Think you know the middle class? Try again

New demographic forces are driving a transformation in the paradigm long embraced by brands, which means marketers need to rethink their approach.

'The middle class has been a perfect storm of aspirational consumerism'
'The middle class has been a perfect storm of aspirational consumerism'

Marketing has always thrived on the concept of the middle class. The section of the population that
occupies the swollen centre of the socio-economic bell curve has formed the demographic basis of most brand-building for 150 years.

The middle class has been a perfect storm of aspirational consumerism in which gentrification, education, professionalisation and domestication have combined to create the ideal conditions for brand-building.

Most branded goods carry a premium, the justification of which has been one of the principal tasks of marketing since the 19th century. Good products that mark you out as a better consumer with superior values and a desirable social identity. Soap for the cleanly. Food for the wholesome. Hoovers for the houseproud. Nappies for the nurturing. Banks for the prudent. Cars for the safety-conscious.

The middle class has been a perfect storm of aspirational consumerism in which gentrification, education, professionalisation and domestication have combined to create the ideal conditions for brand-building.

Establishing which came first, the human sensibility or the marketing psychology, is itself the sort of parlour game that one could have imagined being popular among the, er, middle classes.

New demographic forces are stretching beyond recognition

It has been a cosy paradigm, but it is changing. New demographic forces are stretching beyond recognition of the old taxonomy of British society, with profound implications for brand-builders.

Firstly, as Professor Danny Dorling has brilliantly documented, wealth has polarised to an almost ludicrous degree. The UK has a 1% elite whose wealth has emerged austerity-proof from the recession of 2008 and whose average household income is more than 10 times the average of the remaining 99%. More than half of all the personal tradable wealth in the UK is in the hands of this 1% pinnacle of households.

The chasm of spending power between the 1% and the rest is feeding a system of consumer behaviour as powerful as any hierarchical class dynamic. The 1% may not be so different from the rest, but live very differently, interacting little with the public sector, compensating lavishly for the arduousness (or mundanity) of their high-earning jobs, and aspiring to references of wealth that make their own circumstances seem modest.

HSBC leads with 'personal economy' message

When HSBC talks (brilliantly) about ‘Your personal economy’, it is the 1% it is addressing. The ability to control the parameters of your economy, and to conceive of your personal wealth as a self-contained system, is perhaps the defining psychological feature of this quasi class.

And this is an addressable audience. It is the 300,000 highest earners in the UK and their families. This group, 1m-strong, concentrated in London and connected with every part of the establishment, exerts a powerful influence at the top of the pyramid of British consumerism. A lot of new-wave entrepreneurs have become part of the 1% by launching businesses to the 1%. And many supposedly broad-base businesses – think British Airways, John Lewis, Pret A Manger – would be nothing without their custom and endorsement.

The chasm of spending power between the 1% and the rest is feeding a system of consumer behaviour as powerful as any hierarchical class dynamic. 

Meanwhile – and this is the second factor – earning ability among the 99% is slowing and equalising. The majority may see themselves as middle class, but most belong to a new, extended working class, in which there is a vast spectrum of income levels (from minimum wage to six-figure salaries), skills (from the unschooled to the professionally distinguished) and age (from 16 to 80, as retirement continues to defer).

Britain has a new, englarged 'working class'

This may not be a true proletariat, but 99% of the 30m UK workers lead lives consumed and defined by the need to work. There may be middle-class affectations, and the obscure psychology of class may endure (the comedy of manners, emphasis on pedigree, the subtle difference between Lycra and polyester), but in structural terms it is one group.

Any brand with a broad penetration base must accept that it is part of Britain’s new, enlarged, rainbow-spectrum working class. And, given the economic prospects of the younger, ‘Jilted Generation’ (the third factor at play, brilliantly documented by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik) this structure looks set to endure.

There is no middle any more. There is just work, rest and play. And while the functionality of brands for the middle-less majority may be about coping, enduring and protecting finite resources, emotionally the task is to help people escape – if only for a moment – to a happier, less work-defined place.

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