Do you lose your counter culture cred if everyone can own your exclusive product?

by Yvonne Brown

The other night I was watching Hasan Minhaj on Netflix and picked up some fascinating tidbits about a staggeringly successful, globally influential company I’d never even heard of. In this show about the economics of streetwear , one of fashion’s hottest trends, I learned the brand Supreme is both super hip and maybe selling out.

Supreme, which makes t-shirts, hoodies and various accessories, originated in 1994 at a New York City skateboard shop. It caters to young males, highlighting skateboarding and hip hop.  Supreme’s website (link) says it has a unique identity and attitude that embodies young counter culture, defying convention, while offering quality and authenticity.

At the centre of the Supreme phenomenon is its box logo.Supreme often melds this logo with symbols from other popular artists and brands like Jackson Pollack, Nike, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton and Coke. This process of “lifting” or appropriating others’ work has long been a fixture of street culture. Supreme admits the concept for its basic red and white logo was taken from anti-consumerist artist Barbara Kruger “I Shop therefore I am” [photo]

Check out the cheeky lookbook Farmland Foods put together in response to Supreme hijacking their pastoral logo.Ironically the company that built an empire using other people’s work sues when it happens to them.

While Supreme’s business model is built around scarcity, last year the brand was valued at one billion dollars. That’s a heck of a lot of hoodies! Supreme releases a large number of different products, but only a relatively small number of each one. They don’t do big advertising campaigns or large scale press releases just short announcements on their social channels. Their message is then amplified across social media, especially Instagram, where celebrities, fashion-forward influencers, and collectors create an echo chamber of excitement. Once these items are released, some can sell out in a matter of seconds before emerging on resale websites, marked up 1,000% or more. (BBC, Capital)

“The beauty of fashion is that it’s conspicuous; everyone knows what you’re wearing, so if you’re wearing a scarce, fashionable product, you get the benefit of knowing privately that you own something scarce, but also the benefit of being able to show other people that you can own a scarce product. “ explains Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Alter was defining the hype beast and hype beasts are very critical of brands that compromise whatever cool essence they have sought to cultivate.

“Once a brand loses exclusivity, people shy away from it,” says Walter Harvin, editor-in-chief of Uncommon magazine, a publication for young artists in New York City.

And now we have the Carlyle Group, a huge investment banking corporation that buys and flips all kinds of companies for profit – the ultimate reseller.  Carlyle, who is involved in everything from donuts and hamburgers to oil drilling and fighter jets bombing Yemen  — not at all cool or ‘authentic’ – has quietly bought out roughly half of Supreme. It’s believed Carlyle will try to grow Supreme’s business quickly. When that happens, large numbers of ‘scarce’ t-shirts and hoodies could flood the market. Does that mean Supreme’s reputation will then collapse?

Maybe the Supreme/Carlyle collaboration isn’t a mistake in marketing or media relations, it will undoubtedly make its creators and purveyors a great deal of money in the short term. But it’s definitely looking like greed is all set to kill the golden beast. If you build your reputation on being hip and exclusive, selling out to a not-at-all hip, monster corporation may just kill your street cred and your reputation.

Mind you, if a middle aged lady like me is talking about it, Supreme has probably drifted pretty far from hype already.

Targeting women doesn’t just mean turning it pink

img_0929Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So in honour of that, today’s blog post is about how to create messages aimed at women. And a hint, it’s not just to write them in pink ink.

(When I was uploading the pink Lego photo, my son said: “It’s so stupid that they think just because they made it pink it’s for girls.” Very smart, my son! He might be guest blogging for me soon.)

Bic Pen for Femalesbic for her

In 2012, the internet blew up a little in response to a new line of pens from Bic called the Bic for Her. It’s basically a regular Bic Pen but in various pink, purple and mint green colours, and marketed at women. Because, one assumes, women were tired of men stealing their blue or red pens and wanted one they could keep for themselves. It boasts features like “elegant design – just for her!” and a “thin barrel to fit a women’s hand.”

In case you don’t understand why this is a bad idea, let me explain in easy words. By making a pen for only women, you are implying that the pens you made before were only for men, or perhaps that women were unable to use the ‘men’ pens, or that if a woman used a ‘man’ pen she would do it wrong. Getting the words of your messages right is incredibly important, but the words you select also have implied meanings that must be considered.

Reviews and news coverage of the pens showed that consumers were seeing the implied messages of this marketing idea. Here are just a handful of the hundreds of scathing reviews posted on Amazon for the Bic for Her pens:bic-for-her

“Why would anyone even consider inventing this? Are normal pens not suited for women?…This pen is made specially for women because we cannot use normal pens correctly, I presume. This is why gender equality is not present in our current society.”

“I lent this to my brother so he could do all the math that was too hard for my lady brain, but as soon as he touched it, he… turned into a cloud of sparkles! These pens are too feminine for anyone other than women to use! Keep them away from your loved ones, or any man.”

“I had despaired of ever being able to write down recipes in a permanent manner, though my men-folk assured me that I ‘shouldn’t worry yer pretty little head.’ But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like callouses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!”

“I bought these pens as my ovaries dictated, but when I took them out of their packaging and tried to use them to note my car’s mileage they told me to get back into the kitchen where I belonged.”

Now I love a pink or purple pen as much as anyone, but by marketing these pens directly for women, Bic created implied messaging that didn’t paint their company in a favourable light, especially not with those who care about gender equality and feminism. Pens are pens, and you don’t need to be a certain gender to use certain pens. We’re not talking about the fit of work boots or underwear. If Bic felt inclined to sell more pink and purple pens, they could have simply sold pink and purple pens, without perpetuating gender stereotypes that most women in this decade thought were in the past.

Lego, take note.

The art of asking the public their opinion, part one (British Gas)

The art of seeking public opinion and engagement has undergone a lot of change in the past decade, as the internet and social media have opened up the variety of ways in which we can ask people what they think, and the ease at which they can now tell us their thoughts. It’s got many advantages for the world of public engagement, but some organizations forget about the basics when planning an engagement campaign, and have seen disastrous results.


Take the case of British Gas. A couple years ago, they decided to get on board with Twitter and hold a “Twitter town hall”, where Customer Service Director, Bert Pijls, would answer questions from the public. They used the hashtag #AskBG.

It seems like a good idea on behalf of the social media team, but they forgot one basic rule of engagement — timing. The same day they launched #AskBG, they also hiked their rates by 10%, which was not a popular move. The hashtag quickly filled with some very witty put downs of the gas company:


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Needless to say it didn’t go well for British Gas, and after an hour they gave it up.

Had this been timed better, BG might have been able to have true engagement with customers. But their timing was way off. And under the circumstances, they failed to use this surge of public participation to their own advantage. Some key messages, tweeted out, about their rationale for charging what they do (they must have had them!) might have helped. Or could they have directed tweeters to check out tips for fuel efficiency, maybe even in a cheeky way? Instead of letting the hashtag overtake them with negativity, they should have looked for ways to turn it around to advantage as quickly as possible.

Today’s lesson: When your organization wants to ask the public its opinion, be sure you know what you might hear and how you’ll deal with it before you open yourself up to public input.