Consumer sentiment: Weird
A memo on brand planning and design in a time of magical thinking
Hey V&V fam ✌️
Welcome to month 3 of the Vivid & Vague newsletter. I’m still experimenting with the format and figured I’d give an update on what you can expect in your inbox going forward:
Memos: ~weekly, shorter pieces, testing ideas and top-line synthesis of data, trends, observations
Essays: ~monthly, longer form, better researched, developed from the memos that resonate
Each piece will aim to find the value in duality: exploring the contrarian and the consensus, the edge and the mainstream, the meaning in commerce. Today’s V&V is a memo 📋
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Consumer sentiment: Weird
I spend many of my waking hours analyzing data, studying trends, researching consumer behavior, and mapping pop culture — trying sharpen ideas about how it all fits together.
Sometimes that means I’m trying to find an angle from which to measure consumer sentiment, the mood of the public, the vibe of the moment. Here’s an interesting signal I picked up on recently, which nicely captures the general precariousness of Q2 2020: people are increasingly having — and talking about — weird dreams. Social buzz around “weird dreams” is up 80% (daily avg. vs. prior 6 months).
Ok, so that’s one data point reinforcing how the pandemic and the house arrest and the trauma of 2020’s black swan event have messed with our collective subconscious. But there’s more to it than COVID-19, there’s more going on:
🦠 COVID-19 pandemic
✊🏾 Nationwide protests & civil unrest
👨🚀 First human spaceflight powered by a private company
🔥 Ongoing wildfires, natural disasters, climate uncertainty
🌀 A fundamental theory of physics?
🛸 Pentagon declassifies Navy UFO videos
🗞 General awakening to the truth of the “fake news” meme
Notice, there is some incredibly cool stuff on this list. And remember, weird doesn’t mean all bad. It’s not that our compass all of a sudden went from pointing north to due south — we’re disoriented because the needle is wildly spinning.
Every day, things move so fast that we’re subjected to several g’s* of cultural acceleration, while mere hours later we might be slamming on the brakes, whiplashed by a novel humanity-sized threat, or maybe some new strain of MAGA mentality being broadcast from the capitol.
(*Note: in doing some quick googling about g-force, I read: “The cumulative vertical axis forces acting upon a pilot’s body make him momentarily 'weigh' many times more than normal.” Sounds about right. I’m feeling mega heavy these days.)
What’s real? Who’s a trusted source? Is the market even tied to reality? Can we really just print money at will? What does it mean to have the streets full for protests while a deadly virus persists?
Over the last ten years or so, we’ve accepted the prevailing narrative that social media and disruptive consumer tech are largely responsible for whatever cultural malaise we’re sensing. And, yeah, I believe there’s truth in that. But it’s also a convenient story, because it posits that society’s problems are essentially media and software problems, and so we derive comfort from the idea that the solutions are programmable and can scale with no marginal cost. We just need to push an update, or drag Zuckerberg to congress and make him say something reassuring!
The inconvenient truth is that we’re having weird dreams because we’re falling asleep knowing that we actually face intractable, infrastructure-level problems tomorrow. Not software bugs.
In a recent essay, The Minimum Viable Metaverse, I wrote some thoughts about the implications of real world fragility and weirdness, primarily in relation to the pandemic — but just weeks later there’s a longer list of unsettling phenomena that these paragraphs could apply to:
Factor: A pandemic event like COVID-19 thoroughly disrupts daily life in our cities and neighborhoods, distorting our view of the ordinary and challenging assumptions of how our communities, our people, and our institutions should look and function. [“New Normal”]
↪️Outcome: This leads to an inversion, where the virtual world all of a sudden doesn’t seem so strange or foreign relative to the real world. IRL loses its monopoly on normalcy.
Factor: For the first time, many of us start to grasp the fragility of society on a global scale. To stabilize the situation, we need to shut it all down, then rethink many of the hard protocols of the real world: the distances we observe, the supply chains we rely on, the healthcare systems we trust, etc. Wicked problems abound. [“Fragility”]
We’re feeling unmoored from norms and “safe” reality and there’s not a coherent mainstream narrative guiding our attention forward. (👀More on this in upcoming essays.) So, how do we respond? What is the counterweight to weirdness?
Well, as one example, we’re seeing an uptick in interest in what we might call DIY Spirituality: horoscopes, tarot readings, mysticism. This is not an all-new trend, it was already gaining steam throughout 2019, but the pandemic and 2020 weirdness have sustained its upward move.
Others have articulated a similar insight by noting the rise in magical thinking: the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. Magical thinking is a coping mechanism, a tool for reducing complexity.
This week I was listening to an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast in which journalist Bethany McLean said something interesting about our need to reduce complexity, to distance from the facts, in order to reach a more useful, or at least more universally resonant, version of the truth:
“Crafting a narrative is always a distancing from the facts to find the more universal story; as you craft a narrative you inevitably let some of the facts slide and you don’t do it deliberately, as your human brain searches for the narrative that makes sense you [lose] some of the facts in the interest in arriving at a more universal narrative or a more coherent narrative.”
The consumer tech version of this might be the stories we’re told through product design. I've enjoyed designer Tobias Van Schneider’s writing on this topic, such as his post about The Kawaiization of product design:
“Over the last year or two, I’ve noticed a certain style emerge in brand and product design. Look at the graphic below and you'll see it. The colors are soft and muted, the shapes rounded and the typography unobtrusive. It’s what you could describe as clean. It’s approachable. It’s inoffensive. It’s almost…cute…
As we move away from the clean yet cold aesthetic of minimalism, we're adopting the psychological power of cuteness. Studies have suggested that Kawaii, or fashion sub-cultures off-shooting from it, are a way of coping with social pressures and anxiety. It could be just a trend, or it could be we are becoming more human, more childlike because we're tired of being grownups. Given the context of the world around us, we are searching for positivity and comfort, and that's why we add emojis to our spreadsheets.”
I think Schneider’s right, and I don’t think the kawaii aesthetic will disappear any time soon. But — my mid- to long-term take is that persistent cuteness is not going to stand up to the weirdness. With pandemic-sized challenges, systemic injustices and infrastructure challenges to overcome, and unreliable news media, we can’t afford to be tired of being grown ups. Our dreams are trying to tell us something. Who will help us actualize them?
The commercial memo:
Brands need to serve us images, messages, and products that help reduce complexity while simultaneously acknowledging that we are living through a very weird and complex moment
Brands will start to test whether there is a new mode of profitable authenticity in which brands reflect back some of the chaos we’re experiencing, rather than trying to hide it
Brands may start to step back from their authoritative posture and tone of voice, instead joining us in questioning norms, legacy systems, reality
Examples of the rise of the ‘magical thinking’ aesthetic
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