There is such a thing as too popular. It is the state that all companies and products aspire to, the Furby invasion the likes of which will set that elusive sect known as Youth Culture a-storm. But, unbeknownst to most corporations, when a product reaches mass appeal, when every other person on the street knows and has the item, it has effectively become an artifact, something that belongs to the dregs of culture, never to be acknowledged again. It becomes a mocking joke, a reference made to delineate those who are in the know and those who are painfully unaware. The generation that these products are aimed at is way smarter, and ten times more cynical, than any of its predecessors. It does not do to throw splashy adverts in their face and demand to be thought of as popular. No, this generation, the one fueling pop culture and ironically unironically obsessed by brands, wants the power of discovery. They want autonomy over their own choices. Overt marketing, to them, seems brash and too bright, a harsh fluorescent when they prefer a more understated glow. To market to this group, this exacting and fickle group, demands finesse. It demands a subtle approach, or more accurately, market without making it seem like that is what is happening.

Brands are a huge commodity for this generation. They are the golden ticket, the backstage pass, the Bat Signal, letting others know that they are hip enough to be let into the Club. Only they wouldn’t use that word, “cool” has lost it’s mojo and “hip” never had it to begin with. This generation thrives on brands but wants none of the mass culture baggage that accompanied it previously. Take a look at the clothing that they wear, subtle and extremely fashionable, more fashionable than you, the jeans and shirts and skirts are not plastered with the names of the maker, there is no bright, bold GAP or a glittery GUCCI. There is no white, all-American ABERCROMBIE & FITCH stitched obnoxiously across the chest (the company so far out of favor to now be considered painfully pedestrian. Something worn by children and those stuck in the back half of 2006), now the clothes are indirect. The shirts unmarked, the jeans only recognized by symbols. The object of the game is recognition and the only way to play is to be invited. To be invited is to not be invited; you’re just there. American Apparel excels at this particular brand of guerrilla marketing. Nowhere on any of their products does their name appear and yet they are immediately recognizable to anyone “in the know.” True Religion and other jean companies have adopted this practice, identifiable only by the stitching on the pockets or other subtleties familiar to a generation desperate to be anything else besides a copy of the one before it.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, where name can work in a company’s favor but these are few and far between, the equivalent of a productive session on the floor of Congress. There are a couple things that need to happen for a brand to be accepted by this generation by name alone. First, is that despite the fact that perhaps the product is a little more mainstream than is considered normal, the item needs to feel like it’s something that only certain people know about. In other words, it needs to have enough of that ephemeral “cool” attached to it that it transcends the fact that someone’s grandmother probably knows about it. Second, the product itself must be acceptably restrained in its design but (and here’s the exception) it must, somewhere on its body, contain the name of the brand so that people know. This is very important. Companies such as RayBan, Toms and Beats have mastered this art. Everyone knows Beats by their red cord and stamped “b,” Toms are recognized by the tiny flap of fabric at the heal, alerting the world that the wearer is both socially conscious and decidedly trendy enough to not succumb to the dreaded knock-offs that languish in the Purgatory shelves of Payless.  RayBans too, have their share of knockoff Wayfarers but thanks to their aggressive non-advertising campaigns, which focus heavily on people cooler than you having more fun than you could ever have while wearing sunglasses stamped surreptitiously with the company’s name, this generation accepts these glasses as a right of passage even if their increasingly creepy uncle has suddenly found himself with a pair.

Another extra large exception to the rule is of course Apple. Everyone and their cat has an igadget, there is actually an app for everything and yet, Apple remains at the top of the wish list for most of this capricious generation. Like RayBan, Apple attacked the problem of marketing to such a consumer by actively not marketing to them. The Apple adds are funny, irreverent, and most of all, moving. They hit on the softer side of the consumer but never overstep into Nicholas Sparks-esque sap. The products too, follow the same formula that exempts them from the brandless brand rule but they have the added advantage of being completely customizable. iphone cases with mustaches, ipad sleeves with elephants and burlap, MacBook accessories colored bold neon all serve to individualize the product while still allowing for the Club to recognize that the member knows what’s up.

There is, paradoxically, a very wrong way to market to a generation that can smell a ploy like lioness on the hunt. Mostly it involves loud, intense marketing campaigns extolling how cool the company’s product is supposed to be. That is a sure-fire way to get this generation to push the DEFCON 1 button and run for their retro/industrial/vintage bunkers nestled cozily in the yet-to-be-gentrified enclaves of cities like New York or Los Angeles. But the deathblow to any product, to any brand really, is the oft-scoffed “like” button on Facebook.

“But wait!” Companies cry, frantically updating their Facebook page, “everyone’s on this site! People can stay in touch with us, they can engage. It’s like an advertising gift from the Gods!”Oh ye of little understanding.

Facebook, like this generation, is unpredictable and ever shifting. It’s a wonderful thing to use to stay in touch with friends and family (although it’s another thing all together to “accept” a friend request from your grandmother and then proceed to be humiliated as she comments on every. single. photograph. ever) and to make everyone on your friends list jealous of your Gap year abroad in the clubs of Italy. It is a great way to meet new people when you’ve relocated to a city with a dream, a credit card and a liberal arts degree from a school back East that’s so prestigious but you’ve probably never heard of it. It is not, however, a tool for selling. In fact, it is almost universally accepted by every single person in this generation as a marketing wasteland. When businesses and companies try to get someone to “like” their page, it’s like they’ve drawn a huge red arrow over their heads pointing out how clueless they actually are. No one wants to “like” things on Facebook, let’s clear up that little misconception now. It is the equivalent of that one guy at the party—the one every person there is secretly wondering about, asking in whispers how he got the invitation in the first place—thinking he’s the coolest thing in the room. The one singing OutKast lyrics while everyone else has keyed into K Flay.

Twitter, too, is seen as a cheep ploy, a desperate attempt to hang with the Club. Twitter though, can be used effectively, if only to get the message out. Since it is more commonly accepted to post news updates and get the latest celebrity gossip, getting spammed with adds on the site is less cloying. Rarely though, does this generation make it a habit to follow a particular brand on Twitter, preferring instead to get their marketing delivered to them in the form of celebrities or parody accounts harking back to the nostalgia of the 90s, a strange and oft missed time, a hazy instagrammed picture of culture long gone.  This generation uses Twitter like Depression-era kids used radio—quick updates on the goings on of Voldemort and to feel, however briefly, connected to those people whom they admire most—as a means to control their own cultural content.

Marketing to a generation determined to resist all social and conventional labels is not an easy task. The trick is to make it seem like you’re not selling anything at all, that the choice is firmly theirs. This is a generation obsessed with autonomy, infatuated with the heady scent of making their own way. They don’t want to repeat what’s come before them, although they make it a priority to appropriate those clear beacons of culture, like John Hughes movies and fedoras, and claim them as theirs. They thrive on putting their own unique spin onto things and creating an exclusivity around the brands and products that they have come to love. For this generation, it is not about a specific item that will automatically make the wearer cool, there are no Members Only jackets to be seen (unless they happen to be worn ironically and salvaged from an acceptable goodwill). No, this generation wants everyone to know that they are lightyears ahead of the curve, that they, not the companies, set the trends, and that if you want to join, you have to figure it out on your own. The Club is a big open secret, so put on those RayBans and pretend to be unaffected. You’re halfway there.

Courtney Southworth
Unleashed Productions

Marketing to a Generation that Hates Marketing.