Markets Focus: Hip to Be Square

Marketing to the tragically hip can be like kissing the lipless

Skinny jeans, oversize vintage shades, ironic T-shirts that say I survived Jason’s Bar Mitzvah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, American Apparel leggings, Pabst Blue Ribbon: Who can explain the popularity of these things?

They’ve always been with us, from Socrates to flappers to cool jazzmen to the Beats and the hippies. Their grandparents inhabited the Village and North Beach, but they’ve been pushed to the outer boroughs, infesting Williamsburg, Portland, Oakland and Silverlake. Meet the hipsters. And they can explain. 

In his 1957 essay, “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer identified a new breed of “urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action.” While some of Mailer’s analysis is dated — and egregiously stereotypical — he nailed one thing: The hipster’s alienation from the mainstream and search for authentic experiences that speak to his or her inner reality remains the same.

There was also what Mailer deemed “parvenu snobbery” and “dedicated gourmandizing.” Indeed, today’s hipsters remain cultural gourmands, sniffing out and surfacing experiences and products that resonate with their alternative impulses. They’re cultural shock troops, investigating new terrain and bringing booty back to the mainstream.

They discover it, then the word gets around. The cool dive bar is invaded by suburbanites; the shoes show up on high school kids. In no time at all the superficial style of the Beats was co-opted, resulting in the laughable Beatnik. Before you can say “God Save the Queen,” Johnny Rotten is interviewing Good Charlotte on VH1.

 “These young urban hipsters, they tend to live the brands. And they’re very selective about the brands they choose,” says David Mitchell, executive creative director for Digitas Chicago.

Their snobbery translates into dollars. Just consider the difference between a $15 diaper bag from a chain store and the $79 messenger-type diaper bag from Skip Hop. Skip Hop is a New York design studio that promises parenthood need not mean minivans and Rockports. It’s plastered with banners and display ads showing stylish mommies and scruffy dads.

Marketers scrutinize hipsters’ every gesture and pantingly seek their acclaim, sending out packs of cool-hunters and street teams. While the concept of hipsterism itself is played out (as it must be to fit its own criteria), the market dynamic lives on.

“It’s a natural phenomenon,” says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at Golden Gate University. 

“Some people make it their job to cover what’s going on in hip, interesting communities. They’re heard and read by others.”

What’s different is the Internet — and more specifically, social media. The early Web let misfits find each other across continents; no need to move to Avenue C. Now, the discourse of these cultural rebels goes way beyond sharing cultural signifiers — although there’s more of that than ever, thanks to “rate this” buttons plastered on half the world’s Web sites. Now, they’re creating downloadable, sharable cultural works themselves. Moreover, cultural influences from every flavor of street culture are melting together. 

At the same time, the velocity of cultural gentrification has increased.

“Blogs, social networking and new media have made this move into the mainstream more rapid — or at least more possible. Because of all these ways consumers can communicate massively with each other, you have a lot more power to very quickly reach a lot of other consumers,” Strahilevitz says.

Firebrand, a Web site and TV channel that showcases commercial spots, aims to use this dynamic to reach impressionable Gen Y and Millennial consumers. “You can’t go after this group or try to sell them, but if you create a product that taps into what they’re about, the rest of the wannabes will come,” says Firebrand CMO Shari Leventhal.

It’s every advertiser’s dream, recently, for an ad to “go viral.” Firebrand could increase that likelihood by offering the social media tools to let people rate and promote commercials. If it works, it could also get those TV spots in front of these congenital ad-skippers by shifting the frame of reference. Instead of interrupting TV shows, Leventhal explains, Firebrand lets them seek and choose which commercials are worthwhile.

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