The End of the Status Symbol: New Values in the Age of Covid-19

Updated: Feb 4


It’s been a decade since author David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise, his book about the new affluent class, or what he called “bourgeois bohemians.” His premise argued that bohemian values that emphasize necessity and meaning had replaced the traditional status codes of wealth, even when buying luxury objects. Brands have now holistically designed this idea of “meaning” into everything they make to support “Bobo” values. In the era of Covid, once again, affluent values are shifting, and the traditional definitions of social status are further declining.


There is nothing about how the world has changed that does not have design principles.

A temporary satisfaction of pleasure defines luxury. And now, when fleeting pleasures like travel and gourmet restaurant dining disappear because of the pandemic health crisis, more than ever, people of affluence are questioning the design of the way we live. MOCA+’s Design Insights Forum found that 75% percent of respondents say their lives have changed in a “fairly major way.”


Less is More


More than ever, people aren’t showing off their wealth through physical objects. It’s no longer about having the biggest house on the block as a symbol of having arrived, but about the stories behind what we do and buy. Now, less is more. Protecting the planet’s sustainability from climate change, guarding our physical and mental health, and memorable experiences have become the meaningful values of modern living.


Protecting the planet’s sustainability from climate change, guarding our physical and mental health, and memorable experiences have become the meaningful values of modern living.

The longer we have had to shelter-in-place, the more it has fundamentally changed our attitudes and outlooks. This shift is most critical for those deemed essential workers on the frontlines of healthcare, education, transportation, and grocery stores. Everyone else has had to figure out how to make our homes our places of business, and for so many of us, we have had to balance these new home offices with managing our children through virtual school. And this has led to a whole new definition of what we do at home. There’s now a more significant emphasis on family time, home cooking, and creating opportunities for community, increased safety, and health. There is nothing about how the world has changed that does not have design principles in it.


A Focus on Health and Wellness


Whether it’s current or future travel, food, or home design, health and wellness must be designed into products and experiences. Today’s affluents want to understand the materials that go into the home products that they buy. This knowledge could be that the materials are made from sustainable wood or derived from a specific community’s craftsmanship. Affluents are spending on making themselves feel safer and comfortable during stay-at-home orders, whether it’s buying heat lamps or installing skylights, or cooking high-quality food.


At this time, we are also focused on better understanding our food sources. This could include materials for growing our food or a stronger connection with growers and makers at local farmers’ markets, which are considered essential places during shelter-in-place. Our Design Insights Forum found an increased interest in food and agricultural-related travel and that people are increasingly shopping for food and using it immediately and more intentionally.


Experience and Purpose


New affluents don’t travel just to vacation. They travel for purpose and a quest for knowledge and exploration, whether about learning about architecture, wine, or geology. It’s less about fancy hotels and more about intelligently design experiences and connection to local communities. During the pandemic, very few people are traveling abroad. Instead, they are renting luxury leisure vans and visiting national parks and coastlines, or staying on private land through Hip Camp. If they choose to stay home, it’s become about Airbnb experiences or virtual museum tours. MOCA+ is currently working with The Palm Springs Art Museum.


Design isn't just how something looks, or it’s surface beauty. It's about how a product is conceived, interpreted, produced, and consumed.

What does this mean for brands? Design still matters even more, even though its definition has changed. Design isn't just how something looks or its surface beauty. It’s not about a badge or a logo. It's about how a product is conceived, interpreted, produced, and consumed, and often that means a sleeper brand. Of course, these brands do become the dominant culture. Steve Jobs initially targeted the counterculture, and he was fanatical about design, from the font on the computer box to walking into a store to see a "genius." The Apple brand became part of personal identity. Tesla is winning in the automotive industry because most car companies are building a computer around a car. Elon Musk has built a car around a computer. Richard Branson only owned 25 percent of Virgin Airlines. Within three years, he had a 15 percent market share because he designed Virgin around experience - from the flight entertainment system to hip safety videos. He was still flying a plane from point A to B, but it was luxury in an old-fashioned sense. He put the fun back in flying.


Any brand can hit its mark if it is focused on design components in its brand. And it’s measurable. According to a report by the S&P 500, companies that had design in their mission outperformed the rest by seventy-seven percent. More than ever, the symbols new affluents will gravitate to will be about the values we discovered and rediscovered in 2020, and those that are the most authentic will have staying power in the future.


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