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Thursday March 22, 2018

Eating poor is the new status symbol

"Diseases of affluence," they are called, the so-called Western-World diseases caused by stuffing ourselves with too much sugar, red meat and other rich food, and working it off with too little hard labor: obesity, heart disease, acquired diabetes, high blood pressure and more. As a society, we are mortgaging our health to squander our relative wealth on modern, processed diets bought from large agribusiness companies controlled by rich, fat white guys. And the antidote, according to the new food movement? Eat simpler, eat organic, eat local, eat non-GMO, eat paleo, eat socially responsibly, eat closer to the land, eat brown, eat Native American. In short, go back to eating like we used to eat when we were too poor as a society to be obsessed with keeping up with the gastronomical Joneses.

But what if it's less about the health than it is about the show? Has eating poor become the new symbol of affluence?

Texas A&M University ag economists tested a sample of 201 non-students from a midsized college town, selected by local newspaper advertisement in order to mirror the typical grocery shopper. They then gave participants a battery of survey questions regarding their shopping behavior as it relates to feelings of prestige, prominence and social status, in order to rank them on a well-accepted marketing scale that classifies shoppers along a continuum from those who buy simply to satisfy basic needs to those who buy just to show off. As the researchers anticipated based on other such work, the group broke along typical lines:

  • About seven in 10 were "utilitarian buyers," those who make buying decisions based on functionality and care little about status symbols.
  • Some 12 percent were "ambitious shoppers," those with relatively lowest incomes who hope to mimic the rich by spending more.
  • The "affluent elitist" comprised a little over 9 percent of the participants, those who are relatively most wealthy and are the most likely to spend on expensive luxury brands to feel good about themselves.
  • The final 9 percent were "prestige lovers," shoppers who are impressed by buying high-priced products, even within relatively inexpensive categories, and show the most concern that buying the low-end item might make them look cheap.

The researchers then asked participants to bid in a silent auction to buy lettuce and spinach that was labeled as either conventionally grown, hydroponically grown or organically grown. The meaning of each category was explained in detail to participants. They applied sophisticated statistical modeling to guage the willingness of shoppers in each of the categories to pay for each type of food. They found:

  • Average willingness to pay for all products was lowest among the utilitarian buyers. The other three classes which demonstrated tendancies toward conspicuous consumption were each more willing to pay higher prices across all categories.
  • The prestige lovers class showed a significant willingness to pay a premium for organic lettuce that, although small, was consistent with everyone in the class. The researchers believe this effect is because prestige lovers, who are also most likely to be Millenials who regularly use social media to boost their status, associate organic food with prestige.
  • The same effect on willingness to pay from the labelling information treatment was seen in the affluent elitist and ambitious shopper classes, to a larger degree although less consistently. Although both classes bid up their willingness to pay after learning about the production methods, the higher income levels of the affluent elitists led to higher premiums than the ambitious shoppers, suggesting ambitious shoppers may want the status of organic lettuce but can't afford it. The relative low income, high regard for prestige and higher willingness to pay across all products for the ambitious shopper suggests they are using food purchases to "buy their way up" in social status.
  • The bottom line: All three categories of conspicuous consumers in the experiment responded to labeling information, suggesting grocers may be able to boost premium prices of status-conscious shoppers through customer education and marketing.

If it's true that the new ethical eating is simply conspicous consumption, and that, as VOGUE writes, "Wellness has become an important part of the luxury lifestyle... Eating right can give the privileged class a sense of moral superiority," how does the grocer communicate that basic-food luxury? Consider how you might manage your organics bin within these basic tenents of marketing luxury goods, from Jean-Noël Kapferer, author of Strategic Brand Management, and Vincent Bastien, former CEO of Louis Vuitton Malletier and author of The Luxury Strategy:

Remember, you don't launch luxury brands, you build them progressively. Successfully marketing luxury begins with understanding what a luxury brand is, and isn't, and then steadily promoting those traits. "In order for conspicuous consumption to exist, there is a need for others to be aware of the purchase so that it signals status," the Texas A&M study authors write. "Consumers evaluate conspicuous goods based on quality attributes and the prestige and social status derived from consuming them." Promoting organic and local as luxury depends on maintaining and building what the scholars call "socially constructed preciousness."

Feed the need. Despite the fact all boats in our society are floating higher with growing average afflence and some high-profile disavowal of riches, man's base need for some form of social stratification has not disappeared, Kapferer and Bastien argue. People still feel it vital to know their place in society, and luxury has the fundamental function of creating and reinforcing that stratification.

Luxury is where you find it. As the relatively small but consistent price premiums in the A&M study demonstrate, conspicuous luxury doesn't necessarily mean expensive. "Anything that can be a social signifier can become a luxury," according to Kapferer and Bastien. "By the same token, anything that ceases to be a social signifier loses its luxury status." Case in point: backyard swimming pools. Promotion and merchandising for organic products should reinforce the elements that make their purchase such social signifiers. It's the preciousness that matters, preciousness that results from making food harder, not easier to acquire, by placing often artificial constraints on its production: antibiotic-free, locally grown, animal-welfare-friendly, to name just a few.

Keep them believing. "No luxury brand can hope to survive if it relies purely on clients who are only interested in reputed signs of recognition, the symbol rather than the substance," say Kapferer and Bastien. Luxury customers will abandon you as soon as they lose faith in the symbol, which could explain the growing impatience by former apostles with organic that has been co-opted from the small, independent farmer by large corporations.

Obey the circle of fashion. Luxury is closely tied to fashion, they suggest, and fashion plays a key role in our social life by "recreating the rhythm of the seasons that was done away with by urbanisation." Can you say "Eat Seasonably?"

Lead, don't follow. In traditional marketing, the marketing duo write, client is king. Consumer package goods put the customer at the heart of the business and listen constantly to customers. The luxury brand, on the other hand, springs from the creator's mind, often driven by vision that borders on eccentric. Can you think of a better explanation for the growing popularity of biodynamic food, farming that counsels growing food according to the star alignment and fertilizing crops by burying amputated cow's horns filled with fermented manure in fields. "Don’ t look for equality with your clients," Kapferer and Bastien counsel. "...the brand must always dominate its client. As a result, a certain distance is preserved that is not supercilious or aloof, but nevertheless maintains an aura of mystery."

Be difficult to buy. "The luxury brand is something that has to be earned," they write. "The greater the inaccessibility–whether actual or most often virtual–the greater the desire." What better description of the local, sustainable, community supported agriculture movement? Notes University of Wisconsin professor Craig Thompson: If you set out to purposely design a food system that offered only limited selection, at limited times of the year, at higher prices, determined largely by what the producer had to sell rather than what the customer wanted, pushing items you often aren't familiar with and don't know how to use, you couldn't do better than today's alternative food systems. It's those very inaccessibilities of farmers markets compared to supermarkets that draw shoppers to be there, he says. 

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