Knowledge, the new elitism

Anthropologist Johanna Faigelman says the elite are no longer born, they're made.

By Johanna Faigelman

I have come to realize that although surface behaviour and forms of expression (both verbal and visual) change, fundamental human needs and behaviours do not.

Take the idea of elitism.

In Victorian England, it was all about your breeding – you were what you were born into. Humble peasants (of which my people would proudly lay claim) could never hope to become the lord of the manor nor did they expect to. Elitism was deeply ingrained and there was a clear divide between those who were the elite and those who were not. The more privileged your family was, the more you were setting the pace for culture, in large part because you had control over knowledge and everyone looked up to you and followed suit.

Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, there was a slow shift towards the notion of the “self-made man” (more man than woman at the time, unfortunately). The individual was seen as starting to have more control over whom and what they could value. Similarly, knowledge began to be disseminated more freely through widespread use of the printing press (albeit still controlled by large institutions but more accessible to the “masses”). This was the beginning of the belief that we truly could create our own destiny, which was not dependent solely on what you were born with (just don’t tell Will and Henry). The strongest individuals with the most leadership and enterprise potential began setting the pace for culture.

So, the reign of the elite is over right? Wrong.

Today, elitism has taken on a very different form. In today’s world of constant connectivity and widespread social media use, anyone can demonstrate their influence through the savvy deployment and use of knowledge. There is now immense power in being seen to be “in the know” –  it is not about who you were “born to be” rather it is about who you’ve “created yourself to be” – i.e.  who you know, what you know and how you show it (most importantly, to all your Facebook friends and Twitter followers). No group has embraced this new modern-day version of elitism more than millennials.

Ironically, millennials are particularly fond of taking what would appear to be an “anti-elitist” position. They see themselves as a more accepting and egalitarian group than the generations before them. This, they say, translates into the workplace (they like to work in “flat” anti-corporate environments, preferably with exposed brick and open concept work spaces) and the companies and brands they want to engage with (those that espouse values like “inclusiveness” “environmentalism”). However, this is a group that prides  itself on being “in the know” more so than any generation before it and is very judgmental (or at least indifferent towards) those who are most distinctly “not in the know” (often those poor old “has-been’s” who are over 35).

What strikes me is this might just be elitism dressed up in new clothes.

A very famous anthropologist, who I think really got consumerism was Pierre Bourdieu. He put forward the notion of “cultural capital,” a form of capital far more important, in these modern times, than literal capital (i.e. cold hard cash). Cultural capital is earned by accumulating knowledge and savvy, and confidently embodying this in a way that convinces others you are “in the know” and they aren’t.

Now instead of looking to “breeding” or  “high culture” or “bank accounts” to determine someone’s worth and leadership, potential millennials are building their “banks of knowledge” to build new and hipper kingdoms. No other group is better equipped to seamlessly navigate the masses of information available to accumulate knowledge at a whole new level, and this makes them a formidable force with which to be reckoned. The more knowledge they accumulate the more influence they hold – at the top of the pile are those who truly become influencers on a major scale – and this can become a make or break issue for a brand, and something marketers need to consider.

For marketers today, there is a huge opportunity to tap into this new knowledgeable elite.

Modcloth, an online vintage-inspired clothing retailer, has the recipe down. It has customized its product interactions with its customers to fit the millennial need for information and exerting influence. By encouraging its customers to comment on garments, maintain a blog about featured designers and offering customers the ability to select the next offering, customers feel informed and included in the company’s decisions. Shoppers feel “in the know” and have clout with Modcloth, upping their affinity for the clothing store.

The key is to give millennial consumers the opportunity to gain knowledge from your brand without overtly trying to “teach” them anything. Don’t tell them, share with them. The key is always to acknowledge how knowledgeable they are to begin with….remember flattery is the best way to your customer’s heart (or stomach) and this generation, like its Victorian forefathers before it, certainly loves flattery.

johannaJohanna Faigelman is the founder and president of Human Branding, an applied anthropology research consultancy that provides strategic branding direction to companies around the world.

Image via Shutterstock