Adieu, conspicuous consumption. Meet the new cultivated consumer.

A shift in consumer preferences is one of the premises of a new study that aims to define this increasingly powerful subset of affluent Americans, and to examine its behavior and lifestyle preferences.

The study was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine, which worked with SJR Group, a politically based qualitative research company; consumer trend firm Yankelovich, and Lieberman Research Group to develop the findings.

The study found that 28 percent of American citizens between the ages of 21 and 54, and with a household income of over $100,000, fit into the cultivated consumer category. That translates into 9,199,680 people, with disposable income and eclectic interests, a thirst for exclusive knowledge, a preference for an authentic experience, social responsibility and the need to surround themselves with a network of experts.

Jim Winters, president of the J. Winters Group, which consults on brand marketing with a special focus on media, worked on the study. He explained that one impetus of the study was the fact that the $20,000 Prius Toyota had become a status symbol of the urban elite. “Similarly in the Nineties, the question was why Americans were paying $6 to learn a new vocabulary of coffee,” he said. “There might be something new going on if the affluent community embraces this off-standard-looking car. Maybe the standards of status are shifting.”

The reasons for the shift, he explained, range from events in the world and the economy to information overload, particularly about celebrities, and the democratization of luxury — all of which led to a reevaluation of priorities. Indicators of this shift in consumer attitudes and preferences are the popularity of Whole Foods, for which shoppers are willing to drive across town; the rise in eco-tourism, and the growing demand for made-to-measure goods.

“To understand these people, you have to understand how they define their culture,” Winters said. “Knowledge is their vanity; it’s their bragging right. The authentic experience is really key to these people.”

According to the study, “The Cultivated Consumer is a significant, emerging segment of the affluent population. Culture is not something to be just observed and experienced — instead the cultivated consumer creates their own personal culture. They cultivate a highly refined personal sensibility — a ‘critical eye’ that they apply to how they consume media, goods and experiences. The path to their wallet is through this filter.”

This story first appeared in the May 30, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Once the social network was about status based on the pyramid; the cultivated consumer wants to assemble a network of people that reflects a high sense of self — a peer-to-peer network — where respect has to be earned, and the common link is to try to “keep away from the Joneses,” Winters said.

“As emerging markets such as Russia and China are making more moves into the conspicuous space of consumption, our culture is moving away from it,” Winters said. “They are already 28 percent of the affluent consumer and we think they will be leading the way for American consumers.”

So how do cultivated consumers compare with the average affluent American and what makes them tick? According to some of the findings, culture is much more a part of how the cultivated connect with others. They take a global perspective, prefer to travel off the beaten path and, when traveling, are more likely to assimilate into the local culture. They are more likely to buy things mentioned to them by people in their core social group, and share information about products, services and experiences with their friends. They shop for what makes them feel unique and smart, and often for something others wouldn’t have. Overall, they spend more on luxury goods than the average affluent consumer.

The survey was conducted in 30- to 40-minute online interviews, with a pre-test of 429 respondents, of which 190 were Vanity Fair subscribers and 239 were a national sample. The second phase featured 2,854 respondents, of which 857 were subscribers of the magazine. The magazine will take the results of the survey on a six-city tour next month.

Vanity Fair’s publisher, Edward Menicheschi, said the study’s purpose was “about getting a better window into the thinking of a really eclectic group of affluent consumers. What’s on their mind? What motivates them? What do they think about?

“They clearly are high spenders. It’s just that they have different hot buttons than what a lot of people traditionally ascribe to as values or aspirations of affluent consumers,” he continued. “We will also try and suggest to people how you might market differently to these consumers; what they’re responding to.”

So how does one market to a group that is wary of hype?

The study says, “Make him feel unique; offer personalization; tell them your authentic brand story; call out the details; make them feel smart, make him feel responsible; do well by being good, and tell them about it; be wary of hype; give them a story to tell others, respect their filter.”

Menicheschi said this was only the beginning for the study. “We will go forth with a brand audit, to find out what brands cultivated consumers love,” he noted. “That’s where you will see some interesting surprises. Consumers are interesting. They don’t always behave in the manner you think they would.”

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