As traditional social categories have become increasingly irrelevant to personal identity, style has emerged as the key defining feature of social life. Because ‘People Like Us’ are now those who gravitate towards the same aesthetics of taste, products need to be designed and marketed with a sharp awareness of current style trends.


Style is the most potent communication component available to marketing and advertising: it’s instant, high impact, capable of infinite subtlety and - if used correctly - able to forge a bond of identification between product and consumer. Yet most stylistic decisions in marketing and advertising are made on the basis of vague hunches.

What do you think about this new letterhead design? ~ I’m not sure but I showed it to my teenage daughter and she liked it.

In our culture we tend to take words seriously while dismissing, for example, the choice of typeface as a surface phenomenon which does not in and of itself convey meaning. This is a mistake. Ordinary people may or may not know Universe from Helvetica but they feel the difference and this subconscious perception is more often than not of critical importance. The same is true of colour, pattern, photographic, video and illustration styles, the choice of models, interior decor, furniture, clothing, hairstyles, make-up, accessories, etc. If all such elements of design in a product’s presentation are on the same wavelength as that of the potential consumer’s own stylistic predisposition then he or she can identify with and purchase the product. If not, then an insurmountable barrier between the consumer and the product has been erected inhibiting permission to purchase.

Which of these outfits do you think our model should wear for the photograph on the cover of the pamphlet? ~ Beats me! Hire a good stylist.

Professional stylists and designers may know their onions when it comes to ‘good taste’ but such people live in a different world to that of the ordinary consumer. The same is likely to be true of the MD’s daughter. How then to tap into ‘real’ people’s aesthetic prejudices and perceptions? Real people buy things like kitchens, cutlery, watches, spectacles, clothing, footwear, furniture, bathrooms, bedrooms, wall and window coverings, mobile phones, cars, homes, pets, etc. - objects which come in a wide range of styles. Over the last 3 decades I have been keeping tabs on such consumer demand in order to extrapolate from this data general directions in popular taste and to use this information to inform marketing and advertising decisions which are stylistic in nature.

This isn’t fashion forecasting: instead of crystal ball gazing the upper echelons of the avant-garde I have focused on mainstream stylistic developments in the real world today. I do this by cross-indexing and distilling current information regarding all design led consumer products from across the globe. Sources of such information include: (1) magazines and newspapers, (2) professional journals and publications, (3) consumer catalogues, (4) shop displays and international TV. My facilities for such an undertaking are limited to say the least but I believe that I am helping to prepare the ground for a much needed, timely, anthropology of style.

If you want to know what’s going on just read lots of fashion magazines. That’s how we’ve always kept abreast of trends in the past.

I do read lots of fashion magazines - from all over the world. But fashion ain’t what it used to be. Today new trends are at least as likely to ‘bubble up’ from street level as they are to ‘trickle down’ from High Fashion. The implications of this for marketing and advertising are obvious - demanding a more unbiased and sociological approach than that typically provided by the fashion/style/design media.

Also, while in previous eras fashion exerted a unifying tendency (this year's new look), increasingly we have seen more year to year stability and with this ‘anti-fashion’ obstinacy has come much more stylistic heterogeneity. Instead of the fashion there are now lots of different styles. This phenomenon was first evident amongst alternative young people - Punks, Goths, Rockabillies, Skinheads, Casuals, Preppies, etc. Today, however, the same sort of ‘stylistic tribalism’ is typical of all segments of the population. For example, at the most generic level we can identify five principle categories which have relevance today - Moderns, Traditionals, Organics, Retros, Post-moderns - each of which contains within it clusters of related but distinctive styletribes. The members of such groups are the kind of mainstream adults who previously would have blithely followed the fashion. Now they’re doing their own thing. And there’s an awful lot of them - indeed, they (rather than ‘fashion victims’) now constitute the majority.

Because adults typically have the capability of shaping their home environment as well as their personal appearance style, we can see the influence of such ‘styletribes’ in everything from carpets to cuisine.

Such style categories are constantly evolving but unlike ‘This Year’s New Look’ as found in old-fashioned fashion, this typically involves subtle, long-term modifications rather than drastic trend reversals. As well as tracking contemporary style trend evolution over the last few decades I have assessed the rising or falling significance of each identified category. Using this research target consumer populations can be broken down not only according to age, region, gender and socio-economic categories but also with respect to stylistic affiliations.

Yet more ‘lifestyle’ analysis?
Yes and no.

While recognising that in some instances ‘lifestyle’ approaches may be of considerable value the problem is that no one to date has really put the style in life style. For example: lifestyle analysis might lump together people who spend a lot of their leisure time on DIY projects around the home. But the couple who are redoing their home in a ‘Mediterranean Rustic’ style are actually light years apart from the couple who are converting their home into an Art Deco time warp. Such stylistic chalk and cheese far overshadows the significance of the facile lifestyle grouping ‘DIY Enthusiasts’. (With regard to youth markets a similar problem occurs when lifestyle analysis brackets together, for example, all MTV viewers while ignoring the very real stylistic differences between, say, Rap, Heavy Metal, Country & Western, House or Rock which such consumers themselves see as critical.)

Marketing and advertising are in the business of lumping people together into groups. Nothing wrong with that. But simply inventing all sorts of neat sounding, off the top of someone’s head, ‘lifestyle’ categories results in a great deal of cramming square pegs into round holes. Or it results in categories which have little meaning or relevance from the consumer’s perspective. What is needed is to identify those categories - ‘People Like Us’ - which people bracket themselves within. The aim of my own ‘lifestyle’ research is to identify rather than invent those groups (styletribes) which have meaning to the consumer. Anthropologists distinguish between etic and emic systems of cultural classification. The former are those imposed from without by the social scientist, the later are those used by the native informant him or herself. In our world today almost all significant emic socio-cultural categories are defined and realised stylistically.

Do People Like You have sanded and bleached wooden floorboards? Wear trainers? Eat sushi? Drive Range Rovers? Drink real ale? Wear a Rolex? Wallpaper their ceilings? Carry their personal belongings in a rucksack? Like Lady Ga Ga?? Wear jeans to the theatre? Have a tattoo?

Perhaps not . . . But these are precisely the kinds of things which people use everyday to differentiate themselves from the mass and at the same time to signal their affiliations with ‘Our Kind Of People’. Arguably such ‘styletribes’ constitute contemporary society’s primary socio-cultural groupings. Certainly they are more real to many (perhaps most) people than are the traditional group identifiers of class, religion, region, ethnic background or even profession. Most importantly, such stylistic expression constitutes the visible, communicative tip of those systems of meaning - values, ideologies, ethics, desires, dreams, etc. - which in today’s world resist other forms of expression but which, nevertheless, still serve as the bottom line of behaviour, motivation and identity.

My goal is to identify the stylistic identifiers of today’s consumer population. People today - ordinary people, your potential customers - are highly discriminating when it comes to all matters of style. Marketing and advertising must recognise this perceptual sophistication and proceed accordingly.

The alternative is off-putting (especially for the potential consumer).

Ted Polhemus