Ana Andjelic is a strategy executive, global thought-leader, author, speaker, sociologist and brand strategist who has worked at the world’s top brands and advertising agencies. Her popular newsletter (which is how I found her) The Sociology of Business is a weekly trove of deep insights about consumers and human behaviours, In advance of her book release The Business of Aspiration: How Social, Cultural, and Environmental Capital Changes Brands, I spoke to Ana about the future of media, curator culture, what exactly is an influencer, why consumers now care about the environment, Andjelic’s three tiers of media, why being a trendsetter is part of our human DNA and so much more.
Prefer to listen than to read? Here’s the full audio recording of this illuminating interview:
SF: Can you share more about you and your background.What’s the burning question that you’re looking to answer with your life’s work?
AA: Let’s start from the end. I think it’s dangerous to think of your life’s work because it means it’s done. I don’t think it’s ever done. Even when we’re 80 or 90, your life’s work is never done and you can always bring more to the world and have a role in the world and hopefully bring good to the community and the people around us. So what I’m doing at this moment, speaking of giving to the community, is put to work my academic training.
I have a PhD in Sociology, Masters in Media Studies and that sociology of innovation and technology training, combined with my practical experience working first with agencies for a number of years, and then going brand-side and working as a CMO and chief brand officer at a number of luxury and fashion companies. I like to combine my sociology of business and sociological use of other currents and motivators or trends and influencers that are shaping it.
My particular focus is on how values change. How what we find as consumers valuable. What we want to spend our attention on. And what we want to pay for. What we find worth paying for. What we spend our money on and what we find valuable is the focus of my current work. And that is what my book is about – The Business of Aspiration – which is available for pre-order on Amazon and coming out in October. That book is about how our preferences as consumers have shifted to accruing social and environmental capital. You’re not wearing real fur anymore. Wearing real fur used to be a sign of status and now it is a sign of ignorance. You’re accumulating environmental knowledge if you’re buying from sustainable farms, if you care if your food is GMO, if you know where your food came from in the first place.
Social capital is the capital of which micro-metrics you belong to, or who your influences are. Cultural capital is about your taste and how the taste is formed. So there are three layers [in which] I am operating – taste, community and social influences – and how the changes in these three areas impact business and business strategy and brand strategy.
SF: Where are you from originally?
AA: I am American, as a matter of fact. I am American but I am also Serbian. I was born in Belgrade. I moved to New York 20 years ago to do my Masters and my PhD, and then started work here. So my entire education and professional life was and is in New York.
SF: Nowhere like New York to study the world of aspiration!
AA: Absolutely, you don’t know how right you are.
SF: Before we go into the changing consumer, as I like to call it, I want to talk to you about media. Consumer trends don’t exist in a vacuum. Media has a role to play there. As Green Queen, we provide a range of media content, but one of the things we do is report on the news as it relates to sustainability and alternative protein, and obviously these days the mass media is in discussion in terms of what is media and does media have a future. So I wanted to ask you with your experience and expertise – do you think that news media is done?
AA: Absolutely not. I think we can break that question down into several dimensions. One thing is fact versus fake news, if you’d like. The first thing that bothers me and society needs to work on is facts behind the table. We need to pay for truth, and not everyone can afford to pay for truth these days because when you think about it, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and so on, they are all behind paywalls. They are not accessible to everyone. So going back to capital and aspiration, people who can afford to get the truth get that truth capital. All those opinion-based, don’t really care about reporting and fact-checking news sources, they are free and they are accessible. So when you google something and you see something that is behind a paywall and something that is not behind a paywall, this is about the cost of truth and who can access and who is excluded from the truth. So that is the first part of how the media landscape has sort of shifted.
The internet has become too big, it became too messy of a place, signals can’t be heard. Signals are made in these intimate settings.Ana Andjelic
I am not saying that media should be free, everyone should be compensated for their work and especially now that Google and Facebook have commoditised news and turned it into the last mile for consumers without doing any reporting work, but I think we need to explore alternative models like micro-payments or tiered subscriptions and so on. I think that area, for one, has a big pressure and social responsibility to provide facts not to just those who can afford it but to everyone, regardless of if they can pay for it or not.
The second thing that I’m seeing now is [the media is now] very big and varied. Before there was broadcasting and mass communication and then the internet came, so now I am talking about whisper communication – those micro intimate one-on-one conversations, like you and I are having right now. But also influencers and content providers and creating exclusive membership communities that are organised around specific interests. The internet has become too big, it became too messy of a place, signals can’t be heard. Signals are made in these intimate settings.
The next level is song communication, which is more of a PR or very targeted SEO or targeting digital marketing, where you get what you’re already interested in, in a sense. Then there is shout communication, which is mass media, mass growth, same content for everyone.
So I think we should distinguish between those three layers and I find the first, whisper communication, is the one that is developing the fastest and people investing their time and money the fastest. In the U.S., Clubhouse has gone off the charts. Even within Clubhouse, you have specific clubs. The entire world has become a membership club. There are restaurants in New York that are invite-only, you have to know someone [to eat there]. I think we’re seeing more and more of that as everything becomes so commodified, you want to find settings that are humanly comfortable in the sense you feel free and can share what you think without fear of getting cancelled. That you have a right to privacy, you don’t want to put your information out there because Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are too messy.
SF: Do you also think that part of the rise of things like Clubhouse is because nothing feels exclusive anymore?
AA: I think so, because what my book is about is about how a hundred years ago, you had to be born into money or you had to earn a lot of money or you were born in a certain aristocratic class. So the classes are very well-defined. And there was little mobility among them. In the U.S., of course, it was more egalitarian, not as much a European aristocracy situation, but at the same time, if you had money and class, it was assumed you had taste, and you had access to luxury. And you were the one defining what the trends are, and aspiration used to trickle from those with money and class down to those who were aspiring to live like those who had the means. That was the structure, and now the structure doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s not just about having the money to buy things, it’s about having the taste to know what to buy. That’s going back to the micro-communities and curation and influence and taste. How is taste created? When you look at the niche magazines now, in recent years, there has been an explosion of these very specific vertical interests. How to grow succulents, how to make drip coffee at home, how to make homemade bourbon…These are all aficionados that are organised around shared passion. And second, if I decide tomorrow I want to become a coffee connoisseur, I can become that. There is the information available online, I know which coffee shops to go to, I know the coffee providers. Now, educators and curators of a specific lifestyle are replacing influencers. Because the moment you want to become a furniture aficionado, I will go to some mainstream places, but there are also so many blogs from people who care about it. You don’t need to be the richest or the smartest, you don’t have to be born with a great taste, you just need internet access to achieve a specific status.
I’m not saying this is egalitarian because it’s not – not everyone has internet access for one, and second, not everyone has time to invest. If you have three jobs and are a single mum, you’re not going to get on that aspirational hierarchy by the very nature of [your limited free] time. But I’m saying the way that curation is both created and distributed is different to a hundred years ago, and yet you’re still using the same hundred-year-old sociologists and the theory of society and what luxury is.
SF: You mentioned three different words: influencer, educator and curator. You used educator and curator as the same and influencer as different. How do you see these terms as different?
AA: Influencers don’t have specific knowledge or a point of view but they have a wide reach. So someone who lives across the street is an influencer, they might know how to put nice clothes together or are paid by brands to wear clothes, but they don’t have knowledge that goes behind. The depth. The curator would say: hey I chose this specific street because in the 1970s, someone lived here and there was a poet and a movement, there is a culture behind it and there needs to be specific taste beyond the surface and a specific passion point that is more cultural than just trendy. Not all trends become culture.
SF: Some people say: there are too many influencers now, everyone is one. Have we reached peak influencer? Or will there always be influencers?
AA: Everyone wants to be an influencer, it’s human nature that we want to influence others that we want to measure ourselves against others. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because again, you have influencers and there are three layers – scream, song and whisper. You go for a specific interest around their passion, and then you go to someone who has hundreds of millions of followers to see what’s new. You go through different influencers, but it is in our human nature to distinguish ourselves from others. Even during quarantine in New York, it was like “Oh did you go out today?” or “What did you make?”. There is this competition between people, even when they do not have access to any sort of social situation.
SF: I want to go back to media. You write a newsletter. We are doing an audio interview that we will share the file to, and these are two formats of content consumption that have grown, and it fits into some of what you’re saying, but I’d love to hear more from you about the rise in things like podcasts and newsletters. Is this because of the whisper community? Because it allows people to zero-in?
AA: Yeah I definitely think it’s all connected. It goes back to everyone having tools to be an influencer and sort of being able to express themselves and having means and ways of doing that. So if you have a certain taste or passion, you can share it with everyone and build your audience if they share it too. That sort of aspiration economy that it has created around everyone’s interest point, it doesn’t have to be streamlined like mass media. That’s why you had more cultural icons back in the day – Madonna, Air Jordans.
Everyone wants to be an influencer, it’s human nature that we want to influence others that we want to measure ourselves against others.Ana Andjelic
SF: You did a very interesting newsletter on how there will never be another Air Jordan because now there’s too much access and too many different curators for one product/person to rise to the top the same way.
AA: Exactly, we don’t have many shared meanings these days. So I think that’s like finding shared meaning in your micro community and exerting influence in there and having your micro-community icons. So if you have some sociology icons in my community, no one else is gonna know about it. But even those people who everyone knows about, they are sort of controversies, and they can be positive and negative, like Kanye West or Elon Musk. They are visionaries or crazy, there are different interpretations of popular figures. I’m sure they are iconic things and certainly iconic ideas and shifts, like with technology, but I’m not sure that humans will take that role.
So that’s why I say you can share your passion and that’s the access that is democratised through podcasts and newsletters. I think that everyone can be a radio station, that’s kind of what podcasts are, and now that is why it isn’t anymore about creating things, it’s about who curates those things for you because there are so many of them, who will give you a specific angle or download of things you need to know. Even I’m subscribed to some newsletters because I am interested in the selection they bring, but not all newsletters have the selection I am interested in, but someone else might be. So there is this giant fragmentation. I think that this is a good thing, like if people have access to broadcasting, everyone can, if you’re good at what you do you can amass an audience.
SF: I want to go back to the curator thing because that is very important, but what I want to ask you about is this tension between how we’re constantly told people have no attention spans, they want short videos, people hate reading, it’s all about video, but then we also have the rise of curators and people educators and formats like newsletters and podcasts, and that seems to me a contradiction.
AA: Well it is a contradiction, because when you talk about those having 15 seconds of attention, you are again talking about scream communication, you’re talking about mass media and Snapchat. But when you’re talking about whisper communication, something you are interested in, [that’s different.] Some teenager wouldn’t spend three seconds on my newsletter. We’re talking about the passion and interest and micro-community around you that happen to share the same passions and interests that’s why you’re willing to invest time and attention in my newsletter. I will listen to a podcast and invest my time. Think about it in those three layers, we select how we want to focus our attention, and yes, we do all suffer from ADD that is for sure, but we are willing to overcome that for things we want to learn and are interested in.
SF: Based on everything you’re saying, curators are really gonna matter going forward because there is just so much content, so many brands, so many products. So what is a curator? What makes a good curator?
AA: I think that there is not one way to do curating, you can do it on a number of different things. It can be by interest or by popularity or by everything that comes from friends, or something that is connected to a specific period in history. People come not because they feel overwhelmed but they come because they want a specific point of view. They say: he or she has a good eye or great taste and I want more of it. They are coming for that educated perspective because curators originally came from the art world. You had to go to school, you had to spend years educating yourself to put this specific filter forward, that is at the end of the day, a point of view. So curators are never neutral, they put forward this point of view and now, everyone has a point of view, everyone has an opinion, that doesn’t mean they are a good curator.
Good curators are those that offer the why – why you need to know about it, why it is relevant and they unpack specific events or ideas or products and say: hey, you know, this IKEA lamp actually goes down in this design group because they work with this community that don’t have electricity and if you don’t have access to electricity you can’t work after dark, study after dark, the development of a country goes down. So I mean that gives a completely different perspective of how you see IKEA as a brand if you know these things. Someone else will do the curation of IKEA based on colours. These are two different curatorial lenses. It’s not just there is so much out there, it’s what point of view, what filter you are exposing yourself toward.
SF: Fascinating. I want to think about that more. The next part of the question is what I call the changing consumer. Part of the reason why I started Green Queen, first as a blog and then as a media platform, is that I felt that there was this movement starting, almost 10 years ago now, that the world was going to change when people found out more about things were interesting me at the time – how we grow our food, how our clothes are made, how people are not being paid fairly. All these things that were keeping my attention and mind busy. I felt there was a shift. And I want to talk to you as someone who has watched the evolution of trends and culture, why has there been this huge shift in consumer culture in the past 5 to 10 years, with people caring about climate issues. There have been activists talking about this since the 60s and 70s, but suddenly, everyone is talking about it, including brands.
AA: Well, have you seen the temperature outside? Prediction [has become] reality. Now there is no choice. Either you are going to change or you aren’t going to be around in 100 years. The urgency that we have now is something that is pressing, for one.
Second of all, I think it’s also [that there is] more information and it is easier to spread information about conditions in factories, air pollution or about non-transparent value chains or landfills. It’s one of those things, how ideas in societies spread if the mood is right. Timing is important for ideas to catch on.
So I think the mood has become right in the sense that there are too many fast fashion brands that didn’t exist in this shape or form. 10 years ago, you couldn’t go and buy like you can on Boohoo a dress for US$8. Zara used to create actually something that was a higher quality before and not at the same speed as now. The format of fast fashion didn’t exist so we couldn’t act against it. But once the fast fashion started existing, we saw what was going on – this thing is made of polyester and is such low quality, you are throwing it away after five wears, where does it go?
The third one you have the visual culture that didn’t exist at such an intensity because of Instagram and that pressure of always new, always new. The fashion industry has reached its own fever pitch when you see the cycle of products is so short now, especially with the newness so high, you will of course see the opposing force. Where do all the clothes go? What is this doing to us? Then you see all these reports, there are always reports on the planet and environment, I just think it is more visible because, again, the urgency is higher.
SF: I love what you said about visual culture. I always thought the videos of people swimming in Bali with plastic bags is what got the whole world suddenly talking about plastic.
AA: You see conditions that were there, the world is so much smaller now, those images can travel further. But there were always people spreading the message, so I think it’s about the consequences are more dire than before, that we are more aware. It is our reality. Humans are not wired to think about the distant future. Oh glaciers are melting? I can’t visualise it that doesn’t impact me and I have bills to pay. But suddenly, when you can’t leave the house because it is 45 degrees Celsius outside, I remember in my living life it wasn’t like that before then you’re like holy shit, you know? Humans react when it impacts them directly. Heat waves in Europe in the past five years? Well this is not going away.
SF: It feels like today you cannot really be a brand without the risk that someone is going to take you to task for your ethical or environmental misbehaviour. There is cancel culture, social media feedback and consumers feel empowered to say to the world that this brand didn’t do something right. Do you see it being positive in the sense that we’re going into a world where brands and products can be pro-planet? All of them?
AA: I think that it’s a good thing that there is consumer pressure, and it is a good thing that people are looking at labels and asking questions. But I don’t necessarily agree that cancel culture is great for everything. I think it is easily weaponised and easily used against someone you don’t like. This mob thing is dangerous. And because it’s not nuanced, it is black and white, it is dangerous. With all the issues in the world that are complex, you need nuance, you need debate and conversations, conversations that come from different points of view.
And I think companies themselves, you aren’t going to buy toilet paper if it came from some factory in China because you have so much choice, you’re going to buy toilet paper made from bamboo if you can afford it. I think that this is also a class thing, unfortunately, there are some people who can not afford to not shop at Boohoo, there are people who can’t afford not to shop at Poshmark. It isn’t that they like fast fashion, they just can’t afford to shop anywhere else. So I think we’re facing a bigger challenge of creating affordable living. We aren’t going to solve it here and now, but I think we are going to recognise that there are many mechanisms that can regulate these things the same way tobacco companies are now highly taxed. It is expensive to keep smoking these days. The same way that oil companies are highly taxed. So I think there are regulatory mechanisms that are policy but also economic taxation mechanisms to prevent fast fashion companies or those companies that are putting out more trash than they are creating. They are creating something that costs a lot to society in terms of the environmental and human cost.
With all the issues in the world that are complex, you need nuance, you need debate and conversations, conversations that come from different points of view.Ana Andjelic
SF: Absolutely. Going back to consumers, do you think that being a consumer is a human fundamental? Are we just hardwired to be consumers in this capitalist world we now live in?
AA: I think that we are hardwired to create distance between ourselves and others to socially distinguish ourselves. Our evolutionary history is from monkeys, there are alphas [in their societies]. It’s in our Neanderthal brain to see and download situations and see this person is like me, it’s a friend, this person is not like me, they are an enemy. I think that differentiation is inherent in our features. I think consumerism plays into the impulse of social differentiation of feeling good emotionally about yourself, decorating yourself to communicate your seniority or play up or say something about yourself. It’s all social impulses. With all the issues in the world that are complex, you need nuance, you need debate and conversations, conversations that come from different points of view.
SF: There is a whole anti-consumerism movement, one that I write about a lot. Consumerism has damaged the planet, animals, the environment. In a way, any time we consume we produce waste that we don’t really need unless it’s food or shelter. So how do we reconcile consumerism, which as you say, plays into our natural human impulse?
AA: That’s what my book is about, how we create status and distinction that is not based on accumulating commodities, airline miles, oh I’m an influencer travelling down the world, or social media likes. It shifts aspirations towards the micro. The micro communities, how to do good in an immediate community or taste group or contribute in that way and how to educate, how to switch from showing appreciation for commodities to culture. How to show your self-awareness or social consciousness by buying from local farms and celebrating what is already out there. That is a distinction that not wearing real fur shows. Because when you don’t wear fur you position yourself as wearing Stella McCartney and position yourself as someone who is more socially and culturally and environmentally aware than someone who is still wearing fur. Aspiration is moving into the domain of intangibles, hopefully. It’s not about how many followers you have but what kind of taste communities you nurture and manage.
This interview has been minimally edited for clarity purposes. Transcription by Sally Ho.
Lead image courtesy of Ana Andjelic.