The Zeitgeist

Must Reads for Marketers: What Brands Need to Know About “The New Domesticity”

Sarah Jane Johnson

In “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity”, journalist Emily Matchar explores the North American phenomenon of a sort of Nouveau Hippie meets Hipster Fifties Housewife: women (and some men) who are opting out of Mass Culture’s emphasis on technology, convenience and consumption by turning to a more Do-It-Yourself approach to pretty much everything: canning, bread baking, gardening (or “urban homesteading”), knitting, sewing, crafting, carpentry etc., and who are rejecting Western medicine in favour of a more “natural” approach.   This phenomenon — and its homespun aesthetic — can be seen in hipster enclaves everywhere (mason jar cocktail anyone?) but is also beginning to influence more mainstream consumers.  It cuts across religious and political lines, and can be equally found amongst Mormons and Atheists, Tea Partiers and Lefties.

Matchar attributes this phenomenon to the following factors:

1.     A rising sense of distrust toward government, corporations and the food system

2.     Concern for the environment

3.     The gloomy economy

4.     Discontent with contemporary work culture

5.     The draw of hands-on work in a technology-world

6.     An increasingly intensive standard of parenting

At bottom, Matchar argues, is the simple fact of “middle class people struggling with modern life…because their experiences with mainstream life have been miserable, crappy health care, crappy jobs in crappy suburban neighbourhoods”.  What she labels “New Domesticity” is “at heart, a cry against a society that’s not working.  A society that doesn’t offer safe enough food, accessible health care, a reasonable level of environmental protections, any sort of rights for working parents.”  In other words, it’s a way for individuals to take back control, rather than being dependent on “the system”, and of finding some sense of “authenticity” in the face of an increasingly dehumanized, technology-driven society.

Hand-in-hand with this phenomenon is an emphasis on frugality, on avoiding consumption, on producing over purchasing, on bartering over buying.  While the most extreme practitioners of this phenomenon remain enough of a minority that they are unlikely to seriously affect the economy, there are many mainstream consumers who are subject to its influence.   Even if they are not stopping all consumption, they are harbouring serious reservations about many aspects of consumer and corporate culture, reservations that will inevitably affect how they view every purchase, as well as their attitudes to mainstream brands and corporations.   Everyday working parents who need help getting nutritious meals on the table in 20 minutes or less are still going to feel tremendous guilt about options that are not home-made and additive-free.  Parents wanting to protect their children’s health may be avoiding much-needed vaccinations from “Big Pharma”.  Individuals with serious illnesses like cancer or various chronic illnesses may believe they can successfully manage their conditions with through diet and natural remedies instead of drugs.

While this collective distrust may present challenges for brands, it can also present opportunities.  If brands actively acknowledge and address consumers’ concerns about security and authenticity, they can help individuals feel a whole lot better about participating in “capitalist culture.”

Here are some ideas for how brands can respond to this trend, and, in so doing, start to reframe the stark choices consumers are making today.

  1. Food brands can address concerns about food safety by removing unnecessary additives from their products.  Just recently, Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws announced that it had removed all artificial colours and flavours from its President’s Choice line of products.
  2. Health brands can acknowledge concerns about Western Medicine by explicitly treating lifestyle approaches as complementary, rather than lesser or insufficient.  Brand communications can emphasize diet, exercise, and even meditation and accupuncture as important components of the healing process, thereby giving consumers a greater sense of control over managing their health.
  3. Brands can champion transparency for skeptical consumers by using the Internet, with its capacity for dialogue, to provide detailed information about their products.  A great example of this tactic is McDonald’s recent “Questions” campaign, in which, for example, they are allowing cameras inside their food plants to document their ingredients and dispel myths and misperceptions.
  4. And finally, brands of all kinds can take a stance on the overarching issue at the heart of the “New Domesticity” trend: the lack of control individuals feel over their lives due to the rat race so many of them are caught in.  Because as much as brands exist to sell things to consumers, they are also owned by the corporations who employ most of the consumers out there.  These corporations can become more supportive of work-life balance, and of parenting, by putting an end to 60 hour work weeks and by providing better parental leave and potentially subsidizing childcare.  It could be a virtuous circle: if consumers don’t feel like they have been gamed by the system, they might feel better about (literally) buying into it.