Smash Your Brand On The Punk Rock: 99designs On Appeal Of 'Outsider' Marketing

Seeking to appeal to consumers who crave authenticity, brands are finding inspiration in an unlikely place: the raw aesthetics born out of the DIY ethos of punk rock.

CPG Insider caught up with Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of graphic design marketplace 99designs by Vista, to discuss the phenomenon of “anti-establishment” branding and marketing approaches.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CPG Insider: To what would you attribute the rise in anti-establishment or punk-inspired marketing approaches?

Patrick Llewellyn: We've has seen a 48% increase in small-business clients looking for punk-inspired design work and branding over a twelve-month period, but we really started to notice the trend on our platform toward the middle of 2022.

Considering the global context — with the outbreak of war in Europe, a spiraling climate crisis, and looming threat of recession — it’s not hard to see why a socially conscious punk rock aesthetic has found a new kind of mass appeal.

The trend gained initial traction on the runways of iconic fashion brands like Givenchy and Burberry in early 2022, which seemed to prompt a mainstream aesthetic shift. This has since been reflected back in the marketing of brands spanning an array of different sectors.

What are some of the codified elements of this aesthetic? What is most important to pulling it off?

There are styles, symbols, and visual signals that are synonymous with the punk design trend. Scribbles, chaotic collage, mismatched typography, acidic pops of color, and DIY graphic techniques all offer a visual nod to the zines and printing presses of the original punk movement.

It’s a style that works really well for campaigns, posters and ads -- even packaging design, when applied judiciously. But let’s be clear: Punk is not a universal shortcut to authenticity. It works best when there is alignment between promotion and purpose, ultimately underpinned by a brand’s core values.

Stella McCartney’s recent campaign was a successful example of punk-aesthetic branding -- with its cut-out, zine-inspired collage illustrations and rough-cut hand lettering -- because it was structured around a message. With its call for “productive rebellion” and the organization of social protests on Earth Day, the campaign reiterated the brand’s longstanding support of animal rights and cruelty-free fashion.

Similarly, while some dismiss canned water product Liquid Death as a gimmick, the brand’s brash, loud punk aesthetic is underpinned by socially conscious values and a commitment to the environment. Just look at their #DeathToPlastic campaign. As the most-followed drinks account on TikTok, it is clearly resonating with audiences and generating a cult-like following.

Is there something fundamentally contradictory about "punk-inspired" marketing, particularly when applied to more extravagant or outlandish products?

There is of course a certain paradox in corporations using punk rock aesthetics to sell expensive products.

Punk rock of the 1970s clearly embraced a self-aware, abrasive image to rail against power structures the movement identified as oppressive. But looking at today’s sharp rise in conscious consumerism, we start to see something a little different. The dynamic has shifted because the consumers of today can push back, whether through social media or with their credit cards.

In many ways, organizations and businesses that have a clear rapport with the communities they serve are in the perfect position to drive change.

How does this trend relate to other social and cultural changes? Does it reflect a wider cultural shift? 

Punk is an aesthetic that perhaps resonates particularly with Gen Z because of their sharp awareness and engagement with social justice issues. But it isn’t just that.

Ninety-one percent of of 18- to 25-year-olds believe there is no such thing as mainstream pop culture anymore. This is something we’ve never seen before, and so it isn’t really a shock that an aesthetic trend so anchored in individuality and self-expression should be surging in popularity. 

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