The recession, the craft trend and its impact on marketing

Image representing Etsy as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Yesterday, I mused about the new frugality as a consumer trend, and its impact on marketing.

The depressing economy can be a bleak landscape for marketers (and okay, just about everybody).  No matter how bad things get, however, Americans will still want to spend money.  It just may be less, and for different things.  Status and luxury items are not in — or they will always be in for a certain consumer, but not for the general public. In fact, in ritzy areas like Palm Beach, the struggling wealthy are quietly disposing of their accoutrements in high-end consignment shops.

But the consumer trend associated with “craft” is successful in this economy.   Anything that appears whimsically or uniquely handcrafted — whether it’s jewelry, fashion, wrapping paper, home accessories, bedding, beer, wine, cheese, cupcakes, or dog biscuits — is finding a market now.

With a little creativity, marketers can capitalize on the popularity of this trend by associating their products or services with the attributes of craft.

The e-commerce site Etsy seems to be the epitome of this trend.   You’ll also find more expensive manifestations at the high end, boutique-style retailer, Anthropologie.

Anthropolgie owl cookie jar

Dolce and Gabbana jeans, $400

As I mentioned yesterday, the thrift store “discovery” chic is becoming irresistible to certain consumers, particularly young and affluent consumers (Anthropologie targets customers who have a family income exceeding $200,000).  Affluent consumers still love style but in this economy, eschew ostentation.  So, you’ll find paint-by-number items, crochet, knits, quilts, patchwork, and quirky ceramics, such as this $128 cookie jar owl from Anthropologie.  And every retailer is selling new jeans that are faded and shredded.  Dolce & Gabbana offers this pair for men for $400.  Pair distressed jeans with mismatched knits and retro accessories, and you have a “recession” look that is really in.  A little ridiculous, perhaps?  But that appears to be what consumers want!

Anything vintage or retro works, with fad items featuring birds, owls, lace, prints, wallpaper, and florals.  Mismatched patterns in fashion and tableware are hot.  It’s pretty, feminine, and fun, perhaps even sentimental or folkloric, but not really kitsch, eccentric or tongue-in-check.  No one is going for the laugh in these times of sobriety.  These are quality items with an endearing appeal for people who, if they have to stay home and reflect, want to be in surroundings that uplift and excite them.  Mixed in with the retro/thrift chic look are textiles that have been perceived as inexpensive but beautiful, such as fabrics from India and the Middle East.  All of the looks have an individual, hand-crafted or assembled feel.

Ford Flex

There is also — in the handmade appeal — the sense of limited or unique.  During an economic downturn, I’ve noticed that the sense of the individual and tolerance for differences seems to increase. When the economy is good, conformity returns, and we all dress the same.  But in a recession, everything is in fashion.  Any hemline goes.  Of course, there are trends, but it seems to me that people embrace different and unique, and they aren’t afraid to stand out, because they have much less to lose (and spend).  That’s one reason why I believe we’re seeing quirky and fun car designs right now, like the Ford Flex that looks like a California 60s vintage station wagon.  Businesses and consumers are more willing to take risks, perhaps, and this is what results.

Applying the craft aesthetic to marketing and design

I believe it’s important to recognize that the craft aesthetic doesn’t just reflect our tightening belts but also our feelings of insecurity.  I think a return to things that are handmade (which infers competence) or appear older (which imbues nostalgia and comfort) seem somehow more honest or trustworthy; the products give people a reassuring sense of  stability and security in uncertain times.

Consumers are also turning to small businesses instead of large ones, whether they’re selecting a beer with dinner, or a bank.  In a recent survey, 83% of consumers said they would choose a small, local, independent business over a larger chain.

Etsy tray, $20 (Note handcrafted quality of pins & burlap wrap on plant! Burlap is a hot texture right now)

Buying objects that are purely decorative (but also affordable) also give people a sense of power over their economic circumstances.  When almost every purchasing decision has to be weighed for its practicality, it can be be almost exhiliarating to visit Etsy and purchase a vintage papier mache tray for $20.

Marketing messages and key words that play on this desire for security and comfort and the appeal of craft include terms like handmade, handcrafted, human hand, artisan, and vintage resonate to cost-conscious but style-oriented consumers.  Vintage, but perhaps not antique.  The connotation with vintage is affordable.

A designer or branding professional could apply the craft aesthetic to marketing other types of products, too, just by picking up on the underlying value messages, or, in design, borrowing the soft palettes of retro pastels, burnished metals, burlap and homemade paper textures, stamp-effect fonts, and adding elements of whimsy or friendliness to copy and slogans.

In a woeful economy, graphics and production mistakes are sometimes overlooked, forgiven, or even intended, if the underlying message is value or craft.

Charlotte Russe capitalizes on the trend with recession-aware, craft-inspired style collections such as Vintage Treasure and Fleur Fatigue

Just as messy hair, retro accessories, and ripped jeans are “in”, a designer who wanted to acquire trust (or sales) might elect to make a design for an advertisement or even a website look a little less than perfect, retro, or handcrafted, rather than polished, contemporary and sleek, if the brand supported that.

In an odd extension of this homey aesthetic, people tend to trust online video (for example) that appears to have amateur production values, to the point where some expert video producers intentionally make their videos appear less well-produced than they are.

Any marketer could take the spirit of the craft aesthetic by emphasizing the value and unique attributes of his or her brand.

I’m still working through these ideas.  Feel free to leave your own contributions in the comments.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thinking about the consumer trend of “localism.”

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on August 22, 2010, in Consumer Trends, Marketing Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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