Marketing to the 'Bobos' a New Breed

Kitchen and bath marketers have traditionally relied on demographic factors such as age and income to predict the likelihood of a customer making a particular purchase. Even now, dealers and manufacturers generally characterize themselves as being in the high-end/luxury business, the mid range or the lower end. The oversimplified premise is: the higher my prospect's income, the more they'll spend.

But today, marketers are becoming more sophisticated, realizing there are huge disparities in purchasing patterns among households with similar demographics. Among two luxury kitchen purchasers, Household A, two 45-year-old professionals making $100,000, might choose slate floors, anigre or wenge cabinets, and rubbed nickel faucets. Household B, with the same demographics, might want polished brass faucets, marble backsplashes and ornate cabinets with a high gloss finish. During the buying process, Household A wants to know about every product detail; Household B is content making choices based on looks alone.

These differences in spending levels, product choices and purchasing behavior are explained by psychographic or attitudinal factors: a more in-depth and targeted way of pinpointing a group of potential customers. Understand-ing the so-called lifestyle segments that comprise your market can make your sales efforts much more successful and allow you to target your displays, designs and selling approach to your different types of customers.

Creative Class
In this column, we'll take a look at one of the most lucrative lifestyle segments for the kitchen and bath industry. This segment is known both as Bobos (for bourgeois bohemians) or the Creative Class.

The term Bobos was coined by David Brooks in his landmark book, Bobos in Paradise, in which he describes Bobos as the "new upper class" that emerged when ex-counterculture hippies grew up and became part of the mainstream business world. They blended values of the two worlds into a new Bobo lifestyle.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, author Richard Florida says the result is more than a blend, it's the birth of a whole new class he dubs the "no-collar" worker. He defines them as "people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content."

According to Florida, there are now 68 million members of the "Creative Class." While they represent about 30% of the U.S. workforce, they are fast becoming the chief influencers of the rest of the population. Their main values are creativity, individuality, diversity and merit.

They differ from other affluent groups in that they are a little embarrassed by their wealth and don't flaunt it. As Brooks explains it, a Bobo determines status by taking someone's "net worth and multiplying it by his anti-materialist attitudes." To a Bobo, "the most prestigious professions involve artistic expression as well as big bucks."

Florida writes that, for the Creative Class, status is based on merit. As a result, this segment has very specific attitudes as to how it should, and should not, spend its money. Fortunately kitchens and baths are high on the list of acceptable expenditures at least the right kind of kitchens and baths.

According to Amalgamated, a new marketing agency that has sprung up to address them, the top Bobo markets are: San Francisco; Seattle; Boston; Austin, TX.; San Diego; Washington, DC; Chapel Hill-Raleigh, Durham, NC.; New York; Minneapolis; and Denver. Conversely, the least creative big cities, according to Florida, are Memphis; Norfolk, VA; Las Vegas; Buffalo; Louisville; Grand Rapids MI; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Greensboro; and Providence.

Bobos appreciate designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, anything Mission Style, anything Zen/Oriental, mid-century furniture, Arne Jacobson, vintage Hermann Miller and Knoll, Phillipe Starck, Michael Graves and Terrance Conran.

Bobos are anti-snobbery, anti-status and anti-big brand. They are reverse snobs. A Bobo, says Brooks, "must show in the way he spends his money that he is conscientious, not crass. The code of financial correctness says that a $25,000 bathroom is okay but a $15,000 sound system or widescreen TV is vulgar. A $10,000 outdoor [hot tub] is vulgar, but a $10,000 slate shower is very Zen, and therefore in tune with the natural rhythms of life."

Doug Cameron, co-founder of the marketing agency Amalgamated, calls the kitchen the perfect Bobo expenditure because it elevates function to luxury. And Bobo philosophy, Brooks says, permits lavish spending on necessities, with a kitchen qualifying as a top one. "When it comes to a room as utilitarian as the kitchen, the sky's the limit," writes Brooks. "A capacious kitchen with durable appliances is a sign you do your own chores, sharing the gritty reality of everyday life."

Bobos don't want trophy kitchens, however. They want to cook and will research all the fine-print details of appliances.

When Bobos cook, they want the best real professional equipment (not just the look), from ranges to refrigerators to pull-out faucets to pot-fillers. "Spending on anything professional is acceptable," notes Brooks. Bobos are serious about their hobbies and want the best equipment, with all BTUs, Chardonnay storage temperatures, ventilation sones and dishwasher gallons calibrated and accounted for.

Bobos also look for the "perfectionism of small things." They will fall in love with all the details: the drawer lined with silver cloth, the built-in espresso machine, the high tech lighting system, the self-closing, full extension drawer glides.

In terms of style, they swoon over anything with texture and natural irregularities, as opposed to surfaces that are lacquered or polished. Think in terms of the "living finishes" on faucets or uncoated brass versus polished chrome or brass. Hammered copper, honed granite or concrete, not polished marble or shiny granite.

Stainless on appliances, but probably not elsewhere.

Soft lighting is important to Bobos. They are enchanted by anything hand made and are likely to want to add the artisan's touch to their spaces with hand-made hardware or lighting fixtures, or hand-painted tile or murals.

What they value, according to Brooks, are products that are authentic, natural, warm, rustic, simple, honest, organic, comfortable, craftsmanlike, unique, sensible and sincere. Bobos are drawn toward the natural: slate, wood, humble concrete. They want nothing shiny or plastic-y and have an aversion to the flashy.

Sales story
How do you sell to a Bobo? You don't. These are people who disdain marketing and, as Cameron put it, "have a high BS detector."

You need to help them "discover" products for themselves. In fact, they will hyper educate themselves to a level of detail that would bore other customers. For them, it's part of the fun of buying. Because they crave creative experiences more than material goods, the best way to sell them is to get them involved with the product. That's why cooking classes are a great way to sell high-end appliances.

Beyond helping Bobos experience the product, you can talk about two things: function, and the story behind the product. Don't talk about prestige, style or trends to this segment. Do talk about dual convection fans, speed and sound rating of the dishwasher, the temperature(s) of the wine cooler and the BTUs of the simmer burner or wok unit.

Bobos crave the story behind the product. Tell them the philosophy/history of your vendors.

They want to know the provenance of their products: Not just cherry, but Pennsylvania cherry. Not just oak, but quarter-sawn white oak used exclusively in the Stickley factory. Not just slate, but Vermont slate. They love the quirky, such as countertops with fossils from a unique prehistoric lake bed out West. The exotic appeals.

Relay the story of your company. Your grandfather was a woodworker who emigrated to this country and set up shop in what is now your showroomhere are his original hand tools. You studied weaving in Guatemala and that's how you became interested in design.

They will also want to tell you their story. And, it's important to listen because it will contain the clues for their designtheir recent vacations, what they collect, what experiences they've had and what experience they want to achieve with their new space.

Above all, remember that the Creative Class puts a premium on individuality and, of course, on creativity. Being creative themselves, they will want you to talk to them as though you were talking to a fellow designer or colleague. They will want to be very involved in the design articulation and will want the whole process to feel like a collaboration. Their spaces will, of course, have to be highly individual. One would hope, too, that because they value creativity, they will be more attuned to compensating a fellow professional via a design fee!

Leslie Hart is executive vice president of the Newport Beach, CA-based Fry Communications, an integrated marketing agency specializing in advertising, public relations and strategic branding for distinctive companies in the kitchen and bath industry. She is the former editor and publisher of Kitchen & Bath Business, and she has created custom books, magazines and marketing programs at Meredith Corp. She can be reached at 212-989-4629 or

Editor's Note: Beginning this month, Leslie Hart will be addressing the impact of key consumer market trends on the kitchen and bath industry in a regular column, appearing exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.