This week I found myself googling fence paint (Cuprinol “Fresh Rosemary” if you’re interested) and I’m weirdly ashamed to admit I was 100% serious. So serious that this morning we got to Homebase for when it opened at 9am to guarantee we didn’t miss nabbing two of the five tins left in stock (according to their website the night before, anyway).
How excited am I to paint my fence? This is undoubtedly one of the most exciting things going on for me right now. I’m excited for all of it – the process of painting (I KNEW I should keep my crummy old painting clothes), the transformation, the styling it afterwards (possibly with some fairy lights or coloured lanterns?!?) and though I don’t want to admit this, the pictures I will take and share with my friends, assuming it’s not a total disaster.
The reason I feel some sense of shame around this particular home-improvement is because it recalls unusually clear memories of conversations with Uni friends – we simply could not imagine anything duller or more dreary than painting a fence. For us, fence-painting was an in-joke. It symbolized a life we certainly didn’t lead; us, with our fancy-dress parties and vodka punch and the remains of inky stamps from club nights on the backs of our hands. Fence-painting was for boring, old people, and for losers.
Perhaps I am a boring old loser now? But I’m not the only one – so many thousands of people have ordered Cuprinol paint that “due to exceptional demand” they’ve suspended trading on their website. According to a Facebook/Opinion Matters survey, 45% of those with outdoor space said lockdown in the UK had inspired simple touches to spruce up their gardens, while Facebook saw an additional one million people join gardening groups in the UK on the site since the 1st of March, when lockdown was imminent. 60% are spending more time in their outdoor space than they normally would at this time of year. Being forced to be in our homes and gardens around the clock, we have all been confronted with the irks and quirks of where we live. But for some, hitherto undiscovered potential has begun to unfurl… my husband’s parents, in their own words “not garden people”, have dug out a vegetable patch and have recently been heard remarking “we really could do with some rain”!
Our ever-evolving identities are bound up with where we call home, whether we like it or not. How else can I explain the sensation of embarrassment coming from wanting to care for where I live? It’s telling me that, surprise surprise, my identity has changed in the last thirteen years. Jess at twenty prioritised living with friends, close to other friends, with enough space to have (lots of) friends over. It didn’t matter so much if it was a little shabby because I was often out and no-one else cared. Pre-lockdown (for most, but not all), escape from home was a possibility, a given. Now it seems like a privilege, and I can’t help thinking how ridiculously lucky I am to face the consequences of the pandemic in a spacious flat with a garden and people I’ve sworn to love and tolerate forever.
Thinking about who I was and where I lived back when fence-painting was the most crushingly boring thing imaginable, I know lockdown would have left me vulnerable, in halls and student houses that weren’t necessarily chosen to be a home, but somewhere to facilitate a social life. I’m not surprised that half of 16-24s reported lockdown loneliness, more than any other age group. Typically living in rented homes where alterations are not possible, and the most likely generation to be negatively impacted financially by the pandemic, in lockdown, “home” might be fraught with challenges, or somewhere that exposes and reflects back the insecurity that you might be somewhere in life you don’t want to be.
So, I have to question why some home brands are playing on insecurities so prominently in their campaigns. Wickes is trying to help us all “Cure Housebarrassment”, while Ikea is here to sell us everything necessary to “Silence the Critics”. Who are the critics? Wickes have done their homework: in their survey, 61% of Brits claimed to be embarrassed by at least one aspect of their home, with women more likely to be critical of where they live than men. Ikea must have uncovered a similar insight: both campaigns have women front and centre looking apologetic and embarrassed about their dated and chaotic homes.
As someone who has researched health, beauty and fashion brands for the best part of a decade now, the narrative of shame is a familiar one – one that the beauty and fashion industries are (quite rightly) waist-deep in attempting to cast off; by visibly embracing a variety of spokesmodels and influencers, catering for and celebrating individuality. Even though it may look a little messy and not the cookie-cutter image of beauty women my age have been subconsciously trained to accept as ideal. Is comparing each other’s houses the new thing now we’re trying not to compare our bodies? I can’t help thinking this home-shaming is the “beach-body-ready” scandal in a different hat. I believe the stat and even more, I don’t question it as a motivation to purchase – I’m definitely guilty of being embarrassed about my home from time to time, but to be reminded of this in an ad in 2020 misses the mark – we want brands that make us feel positive, empowered and creative!
While our homes take centre-stage as an expression of our identities during the pandemic, there is a huge opportunity for home brands and retailers to welcome new customers and tempt old ones back. And they can benefit from the lessons the fashion and beauty industries have had to learn (and are STILL learning) the hard way. People and places are not homogeneous – celebrate their diversity and their flaws; and help them to feel good about it! To do this, inspiration is important – we want to know what potential purchases might look like in real life, not in a studio or staged environment; ASOS’ #AsSeenOnMe is a great example – allowing user-generated content to shine when customers tag how they’ve styled their outfits. Linking social feeds directly with e-commerce platforms gives buyers the possibility of being inspired at the point of purchase, leading to easier decision-making.
Beauty and fashion tend to deliver better inspiration to women as we are already so familiar with using these categories as expressions of our identities; for this reason the digital shopping experience, at least to me, feels ahead of where home is. I wonder whether this comes down to the DIY/Home Improvement sector being so traditionally male – let’s hope they can catch up to how women in 2020 want to interact with retailers as they pursue this segment of the market.