The following article is part of Highsnobiety's new white paper "Culture, Culture, Culture: Quantifying What Matters Most to the New Fashion & Luxury Consumer" created in partnership with Boston Consulting Group. To read the full extensive deep dive, download below.

By 2026, 61 percent of the world’s luxury consumers will either be millennials or members of Generation Z. In order to better understand the behavior of this new majority of consumers, Highsnobiety and Boston Consulting Group teamed up on a new white paper 'Culture, Culture, Culture', a deep dive that quantifies what matters most to the new fashion and luxury consumer.

We focused on two cohorts: traditional fashion and luxury consumers from Gen Z to Gen X, and an emerging group we call “Cultural Pioneers.” We surveyed 7,000 luxury shoppers, as well as 1,900 members of Highsnobiety’s audience serving as a proxy for the Cultural Pioneer: The top 1-2 percent figures in the new luxury landscape, who, despite being highly influential, do not fit the mold of an influencer.

The New Landscape

In today’s battle for the consumer’s attention, clicks, engagement, and conversions were the dominant metrics for measuring the success of a brand’s performance in the 2010s. However, forward-thinking brands are now increasingly looking beyond unsustainable short-term wins and doubling down on the credibility that helped them become relevant in the first place. Although less tangible in nature than data-backed metrics, broader cultural interventions are what stand to benefit brands the most. The essence of cultural credibility is community. While our study found that brand-owned channels such as websites, physical stores, and mobile apps are still among the top five sources of inspiration for the population at large, the younger and more forward-thinking cohorts increasingly move away from brand-owned channels and skew towards offline encounters and the people they follow on social media.

Under the Influence

For decades, top tier editors, stylists, photographers, and buyers were the leading cultural gatekeepers to taste. They were the early adopters, dictating trends for the following season. But influence today has become democratized, with digital influencers flipping the scale of whose validation matters most. According to Business Insider Intelligence, the value of the influencer economy is predicted to be worth between $5 and $10 billion in global ad spend by 2022. With the barriers to entry having been dramatically lowered, the landscape has become homogenized with a skyrocketing number of online influencers implementing formulaic growth strategies. Influence, now at its saturation point, is becoming increasingly difficult to quantify and trace. Those that have actually driven it for decades, however, never left.

Meet the Cultural Pioneer

While there is no one formula to becoming a culturally credible brand, the most successful ones understand that this power is in the hands of the audience they need to be speaking to most: individuals whose style everyone admires in their digital and everyday lives, the friend who makes the best recommendations, the first to a trend and the first one out, the person who is part of the machinery that pushes culture forward — the Cultural Pioneer.

The figure of the Cultural Pioneer is influential, but cannot be described as an influencer by the commonly accepted definition. Their power is their authority, not necessarily their reach. Among the five consumer personas described by Everett M. Rogers in his Diffusion of Innovation theory, Cultural Pioneers represent the “innovators,” those who embrace new ideas and commodities even before early adopters. Consider them the people who your favorite influencers are actually being influenced by.

Cultural Pioneers are also significant in other regards. As is typical of the “innovators” and “early adopters” outlined in Rogers’ framework, they comprise the top percentage of enthusiasts who are early to embrace — and later push out — ideas and innovations to the latter masses. Cultural Pioneers skew younger (or are young at heart). They are comfortable with new technology, occupy identifiable positions of influence through their professional or social lives, and are likely to purchase fashion and luxury items more frequently than other consumers.

More than 30% of Cultural Pioneers say they are inspired by independent lifestyle publications as opposed to main- stream magazines. Less beholden to big-name advertisers and more likely to indulge in deep-dives on ephemera and niche stories, these platforms are integral for cultivating communities around a shared enthusiasm for established and up-and-coming labels.

When it comes to shopping, for Cultural Pioneers a purchase decision isn’t born from a sense of manufactured scarcity, but an in-the-moment gut reaction stemming from a real connection with products. It’s best described as a sensation where you didn’t realize you needed something so badly until you found out it existed. They tend to trust multi-brand retailers like Dover Street Market and The Webster over traditional department stores because of an equal willingness to take risks with product and to help consumers discover the novel and the new.

What Cultural Pioneers and credible brands have in common is a tacit understanding that credibility is not a privilege, it’s a responsibility. The power of a platform is determined by its relationship with its constituency.

Our research shows that the influence of Cultural Pioneers is omnidirectional: they form the top percentage of enthusiasts who amplify cultural developments, in turn helping brands to reflect attitudes within the broader population. This runs deeper than visibility on social media, since this volume of reach is superseded by position and relevance. The lesson here is simple: Brands need to appeal to this influential cohort who are not necessarily on the hunt for product, but are spectators in search of inspiration and community.

Going forward, they are the strongest indicator of where the market is heading next.

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