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Identity in Flux: A Top Consumer Trend for 2017

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The nature of identity itself is in flux. The tension between global and local, part of the consumer trends landscape for some time, has been highlighted by the migrant crisis, which questions national identity. In addition, individuals demonstrating a more elastic understanding of ethnicity and “choosing” their identities may often be accused of cultural appropriation. However, even as the fluidity of identity is recognised and debated, systemic inequalities and prejudice continue. Gendered identity continues to be the subject of public debate, with discussions focussed on a post-gender world. Diversity is not just theoretical; brands are being forced to rethink just who their audiences really are, within countries and in different countries, and how they interact with each other.

Identity politics

Towards the end of 2016, Airbnb sent an email to its members informing them they need to declare themselves prejudice-free to continue hosting or renting with the service. “What is the Community Commitment? You commit to treat everyone — regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — with respect, and without judgement or bias”. For Airbnb, trust and a prejudice-free ethos are key values in its rentals enterprise, and it refers to itself as a “community” rather than a business.

A study by Harvard researchers revealing that US hosts “widely discriminate” against those with African-American-sounding first names caused some serious rethinking. Recognising discrimination, Traity.com enables those who have found it hard to establish their identity for a bank or home rental because they lack a credit record, such as gig economy workers and immigrants, to draw upon the trust in their online networks to establish their reputation. Traity’s website explains: “Traity’s algorithms use non-credit data like eBay or Airbnb profiles, Facebook and LinkedIn social networks, to determine people’s trustworthiness, giving you the chance to get access to the services you need at the prices you deserve”.

New York Times journalist Wesley Morris said, “Our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down … There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness … We’re all becoming one another”. Morris stresses that personal technologies of the digital age are facilitating our creation of alternate characters that can be “played with, edited, queered and fabricated, much as we filter images on Instagram and curate our Snapchats”.

Rayouf Alhumedhi didn’t feel that being a princess, dancer or bride let her express herself in online chat rooms. As a headscarf-wearing Muslim teenager in Berlin, she felt let down by the standard emoji’s on her smartphone and began campaigning for ones she can relate to. The new Vogue Arabia, aimed at fashion-conscious women in 22 Arab countries, can be seen as the latest statement from Muslim women demanding global recognition for their culture and economic clout. In November 2016, CoverGirl announced that it had signed its first ambassador in a Hijab, Colorado native and mother Nura Afia, 24, whose online beauty tutorials for observant Muslim women have 13 million views.

Post gender

The search for a new editor to cover gender issues at the New York Times is a reflection of just how much topics like gender fluidity, sexual identity and their expression in culture and consumption feature in the global conversation. Marketers have reported gender neutrality as a selling point for millennials, who have been raised in a climate of growing economic opportunities for women and with greater tolerance for non-traditional gender roles and identities. The third season of Amazon’s comedy show, Transparent, about a transgender father premiered in mid-September 2016 with a fourth now in production.

Campbell Soup’s Real, Real Life recent campaign sought to reflect the changing American family, with vignettes such as a scene with two fathers feeding their toddler. “We wanted to show actual families, which means families of different configurations, cultures, races and life choices”, said the brand’s Yin Woon Rani in a statement. A mixed race, same-sex couple relax on a sofa watching TV in Ikea’ s new “We Help You Make It” campaign.

We before me?

An aspiration towards altruism and a smaller ego, or “we before me”, prevails, particularly among younger consumers. This peer-to-peer trend sees a new cooperative paradigm among emerging artists and entrepreneurs and is apparent in French fashion label Vetements, describing itself as a “collective” and presenting a joint collection with other brands. It has been pointed out that the anger and sadness that merged into the Black Lives Matter movement did so without an over-prominent figurehead.

Of course, individual differences are celebrated too. In “Corporate America Chases the Mythical Millennial”, journalist Farhad Manjoo advises brands that, “For most practical purposes — hiring and managing, selling to, creating products for — your company may be better off recognising more discrete and meaningful characteristics in workers and customers than simply the year of their birth”.

To learn more, download our 2017 Global Consumer Trends white paper.

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