How to Hijack Your Brand
Alex Wipperfurth is a San-Francisco-based
marketing consultant who traffics in radical ideas.
Through his agency Plan
B, Wipperfurth has elevated grassroots marketing
into something of an artform. Brands as diverse as Napster, Dr
Marten's, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Barbie have all
benefited from Wipperfurth's methodology, which
often times flies in the face of big budget, mass
media, focus group tested marketing. Wipperfurth
creates a cult following for most of his brands
through a creative, low-budget, person-to-person
strategy that "seeds" the product with
a target audience of trend-setters. The customer
in effect "hijacks" the brand, sparking
an authentic buzz that makes the brand cool.
you think Jonathan Ive (designer of the
new Apple G5) ever considered "cool"
in his designs? Hell no. He considered simplicity,
aesthetics, and God knows what else. But
Prior to the release of his new
book Brand Hijack, we interviewsed Alex about what
his ideas mean for visual designers. After all,
marketers and designers do face the same challenges:
How do we reach our target audience without placing
an ad on Fox? How do we make a design "cool"
without trying too hard?
Q: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming
title "Brand Hijack." How did the name come about?
Alex: The name plays on consumers appropriating brands
for themselves and adding their own meaning to it. Look
at Napster, Dr. Martens, In-N-Out Burger, and Krispy
Kreme. These brands were all hijacked. Dr. Martens was
never a political brand. It was a gardening shoe for
elderly women. But youth movements, from skins to punks
to mods, hijacked the boot for their own purposes, as
a statement of defiance.
Q: So getting hijacked by customers can be
a positive thing. Do you think that only the customer
and not marketers or designers can make
a brand cool? How do you quantify being cool?
Alex: "Cool" is one of the most misunderstood terms in marketing
(and in society at large). Most of the time when a marketer
uses the term, he doesn't even mean it. He or she means
"relevant" or "topical," or something like that.
I think there will always be a correlation between
a product's coolness and a niche market share. By definition,
"coolness" is an oppositional attitude towards the mainstream,
and as long as a brand has a cool cachet, it will remain
Brands go through a transition from "next big thing"
(cool) to mainstream norm (the brand is no longer edgy,
the risk-averse masses are ready to adopt it). As soon
as you market an attitude, a brand becomes wannabe to
what it used to be a bad and insufficient imitation
of an authentic feeling. That happens when a brand starts
to believe its own hype. Dr. Martens is an example.
It crossed the fine line between being cool and despised
(so did Airwalk and for some time The Gap). They all
tried too hard
Q: In your writings, you have often identified
Apple as a company that has successfully maintained
its brand cachet.
Alex: That's what differentiates Apple. They stayed
the course. They never sold out, and they continue to
market towards their inner circle rather than the mainstream,
with utilitarian, yet inspiring ads, phenomenal talent
casting (check out the "my generation" guy...)
Apple effortlessly stayed true to itself and remained
natural. There are exceptions, for example, the Ipod
is not there yet. Major limiting factors are the new
mp3 standard and the Mac platform (even with PC compatibility).
This long ramble brings me to your core question from
before: how to quantify cool... and it also brings me
to the biggest fallacy of "marketing cool." Being cool
limits your market potential in terms of scale. But
it also delivers an invaluable loyalty through community,
and with that a stability that other brands can only
I don't think you can quantify cool it's an attitude,
not a behavior that you can measure in terms of sales,
and you shouldn't, because coolness initially sparks
but then limits growth.
Once a brand crosses the chasm, it no longer is cool
(see the rise and fall of Palm, for example). To me
a key question is "would you rather stay cool or grow.
Q: In that case, should a marketer (or designer)
even try to "create" cool?
Alex: Bottom line, don't ever go for cool. It's limiting
(niche audience), and quite frankly, Mr. Brand Owner,
who appointed you God? You cannot appoint yourself cool,
it has to be bestowed on you by the market.
As a designer, you must understand the persona of the
brand that you are about to design. You can't create
cool yourself. You can only follow your own convictions,
your own sensibility, to create a world-class design.
Do you think Jonathan Ive (designer of the new Apple
G5) ever considered "cool" in his designs?
Hell no. He considered simplicity, aesthetics, and God
knows what else. But not cool.
|For relaxing times, make it a Pabst Blue
Q: Let's talk about Pabst Blue Ribbon, a case
study from your own consulting practice. In a New York
Times article you refer to the beer as an "underground
darling." How did it attain this status?
Alex: PBR is a fascinating, complex case study. There
isn't a single factor that made it one of the fastest
growing beers of the new Millennium. We studied the
brand in-depth and we came up with about 9 individual
factors that brought this old brand back to life. PBR
has gotten a lot of press lately, and journalists have
made it very easy on themselves to attribute its re-emergence
to nostalgia. It was so much more than that. At its
core, PBR has become a political statement for the post-consumer.
It is one of the few no-image brands in one of the most
image-laden categories out there.
Q: Why would PBR want to retain a no-image status?
Alex: They shouldn't just want to retain that status
they should want to build on it. At the end of
the day, Pabst Brewing needs to figure out how to increase
both sales and profit for the brand, with the all-important
addendum not to sell out its cultural positioning in
Q: Did "lack of design" have a role in helping
PBR maintain its growing popularity?
Alex: Design is crucial in both maintaining and increasing
its popularity. And let's be clear: a so-called "lack
of design" is design as well. Our mantra for PBR was
"consumption as protest." We analyzed the values and
principles of the post-consumer in order to come up
with appropriate guidelines for both design and marketing
programs. It was the ultimate (and arguably hypocritical)
challenge for us: How do we market to an audience that
rejects marketing? And design obviously plays a crucial
role in signaling the right cues to such an aware audience.
Q: Can mainstream brands market to a younger,
hipper target audience by applying some of the strategies
of PBR and Apple without compromising their identity
with their larger established demographic?
Alex: Of course, but it requires a sensibility that large
corporations often lack.
How come Coke and Pepsi could not break into the energy
drink market? Because they lacked Red Bull's sensibility
and counter-intuitive go-to-market template. Most of
all, corporations lack patience. And that is absolutely
required to authentically break into a trend-setting
Q: When we spoke in a previous conversation you
said that advertisers and marketers should ask themselves,
"What effect will my actions have on culture?"
Alex: Have you ever read Michel Foucault's criticism
that the capitalist mass media exercises "power
Well, this dynamic applies to marketing as well. I want
to be clear here: Marketing itself is not evil. In western
society, brands add tremendous value.
They add to our quality of life. They provide us with
belief and meaning.
But marketing can only be as socially responsible as
the people and corporations who practice it. The combined
efforts of our craft have dramatically affected culture
rather then merely reflecting it. As such, we (the Plan
B team) flaunt contempt not for the craft of marketing
itself, but for the bad habits we the industry have
adopted over time.
Q: Bad habits?
Alex: Specifically we see a trio of substantial consequences
that marketing has had on society:
• Marketing trivializes authentic culture. We
reduce black culture to fashion trends. Che Guevara
sells soda pop in Canada and Mountain Dew stands for
defiance. Adbusters calls it "culture vulturing."
• Marketing is responsible for youth's loss of
innocence. Early sexualization. Warped values. Damaged
self-esteem. These are just a few effects that critics
charge consumerism with. Whether we are talking A&F
selling underwear to pre-teens labeled with words such
as "wink wink" or "eye candy" or NYC spas offering back-to-school
waxing specials, things have gotten a bit out of hand,
don't you think?
• Marketing has prioritized consumption over
citizenship. After the tragic 9/11 attacks, President
Bush told a nation of anxious Americans to continue
on with our daily lives, to continue shopping. This
remark was received without scrutiny. Implicitly, we
understood that the greatest responsibility as Americans
is not to vote, but to buy.
That also explains how companies like General Mills
get away with incredibly inappropriate school programs:
"Learn about geysers by biting into this fruit snack."
Where am I leading with this? We as marketers have a
responsibility to act with heightened awareness and
to enter into a dialogue with our critics and disillusioned
consumers. This is not an appeal for marketing regulation
of any kind. The last thing I am trying to do is to
gag creativity, to start playing it safe.
But I do suggest a heightened awareness on the consequences
of our actions in marketing. To add a simple criterion
to how we evaluate creative submissions: IS IT APPROPRIATE?
Q: On your Web site you state, "Let go of the
fallacy that your brand belongs to you. It belongs to
the market." The Jones
Soda Company seems to be applying this strategy.
They take a personal approach to their packaging by
encouraging buyers of Jones Soda to submit photos that
might be used as labels of the soda.
Alex: Yeah, isn't it great to see this? Jones has been
around for a while now, and they keep doing things right.
There is this feeling about them that they are "just
like us." A bunch of freaks that have gotten their hands
on a bit of marketing budget.
Look at their Web site. It's a bit dilettante, isn't
it? If you can credibly pull that off (talk about a
tough design challenge), people will root for you and
become fans of your brand.
When we worked with Napster two years ago, we wanted
to make sure, that their Web redesign would not look
too slick, perfect, and corporate. It had to have the
look of an overworked, music-loving engineer. That's
a design you can't fake. You either have that sensibility
or not. And if you try too hard at making it look imperfect
you totally fail.
Those assignments don't come along too often. But they
are a lot more exciting and satisfying than a cat-litter