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Data Tales with Sophie

Data Tales explores the human story behind a number and ponders what this means for brands and culture with Smyle Strategist Sophie Hulf

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

A recent survey suggests that 87% of job hunters under 28 have abandoned a new job on their first day, whilst 93% have stood-up interviewers entirely. Whether lazy or liberated, young adults are redefining their working relationships. What’s behind this change, and is it so bad, after all?

By 2030, 30 percent of the world’s workforce will be Gen Z – concerningly, a demographic which is the least engaged at work (at 54%) of any generation to date. From ‘bare minimum Mondays’ to ‘lazy girl jobs’, competitive, sacrificial dogmas of ‘the hustle’ are being left behind in favour of gentler career goals. However, unlike its predecessor ‘quiet quitting’, this new wave of work-life is rooted in protective self-care.

First seen as a trend amongst Chinese graduates in 2021, Tang ping, or “lying flat,” is an antidote to overworking. A rejection of society’s pressure to succeed, the ideology instead celebrates a relaxed way of life, and the act of doing nothing as a state of resistance.

Entering the workforce during a state of perpetual downturn, many young adults are acutely aware of the odds stacked against their financial favour. Traditional goals can feel unattainable (only 41% ever expect to own a home), leading to a sense of apathy – it’s so bleak, why bother at all? Increased awareness of burnout is also helping expose toxic working practices, for so long accepted, and even rewarded, as the ultimate sign of career commitment (I’m looking at you, Miranda Priestly).

Instead, people are increasingly opting for happiness, with 73% of under 28s prioritising quality of life over extra money in the bank. Women are also entering the workforce at historic levels (in part thanks to increased employment flexibility), and are significantly more likely than men to say personal wellbeing is very important when considering a new job – raising the collective bar for setting healthy boundaries. It seems ambition is not lost – just redirected, towards holistic personal fulfilment.

Younger employees have leverage in the way of cultural insight, the key to many marketeers’ dreams as brands aspire to meaningfully connect with younger audiences. Ultimately, businesses need GenZ more than they need out-of-touch employment. Appealing to (and keeping) a younger workforce is essential to brands’ understanding and delivering for a changing consumer climate.

In the eternal work-life tussle, it seems ‘life’ may finally be taking the lead. All ages could benefit from boundary setting, prioritising wellness and recalibrating what matters to them. In living by these refreshing values, and choosing to rise above the rat-race, employees are taking back control. To keep talent on their side, it’s employers that need to keep up.

AI Love

For many, Valentine’s Day means a card, flowers, and… software updates? Apparently, since searches for ‘AI Girlfriend’ soared this year by 2,400%. In fact, a recent survey suggests 31% of people would be open to relationships with AI. What does this new era of love say about consumer connections, and what’s shaping it?

50% of UK adults report using AI daily to some degree. With virtual and personal lives increasingly entwined, it’s hardly a surprise that people are now looking to fulfil core human needs with a little automated help.

Dating has been digitised since the 90s, and as someone newly engaged to a former right-swipe, I’m familiar with the romantic potential of technology – one in five relationships meet online. However, whilst apps shattered the stigma of online dating, they also made it a game.

Online courting creates a buffer between prospective partners – a sensitivity gap which can numb the perceived impact of actions, or make the recipient seem less real. Now, up to two-thirds of people who use Tinder are already in a relationship, and almost half aren’t actually interested in meeting. Instead, chasing ego and entertainment – virtually fishing, with little intention of making a catch.

The leap to AI doesn’t seem so great; a seemingly harmless (at least, human-less) flirtation with fantasy. Sophisticated chatbots have reached uncanny human likeness, able to act with reciprocating gestures of affection. Despite effectively an algorithm, 46% believe that a romantic relationship with an AI (if committed elsewhere) would constitute cheating, and a further 33% are just not sure.

But it’s not all bad; for many, AI-powered chat tools provide respite from loneliness and a welcome illusion of emotional intimacy. Sometimes, talking is more important than being listened to – and a virtual ear is just as effective.

Young people, in particular, living so much of their lives online, crave companionship and authentic connection – whether romantic or otherwise. For this same reason, dating app Hinge launched its Social Impact Fund, committing over a million dollars to tackle the loneliness epidemic plaguing its Gen Z users.

You can’t spoon AI, at least for now. Technology falls short of offering a long-term solution – glossing over (and even, maybe exacerbating) an intrinsic yearning for togetherness. Conventional relationship dynamics are being increasingly challenged as people recalibrate what love looks like and reject antiquated norms. Whether human, virtual, or a bit of both – people find their fix in a way that works for them.

As the digi-love-life overlap comes to an inflexion point, brand communication ought to offer empathetic and authentic value. Whilst people grapple with an evolving reality of modern dating, it’s important brands stay open-minded, embracing the messy fluidity of love and AI as it plays out in real lives and real-time.

Trend-mas

Buckle up; it’s the most magical time of a marketer’s year! Trend season is officially here. However, with 71% of TikTok users saying they saw the biggest trends there first, what impact do micro (and even nano) social trends have on life beyond the hashtag… and what’s driving them in the first place?

From a Tomato Girl Summer to Mermaidcore and Monk Mode – the TikTok trend machine has been working overtime to fill our feeds with the latest cult phase. Overnight, a niche style statement is transformed into a cultural hot commodity. Raising the question: trend… or just trendy?

Defined as “a general development or change in a situation or in the way that people are behaving”, cultural trends are a long-standing governing force within the creative industries as brands vie for consumer relevance. Nowadays, the sphere of trend influence seems ever smaller, and the impact duration recedes from years and months to weeks and even days. 

Whilst beguiling for brands, for consumers, the obscurity of microtrends is a part of the draw. Often born out of online communities, adopting super-niche aesthetics can feel like an inside joke, an IYKYK nod that positions you as a cultural insider. 

From homeware to fashion, there is a performative element to self-expression and an ephemeral playfulness to regular reinvention. Unsurprisingly, teenagers and young adults are key, used to curating a stylised self-image and clashing together sources of inspiration for unlikely combos, such as CoastalCowgirl, which achieved over 220 million views on TikTok this year. 

However, microtrends are more than just a cyber bubble; they have a real-life impact on retail. A must-have style moment can vanish just as quickly as it rose to viral fame – leaving a trail of purchases in its wake. Social media exacerbate this cycle, shortening product lifespan to ‘one (on the grid) and done’ and contributing to wardrobes over twice as full as twenty years ago.

So, how do we recognise a trend from a fad – and when do brands know when to sit up and take notice? Driven by self-expression and social kudos, microtrends do make waves. But, perhaps the greater barometer of cultural relevance is seen from taking a step back and looking at the bigger ‘macro’ patterns that arise. In doing so, brands have an opportunity to predict shifts ahead of time and begin to shape culture rather than chase it.

Side Hustling

44% of UK adults have a side hustle – described as a small business or second job alongside their primary career – this leaps to 62% of Millennials and nearly three-quarters (76%) of Gen Z. From crafting to content creation, whilst ‘hustle culture’ is dying, side hustles are certainly not. What in the Bill Gates is going on?

The same shifting priorities that have prompted quiet quitting are a driving force for re-directed ambition. Younger people are disenfranchised by corporate 9 to 5 norms and are more demanding about what they want from work. As a result, they are reinterpreting the job market in a way that works for them.

For many, this manifests as an entrepreneurial spirit. Side hustles are the tiny acorns from which mighty oak trees can (and do) grow. And since 62% of Gen Z intend to start their own business, there is no time like the present – particularly if underwhelmed by the status quo.

Side hustles can be lucrative, pulling in over £200 per week on average, which is important because over half of those who start one do so (at least in part) for fiscal support. The harsh reality is that mainstream salaries aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living, meaning additional revenues are often more a necessity than a nicety.

Side hustles have increased amongst all ages since the pandemic, as more job flexibility and less (if any) time spent commuting have unlocked productive hours. Diversifying income sources can also be a safer option in uncertain economic times. Meanwhile, accessible and intuitive technologies, and of course social media, have made business management and marketing less daunting, democratising access to those who dream.

Pre-existing passions are the perfect springboard, inspiring 73% of side hustlers with the added benefit of greater work fulfilment. Taking control of your career, particularly featuring a personal interest, can inject a new sense of purpose into daily life.

This movement isn’t without drawbacks; hobbies and leisure activities serve a valuable need to decompress and reboot, easily compromised if monetising free time. Toxic productivity and pressure to succeed can risk sanitising the pleasure of once-loved pastimes. Sometimes, we need to do something just because we enjoy it.

So, what can we learn? Both consumers and employees are demanding more from businesses; and what they don’t find, they’ll create elsewhere. To keep ahead, brands ought to embrace the side-hustle spirit of flexibility, ingenuity and grit. And with a little B2B in (almost) every C, it’s more important than ever to connect over passions, not products.

Rise of the Granfluencers

Despite being responsible for a quarter of all consumer spending, over 60s represent just 4% of people in adverts. Refusing to fade into insignificance, an upswing of older people are reclaiming their cultural identity with exuberant defiance. What impact are these mature mavericks having across intergenerational attitudes?

TikTok is now the fastest-growing social platform among Baby Boomers, but far from being passive observers, video uploads from this audience have seen a 30% increase in the past two years. By taking the camera into their own hands, audiences that are often overlooked or misinterpreted by brands have the opportunity to craft their own identity.

From all corners of society, web-savvy ‘Granfluencers’ are helping to redefine how we think of later life. There is liberation in defying stereotypes and reclaiming autonomy – to no longer be seen as an extra in the lives of others. There’s no expiration date on being fabulous; as Robert Reeves, 78, and one-quarter of the viral Instagram account Old Gays, put it, “We don’t just wither away and die. We’re full of life, vibrant and being active”.

The result has intergenerational appeal, with 60% of Gen Z and Millenials saying they love watching content from the over 60s. People of all ages crave authenticity and feel inspired by watching older people live out their dreams with unashamed defiance. Their content is often funny, candid and culturally astute – a reminder that age does not define us.

Particularly for younger viewers, the wisdom of older generations offers reassuring stability. Seeing older people living their lives to the fullest can also help to destigmatise ageing – a scary prospect within a society obsessed with youth. Now, growing older doesn’t look so bad after all.

Positive attitudes towards ageing have been making progress offline as well as on. Back in April, Martha Stewart graced the cover of infamously sexy Sports Illustrated at 81. Just this month Pamela Anderson attended Paris Fashion Week bare-faced, in what was praised as a courageous act of rebellion. Older women, finally emancipated from the exploitation of their youth, finally have a platform to reclaim their own narrative.

Whilst brands are preoccupied with obsessing over Gen Z, it’s worth remembering that the number of over-60s is growing. The silver economy, as it’s known, is perhaps the least represented by brands, despite holding huge potential – not just through buying power, but also the influence they have over younger generations. Brands are seriously missing out. However, to make meaningful connections requires radical inclusion of older people as diverse and nuanced individuals; rad in their own right. Perhaps the best way to show up convincingly is by passing the mic and letting older audiences speak for themselves; the benefits are intergenerational.

Selfless Sustainability

A new study has shown that people are half as likely to choose a meal if labelled vegan on the menu, despite being far more likely to choose the same option if unaware of its eco-credentials. It seems as if knowledge can do more harm than good.

At least where dinner is concerned, people frequently skew against what they know is likely the more sustainable and healthy option. By defying the status quo, we question whether it will taste as delicious or be as satisfying – a risk apparently not worth taking. What should be a win-win, inadvertently feels like a loss because we equate sustainability and veganism with compromise. And who wants compromise!?

Ultimately, perceived trade-offs don’t appeal to our personal needs and desires. This tiny act of self-indulgence is bolstered by internal rebellion. An urge to do something specifically because you ought not to. We like to feel as though we are making choices solely on our own terms.

This summer has exposed the dire reality of climate change, with the alarming impact of unstable weather felt worldwide. Despite a rising urgency to act, the number of people invested in helping the environment has fallen by 10% since 2020.

It’s not that people don’t care, but even the most climate-conscious can grow numb to the constant onslaught of bad news. Living in a perma-crisis is exhausting and can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless, without the emotional stamina to focus. What difference can one meal make anyway?

Lack of awareness also isn’t the problem. Research shows a 70% gap between what people know and what we actually do in regard to sustainable choices. Often, information doesn’t translate into action unless it also signifies personal gain – a perception shift which can be leveraged by brands. Tesla, for example, has overcome the stereotype of sacrifice by aligning green energy with luxury, so now you can be bougie and feel smug about it.

As progressive behaviours become normalised, outlier brands are more able to cross the chasm from early adopters to broad acceptance. People can be hesitant to try something new until a large enough wave of social momentum signifies safety in numbers.

So, what can we learn? To drive meaningful behaviour change, we need to appeal to selfish needs. Martyrdom doesn’t work, and nor does doom and gloom. Instead, brands need to counteract negative connotations of sustainability by celebrating personal gains alongside global ones. Next time faced with a menu, ask yourself, does the label have anything to do with your decision?

Superfans

61% of 11 to 26-year-olds consider themselves a superfan of something. If you like it, there’ll be people that LOVE it – but what does it mean to be a superfan, and what’s the draw?

Fandom grants instant access to a community. Whilst all ages find comfort in connecting over shared interests, something about our formative years makes the fan experience extra appealing. Fandom offers an orientation within culture, and a sense of self, which can help define a fledgling identity. During teen years of self-discovery, there is safety in numbers, and when finding your tribe, you find yourself.

For young people today, though, the online possibilities are endless. From Trekkies and Bronies to Beliebers and the BeyHive, superfans are drawn together from the most niche corners of culture. Today there is kudos associated with authenticity, no matter how eccentric – it’s cool to be loud, proud and yourself.

Sports fans are no different, with 37% saying their passion has grown over the past three years. The Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive has breathed new life into the dwindling Formula 1 fanbase, bouncing back from a 12-year low in 2016. Similarly, Ryan Reynolds’ investment in, and documentation of, Wrexham FC has turned a small-town team into a global underdog story. In both examples, the emotional human narrative (and pull of personality) resonates with younger audiences.

Bigger platforms also mean more influence and opportunity to advocate outside their field, appealing to socially conscious Gen Z. Think Marcus Rashford’s free school meal campaign, Stormzy’s Cambridge scholarship program, and Tom Daley’s… knitting. The impact is a multi-dimensional fan base; you don’t need to love tennis to rate Naomi Osaka speaking out about mental health.

In a world ruptured by division, super fandom connects people from all walks of life over the thing they love, recognising similarities over differences and delivering a sense of belonging that transcends other demographics. Social media allows 24/7 intimate access whilst giving fans a voice.

When communities pull together, they can become a body in themselves, like a trade union, with power to make opinions heard. Recall the backlash when the Game of Thrones finale didn’t live up to expectations? Brands have much to gain by genuinely listening to fans, mitigating push-back and staying accountable to core values. The result can be lifelong support, even once passion has waned to nostalgia.

So, what can we learn? There is no greater advocate than the superfan, and never a better time to form them than adolescence. Brands ought to draw on emotion, invite interaction, and embrace authenticity. More importantly, give power back to the people… often it’s superfans who know (and love) brands the most and are trustworthy guardians.

Feeling Pink? You're Not The Only One

Photos released from the set of the Barbie film prompted searches for all things pink to increase by over 400%. If a picture can tell a thousand words, a colour can tell, well, more. The Barbie marketing machine is casting ripples across retail, from fashion to motoring – with listings of pink convertibles up 93% on last year. What does this Barbie movement say about audience behaviour and beliefs?
 
The brand has dramatically diversified since record low sales in 2015, criticised for perpetuating gender stereotypes and unrealistic body ideals. Today, for me, Barbie represents a reclamation of femininity as a choice, rather than an expectation; you can reject old ideals without losing pretty things. ‘Bimbo’ status itself has been rebranded as an act of rebellion. If you’re familiar with Netflix hit Selling Sunset, you’ll recognise the theatre of Barbie-esque power-dressing; Elle Woods walked so that Chrishell Stause could run…
 
There is an indulgence to the Barbie trend that is evocative of cosplay; permission to be your own main-character and romanticise your life to a point of unashamed fantasy. Combined with appetite for nostalgia – of 90’s kitsch, butterfly clips and low-rise jeans; living-out childhood dreams of pink convertible cruising is equivalent to an aspirational Instagram post for the real-world.
 
At its core Barbie feels celebrative, joyous, and a bit silly. Given years of global turmoil, our longing for escapism is hardly surprising. What makes Barbie more resonant though is the foundation of undeniable smarts. Film marketing content has been witty in a way that feels like a wry joke amongst friends, the irreverent unspoken humour of shared experience – a tone struck only with the precision of a female director, Greta Gerwig. The result is a feeling of cross-generational sisterhood – this time, women are on the inside. 
 
This sense of togetherness has been encouraged by infectious memeability. The Barbie selfie generator was an instant social hit, whilst #Barbie is nearing 13 million uses at the time of writing. Snack-able video content, widely shared on Instagram and TikTok, has played into the media landscape of the moment.
 
The Barbie movement has illustrated the cultural impact of a brand experience intersecting with social appetite. The film hasn’t launched yet, but at this point, it barely matters. So, what can we learn? 
 
In the making since 2009, I can’t help but think that if released any earlier, the social impact would not have been as great. Timing is crucial, as escapism meets self-expression, and a Tiktok trend is fulfilled in cinematic technicolour. Now is the time for brands to embrace femininity, optimism, nostalgia and daftness. Oh, and girlhood. Listening to women’s experiences and speaking directly to us.

See also

Country House

The Lockhouse,
71 Mead Lane,
Hertford, SG13 7AX

Town House

Albert House,
256-260 Old St,
London, EC1V 9DD

Manchester

Studio 105, SeeSaw,
86 Princess Street,
Manchester, M1 6NG

Amsterdam

Suikersilo-Oost 22,
1165 MS Halfweg,
Netherlands