From Starbucks to McDonald’s, a number of global brands are looking to stay relevant with a hipster makeover
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Kotryna Zukauskaite
The only things more commonplace than hipsters these days are articles proclaiming their imminent extinction. For a while now, style gurus have been predicting that the bicycle lanes of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, London’s Shoreditch and Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg will soon be free of sockless lumberjacks and tattooed Victorians, along with the man-bags in which they tote their craft beers, mustache waxes and ukuleles.
You don’t need supernatural powers to see that this trend is limping to its conclusion. As a rule, the dissolution of any countercultural movement is signaled by the moment it is co-opted by mainstream culture, which is only one short step from that elephants’ graveyard of cool: consumer marketing. So it is with the hipster, whose individualistic, anti-consumer ethos is now being plundered by a slew of global brands.
There is evidence of hipster marketing everywhere we look. Drinks giant Ricard has launched micro-distilleries with local stakeholders. Ikea last year introduced a line of funky furnishings “created specifically for the young, urban crowd living in smaller spaces.” And Starbucks is opening a Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle, the flagship of a planned chain of 100 stores selling obscure coffees made from beans grown in small-batch quantities. In a further bid to lure business away from its indie rivals, Reserve features a Wonka/steampunk setting with green coffee beans rattling through tubes to copper-clad roasters where they are prodded by a reassuringly unsmiling dude in a ZZ Top beard and leather apron.
“Brands being relevant simply isn’t enough anymore,” says Virginia Morris, VP for consumer strategy at branding firm Daymon Worldwide. “The bigger trends are localization, connectivity, customization and self-expression. And, of course, what is ‘authentic.’ The quest for au-thenticity is not a fad. It is a shift, and corporations everywhere are trying to adjust.”
To get a sense of how far this marketing strategy has spread, look no further than The Corner, a folksy café that recently opened in a suburb of Sydney, Australia. With its quinoa salads, local “craft sodas” and artisanal burgers served on wooden boards, the joint looks as though it could have been hatched by a couple of disillusioned bankers who met in yoga class.
What this earthy eatery is, in fact, is the latest enterprise from the people who brought us the Big Mac. McDonald’s describes The Corner as a “learning lab,” a vehicle to experiment with new menu items, new approaches to customer service and new kinds of interior design ahead of any potential global makeovers. “Big businesses know they must evolve, and they’re trying to figure out how,” Morris says.
Another recent addition to the bearded bandwagon is Timberland, the Massachusetts-founded footwear company whose work boots were appropriated by the hip-hop community in the early 1990s. While Timberland’s boots are still a staple of rappers and their fans, its updated stores—with their exposed brickwork and vaguely ironic boot-as-art displays—suggest that the company’s future will involve a lot more hip and a lot less hop.
The creative agency responsible for Timberland’s new retail face, Dalziel and Pow, has also created artsy, warehouse-chic stores for the cut-price Irish fashion chain Primark, which will get a trial run in the U.S. this fall with the opening of a Boston outlet.
“Brands know they have to engage their customers with the right look, the right dialogue, the right values, the right people,” says David Dalziel, a partner in the agency. “It’s about an authentic experience.”
Dalziel warns that we’ve only scratched the surface of hipster branding. Even the most corporate of companies, he insists, have started to recruit employees because they have the right beards, tattoos or facial piercings. “It started with hospitality and retail,” he says. “The banks will be next.”
There are a few pitfalls involved in the manufacture of authenticity—the main one being that, on the whole, people aren’t idiots. When Audi set out to woo a new generation of upscale car buyers last year by throwing too-cool-for-school parties at its U.S. dealerships, the effort was met with derision. The company’s party planning guide, Automotive News observed, contained “so many hipster stereotypes—bacon doughnuts, unfiltered craft beer, up-and-coming bands like Chvrches—that it feels like something out of the TV show ‘Portlandia.’”
Even true believers, it seems, have occasional doubts. Dalziel recently shaved off his beard, he says, “because everyone has one.”
London-based writer and editor Boyd Farrow would like to point out that he was in the first wave of hipsters, largely because he is by nature a slovenly individual.