unsplash

Photo by Drew Stock from Unsplash

“A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands, and yacht and bank-account.” — William James, 1890

We are what we possess. This consumer culture phenomenon is true and I do not want to deny it. Yet, we can’t deny that there is a subtle but meaningful shift going on…

I first experienced this change in a discussion with my father. I’m German, he is German, in short: We love cars! My dad was driving BMW for ages but has now changed to a less precious brand. He said that he isn’t interested anymore in “showing off by driving a vehicle made out of steel”. He wants to get from A to B and doesn’t care what other people on the road think of him. The car as a status symbol has lost its traction…

This got me thinking. Not only because the doom of the car has been discussed in a German living room (uhh…revolution!) but more because he has a point. I, myself, don’t own a car and I’m not fancy of getting one anytime soon. I don’t own a watch either. I do shopping once a year and don’t have a TV. Yet, I do talk about food. I evangelize vegetarian nutrition and want to make meat lovers change. I travel like crazy. Vietnam, Peru, Indonesia, Tel-Aviv, Rome, Paris, Barcelona. And I love sports.

This story is about a new wave of status symbols. It maps out a contemporary cultural desire where Yoga beats Champagne. Where a Rolex is worth less than cozy time at home (super-trend “Cocooning”). Where transparent supply chains get more attention than the new fashion collection by an Italian star designer.

The Great Gatsby life of material richness and wealth is over. Spiritual and higher-order values are now governing our mind. Of course, people still seek to extend themselves. Yet, they do so by leveraging ideological beliefs instead of material goods. They construct their identity through experiences and not physical objects. Possessions become more fluid and less tangible. The following examples illustrate this new paradigm of our post-material world.

1. Sleep

Google Trend for the keyword “sleep”

Google Trend for the keyword “sleep”

The topic “sleep” gained growing popularity during the last five years (s. graph above). Books such as “Sleeping like a boss” and “How to Sleep Well Every Night” became best sellers overnight. If you struggle with falling asleep, you can hire a sleep coach or attend an official sleep school.

Since we live in a fast-moving world, sleep becomes a scarcity. Its unavailability turns a peaceful night into a luxury good. Casper, the mattress start-up, has early recognized this new trend and built its successful business model upon it.

2. Mindfulness

Example “Slow TV”: a five-day long train ride at 22 km/h (© nrk)

Example “Slow TV”: a five-day long train ride at 22 km/h (© nrk)

Slow food, slow TV, slow fashion — you name it. Mindfulness is about experiencing everything in a more present, conscious way. It’s this quasi-Zen desire to bring your attention to one single thing on a moment-to-moment basis. Inc.com named mindfulness as one of the most promising growth industries in 2017. In June 2018, the meditation app Calm just hit a $250M valuation. There are half a million videos about painting mandalas on Youtube. And Wanderlust Tremblant is mindfulness-encouraging yoga-festival for health-conscious millennials.

The fluidity of modern life drives the desire for a more reflective relationship with our environment. Our mind gets distracted by notifications on our phone, computer or smart watch. We consume our coffee on the go, eat our wraps in the tube and watch movies on the plane. We’re always-on, always on the run and our concentration is dispersed.

3. Voluntourism

Photo by Ricardo Braham from Unsplash

Photo by Ricardo Braham from Unsplash

You look through the window of your sleeping room. You glance at the tree crowns of the rainforest. You hear the monkeys roaring. You are 19 years old, you’ve finished high school and today you’re going to rescue sea turtles in Costa Rica.

Voluntourism is a new hype. It combines the altruistic practice of volunteering with the enjoyable mode of travelling. You can realize your sustainable citizenship, safeguard the world and still explore a new culture. You encounter stories that make you richer than any car could ever do. You not only gain experiences but fabric for your social identity. 84% of all millennials already say they would travel abroad to participate in volunteer activities. And more than 1.6 million tourists are already doing so while spending $2 billion each year.

In sum, spiritual wealth is growing while materialism is decreasing. Sleep, mindfulness and voluntourism are just three examples of this new wave of status symbols. Others are authenticity, transparency, green living, education, time and health (feel free to continue the list in the comment section below). For marketers, it’s key to understand this shift in values. For brands, this new meaning of luxury opens unseen avenues of positioning. And for my father, a volunteering trip to Costa Rica might become more interesting than a new car…


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