In the world of marketing and communications we tend to trade in idealisations and generalisations of consumers and are often very poor at representing real life. Whether it be our depiction of families, mothers, or the over fifties, stereotypes and age-old assumptions still run deep. In the UK, social class is a particularly potent example of our tendency to oversimplify; the middle class still represents the ‘Holy Grail’ for brands, whilst the working class remains misunderstood and disregarded. But what have we actually based this dismissal upon?
British society has seen profound social change since the 1960s, yet ironically the way the media industry categorises social grade has not. The NRS system, which remains the fundamental component of how we plan and buy media, classifies an individual based purely on the occupation of the chief income earner in a household. Although there is a clear benefit to a simple measurement system that provides a common language for advertisers, equally these traditional class divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s ever complex social landscape. No longer are our jobs as self-defining nor as indicative of our spending power; a ‘C1’ London black cabby might earn more than a ‘B’ grade teacher, yet as marketers we attribute less value to the former.
In fact, society at large has gradually demonised the working class into a group of individuals dismissed as ignorant, criminalised and lacking in ambition (see ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ by Owen Jones). Many brands deem themselves too premium, too upmarket for anyone below an ABC1 group to aspire to, let alone afford to buy. Yet if so many brands represent a symbol of betterment and status, surely these are even more relevant to an individual at the lower end of the socio-economic scale?
If social class is still (to some extent) based on income or proximity to the bread line, then the division between middle-working classes is now very thin. The story of Jack Monroe is a potent example of the fluidity of modern class. A British writer, journalist and campaigner on issues regarding poverty in the UK, Jack made her fame by writing recipes for the hard-up after falling into the benefits system – only to be propelled back into 'middle class' through the success of her blog (she is now signed to Sainsbury’s).
As marketers we have always thrived on the concept of the prized middle classes, but this group of people is evolving dramatically as wealth has been polarised to ever extreme degrees. According to a report by The Resolution Foundation, the income share of the top 1 per cent of UK earners has increased from 7 per cent in the mid-1990s to 10 per cent today, while the bottom half have seen their share drop from 19 per cent to 18 per cent. Meanwhile the latest ONS figures indicate that post-recession, its Britain's middle belt that has felt the biggest squeeze. As earning ability among 99 per cent of the UK slows and equalises, the lifestyle that the average, middle class earner once enjoyed, is becoming increasingly reserved for the very affluent. Thus out of the ashes of the recession has risen a new, extended working class, in which a vast spectrum of income levels, skills and ages exist. This polarisation of wealth is directly impacting brands, and those targeting the extreme ends of the social spectrum are thriving. Indeed the astonishing rise of discount supermarkets is a perfect example of the dilution of the traditional ‘middle class’; Aldi and Lidl are no longer ‘down market’ niches but growing empires.
So, with traditional ‘class behaviours’ changing radically, isn’t it about time we re-thought how we classify consumers? As marketing people, we need to challenge our clients’ assumptions that their brand only has its users in the ABC1 group. Social class is an outdated way of defining attitudes and therefore brand appeal and aspiration. Smart brands have a big opportunity to stand out by showing more empathy towards consumers and the societal issues that are impacting their choices.
Frith Janes is Strategic Planning Manager at Arena Media