Every season has its Instagram bait, and in winter it is blankets. Right now, every online influencer is nestled in a big chunky throw that’s probably beige and maybe hand-knit, clutching a mug of whatever while the weather outside descends into an increasingly frigid hell. Blankets, though? Blankets are nice. Blankets are, both physically and psychically, cozy.
Blankets are also a very lucrative business right now. Even beyond the skyrocketing popularity of weighted blankets, which are sometimes used to treat people with anxiety, autism, or other disorders, there are roughly a dozen hip bedding startups that have popped up in the last few years, from Brooklinen to Parachute, Buffy, and Snowe.
In winter, urban public transit is populated by miserable commuters in various stages of head colds while its walls are lined with high-contrast ads featuring gorgeous couples cuddling in $200 sheet sets, as if we didn’t already wish we were still in bed. The bedding and sleep industry is now estimated to be worth between $30 and $40 billion.
Selling the idea of coziness is easy when you’re selling blankets. But over the past few years cool, aspirational brands — Hims vitamins, Madewell tote bags, Glossier skin care — have been marketed with the same aesthetic of homey comfort, with retro photography, adorable founder backstories, or Instagram memes about staying home surrounded with your candles on a Friday night.
This isn’t some paradigm-altering concept; people have been using beautiful domestic spaces in ad campaigns since branding immemorial. What does feel new is the marketing of coziness to a generation defined by their desire for it. Self-care, hygge, and newer terms like “domestic cozy” are all means of marketing to a group of cool young people who, even when they’re not at home, want to feel like it.
For Helena and Woody Hambrecht, the husband and wife co-founders of the aperitif brand Haus, the coziness came first. They were living in a hundred-year-old redwood cabin in northern California at the time, the kind of life suited for a career in aspirational online self-presentation. But Woody came from a winemaking family, which drew them to the world of trendy world of low-alcohol spirits.
The product, Haus, is chief among a new wave of direct-to-consumer spirits brands sold online, and with an aesthetic that screams domestic bliss. Or rather, calls it out softly. Helena, whose background is in commercial production, organized a photo shoot in a snug New York apartment with a real group of friends making dinner for each other.
The resulting images are warm-hued and retro-flecked, and sit next to a curvy font describing the brand’s cozy-cool ethos, a conscious pushback against the sterile photography and sans-serif block letters that DTC brands have become synonymous with. While Haus is marketed as something to drink at home, it will also soon be available in bars — the cozy aesthetic was a distinct choice.
“Before what was soothing was a house with white walls and no furniture and modern construction, and now what’s soothing is a house from the 1840s with dark paintings on the walls,” she says. “We’ve been sitting on our computers in our modern apartments for the last 10 years and we’re all miserable. It seems like there’s this metashift happening from cool, minimal, and internet-y to in-person, maximalist, and cozy.”
Michael Janiak, the founder of branding agency Pattern, says he’s noticed a huge increase in digital companies looking to project a homier, cozy aesthetic over the past few years, as reflected in the shift away from cool tones and towards warmer ones. There is, obviously, a broad and easily explainable reason for this: “Right now it’s working because people just want to feel safe,” he says. “The world’s kind of fucked up and it feels crazy. When that happens people tend to pull in, pull their social circle in and retreat into their homes a little bit, and it affects consumer behavior and perception.”
Entire business models have emerged from this shift in consumption habits. In a piece for The Goods about what she calls the “homebody economy,” Kaitlyn Tiffany notes that on-demand food and alcohol, skincare as a moral quest, and Etsy T-shirts boasting one’s plans to “Namast’ay in bed” are all examples.
Brands aren’t just developing products to cater to homebodies, they’re using the aesthetics of home to sell products that have little to do with it. The coziness projected by brands is twofold: The selling point is that this product will make you feel calm and safe, but the experience of using it is still supposed to look good enough for other people to see.
This is the paradox that brands have to contend with when marketing to the customer who has the kind of job to afford fancy liquor and $100 ballet flats but who also feels the world is sort of awful, and it’d be much more pleasant to just stay at home. When Michael’s agency Pattern worked with the women’s footwear company Birdies, the team had to walk that balance: “With Birdies, it was ‘cozy, but elevated,’” he says. “We didn’t want [the branding] to be too cozy. If you’re too comfortable, you’re never going to get off your ass and change the world; that [was the message] they wanted to be sending.”
There’s a clear backlash brewing to the idea that all of our time needs to be allotted for — evidence lies in Anne Helen Peterson’s viral essay about millennial burnout and Erin Griffith’s New York Times piece on the problem with hustle culture. We’ve heard that the perfectly crafted lifestyle account is dead, that young people are rejecting the pressure to catalog their lives in the most algorithmically optimizable way possible.
Last year, Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm, a blog devoted to “unusual takes,” came up with a term for all of it: “domestic cozy.” He argues it’s a defining quality of younger millennials and Gen Z who care less in some ways about performing for society at large and instead prioritize their own comfort. This, in opposition to “premium mediocre,” which he uses to describe older millennials concerned with neurotically crafting an aspirational self-image.
“Instagram, Tinder, kale salads, and Urban Outfitters are premium mediocre. Minecraft, YouTube, cooking at home, and knitting are domestic cozy,” he writes. “Premium mediocrity expends enormous energy preserving the illusion of normalcy. Domestic cozy slouches into the weirdness and simply ignores it.”
Obviously, these are rather abstract concepts and precarious ways of describing entire generations made up of millions of people, but as a way to understand marketing, they can be useful. If twee and hipster culture was a backlash to the bling and brand names of the aughts, domestic cozy is a rejection of the aspirational lifestyle aesthetic and the monetization of every hour of the day.
Rao told Vox that he expects brands to start capitalizing on the tenants of domestic cozy in the next six months or so, but clearly many of them already have: The advertising company that helped make household names of startup culture standbys Sweetgreen and Everlane pivoted to a cookware brand that seeks to “raise awareness of burnout caused by work culture and the attention economy.” Clothing brands like Off Hours make $300 streetwear-inspired bathrobes called “homecoats;” CBD-infused seltzer brand Recess’ cans are visual ASMR, designed to make drinkers feel “calm cool collected” even though CBD doesn’t do any of those things.
If it happens to go truly viral, “domestic cozy” will most certainly fall into the trap that terms like “self-care” and “hygge” have over the past few years, which is to say that it will cease to mean much beyond a means of selling something. Self-care, as Audre Lorde wrote, was a radical act of self-preservation in a world that’s hostile to queer people, people of color, and women, but today is mostly something you’ll see on advertisements for face masks. Hygge, an omnipresent cornerstone of Danish culture, was essentially rebranded by the British publishing industry as a catch-all term for anything remotely pleasant.
All of these words are supposed to signify roughly the same thing — as the Denmark-raised Laura Byager wrote in Mashable, “Hygge is effortless comfort; it has no element of performance. It is absent of all pretense and worry” — which is partly why we keep hearing them recycled every few years in advertising that’s straining for authenticity.
Lexicographer Jane Solomon says that these ideas are particularly attractive to brands because they allow for the possibility of a purchase. “They give people more incentive to buy items than other trends that have recently hit English-speaking countries,” she tells Vox.
“For example, ‘lagom,’ the Swedish concept of having just the right amount, doesn’t encourage consumerism in the way ‘hygge’ might when taken out of its original context. They also have broader applications than something like ‘kalsarikänni,’ a Finnish word for getting drunk at home alone in your underwear.” Of course, once marketers co-opt terms they think will help their brand appear more authentic, the terms themselves no longer mean much at all — hence the need for the constant rebranding of the universal desire to stay home and drink wine with your friends.
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Why does everything look cozy all the time now? The simple answer is the same one it always is: Things are bad, and people are anxious about whatever ongoing horrors are metabolizing in geopolitics, the environment, and capitalism. The other answer is that we’ve had a decade of white-walled minimalism and now everyone’s sick of it. Another truth is that coziness is one of life’s most perfect feelings, and much like sex supposedly does, it sells.
We all, of course, play a role in performing coziness to each other. Matching pajamas for the entire family are now a social media rite of passage; photogenic sheet bakes and cheese plates that look ready to serve at small dinner parties are some of the internet’s biggest food trends. Adorable yurts are popping up in trendy bars across the country. On TikTok, the hashtag #cottagecore, where users show images of their cute rural homes, has nearly four million views.
For the past few months, for instance, I almost exclusively posted photos to my Instagram story that had been pre-cozified by the VSCO app’s C1 filter, which make everything blue-green as if it were candlelit at the prettiest time of evening. I shared photos of lit-up trees and fireplaces and snowy backyards and mulled wine and buffalo print button-ups just like everybody else on my Instagram feed in December, not only because that’s what we do this time of year but also because this time of year never really seems to end anymore. Outside is always inhospitable now, not just in the winter months. Inside, at least, there are blankets.
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