- Text Emily Russo
- Design Aodan Reddy & Philip Cheaney
Apple’s Airpods now account for more than half of global wireless headphone sales. They aren’t necessarily a technological innovation. There were wireless headphones before. And some have argued that Airpods aren’t even wholly superior to other headphones on the market. But the amount of people who have purchased them as a signifier of identity—a strategy Apple effectively employed when they first released white headphones with the iPod in 2001 to stand out against a sea of black—shows how the brand has elevated from product to marker of lifestyle. It has become a case of either owning Airpods or having nothing, with their purchase serving as an entry pass to an exclusive, elite community. Though it’s quotidian to use the term in 2023, this, one could argue, was the birth of brand “worldbuilding."
The Sporty & Rich Club
Recently, we’ve moved past brand worldbuilding into a new territory, one where brand lore, aesthetic and reproducible lifestyle supersedes the core product offering, allowing their leading product—water bottles for Stanley, for example—secondary to how well a startup can market its corresponding lifestyle across socials.
The current wave of lifestyle brands sell more than their products; they sell a philosophy, an attitude, an intangible joie de vivre consumers can absorb into their identity—like an ideological osmosis complete with imagery and values in place of a typical transaction. The person-to-object power dynamic has shifted: rather than defining how our products fit into our lives, our products define how we fit into the world.
One newer brand embodies this better than the rest. Sporty & Rich, founded by Emily Oberg in 2015, boldly asks the question “can a brand even be called that?” According to The New York Times, the Instagram favorite is “a popular line of merch that promotes healthy, luxurious living,” with ambitions to be the next Goop. Its core product? Doesn’t really matter.
Its feed feels slightly indistinguishable from that of its founder: vibey shots of throwback editorial spreads, vintage Victoria and David Beckham, and a fridge full of fresh-pressed juices are interspersed with ambient images of playing tennis, walking the streets of New York, and fashionable drinks from its namesake SoHo cafe.
The product blends in seamlessly with the aesthetic signifiers that define a certain perspective, way of life, values and aspirations–that of being, appropriately, sporty and rich (read: generally fit, affluent or in the process of becoming so, leisurely, and well taken care of). The vibe is the focal point, rather than the products themselves.
Establishing a relationship with consumers via lifestyle markers has its advantages. One report shows that 39% of Gen Zers are more likely to feel loyal to a brand that matches their aesthetic, an increase when compared to Millennial attitudes.
As long as [brands] feel like they speak to me or I feel like I connect with them in a particular way as a customer, whether that’s through their e-commerce styling, social media presence, brand ambassador choices, the in-person retail experience, or whatever else it may be, there’s a good chance I’ll stay on the hook for the long run.- Alexis Castro, Creative Strategist at D1A
Fans respond accordingly. A throwback post of Tennis pro Anna Kournikova sparks an inquiry regarding the return of Sporty & Rich tennis rackets. (The response: no plans in sight, but keep an eye open for Sporty & Rich tennis bags.) The aesthetic informs consumers’ expectations and gives way for the introduction of new, vaguely related products, cropping up when and wherever necessary to sustain, deepen, and dimensionalize a brand’s visual and philosophical legitimacy, rather than the other way around.
Poolsuite’s (formally Poolside FM) Vacation Inc. is a sunscreen brand within a glistening, glorious, forever-summer world dripping in a retro Miami aesthetic, complete with a radio station. Vacation’s product line of sunscreen oils, lotions, and spritzes plays a supplementary role to everything else it has to offer. Instagram captions with lengthy, fictional stories that read as creative writing prompts attributed to archival photos of the vacationers of yesteryear add to a strange yet captivating brand lore, one that is fixed in a past moment and simultaneously transcends space and time.
If you’re looking to expand your brand on social media, the only limit is your imagination.- Oren John, Oren Meets World
You can’t help but get sucked into the endearing Vacation Universe of oddball characters like Hank "Lobby Guy" Mancini, Head Office Designer Lydia Martucci, Sunscreen Event Committee Managers and cousins Emilio and Ronald Morales. It might have you thinking, what does Vacation sell again? Something weird is happening in an undisclosed Miami location, but people want in—perhaps more than they want sunscreen.
Vacation is a pioneer of modern-day brand fiction, a trend in which brands create false stories and fake products, expanding into relatively uncharted territory. According to the “Internet’s Creative Director” Oren John of @orenmeetsworld, “The new trend isn’t just brands co-opting sports or location-based styles but instead doing complete world building around fictional concepts.” John continues, “If you’re looking to expand your brand on social media, the only limit is your imagination.”
Uniforms for a hotel that doesn’t exist, a fictional country club that might not actually be fictional, and a club within a club with Sporty & Rich’s New York Racquet Club–what does it all mean? The rise of brand fiction tells an important story when taken into consideration that 73% of Gen Z only buys from brands they believe in. With more to believe, there’s more to buy into. A Digital Strategy Coordinator at D1A, Patricia Lozada, remarks on being part of a brand’s world as a consumer: “I [love] world building I am [literally] their target audience. One brand specifically is Alchemai which is a hoodie brand from this famous YouTuber and she [only] sells hoodies during limited drops so I am constantly staying up to date, checking every single post, story, etc.” The more robust and dynamic the world, the more consumers have to follow.
Why are brands creating nonexistent narrative offshoots? One reason could be the increasing difficulty to cut through the noise, keep up with volatile algorithms and hold people’s attention. Another reason could be their audience. Gen Z spends the most time online of any generation with an average screen time of over seven hours a day. Brands have more time than ever to fill their consumers’ scrolls, and brand fiction offers the advantage of moving at the speed of social media, immune to real-world logistics like actual product launches and IRL activations. If you can dream it (and it fits into your brand’s ever expanding ethos), you can post it.
The Rise of Trinketism
Trinketism isn’t just a fun word to say, it’s a growing trend popping up in “what’s in my bag” videos, product hauls and GRWMs, with over four million views on #trinkethauls. The growing popularity of “trinketism,” or the use of accessories and unexpected objects to communicate one’s identity to the world, signifies a cultural shift among consumers.
According to fashion critic Rian Phin, “carrying silly little items…[transforms] something oriented around utility into a way to wield identity. I think it’s partially a result of [the] content-creating boom, where people are encouraged to brand themselves heavily.”
Our objects—no matter how big or small—serve as tools to express who we are. Whether or not something is essential becomes moot. It’s all essential if we are to accurately perform our identities. Lifestyle brands no longer serve as mere aspiration, but instead provide us with a set of values and accompanying aesthetic to be purchased and consumed. Now, how we move through the world is only a matter of which lifestyle you deem worthy of a double tap.