One of our favorite lines in recent memory is from Andrea Hernández: “Pantry items want to be seen.”
The line, a perfect summation of our current obsession with aesthetics, is also a deeper analysis of something else. As Hernández wrote in a January issue of the Snaxshot newsletter:
“Our parents used to not care about the “aesthetics” or the “vibe” of ketchup much more than the utility around it, nor did they carry around cereal boxes as a “fashion item” (something that’s gain popularity in South Korea) even if most of them grew up as yuppies, the vibe in F&B back then was so “anti” fluff and more utility based that Lacroix literally became a hit by positioning themselves as the “anti Perrier” —yet the children of this generation find themselves wanting to signal with their organic Dark Horse fermented ketchups displayed neatly on their bare kitchen shelves, posting it on tiny grids where we let others know, we are snaxbois who are in the “know” —but it didn’t happen all at once.”
This is the core of that opening quote we shared, and one that Ana Andjelic—in her own newsletter—has labeled “the aspiration economy.”
We bring this up, because, yesterday, we briefly entered Bear Market territory (and it appears all but certain we’ll be heading back). Accompanying this market downturn is a lot of discussion around how consumers will respond and what that means for brands.
As we wrote in April, IRI has already started helping brands make sense of what may be around the corner by sharing consumer data from the 2008-2009 recession. And Nielsen, in fact, did the same thing at the start of the pandemic.
In that report from 2020, Nielsen wrote that organic sales slowed as consumers shifted to conventional items. But, Nielsen pointed out, that was before rapid private label growth in the US. Organic ingredients weren’t available via private label during the last downturn, but they are now. Nielsen’s point: Instead of switching out of the category this time, buyers were more likely to stay in the category but switch to private label.
While Nielsen, IRI and others have spent time highlighting consumer behavior changes from 15 years ago and what’s changed in market since then, the one change that’s largely gone undiscussed is the one that Hernández and Andjelic have been talking about for some time: that the main ingredient in many emerging brands is not one of utility at all. It’s one of aspiration and identity.
This is new. In 2008, Instagram didn’t exist. The “like” button on Facebook didn’t exist. No video on YouTube had ever eclipsed 200 million views. The internet’s ways of signaling identity—that already sound so old and dated—didn’t even exist in the last recession.
There’s no arguing how powerful identity and aspiration are as it relates to consumer products, but neither has been tested in recent history by lower consumer confidence, less disposable income, or higher prices.
The question, of course, is whether brands that have built a premium on aspiration and identity (as opposed to utility) will be able to maintain it. Is this, in other words, a good-times trend or a new, ingrained consumer behavior? In order for it to be the latter, it seems that aspirational economy brands will need to beat utility-led brands for share of wallet when that wallet is shrinking.
As we look to history as a teacher, this is a change that history may not be able to help us sort out ahead of time. The ingredients in our products are fundamentally different.