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The brand underground: what does this really mean?

August 5, 2006

Rob Walker, author of the New York Times‘s Consumed column caused quite a stir this past week with the publication of The Brand Underground, a lengthy and indepth exploration of what he calls “personal brands,” or upstart companies established to be articulations of a particular lifestyle or cultural worldview as well as commercial entities. The story focuses primarily on Aaron
, who Influx-affiliated EMERGE wrote about eight months ago, thanks to his burgeoning Downtown empire aNYthing, and The Hundreds, a likeminded brand based in Los Angeles.

In Walker’s analysis, “Young people have always found fresh ways to rebel, express individuality or form subculture communities through cultural expression: new art, new music, new literature, new films, new forms of leisure or even whole new media forms. [The personal brands’] preferred form of expression, however, is none of those things. When [Aaron Bonderoff] talks about his chosen medium, which he calls aNYthing, it sounds as if he’s talking about an artists? collective, indie film production company, a zine or a punk band. But in fact, aNYthing is a brand. A-Ron puts his brand on T-shirts and hats and other items, which he sells in his own store, among other places. He sees it as fundamentally of a piece with the projects and creations of his anti-mainstream heroes.” To Walker, the brand underground is the transition of the counterculture from opposition to collusion with capitalism.

However, I think this is a pretty shallow observation. Not only have their been countless exemples of companies attempting to conduct business-as-unusual, working with both the standard commercial paradigm while injecting some component of their worldview into the mix; has Walker forgotten about “compassionate capitalism”? What does he think brands like Smith & Hawken or Ben & Jerry’s are ? It’s one of the most quintessential qualities of small businesses that the entrepreneurs build their brands around their lifestyles and perspectives. That aNYthing or The Hundreds come from the quasi-subversive world of street art, skateboarding, sneaker collecting and afterhours chicanery is really besides the point.

What isn’t so obvious in Walker’s piece is what all of this actually means for those of us who don’t read the style blogs he namechecks or don’t know the difference between the Los Feliz, Echo Park and Silverlake districts in LA. I think that what’s important about the rise of the personal brands and the elevation of the outsider, DIY, subversive perspectives they represent, is not that it has taken rebellion into the commercial realm, but that their savvy connection to their consumers, their way of conducting business is causing people to take notice in boardrooms across the world. Surely Walker find it hard to characterize collaborating with Nike as an act of rebellion.

Rather, what he has identified is an economically and culturally impactful contingent of entrepreneurs who- like another much-blogged personal brand American Apparel– are starting to alter the standard discourse on business in the Long Tail world. While nobody would argue that AA’s Dov Charney or Bonderoff or the guys behind the Hundreds set out to change the landscape of cultural commerce, what is irrefutable is that their footprints on that landscape have become so big (if not economically significant yet) that it is forcing a reassesment of what the DIY ethos means for business at large.

As we all know, the past few years have seen a tremendous growth in consumer choice as established corporate brands have been forced to cede market share to hundreds of small upstarts better able to meet the peculiar niches that pepper the commercial landscape. Aided by the internet and by the overwhelming mediocrity of so much mass-marketed product, small companies have sprung up to meet demand. It’s an interesting aside to this larger narrative that so many prominent brands in this new universe wear their proclivities for sex, drugs and disreputable behavior on their sleeves. Despite Walker’s arguments on behalf of these branded articulations of a lifestyle, if there was no market for hipster shirts and hats and custom sneakers, it stands to reason that nobody would bother putting them up for sale, rebellion or scandalous stories notwithstanding.

No conclusions can be made yet I don’t think, but it is going to be interesting to see how this trend for personal brands plays out. After all, people are buying these brands not just for what they represent. They are buying into a way of looking at the commercial exchange that reminds us that your money can go to your icons and your peers- to people more or less like you- rather than some faceless conglomerate. This is hardly news, but it makes for better copy when those peers are living their lives in a brand underground that is not sanctioned by the broader society’s norms of conduct.

By James Friedman. James is Head of Cultural Insights at BSSP and runs EMERGE

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