Helping brands to explore and fully realise their cultural relevance is a core theme in what we do. Crowd DNA consultant Alice Ellen explores the roots of such thinking; the work of Pierre Bourdieu in particular.

Academic theories and concepts often fall by the wayside when entering the world of consumer insight. Many books and articles are decades old and densely written in dry academic prose; definitely not something you can have a quick flick through on the commute to work. However, taking a little time to digest these theories can prove extremely beneficial in helping us understand our participants, by building upon and borrowing from relevant information.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction is one such text that contains some interesting and important ideas, including a framework that can still be used today, given a little tweaking. Cultural capital, in particular, is a useful concept to decode the world around us.

In a nutshell, Bourdieu identified cultural capital as one form of capital that your status might be derived from, together with economic, human and social capital. Cultural capital can be displayed through embodied expressions like tattoos and piercings, or by depicting our status through the material objects that we own.

Examples might include:

So what does this mean in terms of consumerism and branding? Delving into how people display their cultural capital can be an extremely useful way of pulling out the differences between various social groupings, especially when thinking about demographics and recruitment; it can help us move away from the sometimes reductionist approach of grouping consumers based on income and qualifications alone. Cultural capital is therefore a valuable concept and analytical process – one we can use to capture the nuances between social groupings and in mapping what different groups value.

A good example of how Bourdieu’s theories have been built upon for use in an up-to-date, culturally relevant context is Sarah Thornton’s work on youth cultures in the 1990s. Here she draws on the idea of cultural capital and extends it into the world of subcultures to explain how different social groups express their identity. Thornton describes “subcultural capital” as the way members of a subculture depict their status and differentiate themselves from other social groups, by obtaining cultural knowledge and expressing taste and style through commodities. Therefore, it is important to understand that different tribes in society express their cultural or subcultural capital through shared passions, as a way of measuring their cultural worth in the world.

This is why cultural capital, and more broadly speaking, culture in general is so important for a brand to both understand its target audience and relevance within the world. For, brands, as we know, don’t exist in a vacuum. Brands that understand this, instinctively focus on how to cultivate cultural capital first, playing an intrinsic role in consumers’ lives, and thus not just planning at a market level but really honing in on cultural strategy to gain a competitive edge and boost brand value.

Exploring trends isn’t simple. For every development, there is most likely one headed in the opposite direction. But as explained by Crowd DNA’s trends knowledge leader, Rebecca Coleman, in today’s world of shape-shifting lifestyles it is regularly the same people that are following both trend and countertrend…

We live in a world of extremes. This means that for every significant shift in our cultural fabric, there will be a pull in the opposite direction. These countertrends may not be as dominant as their mainstream forebears, but they are no less important. In a market where everyone is following the trend, sometimes it pays to be the one offering a rebellious alternative, no matter how niche it may seem at the time.

A trend is not a fad. Trends have longevity. They are a distillation of the effect that major and minor social, political, technological and economical shifts are having on people’s lifestyles and behaviour. By understanding the current consumer landscape in this way, forecasters are able to predict more accurately how our needs and desires might be shaped in the future.

However, humans are not simple creatures and as soon as something becomes a trend it is inevitable that there will be some movement against it. This is the countertrend. It used to be the case that this was often an act of cultural rebellion – for example, when the mainstream trend was to aim for corporate and capitalist success in the late seventies, the punks sprang up to offer an extreme alternative. Interestingly, in today’s world of shape-shifting lifestyles it is regularly the same people that are following both trend and countertrend.

One of the most prevalent examples of this right now is the trend for being “always on” versus the counter trend for digital downtime. This is manifesting itself in a number of ways, from busy urban people taking occasional time out by visiting an off-the-grid holiday home to wearable tech, such as Kovert that alerts people only to urgent calls so that they can live without a phone in their hands 24/7.

We have also seen this via the notion of living by way of our phones versus truly living in (and for) the moment. Who can forget that picture of a sea of glowing mobile screens at Pope Francis’ election in 2013? It seems that everything we now experience has to be captured and shared. As a response, many are extolling the virtues of not filtering our lives through a screen. In a recent TV interview, musician Jack White said that when on tour he had been compelled to ask audience members to step away from their devices in order to enjoy the show with their “eyes and ears”.

Perhaps it is our modern desire to “have it all” that is also making this a time when trends and countertrends can live side-by-side. If you are constantly busy, there’s little point in ever seeking the middle ground. We have both FOMO (fear of missing out) and JOMO (joy of missing out). We want everything and nothing all at the same time and many industries might not exist if it wasn’t for this paradoxical human nature. For example, detox brands would be almost obsolete without over-indulgence.

For brands, it is vital to be aware of both trend and countertrend to tailor the most relevant and authentic response for your audience. When it comes to countertrends, dominance is less important than targeting. Where the countertrend is a niche one, it is often followed more loyally and passionately and is therefore well worth tapping into – if appropriate. Also, often the countertrend can usurp or equal the prevailing trend. Think of slow food starting to overtake fast food (especially with a certain demographic), or the idea of local becoming increasingly important in a globalised economy.

Keep your eyes peeled to the Crowd DNA blog for upcoming trends – and, of course, countertrends.