What distinguishes members of the upper middle class in the U.S.? Is it a shared culture, certain economic traits, or something else? These are questions that have sparked discussion in the New York Times, New Republic, and beyond, as several scholarly authors offer their own attempts to improve on other, less rigorous terms for American professional and managerial workers, like yuppie or hipster. While the books aren’t intended to be marketing advice, they can serve as a useful profile of today’s most reliable consumers, providing insight into their demographics and motivations.

One book that has garnered attention recently is The Sum of Small Things. Author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, discusses what she calls the “aspirational class,” who “aspire to be their version of better humans in all aspects of their lives.” While earlier generations proved their membership in the upper middle class through conspicuous consumption, for Currid-Halkett, the distinctive behavior of the aspirational class is their inconspicuous consumption. They are more likely to spend money on heirloom tomatoes that they prepare at home than on steak dinners at a flashy restaurant, or on a practical, fuel-efficient compact car rather than an imposing SUV. At the core of the aspirational class is a belief in meritocracy, and its members constantly strive to become more knowledgeable, worldly and moral. Ideally, there should be no difference between improving one’s social standing and bettering oneself as a person in an interconnected world.

In order to market your products and services to the aspirational class, then, you need to look past the conspicuous features and think about the inconspicuous benefits, rooted in education and morals that you can offer to the consumer.

Don’t be afraid to use terms that challenges the consumer to learn more, for the aspirational class, answers are never more than a Google search away. Go ahead and promote a handbag named after a Belle Epoque actress, a menu item inspired by Anhui cuisine, or a business that is ISO 14001 certified—the moment of confusion you may cause for the consumer is more than offset by the positive feeling of gaining some specialized knowledge (or better yet, of confirming that he or she is already “in the know”).

At the same time, brands can appeal to the aspirational class’ values by reaffirming their own principles—including those related to environmental sustainability, social justice, or equality of opportunity. The most important thing is to avoid inauthenticity—don’t try to guess what values matter to consumers; instead, start with the ethical framework that underlies your business and build outward from there.

“Rich oligarchs and the middle class can both acquire ‘stuff,’” Currid-Halkett reminds us, so when you want to market to today’s premiere consumers, don’t just offer them stuff, offer them something to aspire to be. It will be an enriching experience for you both!

And if you have any questions, contact ARTÉMIA and learn more about reaching the aspirational class or any audience.

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