Brands & Outliers: The Distance Model of Status

This month's edition of Brand & Outliers is all about the incredible lengths people are going to in order to make meaning in their lives, and how brands are meeting them there.

I've outlined some of the larger themes below, but as you watch the video, pay attention to how meaning-making is at the root of nearly everything happening this month. Notice how much we are stretching to make things matter, and what a huge opportunity that opens up for brands.

Industrial Tourism and Ensouled Consumption: Industrial tourism is an emerging trend in travel where people visit destination factories and production plants. Sure, people travel to Porsche facilities or the town where their favorite chocolate gets made, but this new form of tourism is about fetishizing something quite mundane.

It's about feeling something in the boring and forgotten corners of life, and making meaning in remote places - what modern travel has perhaps always been about.

Does Being Left-Wing Make You Unhappy?: I'll admit I'm being a little click-baity here, but there is plenty of good evidence that left-wing people tend to be less happy, or perhaps more accurately, right-wingers are more happy, likely because they have tight cultures with strong norms that create cohesion and comfort in the group.

You combine that with the negativity economy and the omniscient algorithm that dictates the feed of life, and you have the conditions for a new kind of politics that trades on pessimism over optimism.

When Culture Will Migrate Back To The Real World: A question came up in our discussion on this call - culture happens in our phones today, but what will it take to migrate back into the real world? At what point will we have events and gatherings and subcultures rooted in real places, inaccessible to our timelines, and only experienced by way of, "You had to be there, man"?

Some strong signals among millennials and gen z tell us there's a real chance the tide may turn (you may have seen this article on Heineken tapping into the boring phone market). People who are becoming more private, more lurk-y, more averse to censorship or being called out, are keeping life private while consuming public content. All it takes is a critical mass of that behavior and culture could jump back into the real world.

The Distance Model of Status and Brands: Columbia Professor Silvia Bellezza came and spoke to us at Exposure Therapy about her genius Distance Model of Status and the concept will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It's the idea that old status signifiers used to go upmarket (more money, more access, more time) but when all of that has become democratized, our new model of status is about gaining distance from the mainstream. It so eloquently explains what other models of luxury and status cannot: phenomena like ugly luxury, quiet luxury, athleisure, and conspicuous non-consumption. 

It came up again in our Outliers call this month because it may also explain current trends we're seeing in why the rich don't eat anymore, deep sleep flexes and the remote husband.

Nothing Can Fix EdTech, Not Even AI (For Now): Yet another startup has raised money to make world-class education accessible to everyone. But we've seen this before with Section, Udemy, and a long list of other startups that believed access was the real problem in education. But here's the thing - access was solved a long time ago. The real bottleneck to learning is the format.

Any educator will tell you that after decades upon decades of research, there is only one truth that stands the test of time: one-on-one instruction or tutoring is among the most (if not the most) effective way to learn. Some even argue that when the historical tradition of mentorship was lost, we also stopped having geniuses. Since education was made public and the mentor-style of learning faded away, so did the da Vincis, Einsteins and Hawkings of our times.

People pay exorbitant prices for university because of the community and connection, and people who learn most effectively tend to learn in one-on-one environments. Edtech, much of it already in the AI sphere, misses the point. Until we develop edtech that feels like 'someone' is teaching you, is invested in your growth, and makes you feel accountable, it won't solve the education "problem". Edtech needs emotion.

So much good stuff this month. 

Come join our conversation.

Our First Dinner for Strategists

We just held our first member's dinner for Exposure Therapy - our educational community for strategic minds - and it was an incredible evening. Watch it here.

Our community is not only highly programmed with provocative topics, speakers, original research and education, it's also deeply connective. Every member is intentionally selected for their expertise and generous spirit of curiosity. As one of our members describes it, "I feel like I'm getting a PhD."

Applications for our next cohort are now open and close on May 17th.

(Apply now to join in time for our upcoming NYC dinner: "Emotional Alchemy for the Bravehearted". It'll be a special night.)

Who Am I?

Here's what we've been consuming.

What is an AI anyway? (TED): "I think AI should best be understood as something like a new digital species. Now, don't take this too literally, but I predict that we'll come to see them as digital companions, new partners in the journeys of all our lives. Whether you think we’re on a 10-, 20- or 30-year path here, this is, in my view, the most accurate and most fundamentally honest way of describing what's actually coming."

It’s time to retire the term “user” (MIT Technology Review): "“User” is vague, so it creates distance, enabling a slippery culture of hacky marketing where companies are incentivized to grow for the sake of growth as opposed to actual utility. “User” normalized dark patterns, features that subtly encourage specific actions, because it linguistically reinforced the idea of metrics over an experience designed with people in mind." 

"He Gets Us" is one of the most provocative campaigns in decades (On Strategy Showcase): "And if we're truly interested in doing the things that we say we want to do in marketing and in the selling products—which includes building community, which is building preference, which is changing minds, which is being provocative, for good reason to be memorable and engaging audiences—then this is a phenomenal example of that in a territory that many people shy away from. This campaign has caused conversation in my own family. And I'm the father of three teenage daughters."

How to use ‘possibility thinking’ (Psyche): "Yes, it can help you solve problems and be more creative. But it also invites you to think beyond the problem in front of you, to explore a whole universe you did not even realise existed, and find your own path within it. It can sometimes feel vertiginous, and you might not know where to start. If that’s the case, look in turn at each branch on your map. How does it feel? Can you see yourself doing that? Why? Why not? Which options could you explore first? What about as a last resort?"

How deep sleep became a status symbol (Dazed): "We can gladly bid farewell to the #girlboss mentality of wearing sleeplessness as a badge of honour, but our new-found obsession with “sleep performance” is hyper-individualising a collective issue. In a time where the average person in the US gets less than seven hours sleep a night, celebrities are bragging about sleeping 14 hours a night."

A New Framework to Help B2B Founders Find Product-Market Fit (First Round): "There isn’t nearly enough emphasis on repeatability. As you move your way up through the different levels of product-market fit, what you’re really unlocking is repeatability — across demand generation, product development, customer satisfaction and unit economics. A startup hasn’t reached the upper levels of product-market fit until it has developed a fine-grained understanding of who the right customer is, how to land them, and how to deliver a product that (in most cases) isn’t bespoke for each customer yet consistently solves a significant need."

[BONUS] I spoke with Peter Spear for his podcast That Business of Meaning about my career and building Concept Bureau, how we approach our strategy work, the role of prediction in branding, and what it means to be a cultural futurist. It ended up being a deep (and sometimes personal) conversation about untangling the way humans behave, but that makes sense because Peter is a masterful ethnographer who knows how to get to a person's deep story very quickly.

Just Delightful.

Creative inspirations for the other side of your brain.

Living funerals are becoming a thing.

People who are close to death have living funerals, also known as pre-funerals, for a chance to "say goodbye to their friends and families on their own terms and to celebrate their life while they are still alive." 

When you read the stories and experiences of people who have living funerals, you cannot avoid the deep vulnerability that arises. 

This makes me think about grieftech startups, and I see two paths emerging: tech that helps us circumvent loss (AI of deceased loved ones/ ghostbots, avatars), and tech that helps us navigate loss (logistics planning, interactive memory apps). 

And I think this is a classic example of how sometimes we feel that tech is changing culture, but really its ideas that are changing culture.

We're rethinking death and grief as a larger idea (especially after Covid, and a whole generation of people in their feelings, who were able to normalize therapy, etc.) and that's creating conditions for new grieftech to emerge.

It would be really great for a brand in this category to lead with a new thesis or belief of what death and grief are supposed to mean to us today. That could change everything.

We're asking ourselves, but don't have an answer for that yet.

The right answer could platform the whole category. I think that's what's still missing.

The closest thing I've seen to a new belief can be found in the growing number of death doulas (similar to birth doulas). This idea that we must "nurture" death the same way we must nurture new life is not new to ancient cultures, but it is new to modern American culture, and its the kind of powerful idea that can make a category grow.

What we need is a new organizing idea the revalues and reprices everything around death, both literally and metaphorically, both in the markets and in life.

As someone who did hospice care for a dying parent while I was still healing from the birth of my third child, nursing a new baby in the same room my father was passing away in, I can tell you the connection was not lost on me.

And yet there was no meaning-making (there's that phrase again), no playbook, no default ritual, no bigger idea or cultural norm that told me how to interpret and process it all.

Grieftech isn't going to go anywhere if we don't know the bigger belief it ladders up to.

And we really need a bigger idea around death right now.

People are searching for it.


Jasmine Bina
Founder & CEO
Concept Bureau, Inc.