The days are longer, the sun’s rays are gentle and warm, and my winter coat has migrated to the back of my closet. It’s Spring. Given this, I felt the urge to upgrade my wardrobe with some shirts that reflected both my newfound appreciation for fashion and desire to express it.
My shopping excursion started with a simple question: What brands do I like?
I was stumped. So, I decided to hit the New York streets to support a brand with a unique worldview and powerful messaging to go with it.
I like Nike, but only for clothes I wear to the gym. Zara is trendy, which I like, but the brand does not stand for anything. H&M is on the right track with their Coachella collection, but something didn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the Justin Bieber tour merchandise or Yeezy (Kanye West’s clothing line) inspired merchandise that feels like a cheap knockoff.
I ended up shopping at Uniqlo, not because of the brand itself, but because of their partnership with New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). I pulled out my smartphone and did some research on the MOMA collaboration, “Surprise New York,” a limited time Uniqlo collection intended to make contemporary visual art more accessible, “wearable” and enjoyable. I purchased a couple of artistic shirts. Then I discovered that Uniqlo also sponsors free admission to the MOMA on Fridays.
The Uniqlo product design per se was not the main reason I walked away with two new shirts. Rather, I supported Uniqlo because of its affiliation with something I enjoy — modern art. Crucially, the “Surprise New York” collection stood for something.
My experience at Uniqlo indicates how consumer-oriented companies should think about branding in the digital age. As we shift away from the mainstream, towards more distinct brands, the brands we support will be more diverse, and in turn, reflect our unique lifestyle preferences and personalities.
The best consumer brands connect with shoppers at an intimate level and allow them to express themselves. Brands that fail to do so become commodities. Contrast a simple t-shirt that sells for $10 on Amazon with a $325 alternative from Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 collection. Yeezy’s Calabasas-inspired collection sold out in less than five minutes. Both the simple T-shirt and Yeezy products provide similar utility, but the Amazon shirt is a commodity while the Yeezy shirt — with a high-fashion price-point — conveys social status and is a potent form of self-expression. People don’t flock to Yeezy for the utility it provides. They wear it to actualize their dreams, express themselves beyond what words can accomplish, and establish a personal connection to Kanye.
Like Yeezy, the brands with the most passionate and loyal customers appeal to only a small percentage of consumers. Supreme, the most influential streetwear brand in the world, was established by a rebellious gang of New York City skateboarders who captured synergy between skateboarding and Hip-Hop culture. To outsiders, Supreme feels like an exclusive cult, and to their fans, to define it as such is not a stretch. Customers routinely wait in line for hours and pay absurd prices on the secondary market to don the brand’s iconic red and white logo, not because of how it looks, but because of what it means.
Equinox attracts a cohort of people who see fitness as the foundation for success. Equinox stands for commitment and attracts fitness lovers who pay $235 per month for exclusive access to the club. Every Equinox location has space dedicated to selling high-end branded merchandise. One of their shirts reads, “It’s not fitness. It’s life.”
Gary Vaynerchuk, the CEO of VaynerMedia, a social media advertising agency based in New York City, uses social media to share wisdom and inspire his fans. He has established a community of entrepreneurs by sharing hard-earned wisdom and engaging with his followers directly. Vaynerchuk motivates entrepreneurs and because of the attention he commands. He was one of the most popular speakers at this year’s South By Southwest conference and will be a judge on Apple Music’s new series, Planet of the Apps, where he will appear alongside Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, and will.i.am.
These up-and-coming brands are one-of-a-kind; they command devotion by striving for distinctiveness over widespread popularity. Oft polarizing brands like Yeezy, Supreme, Equinox, and Gary Vaynerchuk foreshadow the kinds of companies that will thrive in the internet age.
Since undifferentiated products will become commodities, new consumer brands must become even more distinct. Consumers will demand more from the brands they can personally affiliate with — brands that feel like an extension of themselves, and offer comfort, community, and inspiration. They will build loyalty among consumers who identify with them, but they will not chase after consumers who do not.
If traditional brands sought to appeal to the averages, new-age brands target distinct consumer segments and appeal to the extremes. They may only appeal to a small percentage of consumers, but their brands captivate consumers with hype and authenticity. Brands are already building fandom via collaborations with powerful personalities, and if my experience at Uniqlo is any indication, it works. The strategy of affiliating with popular personalities and causes is not a new one, but the tactics are changing.
Prominent brand personalities may turn to social media stars who are perceived as sincere and trustworthy.
Nike’s brand currency partially derives from long-held partnerships with LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Serena Williams. Now, Nike encourages its top-tier athletes to promote the brand on social media, and Nike has invested deeply in relationships with niche up-and-coming influencers.
Some influencers are even building their own brands and companies. Emily Weiss is both the founder of Glossier and an influential blogger, while Michelle Phan used her following on YouTube to establish her own makeup brand. A recent Variety Magazine survey indicates that uniquely defined brands will continue to emerge. The survey found that the five most influential figures among Americans ages 13–18 were YouTubers; teens are seven times more emotionally attached to YouTube stars than traditional celebrities. Personalities have never had more sway over consumer purchasing decisions.
Due to their innate authenticity, personalities deviate from the “vanilla corporations” that digital natives, like myself, avoid like the plague. They identify with brands for the lifestyles they encourage, and the social causes they support, as opposed to what they sell.
I connect with Apple through their iconic founder, whose quotes fill the walls in my room and remind me to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” I admire Casey Neistat for his improbable rise to success and through my own effort to produce a daily vlog. Equinox sees a commitment to fitness, and the community that comes from it, as a prerequisite for success in any domain. The results I’ve seen since becoming a member make spending a quarter of my rent check on an gym membership a no-brainer. I’ve applied Tim Ferriss’ wisdom to my own life, and through that, I’ve developed both deep trust in and respect for him. The message is more important than the product.
My connection with these brands has evolved beyond superficiality — they are a part of me. Still, I haven’t found a fashion brand that I can identify with in the same way the aforementioned brands do. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve stopped looking.
The seasons change four times per year. Your move, fashionistas.