what ad agencies can learn from indie brands

In Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between Who We Are and What We Buy, Rob Walker talks about “underground brands”–lifestyle symbols created by independent entrepreneurs. In fact, I actually think it’s easier to think of underground brands as “independent brands,” (cuz what does “underground” really mean, anyway?) much like independent music:

In popular music, independent music, often abbreviated as indie, is a term used to describe independence from major commercial record labels and an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing.

Similarly then, indie brands are independent from major publicly-traded companies, and reflective of a do-it-yourself approach to lifestyle symbol creation. Both indie and major brands appeal to consumers for the same reasons–as expressions of identity, and community belonging–but the indie side functions very differently. Indie brands can often take risks that the major ones wouldn’t know how to were they even interested, they are able to maneuver more deftly in a rapidly changing consumer landscape, take advantage of new opportunities more swiftly, and now more than ever before, they are blazing the trails and creating the models that many major brands are starting to emulate.

As someone who’s been intimately involved in the development of several independent brands I thought I would share some suggestions both from my own experience, as well as from insights synthesized with various examples from Buying In, of what ad agencies (and major brands) can learn from the indies about staying competitive in contemporary culture.

Agencies talk of integration like it’s the latest buzzword since “viral,” (which, incidentally, before it was a buzzword, was also first tested by independent brands) but most are still set up to approach marketing in a compartmentalized, paint-by-numbers way that doesn’t fit with how any of us in the digital era actually interact with media and messaging. In a time when we update our facebook status while watching TV online, and google something we’ve just seen on a billboard we drove past, all media overlaps. As natives of this environment, indie brand creators don’t think “Print” vs. “New Media” or “Creative” vs. “Media Buying.” Of course, a variety of skill sets is necessary, but when a “media channel” can now basically exist anywhere that people are playing attention, it’s counterproductive to continue enforcing separation between all the various departments of messaging development and dissemination. Without the imposition of this bureaucratically segregated setup, indie brands approach marketing as an inherently integrated process, dealing with the way the different channels at their disposal feed into one another as part of an interconnected system.

None of the indie brand creators I’ve ever worked with majored in marketing–and that goes for me, too. Marketing majors end up at ad agencies, indie brand creators, on the other hand, end up creating culture. Music, fashion, publications, events, blogs, graffiti, whatever. If it’s a genre of DIY expression, that’s where indie brand creators can be found, and it’s where strategies that take on new marketing options are going to be developed. I’ll admit, I did take one Marketing 101 class, though, and it’s probably because marketing is taught as a segregated process that its students are primed to continue thinking within the same kind of box once they graduate. Indie brand creators think outside the marketing box because 1. They were never taught there was a box to begin with, and 2. They couldn’t afford to try out the box anyway, so developing “alternatives” is their default. This is who you want to be hiring to help develop progressive marketing strategies.

In a consumer landscape niched up into various lifestyles, “mass marketing” is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Indie brands have never had the luxury of a mass marketing budget, so they’ve instead focused on building and sustaining meaningful relationships with the communities that nurture them. In Buying In, Walker talks about Pabst Blue Ribbon’s strategy after discovering that their brand, whose history was essentially as a staid Midwestern working class beer, was experiencing an unexpected popularity surge among the pierced, tattooed, bike messenger alterna kids in Portland Oregon. Clearly this was not a demographic that PBR had sought deliberately (the brand just happened to become quite eagerly adopted by a young culture in need of a cheap beer), but once they noticed what was going on instead of buying up a ton of media targeting this demo, PBR began sponsoring community events such as “bike polo” matches. In fact, a particularly ardent PBR fan that Walker talks to specifically noted he appreciates that he’s never seen a PBR ad of any sort. It shows that “they’re not insulting you,” he says. If advertising AT a community can be perceived as an insult, supporting it can make a brand an integral part of the community’s culture.

Ad folks think it’s their job to create advertising. Indie brand folks think it’s their job to make sure their product sells. The disconnect between these two perspectives is perhaps nowhere more blatant than in the ad agency reticence towards “user generated content.” This is not to say that ad agencies shouldn’t create branded content, by any means, but rather to point out, as Walker does, that some of the most potent brands are ones that have allowed people to project their own meanings onto them. His two biggest examples of this are Hello Kitty and the Live Strong bracelet. One benefited from an inscrutable expression, the other from a statement that allowed innumerable personal interpretations. Neither sought to define what specifically it was supposed to mean or stand for, and thereby each allowed people to cast their own relevance onto the brand. Unequivocally cementing a brand into a “big idea” couldn’t accommodate that. Creating a brand that functions as a “platform” for consumers to create their own meaning (whether it’s as literal as UGC or as ephemeral as a personal projection) is now just as crucial as messaging.

It is tempting to think that a brand creates a community. In fact, many brands, realizing the power of community as a resource, strive to create their own, and brands such as Apple definitely have a cult-like following. But the reality is that brands do not create communities from scratch, they become symbols of communities. Brands can reflect a community’s values and lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s possible to brand a lifestyle before it actually already exists. Was Apple as hot before the rise of the creative class? (The trend itself, I mean, not just the book about it.) Of course, the Apple technology certainly helped facilitate the expansion of the creative class, but the bottom line is that the societal predisposition that can come to constitute a community has to be there, and a brand does not invent it, it reflects it. Indie brands are spawned out of the very communities that they represent, so it’s not like they need to conduct massive amounts of consumer insight research, and their understanding of this community first, brand second dynamic is deeply intimate. For many major brands, however, the focus shouldn’t be on fabricating their own “community” but on developing a more significant understanding of the needs of the communities that buy and endorse them. (Then, see #3).

The relationship between a culture and a brand, like any kind of relationship, takes time. That it can’t always be statistically documented after three months does not necessarily make the relationship unsuccessful. My favorite example of a brand thinking “beyond the quarter” is Scion integrating it’s cars into Whyville, an online community for tweens. Pretty much the coolest thing you can buy in Whyville is a Scion, and its added bonus is that then you can drive all your other friends around in it in the game. They start at 15,000 “clams” (Whyville dollars), but for 20,000 you can get it all customized. The most fascinating thing about this whole strategy, however, is that the Tween demographic is between 8-12 years old. It’s gonna be a while before they even have a driver’s license at all, let alone be in a position to be buying a car in the real world, but when they are, owning that virtual Scion will no doubt be an experience they draw on when making the purchase decision. This is thinking five, ten, fifteen years beyond the quarter, and it’s how indie brands think. Ok, maybe they don’t necessarily have the forethought to think that far ahead, but they do have the luxury to not have to think of success as based on proving something to shareholders every season. After all, just ask Starbucks about how rampant growth can even undermine success in the long-run.

The trend of more and more kinds of facilities cropping up to support DIY creative endeavors means that more and more kinds of indie brands are getting created. The evolution of marketing that doesn’t look anything like what it has before is only going to continue. Might as well take a cue or two from the side that’s plowing head-first into the changing the landscape.


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