We live in an era of blurring boundaries and crumbling definitions of who we are, what we do and where we are in life. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus or Cara Delevingne have recently come out as neither straight nor gay, but happy somewhere in between. Fashion has echoed this with gender-neutral collections from Prada, Gucci and more. In retail, London-based department store Selfridges hit the headlines in March this year with its Agender campaign, which proved highly successful.
Within developed economies at least, sexual fluidity (and fluidness of the sexes) rules. Where once this absence of definition signalled precariousness, now it signals privilege. Fluidity has become aspirational.
But is it sustainable? And where does it go from here? At Flamingo Cultural Intelligence, we can’t help but think that as humans we surely need structure. Every brand manager knows a brand identity without structure becomes amorphous, undifferentiated. So it’s not that strange that humans tend to gravitate to it too; structure helps us define ourselves.
Debbi Evans, a gender expert and founder of Libertine, a lifestyle and media brand ‘for thinking women’ says we need to think about individually resonant structures rather than societally dictated ones: “People need structure in their lives, just not necessarily one that‘s been imposed upon them.” She references the recently launched Poly Life app, which is designed to help those in polyamorous relationships and households. It features a to-do list where you can select a partner to help with any task and a calendar to arrange events with one or more partner. “It’s got nothing to do with sex,” explains Evans, “the app exists simply to provide structure for the household.”
The evolution of digital behaviours and desire for privacy speaks to the need to impose restrictions on the ‘anytime, anywhere’ ethos digital platforms nudge us towards: in a recent study by home security specialist, UK Yale, two thirds of those surveyed insisted mobile phones are banned from their dinner tables.
These structures, it seems, are still important for how we organise our time and space, but are becoming ever more self-defined and self-imposed. So what does that mean for our identities?
“One of the mistakes we make now is to assume the identity categories and binaries that we’ve been living with for the past few decades have always been around,” says Matt Cook, professor of modern history at Birkbeck University who specialises in the history of sexuality, “Organizing sexuality around being gay or straight is pretty new. Historians of the future might look back and see this last 50 years as a slightly odd period when things were so much more fixed.”
According to Cook, it’s not that people in the future will live totally fluid lives without structures, but that for many there will be ways other than gender or sexuality in which they frame their life. In the middle of the 19th Century for example, it was about class, education or religious affiliation, so these things do evolve.
One direction this might go is hinted at in the upcoming Selfridges installation, Constellations, which celebrates mysticism and spirituality.
“People feel able to talk about these things much more than they used to,” says the company's creative director, Linda Hewson. “People used to be frightened to use the word ‘spirituality’ for want of being put in some kind of box, but people feel much more confident and comfortable talking about it now. I see this as a new age of expression.”
Perhaps what will rise then is expression around less obvious, less binary axis. Ones based on our philosophies, inner beliefs and things that go deeper than who we are attracted to or what we choose to wear.
This poses a serious challenge for brands in that they can’t simply continue thinking along the traditional lines of consumer categorisation and behaviour. It opens up an opportunity for brands to align along these deeper seams of the self, thereby enriching people’s lives with meaning, not simply material.
It might even be an opportunity for the brands to revel in a bit of ambiguity themselves. To adopt a more experimental approach to marketing: build it, put it out there and see who comes and associates with it as Coke have done with their recent Ramadan campaign promoting a world without labels: ‘labels are for cans, not for people.’
But the risk is that brands with global positionings end up embodying sharply divergent values and attitudes across different territories. Cara Delevingne and Miley Cyrus might appeal to whole generations of young people in the West, but their liberal attitude to sexuality won’t find much favour across much of the developing world. Reconciling this tension will take up an increasing amount of brands’ time.
Labels might not be for people, but there’s a good reason why they put them on cans.
These are the questions we have taken to our expert panel for the next issue of our Hive Mind Magazine, out this November.
Miriam Rayman, cultural intelligence, Flamingo