How the New Consumer Thinks

By July 29, 2016 Industry No Comments

Let’s just get something out in the open right away: This is going to be another article about Millennials.


That’s because Millennials make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and represent $200 Billion in annual buying power.

But this article is going to be about Boomers, too, because they’re still buying things. AND, it’s about the group sandwiched in-between, the Gen-Xers. Because contrary to what Ethan Hawke’s most famous Gen-X character Troy Dyer might have conveyed in Reality Bites, Gen-Xers do buy shampoo. And lots of other things.

So actually, this article is really about all of the major consumer groups (even grandmas, grandpas, kids and teens)! But let’s get to shakin’ before we start sounding too much an Old Navy ad.

The New Consumer

There’s a growing theory out there that does away with generational classifications in order to divide the world’s discretionary spenders into two main groups: Neo consumers and Traditionals. This theory, developed by academic researcher Dr. Ross Honeywill, posits that most Americans (and some Canadians) with money to burn make purchasing decisions based on two sets of distinct behavior and thought patterns.

Here’s a brilliant little video explaining the new consumer:

The Rise of the “Neo”

According to Honeywill, Neo consumers are motivated to buy when they are offered the extraordinary: A novel experience few others are offered or an object with a story behind it — a sense of provenance (think: artisan bread from a small bakery, a microbrewed beer or locally-grown tomatoes from the farmer’s market).

Remember that Portlandia skit where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are belaboring the life history, thoughts and feelings of the chicken they’re about to order for dinner? They might not have identified the skit as such, but they were definitely spoofing Neos.

Turns out, though, the buying power of the Neo consumer is no laughing matter: It’s actually serious business. According to Honeywill, 93 percent of Neo consumers are “Big Spenders”: Individuals identified to be in the top third of discretionary spenders in the economy. Neos and “Evolvers” (those set to become Neos) also make up a quarter of the North American population and are responsible for 77 percent of consumer spending and most of the profits businesses make.

The Millennial Misconception

Contrary to popular belief, all Neos are not Millenials. In fact, individuals of all defined generations can be found in the Neo group.

“Some of these NEOs are young, but by no means all,” writes Honeywill in his book, “One Hundred Thirteen Million Markets of One”.

“Some of them are creative, but they may just as easily be accountants and doctors. Some have kids (or grandkids) but others couldn’t take care of a houseplant. They are not Yuppies, Dinks, Boomers, Generation X-ers, the Creative Class, Outliers, or any of the other labels we so readily throw around.”

The “Traditional”

By the same token, not all Traditionals are non-Millennials. Traditionals, like Neos, cross generations and demographics. What binds them together, however, is their consumer habits, which are at odds with those of Neos.

According to Honeywill, “[For Traditionals’] status, features and functionality seem to rule their logical lives, with design or emotion coming last … Fifty per cent of the adult population, they define themselves by their jobs and their conspicuous, if erratic, consumption. This is the bedrock of the consumer monoculture and nothing will shift them from their devotion to big brands, big malls, status and the conspicuous consumption of products that tell them, and everyone else, who they are.”

So, who’s who?

Here are a few more contrasts to illustrate the difference between Neos and Traditionals:

1. While the Neo is chiefly concerned with the “extraordinary,” (products that are beautiful, rare and come with a story attached), Traditionals are interested in “the deal” (what’s on sale).

2. While the Neo makes purchasing decisions based on his or her connection with the product (its story), the Traditional is more likely to buy the product with the most features.

3. While the Neo chooses objects based on how they represent his or her sense of individuality or unique personality traits, the Traditional chooses objects that convey his or her status.

What does all this mean for real-estate marketers?

At this year’s Dwell On Design conference, Mike Hetherman, CEO of building materials company Wills, offered the following advice: “For Traditionals, use the old marketing model. Persuade.”

In other words, convince your potential buyer of their need for your product. Highlight the bells and whistles associated with it. If you’re a luxury real-estate marketer, publish features lists. Stress the number of rooms, bigger spaces, the five-car garage, home gym or granite countertops. If a home has dropped in price recently, note that in your next newsletter. If a prominent architect or interior designer worked on the home or if a celebrity has lived there, say so (if privacy stipulations will allow, of course).

But if you’re marketing a home to a Neo consumer?

“Lead with design,” advised Hetherman.

Have a conversation with the potential buyer about how the home’s design will improve his or her every day. Tell the buyer about what the countertops were are made of (recycled materials, perhaps?). Stress the provenance of the wooden ceiling beams (Reclaimed? Original?). Talk about the history of the neighborhood and how it fits into the culture surrounding the home. If there’s a particular quirk in the home’s construction (a hole in the floorboard where a note or object was left many years ago for a future owner to find, for instance), talk about it. Stress the home’s uniqueness, its sense of ‘one-and-only.’

Above all, when seeking to reach the Neo consumer, tell a story.

Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Use the power of film.
If your budget allows, create a film (or two) about what it’s like to live in the property you’re marketing. In an L.A. Times article last year, a real-estate agent explained the importance of storytelling through film for the luxury market this way: “When you’re selling a house like this, what they’re looking for is lifestyle, not specifics,” Kramer said. “We’re in the want business, not the need business.”

2. Create a lasting, beautiful website.
A great story demands a gorgeous setting. And unlike a novel, if you’re selling property, you can’t rely on the buyer to use his or her imagination to create it. Instead, employ creative copywriting, custom photography and graphic design to support the key plot points of the tale you weave.

3. Keep telling your story through social media.
A marketing plan doesn’t end once the story is written. In fact, it’s just beginning. Once the website and films have been created, it’s time to spread the word. Utilize appropriate forms of social media to remind potential buyers of the property’s singular history and features.

The Bottom Line:

It’s important not to forget the Traditionals. Remember, they still make up half of the U.S. adult population. For them, features lists, price changes and the cache of buying “the best of the best” is still in play.

But for the Neos? “[For the Neo consumer] it’s time to stop speaking in bullet points,” says Hetherman. “It’s time to start storytelling and creating a movement.”

Learn more about Honeywill’s work and how it can influence your marketing strategy here.


What kind of a consumer are you? Do you agree with Honeywill’s assertions? Leave us a comment or email sabra@ruhm.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

We make luxury famous. Let's Talk