Branding, Marketing, and Cool: How to Hijack Your Brand

by Kate Andrews | March 6, 2007

Alex Wipperfurth, brand marketing consultant and accessory to hijack.

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.

“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.”

Alex Wipperfurth, Plan B

Prior to the release of his new book Brand Hijack, we interviewed 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 small.

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 dream of.

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.

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 the meantime.

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 market.

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 without responsibility”?

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 redesign.


    Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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