Consumer Insight: The new middle class

Alex Benady discovers that Posh Chavs do exist, the best way to reach the Hornby Set, why White Vain Man is important and what makes (Jamie) Oliver's Army really rather dull.

Oh for the certainties of a rigid caste system. In the past 40 years, the proportion of Britons who regard themselves as middle class has risen from 30 to 43 per cent, according to a recent report by The Future Foundation.

It also says class distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred, with 36 per cent of builders classifying themselves as middle class and 29 per cent of bank managers saying they are working class. No wonder it refers to them as the "muddle" class.

We may be all clever, classless and free these days, but this has created a small technical problem for those interested in mass marketing and communications.

In the decades following World War II, we were defined as As to Es by the social grade system based on occupation and income. If those grades are blurring, how do you discriminate between types of consumer?

"With the exception of a large underclass and a tiny upper class, we all tend to think of ourselves as middle class these days. But it is almost impossible to pin down what middle-class Brits stand for," Dan Halliday, the managing director of the brand communications agency TheFishCanSing, says.

As a result, many of the tools for defining consumers are not up to the job. "The old class-based definitions have become redundant. We need new, sharper tools to distinguish the nuances and subtleties of the recently enlarged middle classes," he adds.

The market research industry has tried to address the problem by defining people according to where they live, attitudes, personality type, education, life stage, ethnicity and a host of other variables.

Halliday, however, argues that the way we define ourselves these days is primarily through taste. Taste, he says, has become the one true discriminator and that's exactly how marketers should segment the population. "We characterise ourselves almost exclusively with regard to taste, in particular taste as defined by consumer choice; more specifically still, taste as defined by brand loyalties."

His report The Class of 2006. A Guide to the New Middle Class uses brand loyalties to describe the often- scarcely visible differences between seven new middle-class groups, each of which has its own brand preferences and consumer behaviour.

Although the form is light-hearted journalism, the intent is serious.

"We used journalists to compile it because we felt a lot of market research is really dishonest. It is based on the pretence of objectivity, but really all the questions and findings are value-driven."

It may sound more like entertainment or cod-sociology than proper market research, but the approach is endorsed by users. "Smart brands nowadays don't rely on off-the-shelf demographics of any sort. Instead, they target a mindset that's specific to their marketplace - often based on intensity of feelings towards the category or brand,"Andy Nairn, the planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says.

Despite its jokey format and slick writing, it could add depth to targeting and creative briefing, Caroline Parkes, the head of planning at Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, says. "We have always used stereotypes.

You'd be a fool to target an audience based on a single piece of research, but you can build on this. It's a good way of padding out other thinking and providing a more rounded view that can bring a media plan or creative brief to life."

However, while many of the class differences have narrowed, that doesn't mean that class-consciousness has disappeared. The Class of 2006 reveals that snobbery - inter-middle-class snobbery, that is - has become more rampant than ever. "When status is up for grabs the competition becomes much more fierce," Halliday says.

Part of the competition now involves staying ahead of the competition.

Whereas previously we might read the same newspaper, go to the same holiday resort or drive the same marque of car for decades, now the middle classes are infinitely more promiscuous. "Brand preferences can change with bewildering speed so, in some ways, all marketing has elements of fashion marketing these days," Halliday observes.

So let's see what the middle classes will be mostly eating, drinking, driving and wearing this year ...

THE DOING VERY NICELY THANKYOUS

Cast in the image of their patron saints, the new leader of the Conservative Party and his wife, Dave 'n' Sam Cameron, these people might well have described themselves as upper class in a less democratic, less eager-to-be-elected age.

In their late thirties and early forties, they are socially progressive but economically conservative and highly educated, with degrees from Oxbridge or the Sloanier red-bricks. As they approach the end of their long march through the institutions, they now occupy places near the top of the professions - law, medicine, politics and even advertising.

With a household income in excess of £200,000, they spend serious money on status symbols such as travel, food and interior design. They'll be found holidaying in Kerala, doing the school run in a Porsche Cayenne and eating at Bentley's Oyster Bar And Grill.

Brand preferences tend to be expensive and slightly obscure. So she dresses in Chloe, he buys his suits from the Saville Row-with-a-modern-twist tailor, Richard James.

POSH CHAVS AND AGA LOUTS

Think public school boys braying "yo motherfucker" at each other at the hunt ball. Think of the annual Pimms riots at Rock in Cornwall, think of the undisputed king of posh chavs, Prince Harry. They are the younger, more stupid and feckless siblings of TDVNTs.

Once they would have become Tory wives or something in the City. Now they want to be party organisers, musicians, models or the token posh twat on Big Brother. They've adopted many of the chav signifiers but given them a real (not knock-off) Gucci twist. So baseball caps are Timberland nubuck. His shirts are from Hackett, her bag is from Balenciaga or Lariat.

They'll be found spliffing it up in Thailand and pissed as arseholes all over the slopes in Klosters. They listen to Black Eyed Peas, but only consume media that heavily features posh chavs. So slap titles such as Tatler and Harper's Bazaar on your media plan to reach them.

WHITE VAIN MAN AND NO SUGAR BABE

They're young(ish), they are nearly good-looking and they've got loads a fuckin' money. Yes, these are the most working-class of the new middle classes. In fact, were it not for the huge income they generate from his burgeoning football career or air-conditioning firm and her nail bar, they would be unreconstructed proles.

You want to get alongside this couple because theirs is the group most susceptible to celebrity culture, disposable trends and mass marketing.

So he was the first to wear the new England away shirt (if, of course, he isn't a footballer already - think Chelsea's John Terry), although he generally prefers Ralph Lauren and Lacoste.

She's just thrown away all her Von Dutch T-shirts and is wearing a lot of Stella McCartney at H&M. They holiday in Dubai, which they call "Doshop", and they listen to Girls Aloud on the CD in the Range Rover Sport.

They don't read much but they do splash out money on the latest gadgets.

They've got 3G, high definition TV and a video iPod. But it's mostly for show. Downloading is too technical and anyway the internet's still for e-mail, booking holidays and porn.

NORMAL ACTUALLYS

Chris and Alice are stolid going on dull, middlebrow home counties types living in Fulham or Esher. They claim to be uninterested in much of modern culture but that hasn't prevented them from being the driving force behind many recent consumer trends. Blame them for SUVs, rugby shirts and Carol Vorderman's How to Sudoku DVD.

This year they'll be spending some of Chris' bonus from his job with a hedge fund on a three-week trip to South Africa and a spanking new Volkswagen Touareg. Chris favours TM Lewin shirts, Boden jackets and Gap loose-cut chinos - the only ones that'll accommodate his prop-forward thighs.

Alice, who is so busy organising a yummy mummy fun run right now, still sometimes wears Chris' shirts with the collars turned up, but also likes Gap jeans, buys her shoes at LK Bennett and is rarely seen without the Tiffany coffee bean necklace Chris bought her in 1998. They both read The Times, although he increasingly consults the online version. And they just love eldest son Jeremy's Son Of Dork CD.

(JAMIE) OLIVER'S ARMY

You may not quite recognise Matt and Steph, because they live in a courtyard development in suburban Leeds or Manchester. In their early thirties, he's a sports instructor, while she is quite possibly one of your clients - an efficient, but unimaginative, middle-ranking gofer in a large marketing department.

The central existential dilemma for Matt and Steph is that at heart they are conservatives, while the zeitgeist is a bit trendy. So they make do by slapping a veneer of urban sophistication on their essentially suburban world view.

They were early into Freeview but not Sky+. They claim they like Eminem but James Blunt has recently replaced Coldplay as their favourite music and even though they are not flush at the moment, they are thinking of replacing the Renault Clio with a Peugeot 107.

The film of The Da Vinci Code will be the big cultural event of their year, and they'll be spending two weeks on the Dalmatian Coast in August.

They love Graham Norton -from a safe distance obviously - and for them Have I Got News For You is the height of Friday-night subversiveness.

LOFT WINGERS

Titus and Sascha are masters of the oxymoron. They are status-conscious free spirits who are unhealthily preoccupied with being at once both painfully trendy and individual. They live in an inner-city warehouse conversion worth a small lottery jackpot, but it looks like a squat.

More likely than most to embrace new technology and the avant garde (which they fancy they discovered themselves without the help of marketing), they'll buy almost anything as long as no else has it yet. They've ditched the gold 70s Mercedes SL in favour of a more responsible Toyota Prius.

They keep Planet Organic in business, although they are not above spending the odd Friday night doing coke at the local kebab house with Pete and Kate, their spiritual mentors. They'll be holidaying in central America this year, spending more time creating media via their blogs than consuming it, and there's no point telling you what brands they wear because you won't have heard of them yet and they'll stop wearing them the moment you do.

THE HORNBY SET

Named after their patron saint and guru Nick, the brother of Johnny, they are angst-ridden former lefties who thanks to the now old New Labour, suddenly found themselves cast as the Establishment when they always saw themselves as Bohemian marginals.

Now, thanks to their prominent positions in the media/politics/academe they dictate the tastes of the rest us, as far as higher culture is concerned anyway. Media choice really matters to the Hornbys and they read The Guardian, unless they've been put off by its recent lurch to the right - in which case its The Indy. They also read Word magazine, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. They are predictably appalled by Big Brother and the "tits 'n' mutilated stumps" school of journalism as seen in Zoo and Nuts.

The Hornbys passionately want to make trade fair and cancel third-world debt - nearly as much as they want a cheap Polish cleaner, a VW Sharan and holidays in Cambodia, Canada and the Camargue this year.

FAIR TO MIDDLINGS

What can you say about this lot? You'd like to hate them - after all, they are older, provincial suburbanites with some dodgy views on social issues. But they are also kind, broad-minded and not necessarily afraid of new things. They are the less rabid end of the Daily Mail readership, revere Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby and have got all those lovely index-linked early retirement pensions to spend.

But you've got to work hard to get on their brand repertoire. She wears M&S undies and Jaeger for special occasions although her favourite suit is a mauve number by Betty Jackson. She's recently discovered Primark and she also buys his clothes - mostly from Marks, but his last acquisition was a red pullover from an American company called Gap.

They listen to Classic FM and Radio 4 and read The Times. Their big holiday this year will be a Scandinavian cruise, they've started refurbishing the spare room with Ikea furniture and they've just bought a new BMW 1 series - well you don't want to draw too much attention to yourself, do you?

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