Identity – being different but the same

12th Jun, 2015

A recent article in the Financial Times – the coffee connoisseur’s conundrum (£) – about our need to differentiate ourselves from others (in this instance through demonstrating one’s expertise and knowledge about coffee) reminded me of the old piece of graffiti one used to find in toilets:

“To be is to do” – Socrates.
“To do is to be” – Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do” – Frank Sinatra.

Frank aside, Sartre was clearly right in identifying that nowadays people increasingly define themselves by their activities, in this case coffee.

The article also reminded me of a BBC one man play I saw years ago all about a man who became more and more obsessed with coffee making. He initially moved on from instant to filter then then to plunger before finishing up with a full blown espresso/cappuccino machine. (Such obsession eventually drove him crazy!). I have to say my own coffee interest followed a similar path (without the craziness, I hope, but I leave others to judge that!).

One of the attraction of such a path, whether the expertise is coffee, wine, food , football or the arts is that it aids the increasing desire for individualism (see both our Individualocracy and Connoisseur Consumer trend).

Although such interests satisfy our search for differentiation, they can also support our need to belong (see, for example, our collaborative consumption trend). Although these trends sound conflicting in reality they aren’t – the issue is scale. That is why communities of interest flourish but only so long as they remain relatively small; in such a way we can belong to a community but maintain our difference from mainstream society.

This is the area where scale becomes important. If the ‘obsession’ becomes too popular, one loses the element of differentiation and the intimacy of a selective community. At this point, to continue the coffee analogy, the faff of all the time (and mess) of making ‘real’ coffee (try making a quick cappuccino when you’re late for work) is just not worth it. This is particularly so for income rich/time poor household as identified by our friends (and work collaborators) Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan at Oxford University. One result is that we look for simpler forms of getting a good coffee.

This is why a product like Nespresso works so well. There is a lot of choice, a degree of coffee specialism and one can be part of the Nespresso community. Other brands in other areas should consider this as a template for innovation. But then, of course, the community becomes too popular too large, as is happening with Nespresso now.

The answer? Well, now you can buy empty pods and fill them with your own coffee. Back to being different but the same.

I was recently given some fillable pods as a birthday present and am now experimenting with different coffees to fill them with. I’ll let you know how I get on: it might, of course, ultimately be a return back to being a coffee nerd. Oh well.