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Sunday, Nov. 13, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Companies fixing sights on elite as 'lower class' refuse to spend


Boosters of corporate-led globalization like to say that markets are more efficient economic equalizers than governments are. Whether or not you believe this, it only makes sense if you also believe that everyone in the world has the same desire to buy things.

There are indications that people aren't as excited about consumption as they used to be, at least in developed countries. Once they have most of the things they need, people can become complacent. That's why multinationals are so keen on opening consumer markets in the developing world. There's huge potential in China, southern Asia and eastern Europe, though one shudders to think about the effect on the planet when a billion more people own cars and eat their daily fill of assembly-line beef.

If the LOHAS movement catches fire, it may not be that bad by the time every Tajik has access to a Wal-Mart. LOHAS, which stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, is a movement influenced by the Cultural Creatives theory of sociologist Paul Ray, who claims that there are more than 50 million Americans, at least a fourth of the U.S. population, who sincerely desire an alternative to the status quo. These people care about the environment, peace, social justice, alternative health care, personal growth and, perhaps most significantly, stopping corporate-led globalization. And they are willing to work for these ideals.

LOHAS translates Ray's theory into marketing terms, which is not as contradictory as it sounds. Cultural Creatives are well-educated and for the most part well-off, which means they are willing to spend money to realize their ideals individually.

The market catering to these people in the United States is estimated to be $229 billion. These are the people who will buy the hybrid cars, the organic vegetables and the free-range chickens. They're the ones who will invest in socially responsible companies, who will buy the eco-tour packages. They'll visit the homeopathic doctor and the acupuncturist.

Many of the ideas that LOHAS embraces -- mandatory recycling, renewable energy, etc. -- are already institutionalized in Europe, which means they were promoted by the public sector.

In the United States, the private sector rules, so the best way to encourage people to live more responsibly is through their wallets, but what the movement mainly does is connect LOHAS consumers to existing companies and nonprofit groups working within the LOHAS paradigm.

In Japan, LOHAS is being sold to consumers as another form of added value. The good feeling you get from helping the environment or buying local is worth paying extra for, which is why LOHAS has a kind of elitist image. Glossy epicurean magazines like Sarai and Kakapo present LOHAS as something you aspire to rather than embrace.

According to an article in Kakapo, the Japanese demographic that is most sympathetic to LOHAS values is comprised of people in their 50s and 60s who are more interested in personal fulfillment. The thinking is that if a person identifies with LOHAS, he or she will buy other products that are also identified with the movement. A recent issue of Aera included a pull-out LOHAS section with PR advertisements from NTT DoCoMo and Fuji Xerox, big corporations that would obviously want readers to connect them with the LOHAS "brand."

However, this image may be counterproductive as a consumer marketing scheme. If only the elite support LOHAS then it loses all meaning as a social movement, and if the values promoted by LOHAS become mainstream -- which is the aim of the American movement -- then it can no longer be marketed as something for discriminating elites.

In a sense, LOHAS is already gaining ground in Japan. The "slow food" craze, the TV variety shows that demonstrate how living cheaply doesn't mean living poorly, the back-to-the-land movement -- they all incorporate sustainability to an extent, and often in a Japanese way.

This is a good thing for Japan's environment and its sense of social responsibility, but it's bad for business-as-usual. In the current best seller "Karyu Sha-kai," marketing analyst Atsushi Miura explains how Japan's image of itself is making it more and more difficult for companies to sell things.

Karyu shakai translates as "lower class society," but Miura isn't talking just about the abject poor or the socially dispossessed. He's mainly talking about a state of mind. In the '60s and '70s the majority of Japanese thought of themselves as middle class, striving for economic advancement.

However, since the end of the 1980s bubble era, an increasing number of people see themselves as either lower middle class or lower class, despite the fact that their standard of living has not gone down. At the same time, the percentage of the population that sees itself as upper class has remained the same.

Miura points out that this burgeoning "lower class" is not interested in acquiring anything more than what they need. In terms of marketing they aren't worth much, because, according to Miura, they have no enthusiasm for conspicuous consumption.

Even those who think of themselves as being middle class are finding ways to live comfortably on modest means.

As a result, Japanese companies will increasingly have to target the upper classes if they want to see any growth, which means more advertising aimed at elites. Last year, Nissin Foods announced a new two-prong marketing plan: "health-oriented" instant ramen for higher-income consumers, and even cheaper instant ramen for everybody else. It's nice to know they're still thinking about the rest of us.



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