WeWork may have overreached but lifestyle brands aren't going anywhere. Here’s why
Recently, I stopped by a WeWork in West Los Angeles.
Weeks earlier, news had broken that the company had incurred losses of almost $2-billion in the past year, its IPO had been postponed, and co-Founder and CEO Adam Neumann had been forced to step down. But inside the airy WeWork space off Jefferson Boulevard, it was business as usual. There were no kumbaya circles or other indicators of the brand’s much-hyped “spirit of we.” Mostly, there were just a lot of people working.
As we now know, work was never really the point for WeWork. Neumann aspired to “elevate the world’s consciousness,” reinvent the notion of work—and by extension—life itself. He turned out to be a false prophet. But WeWork’s positioning as the ultimate lifestyle brand offers a window into understanding its role in consumers’ lives today.
Once, only a handful of iconic superstars such as Apple, Ralph Lauren and Nike aspired to become lifestyle brands. Today, however, becoming one is essential for those that want to remain relevant, even survive.
We tend to think of a lifestyle brand having a specific audience (urban millennials) and a specific look: “Instagrammy” aesthetic, pastel color palettes, clean san serif fonts. Think Glossier (skin care and cosmetics), Sweetgreen (salads), Outdoor Voices (athleisure). But, like WeWork, they also sell the conviction that by purchasing their product, customers will get to express a unique aspect of their identity, perhaps even become better versions of themselves.
That’s an important distinction, because when you constantly express your identity via social media, the brands you align yourself with increasingly become extensions of who you are. Which is why I’d argue the devoted followings and stratospheric growth of such brands derive more from the stories they tell about themselves—and by extension, their consumers—than the actual goods they’re selling.
Three seismic cultural shifts are driving this trend.
We’re lonelier than ever
A recent study from YouGov found that 30 percent of millennials say they “always or often feel lonely” (vs. just 20 percent of Generation X and 15 percent of Baby Boomers). A wave of other recent research reveals the “loneliness epidemic” is real across a spectrum of ages and geographies—and can be life-threatening. It’s easy to blame technology, but our fraying community ties (we don’t know our neighbors anymore, we volunteer less than we used to, we live alone today more than ever before) also play a major role. Lifestyle brands, with their ready-made value systems and unique languages (visual, sensory, auditory) make us feel deeply seen and connect us to others who share similar values. And when a brand espouses a value system that “gets” us, the evidence shows we’ll buy—and buy in.
We’re abandoning age-old institutions
Our relationship to the institutional structures that once formed society’s backbone—family, religion, government—has changed dramatically in recent decades. Marriage rates are way down. Attendance at religious services is at an all-time low. Voter turnout is abysmal. We put our faith in institutions in part because they represent a larger system of shared values. But today, what’s missing are shared systems of any kind that help us make sense of the world. Lifestyle brands jump in to fill the void, imparting meaning amidst chaos. One brand that skillfully leverages this idea is The National Rifle Association, which has become a formidable political lobbyer, largely because it drums up ideological fervor in its adherents by equating gun ownership with the most quintessentially American form of self-expression: personal freedom.
We’re prioritizing personal identity over all else
Whereas we once looked to community and societal institutions to help shape our belief systems, that task now falls on us. And we’re embracing the identity quest with gusto. Our jobs, marriages, children, friendships and side hustles are all vehicles for “self-actualizing” in ways that would have been considered unthinkable just two decades ago. Lifestyle brands thrive in this environment in part because they encourage us to believe that working on ourselves isn’t narcissistic or selfish, but actually vitally important work.
Admittedly, acting as a stand-in for your priest, rabbi, BFF, therapist or life coach is a heavy burden for a lifestyle brand to bear. But when you’re selling a belief system, responsibility comes with the territory. It’s a task WeWork failed to master. But the company’s downfall serves as a cautionary tale for other brands: if you tell consumers you stand for something larger—something that could potentially change their lives—you’d better deliver on that promise, from your products to your hiring practices to your marketing plan to the behavior of your CEO. If you can’t, then maybe you’re not cut out to be a lifestyle brand in today’s marketplace.
Maybe you’re just meant to be a regular brand selling a regular product—like, say, office space.