Introducing the Express Arena

By Jessica DeVlieger, Global CEO

A surprising new behavioral trend has been observed in the UK; British people – a nation famously obsessed with class – are starting to hide their privilege.

In January 2020, Sam Friedman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics noticed in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey: 47% of people who work in middle-class professional jobs identified as working class, and 24% of people whose fathers worked in middle-class jobs do the same.

On further investigation, he found a systematic tendency to claim more humble roots than was strictly true: “When I asked people what class they considered themselves to be, instead of answering the question in a straight-up way, they would tell me a much more elaborate story that reached back to their grandparents and sometimes even further,’ he says. ‘And what they tended to emphasize was a story of working-class struggle.’

Status is being recalibrated, and that has implications for how we spend. QED Victoria’s Secret.

At the same time as the wildly successful fashion empire “Man Repeller” was gaining traction with affluent metropolitan women, Victoria’s Secret was slowly losing touch. “I feel very much like the Man Repeller ethos isn’t about fashion,” its founder Medine Cohen told New York Magazine in a 2014 profile. “It’s much more about a woman feeling comfortable in her own skin, and we’re using fashion as the vehicle to discuss this sense of self-confidence.”

Contrast with Victoria’s Secret – a brand that offered women a version of status that was singularly cast through the male gaze. Being “hot”. According to the New York Times, “it took years for Victoria’s Secret to acknowledge that women’s expectations had changed and, in that time, the value of the brand eroded as a slew of competitors grew by positioning themselves as the anti-Victoria’s Secret, complete with more typical women’s bodies. The company’s share of the U.S. women’s underwear market dropped to 21 percent last year from 32 percent in 2015.”

Why didn’t anyone at Victoria’s Secret notice things were going wrong?

In our exclusive interview with Gillian Tett, author of Anthro-Vision and Editor-At-Large of the Financial Times, she says:  “Recent times have proliferated a raft of tools to help navigate the business world – economic models, big data, social listening. While indispensable, these tools are limited by one thing; they are bounded to a moment in time. Often, we fail to consider the context around the model, which is a risk because if context is changing you can be wrong-footed by the model you are bound to.

We need to look at the context outside of any given model – at the human, at the cultural -the slippery, contradictory, and hard to define. We need to look at the semi-stated and the unstated, where the clues for meaning lie. To enhance our bounded models.”

This Express Arena Report aims to do precisely this – investigate the edges and capture the weak signals.

Today, business’ major opportunities and existential threats are less likely to come from the usual suspects at the heart of their industries then they are from what’s happening on the fringes. “Snow melts from the edges,” as Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath notes. “Thinking your competition is within your own industry creates major blind spots.”

Why should an insights leader care? Because, today, competition comes from other categories that address similar customer needs, desires or motivations. It may also come from categories that compete for the same customer resources, such as money and time.

Getting ahead of this competition means getting to human truths.

This interactive report – the second in our series – reflects the way C Space is helping clients understand our customers more deeply, more rigorously, more meaningfully.

We are helping our clients work outside in, and future back. Rather than starting from inside out assumptions about sectors, categories and brands, we help clients listen acutely to customers – and unearth how their fundamental needs, desires and jobs to be done are changing.

We’re help them think less about what’s happening now at the center of the category than we are in what might happen next. We look at the peripheries and hunt for weak signals by exploring the ways organizations from seemingly different industries are likely to compete, collide and converge to address needs and win contestable customer resources.

This report explores what we call the Express arena – the broad, complex and dynamic space of those products, experiences and brands that address customers’ fundamental motivation to shape and express our individual identity as we navigate shifting societies.

Within this, we have identified a key shift. Traditionally, products, experiences and brands would signify economic capital.  The advent of the knowledge economy and the 2008 financial crisis produced a shift towards the expression of intellectual capital. The past few years’ debates around inclusion, equity and climate change has sparked the urgent need for products, experiences and brands that represent our ethical capital too.

As a result, the palette of choices that express who we are now vastly exceeds the traditional landscape.