First published: September 2006 | It’s September, which for many of you means the start of the busiest business quarter and even more pressure to come up with smart strategies and plans for 2007. So, as a professional, it never hurts to remind yourself of the business you’re really in: providing your customers and clients with status, directly or indirectly, in whatever form or shape. After all, there is little that consumers do that isn't consciously or subconsciously influenced by a desire for recognition from family, friends, and any fellow consumers they come into contact with.
Luckily, shifts in what constitutes status in our Great Consumer Society hardly ever occur overnight. And even if they do, status shifts won't entirely replace the tried and tested. So you have ample of opportunity to spot these shifts early on and to introduce something that evolves your core offerings, not necessarily making them obsolete straight away. Call it Slow Creative Destruction ;-)
In fact, all you have to do to keep a finger on the status pulse, is listen to what consumers boast about, or find out what leaves them in awe. It’s often the stuff that other people can’t get their hands on. Too expensive. Too scarce. Too inaccessible. All measured in units that reflect what members of a specific society deem valuable.
So, not too surprising, in a consumer society everything revolves around the art of consuming. Consuming what others consume (or don't consume!), consuming the best, the most, the rarest.
It’s still a pretty straightforward picture: owning a Maserati Spyder, signing up for a NetJet membership, or spending two weeks at Le Saint Géran in Mauritius or the Four Seasons Bali at Sayan, are a guaranteed way to increase one's status, as these physical and experience-based status symbols will still impress the hell out of most fellow consumers.
However, no single status symbol is safe from devaluation, as these symbols are mere agreements: the moment ‘society’ would agree on a car just being a utilitarian method to safely move from A to B, and not one of the dominant indicators of one’s standing (as it is now), luxury car manufacturers would have a problem. Shifts like that could occur in societies that are no longer exclusively about consumption. Mature consumer societies in which many consumers have 'out-consumed' themselves, and have started to truly value and promote creativity as a necessary ingredient for innovation and competition on a macro-economic level. Sounds familiar?
Now, translate that value shift to individual consumers (celebrating creativity, instead of passive consumption), and what you may end up with is a trend like GENERATION C (C for Content, for Creativity, for Contributing, for Connecting, for CUSTOMER-MADE and so on), which we’ve spoken about many times in the past.
To link all of this to daily business, let’s focus on what we’ve dubbed STATUS SKILLS:
"In economies that increasingly depend on (and thus value) creative thinking and acting, well-known status symbols tied to owning and consuming goods and services will find worthy competition from 'STATUS SKILLS': those skills that consumers are mastering to make the most of those same goods and services, bringing them status by being good at something, and the story telling that comes with it."
Note: this is *not* an anti-business trend. It still relies on a dominantly capitalist system, in which consumption remains important, yet is partly replaced by another highly valued, status-providing activity: mastering skills. Which opens entirely new markets for both providers of skills, and those skillful consumers who may become competing producers of (niche) goods and services. For more on the non-commercial aspects of this trend, see the opportunities section at the bottom of this briefing.
Furthermore, 'skills' joining tangible, shiny things and mind-blowing experiences as providers of status is by no means the only shift to watch in the status space. What if a ‘doing the right thing’ lifestyle gains in appreciation? Where does leading an eco-friendly existence fit in, and the praise that one increasingly will get from that? Or the virtual world, in which one’s gaming skills*, or one’s profile popularity (and number of friends), or even the appearance of one’s avatar determine how much praise or scorn is received? Rest assured that we’ll highlight these other ‘status lifestyles’ in future briefings.
(*In fact, the phrase STATUS SKILLS originated in the gaming world. From videogameoutfitter.com: “Unlike Battle Skills which are used more for offensive attacks during battle, Tactical Skills and Status Skills are more like support skills your characters can attain. Although these skills are not used directly against your enemy they are a vital part of your character's development and can effect the outcome of certain battle.")
However, for now, let’s focus on how entrepreneurs and brands around the world are already incorporating STATUS SKILLS into their customer interactions. For this briefing,
we'll concentrate on:
Take any kind of status-heavy industry and you are now guaranteed to spot a number of start-ups that sell STATUS SKILLS instead of status symbols:
Picking the right bottle is one (status-intensive) thing, but it is trumped by making and serving one’s own. Check out Crushpad, a licensed winery in the heart of San Francisco, whose 9,000 square feet facility caters to aspiring winemakers, wine retailers and restaurateurs, assisting them in creating as little as 25 cases of ultra-premium, branded yet affordable wines. Crushpad provides the equipment, winemaking talent and fruit sourced from well-known California vineyards, while for STATUS SKILLS seekers outside the Bay Area, Crushpad's extensive online courses may do the job.
From wine to whiskey: The Whisky School at Ladybank Distillery lets participants create their own whisky. The three-day program gives instructions in whisky making and tasting and includes a sample of the ‘new-make’ whisky created by participants. Nothing too shocking so far, but this is where it gets fun, similar to Crushpad: all DIY creations are recorded and stored in the warehouse until they've aged sufficiently for bottling. Participants will eventually receive nine liters of their own whiskey.
Once you get into spotting STATUS SKILLS, they pop up everywhere. Travel is an obvious hunting ground: from the New York Times (May 2006): “While many travelers are still happy to spend their vacations lollygagging on the beach, more and more of them want to learn something on their trips. [...] Adventure travel captured the American imagination years ago, but now more people are seeking skills, not just thrills.” Mentioned in the article are Equitours, which offers instruction-based horse-riding tours in the United States and across continental Europe, and Access Trips, which takes small groups off the beaten track for sports programs and a maximum instructor-to-client ratio of 1 to 5. It also plans to add non-sport instructional vacations focusing on interests like cooking and photography.
We know, making one’s own wine, or whiskey, taking horse riding lessons while on holiday: these examples still smack more of experience-economy than skill-economy. So where to turn to see a true celebration of skills? As always, the online realm will do the trick. Here’s a quick selection of sites helping the masses acquire a bewildering array of skills:
Instructables is a project by Squid Labs, who create a lot of stuff for business and pleasure, and have now documented their how-tos for all to see and use.
Switch: hosted by web designer and Parsons instructor Alison Lewis, this online DIY show targets a new crop of modern young women who are more interested in wiring than recipes. The audience is guided through fashion and design-driven projects with a techno-twist. The first episode was co-hosted by tech-fashion guru Diana Eng, of Project Runway fame, who led viewers through the process of making a talking picture frame. While Switch is still in beta, the site hopes to feature two episodes a month, co-hosting with a variety of talented artists and designers. (Tip of the hat to TrendCentral.com.)
Another one to keep a skilled eye on: wikiHoW, the 'How-To Manual That Anyone Can Write or Edit'. Aiming to be the world's largest how-to manual, it already contains more than 11,000 articles written, edited and maintained primarily by volunteers. Topics range from how to bathe a cat to how to create one's own currency converter.
Now that broadband is the new dial-up and YouTube the new Flickr, there are more nouveau niche opportunities than you can skillfully swing a bat at. Check out VideoJug ('Life Explained. On Film' ), a site dedicated to videos that are all about, you guessed it, acquiring skills. From the site: "It’s like having an army of top-class experts at your fingertips 24/7 to “show you how” and to help you out. And you can contribute your own knowledge, experience, wisdom and tips too: if you or anyone you know has a world-class skill, whether it’s juggling, cooking fantastic soup or getting a crying baby to sleep – tell us about it now!"
And then there’s MAKE, CRAFT, RealSimple, ReadyMade, PingMag, the Book of Cool, the gazillion talent and skills shows (Idols! So You Think You Can Dance! Masterchefs!) that have nestled comfortably next to reality TV and countless other offline/online skills-obsessed sites and publications. And expect many more to follow in the next 12 months: hey, if we weren’t so damn busy, we would start a few STATUS SKILLS niche ventures of our own! ;-)
Now let’s look at some big brands who are adding classes and courses to their traditional offerings, helping customers make the most of their purchase, and who knows, move up the STATUS SKILLS ladder. We’ve dubbed these efforts ‘Corporate Classes’. These classes obviously increase the time consumers invest in the relationship with those brands, so both parties learn, er… win. The automotive industry in particularly has been aggressive in setting up corporate classes, and thus offers some good learning opps for other industries. Here’s a roundup:
Obviously, STATUS SKILLS doesn’t just apply to automotive: check out this smattering of corporate classes from around the world:
If you've read this far and are now itching to get onto the STATUS SKILLS bandwagon, but are not sure where or how to start, you could of course turn to one the new intermediaries* helping major brands explore and exploit this new trend. Check out US-based Powered, who has already worked with a slew of major brands to set up their ‘universities’, ‘campuses’ and ‘learning centers’. Powered describes the space it operates in as 'Educational Marketing', combining elements of educational content, permission-based marketing, merchandising, online community and consumer insights. From their site: “Consumer education offers your consumers an experience they'll find tremendously valuable and a marketing ROI you'll brag about.” Some of the brands working with Powered:
* Needless to say, turning to an intermediary should never be an excuse to fully outsource your STATUS SKILLS endeavours; too many brands these days have no problem at all with external consultants and experts taking care of their marketing, their innovation processes, even their trend units ;-), ignoring the fact that skills can only be acquired by doing something yourself first!
Now, consumers can acquire as many skills as they want, but equally important is the showing-off aspect of what they've learned and created. Don’t forget: without ‘the others’ seeing, tasting, hearing or smelling your skills, without the inevitable story-telling, there shall not be any status coming thy way!
Some of this showing off is best done in the company of family and friends, garnering recognition from those who are closest and who matter most. But other creations are just dying to be flaunted to strangers, to the entire world, to give their creators a status fix that's more in tune with today's obsession with instant celebrity. In that light, the incredible numbers behind Wikipedia, blogging software, Lulu.com, PureVolume, YouTube and Flickr are not at all surprising. We’re now all skilled encyclopedia editors, writers, musicians, directors, photographers, and we want to share the fruits of our labour with a responsive audience.
Lesson learned: don't just figure out how you can help your customers improve their skills, but also give them an intimate or worldwide outlet to show and tell and brag.
As always, there’s the inevitable anti-trend, and in the case of STATUS SKILLS the anti-trend doesn’t differ much from most other trends involving any kind of creation and participation: it's LACK OF TIME. Where on earth will consumers find the time to actively acquire these new skills?
First of all: STATUS SKILLS will not matter to all consumers, so first figure out who this appeals to most. The above examples, from a multitude of industries and brands, should be a good starting point. Secondly, if a shift towards greater appreciation of skills does continue, then some consumers will trade in ‘consumption time’ for ‘skill time’. An obvious example is young consumers mastering new gaming skills in lieu of watching TV, or people trading in fun shopping for more targeted purchases and accompanying corporate classes. Some simple advice: as a brand, to make the most of your new STATUS SKILLS offerings, first help customers make/find the time they thought they didn’t have.
No trend is a stand-alone phenomenon. STATUS SKILLS are closely linked to INFOLUST, as consumers will even more eagerly scout the (online) world for tips, for info, for instructions. And it's also closely related to the CUSTOMER-MADE trend -- the more skills and thus intimate understanding of your brand’s products your customers develop, the more valuable they will become as providers of feedback or even better, co-creators.
Or how about the link with TRYVERTISING? Corporate classes can become an excellent way to familiarize consumers with your products, to the point where if they like what they see AND have invested serious time into understanding the specifics of YOUR product, a purchase is almost a no-brainer. Needless to say you can easily link your real-world Corporate Classes to your BRAND SPACES to make your ‘new marketing’ puzzle complete.
And yes, STATUS SKILLS definitely relates to our not-yet-published HOBBYNOMICS trend, which is inspired by GENERATION C working for free (as opposed to GENERATION C for CASH, but that's a whole other story), by Seth Godin’s piece on the Hobby Economy, and other signs of STATUS SKILLS that thrive on non-financial compensation.
Or how about marrying STATUS SKILLS to the BABY BOOMERS trend? Millions of 'experienced consumers' who will have loads of time on their not-yet-fully-skilled hands ;-) Also keep an eye out for increased interest in etiquette skills and connoisseurship: with everything available to anyone (re-read our MASSCLUSIVITY and UBER PREMIUM trends), ‘proper’, as in highly scripted behaviour and skills, will help the various classes and tribes keep out those they don’t want ‘in’. More on all of this in our 2007 Trend Report.
So, let’s assume that yes, we will continue to see a growing appreciation of all things ‘skill’ versus merely consuming. That means that at least some status symbols will have to make room for STATUS SKILLS. The ever growing amount of brands introducing skill acquisition as a product are both an indication of things to come, and a source of inspiration. Expect to see more corporate classes, some even offering skill-sets for the sake of it, as a brand enhancing exercise without a direct link to actual products. From Red Bull Music Academy and Coke Studios, to ABN-Amro & Diageo sponsored Casa do Saber, which offers liberal arts courses in Sao Paulo and Rio.
Anyway, STATUS SKILLS is one of those themes that *every* skillful marketer should be able to run with. Have fun teaching and creating!