The wealth gap in America is widening. The middle class continues its decline. And the divide between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow. It’s such an important issue, that you can actually track the growth in inequality in real time.

But, while many economists have pontificated how this will impact the market, (especially in light of the recent rise in inflation), there is something deeper taking place that is reshaping culture.

To understand the undercurrent that will have a major impact on how brands and products are perceived by consumers, we need to examine this issue through the lens of anthropology.

Because when you do, you realize that the wider the divide among the privileged and under-privileged gets, the harder it will become for corporations and ‘big’ brands to continue to hold the license to operate in society.

Why?

There’s a big difference in how privileged and under-privileged people deal with ideas, entities and organizations that do not align with their values and beliefs. 

To better understand this, let’s borrow from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Nietzsche suggested that those with privilege in society have the ability to simply ignore solutions and ideas that do not match their beliefs. For them, ideas, entities and organizations that fail to align with their core beliefs are mere inconveniences that one has to deal with day to day. 

To paraphrase, they can afford to be apathetic.

On the other hand, those without privilege do not have it so easy. To them, ideas that fail to align with their beliefs are more significant than mere inconveniences.

They become threats.

Ideas, entities and organizations that fail to align with their beliefs almost always hinder their ability to thrive, to provide for themselves, or to feel relevant in an ever changing world. 

The privileged can afford to ignore things that they oppose. They have the luxury of choosing an alternative or just accepting it for “the way things are”. 

The under-privileged have the things they oppose forced upon them. They are left with no choice but to confront ideas they hate or deal with the entity or organization they despise because they can’t afford not to. 

As a result, those without privilege create enemies more frequently and with more conviction than those with privilege. 

What could this mean for large brands and corporations in the future?

We often forget that brands have a social contract with people in any society. This contract enables brands and their owners (especially the larger and well known ones) to operate within a social framework that the marketplace (i.e. consumers) deems acceptable.

But the growing inequality gap means more and more people are left feeling threatened and are on the constant search for the next big enemy – an area where large corporations tend to be favored. In essence, more consumers (than every before) are looking at your brand, company and its products and are asking “Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?” 

If you work for a large company, then you need to understand the beliefs of the under-privileged, no matter your target audience. Why?

Because doing so is the only way to anticipate the changing requirements and expectations that will be placed on your company and brands. The social contract that you are bound by is ever evolving and the top half of the privileged population has increasingly less influence over it. This is why it becomes critical to examine larger issues and shifts in our society through a cultural (anthropological) lens. 

If you aren’t already examining the impact of privilege within your categories of interest, then you should be. 

If you don’t know how inflation connects to privilege (beyond the obvious economic implications) then you need to be exploring this before making any decisions that could impact your brands inadvertently.

If you do not have a grasp on what sustainability means to those who can’t afford it, then you should be decoding those beliefs immediately.

Otherwise you will not only inadvertently contribute to the widening privilege gap, but will increasingly find yourself losing control over the very narratives your worked hard to create.

But wait, what if a corporation has always just catered to the top half of the privilege spectrum? What if you are Peloton for example?

It does not matter, especially if you are a larger corporation. Even if you do not rely on the under-privileged for your business in an economic sense, you do rely on them in a cultural sense – they give you the ongoing license to operate in the social sphere because the stakes are so much higher for them (as explained earlier).

CPGs, Energy Companies, Mid-tier retail and beauty brands all rely on consumers in the bottom half of the privilege scale. And as the size of the privilege divide grows, that reliance will only increase as the bottom half will dole out the social licenses while the top half will use those licenses to make purchasing decisions. So the time is now to start asking about the cultural side of the inflation, sustainability, and supply chain equation.

If your analysis does not extend beyond the math and the science and into the social science, you might be leaving your brands and organizations vulnerable.

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