It’s 10 am. An entire block in New York City’s NOLITA district is shut down. The streets are closed and cops are everywhere. Social media celebrity, Logan Paul, has opened up a pop-up shop at the corner of Mulberry and Kenmare.
Eager fans have feverishly interacted with Logan Paul, “The Maverick” on social media. Now, fans lust for the chance to don his clothing. Rumors say he’s at the shop but nobody really knows.
His fans want to touch, try on and purchase Logan Paul’s new line of branded merchandise. Paul’s brand inspires passionate devotion, affirmed by the length of the line leading up to the pop up shop: ten city blocks. Some fans called in sick just to be there. Kids with portable phone chargers huddle around their sacred iPhones, immersed in the expansive worlds of YouTube and Instagram. It’s their last chance to get inside the store. By 3pm, the pop-up shop will vanish and the fans will disappear.
This experience on the New York streets on this balmy summer Sunday is indicative of both the widening delta between generational mindsets, and the new and unexpected ways in which 10 to 20-somethings are consuming media.
What is going on here? Why are people so obsessed with a YouTuber?
Perhaps this generation’s attraction to Logan Paul’s free-spirited character reflects a broader shift — a transformation in how digital natives relate to their favorite brands. To understand what’s going on, let’s start by looking at how media shapes brand communications. Then we’ll dive into a history of brands and their evolution.
Marshall McLuhan is universally regarded as the father of communications and media studies. Illustrating the power of media shifts, he writes: “Societies have been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication… All media works us over completely… and leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, and unaltered. The medium is the message.”
McLuhan observed how communications technologies determine the structure of society. The printing press took society from an oral culture to one of print and literacy. Movable type allowed humans to accurately reproduce texts at great speed. This created a more visual world. The printing press — and the shift in media consumption that it catalyzed — was responsible in no small part for social shifts such as the emergence of nationalism, the homogenization of society, and the standardization of culture. As McLuhan observed, we do not merely use technology — it reinvents us.
Companies who own and manage brands must adapt when humans develop new ways of communicating. The history and evolution of branding can be summarized in four distinct economic periods: agricultural, early-industrial, late-industrial, and digital.
1. Brands in the Agricultural Economy
During the agricultural economy, communities were organized around farming and gaming livestock. During this time, “brands” defined unique ownership. The word brand derives from brandr, meaning “to burn.” Around 950 A.D., “a brand” referred to a burnt piece of wood. Around the same time, Roman glassmakers branded their works using glass molds and marks. Other artisans in the 13th century used brands in the form of watermarks on paper, stamps, hallmarks, and silver-makers’ marks on paper.
Livestock branding can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, some of whom believed that brands were a magic spell that could protect animals from harm, and by the 1500s, individual ranches branded their livestock. Unbranded cattle, known as mavericks, often escaped across fences, only to be rounded up by neighboring ranchers. To claim ownership, ranchers created unique, permanent marks on their livestock — brands — to determine if their animals were lost, stolen, or mixed in with similar animals from another range. Livestock brands demonstrated defined property rights and signified value. Like successful modern brands, brands in the agricultural economy were symbolic, permanent and easy to identify.
2. Brands in the Early-Industrial Era
Industrialization moved the production of many household items from local communities to centralized factories. Mechanization, rapidly declining transportation costs, and global trade allowed products to be manufactured, distributed and consumed in mass quantities in regions across the world. Some companies became global; they branded their logos on shipping barrels that traveled internationally.
This global trend started with alcohol. Fermented liquor producers who produced beer, ale, and wine distinguished their products by burning their logos on crates and cases of goods. Food aggregators, who stored grains and cured dried fish and specialty meats, adopted a similar strategy. Brands differentiated the type, source, and quality of products, becoming symbols of quality and trust. This added value, reliability and consistency, which boosted consumer loyalty. This, along with fleets of marine vessels, enabled global trade, and in turn, increased sales volume. Brands that were perceived as trustworthy commanded bigger margins than undistinguished alternatives. Products without recognizable brands risked commoditization, and as the industrial revolution matured, branding became a standard practice.
As branding caught on, the need for its regulation became abundantly clear, and the American government created new laws to govern the process. Beginning in 1870, American companies could register trademarks. Competitors were prohibited from creating visually similar, “copycat” brand names and labels. Competitors could mimic product features, but nobody could legally replicate brands. By the early 20th century, beverage companies such as Base Ale, Stella Artois and Coca-Cola had widely recognized brands. Beginning after World War II, mass media propelled their growth. Consumers began to develop social and psychological relationships with brands, a trend that accelerated through the late-industrial era.
Mass media birthed national and even multinational brands. Popular culture stretched beyond print and radio — to television, which infiltrated consumers’ domestic and social lives. By the mid 1950’s, television had cemented its position as the single most important form of entertainment. TV commanded the lion’s share of advertising revenue.
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As Tim Wu observed in his book, Attention Merchants, the mid-1950s was a historic anomaly. Never had so many people paid attention to the same set of messages at the same time. 82.6% of American television viewers tuned into Elvis Presley’s first television appearance on CBS’s ED Sullivan Show. “Prime Time,” an invention of TV business moguls, made watching television a societal ritual. Some TV programs lost money on the content itself, but profited substantially from selling TV advertising by airing regular commercial breaks between regular programming. Brands achieved national — even global — recognition. It was the brand — not the product — which informed more and more consumer purchasing decisions. The big got bigger. On popular prime time television, only the highest commercial bidders (America’s largest corporations) could afford to advertise, and thus, advertising became a booming and lucrative industry. Madison Avenue lit up. Detroit flourished. The fashion, cosmetics, personal care and, tobacco industries boomed. Industrial product manufacturing took off. With direct access to engaged public minds, advertisers manipulated human motivations and desires, thereby creating demand for their “must have” products. Marketers used mainstream and efficient distribution to globalize American culture. America, defined by its material abundance, became an aspirational tentpole for the world to lust over.
Various cultures throughout the world have been interconnected through trade, wars, migration, and slavery. Television effectively intensified this cross-cultural pollination. Multinational brands dominated. Advertising agencies were born. Mad Men were living large. Through the synthesis of packaging, labels, visual icons, colors, typography and sound, brands etched themselves into public minds. Some used iconic characters and catchy jingles to garner attention. Some brands focused on the continental United States: Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s. Others went global: McDonald’s, Burger King, Mercedes, Michelin, Starbucks. Regardless, their growth tactics mirrored each other, as both national and global brands used media to influence culture and infiltrate the changing fabric of society.
Brands became a center point of ordinary social conversation. Through memorable television media experiences with high production value and premium sponsorships, brands shaped our aspirations. They defined “The American Dream.”
Apple promoted human freedom in a famous 1984 advertisement that introduced the Macintosh. Its brand and logo earned national prestige — particularly among creative types. Nike’s brilliance came from sponsoring the world’s greatest athletes: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Roger Federer, all of whom donned the Nike swoosh. Brands moved beyond visual names and spoken words. For the first time, advertising and culture were inextricably linked.
Shifts in branding are catalyzed by shifts in media consumption.
In each period we’ve discussed: agricultural, early-industrial, and late-industrial, we find similar shifts in the way media is produced, distributed, and consumed.
Today, popular influencers are capitalizing on this shift. Inspired by transparency, they have built loyal followings, and now, they are building companies. Successful influencers are perceived as genuine, sincere, and most of all, transparent. They differ widely from institutions built during the industrial era. Brands built during the late-industrial era garnered trust through mass marketing, as opposed to transparency. This is no longer a sustainable strategy.
Today, brands are responding to the effects of social media and the smartphone on media consumption. The ROI on transparency is increasing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in shopping and lifestyle brands, like that which drove a mile-long line for nothing but a short lived pop-up shop in New York City.
Digital communication has caused demand for transparency and authenticity to explode. The most dominant company in America illustrates how.
Amazon (“The Everything Store”) is a central location for almost every product one can buy. It’s the most trusted retailer in the world. Amazon customers are increasingly persuaded by transparency and customer reviews, and less by brand value gained through traditional advertising. Catchy slogans, jingles, premium aesthetics and expensive packaging have almost zero weight, especially in a market where consumers can place orders for goods with nothing more than their voice. It follows that Amazon purchasing decisions are less influenced by manufactured brands, and more by key words, product ingredients, and specific customer uses cases. This shift is apparent on other large algorithmically sorted platforms such as Facebook and Google. By answering the age-old question of who to trust, reviews and transparency have significantly diminished the value of traditional brands. In response, a new reality is taking shape.
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Large platforms have fueled the colorful influencer phenomenon. Today’s up-and-coming brands — especially brands geared towards digital natives — are driven by social media influencers. Brands, which once commanded attention through colorful logos, broadcast advertisements and catchy jingles, are now popularized by the influencers who represent them.
These emerging brands attract obsessive “superfans.” Their fandom is not consumptive, but rather performative, active, and social. Subcultures of intense fandom are centered on a set of activities— pilgrimages, rituals, socializing, and evangelizing. This almost religious phenomenon has existed since the classical music days of Mozart and Liszt, but since social media provides intimate, immediate access to stars, and since those stars are famous not because their anxieties, struggles, and triumphs are unimaginable, but rather because in many ways, they feel as if they could be our own, influencers’ relationships with their fans have a deepness to them that is almost unimaginable for celebrities and fans of a bygone era.
Social media-driven culture is underestimated because of the lack of common knowledge about it. (A fact is “common knowledge” if everybody knows it; and, everybody knows that everybody knows it; and so on ad infinitum.) We proudly represent Nike and Apple in public, but relationships with influencers are largely restricted to the private domain. As a result, influencers and the brands they are building are under-appreciated and widely misunderstood.
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Examples: Casey Neistat and Emily Weiss
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. Throughout history, people have congregated around strong, singular personalities much like moths to light. Today, social media makes it easy to discover, align with, and follow such personalities.
Emily Weiss is on a mission to build a beauty brand for the Instagram generation. Her beauty brand, Glossier, has inspired cult-like loyalty through transparency. She actively maintains her popular Into the Gloss beauty blog, which she started as a side project in 2010 while working as a Vogue fashion assistant. She built a community of fans before hinting at her first Glossier product. Her other posts are more casual. On Instagram, she feels more like a friend, sharing photos from sun-soaked days at the beach, (seemingly) unedited selfies from her living room, and updates on company anniversary parties. Photos from her private vacation trips to the beach are akin to what any close friend would typically post. Emily Weiss’ posts document the glamorous side of her entrepreneurship — boujee restaurants, prestigious conferences, and sun-soaked beaches, attracting fervid social media followers. With a tribe of dedicated commenters and fans, Glossier crowdsources new product ideas.
Similarly, Casey Neistat started his daily vlog to highlight the day-to-day operations of starting and growing his company, Beme. Among other things, Neistat used the vlog to document feature launches and discuss his company’s struggles. The app struggled, but the vlog thrived. As I write this, Neistat has more than 7 million YouTube subscribers. Consider this: some of Casey Neistat’s fans tuned into each of his 500 vlogs, many of which were more than ten minutes long. Those who did, have likely spent more intimate time with Neistat than most of their best friends and family during this time. This is especially true for fans with leisure time, many of whom are young adults, and are no longer in school.
Casey Neistat uses his YouTube channel to rally support around business initiatives, such as his forthcoming news show. Because of his consistent transparency, his fans feel invested in his endeavors. They assume the role of a trusted confidant. If the show becomes popular, fans like myself will take pride in saying they saw the first, unpolished, test episode of Beme News.
By broadcasting Beme’s humble beginnings, Casey Neistat invites us to support the company’s growth — physically, emotionally, and financially.
In this modern age, fans don’t just want to support favorite brands. They want to establish emotional connections with them. They want to shape their evolution and feel intimately close to the people who inspire them. This fandom is no different from the pride one gets from discovering an up-and-coming rapper after their first mixtape or watching an NBA star dominate in high school.
Emily Weiss and Casey Neistat are pioneering modern, digitally native brand standards. As a result, they’ve built globally recognized personal brands and have attained celebrity status, reaching hundreds of millions of fans in less than a decade. Because of social media, young audiences are attached to influencers with eccentric — and often polarizing — personalities.
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In the words of Marshall McLuhan: “we drive towards the future using only our rear-view mirror.” Today we’re moving towards an immersive and interconnected world, our lives awash with digital technology. History predicts an impending shift. The Internet will spawn new brand archetypes, powered by social media influencers who are mere clicks away at all times.
Social media mavens Logan Paul, Casey Neistat and Emily Weiss hint at a changing of the guard — the rise of Naked Brands.™
Naked Brands are transparent. They are founded by social media influencers, and prize ongoing communication with fans. Their brands are defined not by symbols, logos, or television advertisements, but by the authenticity of their personalities.
10 to 20-somethings value passionate relationships over branded trust. Naked Brands are here to stay.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Zander Nethercutt for editing this piece and providing feedback, and to Conor Witt for thinking through these ideas with me. Thanks to Kunal Tandon for the tweet that inspired this piece.