(Sub) Culture Marketing

Brands seek cultural capital by aligning themselves with underground talent

The use of celebrity endorsement has been a long established technique for brands looking to expand, create a buzz or gain some level of fame. However, an obvious disparity between the values or interests of the chosen endorser and those of the brand may lead to public cynicism. In addition a misjudged communication strategy can lead to infamy rather than fame, highlighted by Snickers’ promoted tweet campaign which received an unfavourable response.

Avoiding these concerns, many brands are focusing instead on investment in culture rather than on any one particular individual to endorse their brand or product. Colin Drummond of Ogilvy West argues this approach is ‘established by a brand looking to be a facilitator of culture, broadening the horizons past simply focusing on the benefits of the product alone’. Red Bull have been the pioneers in the way of culture led marketing, establishing a music academy in 1998, involving participants from across the globe and notable artists running seminars every year.

There have been other notable examples of brands looking to connect with consumers in a broad cultural landscape. These include the Smirnoff nightlife exchange project featuring Madonna and Garnier’s pop up salons at summer music festivals. However, recently some brands have been directing their activities outside of the mainstream, as an alternative strategy in pursuit of cultural relevancy. Here are some examples:

In promotion of a new Sportswear range, Nike’s ‘Always On’ campaign included a multitude of vignettes featuring up and coming unsigned artists, creating original tracks to accompany visuals that starred athletes of varying degrees of popularity from a number of sports. The video below focuses on the annual Dyckman basketball tournament in Harlem, New York which is organised by the community and features amateur stars within the sub culture of streetball. The soundtrack is provided by Harlem artist Vado. It features no overt product messaging and integrates the brand into the storyline. The focus is on cultural relevance among a sub-genre and, in a broader context, support of local community.


Moving further away from any kind of product placement (besides a not-so-subtly worn baseball cap), Reebok have recently partnered with unsigned New York artists Action Bronson & Party Supplies. Part of Reebok’s classic sessions campaign. They financed an entire project available for free download, establishing Reebok’s investment in music and the creative process. Again, there is an absence of any product messaging, besides casual references dropped into conversation in the below video. As you will note, the only overt branding is the Reebok logo at the beginning and end of the video. The focus is on entertaining the consumer’s cultural interests, creating a greater possibility of sharing the content.


Besides simply investing in the normal activities of an artist, some brands are looking to involve cultural figures as creative directors. Expanding on the role of simple endorser and providing a platform to put their talents to work on behalf of the brand. Again, there are examples of this on a grander scale, such as Lady Gaga designing a product for Polaroid or Jean Paul Gaultier for Diet Coke.

Contrastingly, Sony, in their bid for cultural relevance, has looked towards underground personalities enlisting Prodigy (New York rapper), Mike Posner (singer/songwriter) and Steve Aoki (electro house musician) to curate a cover for their new Sony S Tablet, in a social media tie in with fashion magazine Complex. The interviews featuring each artist involve both the product and personality in equal measure; the value created is in the selection of those individuals, helping to leverage cultural respect and authenticity. It will be interesting to see if other brands follow suit and value cultural marketing as a key component of brand promotion in the U.K.


Nouveau Niche: The Rise of Invitation-Only Social Networks

Larger social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have done a lot to democratise the web; to give us the opportunity to rub shoulders with all sorts of people. But this comes at a price: the ‘tyranny of attention’ requires that we be prudent in how we spend our time and mental energy. In real life, we take care to pick and choose the social circles that we move in. So how do you ensure that you’re in good company in the online space?

Invitation-only social networks are built around this premise. Why jump into the endless and unpredictable ocean of large-scale social networks, when a vessel populated by like-minded individuals would offer much smoother sailing?

By vetting those who come aboard, invitation-only social networks can offer a number of advantages that ‘free-for-all’ social networks cannot. Dribbble is one such example. In many ways, it bears a strong similarity to DeviantART, allowing users to upload demonstrations of their prowess in graphic design and illustration. However, unlike DeviantART, Dribbble’s user base is divided into three tiers: Spectators, Prospects and Players. Anyone is free to sign up as a Spectator; this grants the ability to passively explore the design portfolios hosted on the site. Prospects are those who have indicated that they wish to join. Players are the lucky few who have passed the drafting process, and have the right to upload designs and comment on other people’s hard work.

Dribbble combines high quality content with a seductively pretty UI

The crucial point is this: any member who invites a non-member to the community has to vouch for the quality of the non-member’s work. Done properly, this preserves the quality of the content on the site, as well as guaranteeing that only engaged and passionate people become part of the Dribbble community. A similar model can be found among a slew of other social sites, such as Pelime (a creative arts community), WIWT (a fashion community) and Teazel (a virtual hangout for surfing enthusiasts).

There exists a further species of invitation-only social networking site that has arisen. While the aforementioned networks thrive on shared interests and skills, networks such as Squ.are and Angel’s Circle have the unique selling proposition of simply being very hard to get into. Asking how to seek an invitation is an exercise in futility; if you have to ask, you’ll never know. If you’ve ever asked the price of something at an expensive restaurant, you’ll understand the thinking that underpins this philosophy. Nevertheless, they represent an interesting counterpoint to the staunchly egalitarian attitude of the larger networks.

Finally, I couldn’t wrap this article without giving an honourable mention to the most exclusive social network of all; where simply being human renders you ineligible for membership. I am, of course, referring to Dogbook, the social network for man’s best friend. Take a look – I hear it’s a right wag.