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.

Knowing the difference between content marketing and journalism

what-is-content-marketingNow that the internet has taken over the way we absorb information, we have entire new industries cropping up that generate “content.” Content used to come primarily from printed sources — books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Then radio and tv, but now from everywhere and everyone. Naturally the credibility of the content we find online varies, to say the least. But generally, we still rely on mainstream journalists to give us some level of credible, ethical writing. At least, some of us do.

There’s a whole new profession called ‘content marketing.’ Once upon a time we called it mostly advertorial, but it’s basically producing information for a marketing purpose, that’s not really advertising. Wikipedia describes it as:

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.

So clearly this is not journalism. People will pay for content marketing, but you can’t pay a journalist directly to write about you. At my journalism school we were taught about the horrible error of “business office must,” where the ad sales guys try to influence who or what gets covered in the paper, but we ethical journalists push back for our neutrality. PR people understand that, which is why we pitch reporters, hoping to get their attention, but don’t pay them for coverage. But content marketers have not all learned that.

vasn_20120630_final____c5_83428_i001Take the case last fall in St. Louis, Missouri, of a lobby group, Grow Missouri, that offered to pay journalists to write blog posts promoting their tax reform messages. A representative of an agency working for Grow Missouri  emailed reporters asking them to write blog posts for the lobby group saying lovely things about Grow Missouri. but these are the same reporters who usually cover the issues in which the group is involved.

So to be clear, this is NOT good PR, nor is it ethical PR. But then again, it wasn’t really PR at all, was it? It was an attempt at content marketing, but with the wrong writers.

And what happened? Well, the reporters who were approached laughed, ignored, and then posted the emails they were sent by Grow Missouri and blogged about how wrong they thought this was. So of course that made it worse, because now it was public. The agency that sent the emails apologized, but by then Grow Missouri had fired them and they weren’t smelling so sweet in public opinion.

…we mistakenly contacted five journalists who cover politics, asking them to write articles that would appear on our client’s blog. Our team did not realize the conflict that this would cause for these individuals.

PAC tweetPAC tweetThe issue of journalists being in conflict comes up all the time (watch for a later post from me on the CBC’s recent troubles with one of their ‘journalists’), but this story just goes to show that while the internet may have changed how we get our content, the credibility of mainstream media hasn’t changed, really. And that’s a good thing.

When marketing stunts turn into bad PR, learn from history

When marketing people look for big ideas, they often come up with some kind of stunt, hoping that the event attracts media attention (online or mainstream). These stunts are attractive to marketers for their “PR-value”, as in “Think of all the free PR we’ll get.” And yes, sometimes they work and brands get a lot of good attention. But sometimes, the attention isn’t really the kind the marketer had in mind.

snappleTake for example Snapple’s idea to promote its new line of frozen treats in 2005 through attempting to set a Guinness World Record by erecting a 7.62-metre-tall popsicle in New York’s Union Square. It was a summer day, and guess what, the giant popsicle melted and turned into a sticky pink mess.

Snapple flooded Union Square with 1.75 tons of kiwi-strawberry-flavoured melting juice, with the liquid gushing out of a truck that was meant to haul the giant popsicle to the area. Pedestrians fled, police and fire departments were called to the area, and Snapple officials stopped the Snapple-raising at a crowd-disappointing 25-degree angle — no record, but lots of media coverage. The mushy giant block was then trucked away and a television-sized ice sculpture in the shape of the Snapple logo took its place, while city workers had to hose the area down.

Of course, this lesson could have been learned by marketers a century earlier. This kind of thing goes back a long, long way.

Take for example, the Crush, Texas train crash of 1896. Before the turn of the last century, a marketer working for the Missouri-Kansas Texas railroad, known as the “Katy,” had the idea to put on a big train wreck as a spectacle. This was the brainchild of William Crush (I didn’t make that up!), the man in charge increasing passenger sales on the Katy. He noted that train wrecks held a morbid fascination for many people, so he convinced his bosses to stage a head-on train collision and invite the public out to watch.

Crash Images.pngCrush chose an isolated spot in Texas, where two aging locomotives each carrying a few surplus cars would crash into each other  after their crews jumped to safety. The area offered hills on three sides where the public could watch but be “safely” away from the crash. They built the track, a station platform, and grandstands, bandstands, a midway, and more to house the spectators.

Media ate up the story and gave the event a lot of publicity. While viewing the crash was free, the railway charged a reduced train fare to the crash site ($2 from any location in Texas). On September 15, 1896, nearly 40,000 people showed up in the new town of Crush, Texas, temporarily making it the second-largest city in the state.

At 5 pm, with the hills crowded with onlookers, the two trains got the signal and took off towards each other and the crash point. In moments there was a deafening sound and the big crash, but things didn’t go according to plan.

220px-CrashCrushTxThe two engines telescoped together, their boilers exploding at once, sending “flying missiles of iron and steel, varying in size from a postage stamp to a half a driving wheel. Tens of thousands scrambled to avoid the iron and wood debris catapulting through the sky. Distance was no guarantee of safety; debris peppered the crowd and pocked the earth as far as 300 yards away. (From Three people died, and many more were injured.

But here’s the funny part of this story. The public outcry was minimal. The railway quietly settled lawsuits brought by injury victims and families of the dead, but Texans seemed to like the chutzpah of a railway that staged its own wreck. Business on the Katy boomed, and the crash became something of an inside joke, with other businesses using it as their own advertising strategies. For example, the press photographer who was hit by a stray bolt that ripped through his right eye and lodged in his brain, later took out a newspaper ad reading, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”

Still, you think marketers would learn from this train wreck of an idea and be more cautious when planning their next stunts. Can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out today, with everyone tweeting and instagramming photos from the disaster? Not a good PR move, I think.

Everyone’s a critic, but should every criticism worry you?

14658626339_28832b2d8b_kI saw a news report about a brand that got in hot water for a free concert they threw in Brooklyn. The concert was sponsored by Levis, the jean company, and the “price” of admission was to wear an item of Levis clothing. The news report said “dozens” of fans were turned away for not wearing Levis.

Okay, I thought, another example of a campaign gone wrong. People must have been all up in arms over this. Social media must have been buzzing with negative comments. The brand probably reacted. But no, not really. And that has turned out to be the real lesson here.

Here are the facts: Levis sponsored a free concert in Brooklyn, NY, with popular indie rockers Haim and Sleigh Bells to launch a new marketing campaign “Live in Levis,” where consumers are asked to upload images or write posts about their favorite moments wearing Levi’s products. On ther website, Levis said that in order to get in to the outdoor concert venue, you had to wear Levis clothing. The concert was a huge success, with big crowds and big buzz for the brand. But unlike some other marketing promos we’ve seen, Levis actually enforced the “wear Levis or elseLIL-launch” dictum and did turn people away who weren’t sporting their brand.

One (and I repeat, one!) news report in the New York Daily News, mentioned that “fans were upset…to find that they were denied entry…because they weren’t wearing Levi’s jeans…observers told the News scores of ticketed fans showed up without the prescribed attire and were denied entry. They were surprised the corporation so strictly enforced the ban.” A teenager was quoted:

“One guard at the door said ‘I might as well be a CEO. I’m saying ‘you’re fired, you’re fired and you’re fired,’” says Dylan Kelly, 16 of Manhattan. “I saw couples being turned away because the guy wore Levis but the woman had a skirt. Or, if a group of guys had on Levis but one didn’t, they would turn them away.”

The News found two critical tweets quoted. And those weren’t even all that intelligent or critical. I looked all over the interweb to find other critical tweets, but not a one could be found. The only thing I did find was several PR or marketing sites quoting the Daily News article and calling it a “PR nightmare,” saying “Levi’s has landed itself in a little hot water,” “worst possible scenario,” and “sponsorship gone wrong.”

But was it any of those things? I think not. Brand fans were thrilled, if the concert reviews and positive posts from the few days around the concert show. The only ones saying it wasn’t a great experience were a handful of turned-away fans in Brooklyn and the Daily News. Oh, and of course all those PR and marketing critics out there.

I applaud Levis for not caving to these few voices and making more of it than it really was. If  this was a genuine backlash, with real media (mainstream or social) reaction, then  the company should respond and manage the media crisis. But if the reaction is this small and controlled, sometimes you gotta let the critics have their say without responding, and just rock on.


When your marketing event gets mistaken for terrorism

From the “What were they thinking?” file, and the “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” file, comes the story of Coors Light’s campaign in July 2014 for Search and Rescue.

coors lightimagesA promotional campaign to get beer drinkers engaged with the brand on social media and in real life, Coors Light Canada created Search and Rescue, where they hid a bunch of briefcases around the country, and mapped them on a website. Players (age of majority only of course!) searched for them and if found, posted a photo with the briefcase and then won prizes. However, in Toronto, this backfired in a huge way.

On a busy workday during rush hour, someone called in a suspicious package at Dundas and Spadina in Toronto — major intersection — and the bomb squad was called. The road was closed, cars and buses diverted. And what was the package? Why a Coors Light briefcase of course. The Toronto Transit Commission, and a lot of twitter users, were not amused.

TTC tweet havoc package

complain tweet 2 complain tweet

Yah, not the most thought-through idea a beer company ever had (insert your own joke now about consuming too much of their own product while designing this campaign).

At least they apologized.

apologyapology tweet


You’d think someone would have researched this kind of thing ahead of time. If they had, they would have stumbled upon a campaign from 2007 by the Cartoon Network for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a late-night cartoon show. Then, more than a dozen electronic devices with blinking lights were found throughout Boston and were mistaken for bombs. Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless. Two men were arrested for putting up the devices, which were only supposed to promote the cartoon show that featured a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball. Just like in Toronto this past summer, the same blinking lights had  been in place for a few weeks in nine other American cities with no trouble, but it’s the Boston ones that made the news.

Leaving aside that this beer company appropriated the hashtag #searchandrescue, which is used on Twitter to discuss real Search and Rescue activities, where people are lost in the backwoods or in natural disasters and professionals search for them (I’m just waiting for that social media backlash), Coors Light didn’t plan very well for the kinds of crises a marketing stunt like theirs could create. Beer companies will always do stuff like this, but crisis planning should think through stuff like this.

funny tweet