‘The hipster effect’ (or: how to target the untargetable)

They have long beards and/or side-swept bangs, they wear plaid shirts, they ride bespoke longboards, they drink single-estate coffee. They are hipsters. They are anti-conformists, yet easily identifiable. They are anti-consumerists, yet one of the most coveted consumer groups. How does one identify a group of individualists and target a group that does not want to be targeted?

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If we think of hipsters through the lenses of segmentation, it is immediately clear that they can be delineated from other groups based on demographic traits that first and foremost have to do with age and dwelling place: hipsters are young(ish) and they are urban. Looking at the psychographic criteria, hipsters share the important personality trait of wishing to stand out from the crowd, which – somewhat paradoxically – leads them to share a number of lifestyle choices. Jonathan Toubal (2014) has termed this ‘the hipster-effect’: “[the] non-concerted emergent collective phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different.”

The history of the very term ‘hipster’ may illustrate this point. First used in the 1940s and ‘50s to denote a group of youths who searched for alternatives to the conformist and traditionalist lifestyles of their parents, it is now used somewhat pejoratively to point out a certain type of pretentious trendiness. Remember, the true hipster would never use the term about him- or herself – or rather, would only do so in deep irony. What unites hipsters across time, then, is the constant search for positions that are in opposition to the majority. This search makes the group dynamic and malleable, but hipsters (or whatever label might denote trendy anti-conformists at a given time) constantly end up grouping themselves around a limited number of anti-establishment alternatives; e.g. they prefer jazz when the majority listens to hip-hop, they drink beer when everyone else toasts in wine, they let their hair down and their beards grow when the mainstream is smoothed and groomed. And they end up being the perfect targets of certain types of products and certain forms of communication as their anti-conformist, anti-consumerist, and anti-commercial attitudes lead to identifiable consumption patterns and communication preferences.

The hipster, then, likes ideas and products that are definitely and defiantly not mainstream, but this actually leads to more, rather than fewer opportunities for organizations to target their business (be it commercial or otherwise) at hipsters. Hipsters like to stand out in a manner that demands a trained eye. To the outsider, a hipster may be wearing any old shirt, but other hipsters will recognise the unique details, specific cut or other ‘secret signs’ of the hipster uniform. Hipster brands, then, are not loud or glaringly obvious, but hold other and subtler attractions. This means that certain start-ups have great advantages in terms of reaching hipsters and may experience great benefits of this reach – as hipsters are almost by definition first movers. However, established brands may also become attractive to hipsters, especially if the brands are somehow on the wane or have an image that might need dusting-off. If the hipster can be convinced that s/he has (re-)discovered the brand, one has already come a long way towards reinvigoration.

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Hipsters, of course, are immune, if not outright allergic to traditional advertising, but given that they are very active communicators, they can be reached on various (digital/social) media platforms and by means of new and untraditional forms of marketing – not least word-of-mouth. Also, hipsters like quirky, tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive hints; communication that signals ‘insiderness’ – ‘I know that you know…and we are all playing around with it’. As when the clothing brand Khujo winks at ‘the shopping rebel’ or the microbrewer Brewdog crowdfunds its operations, inviting patrons to become shareholders – and ‘craft beer crusaders’ – through the ‘Equity for Punks’ initiative.

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A final word of warning, though: by the time you read this, the ‘real’ hipster is sure to be moving on to a new look and a different scene. The point, then, is not the content of the specific trend as we may spot it right now, but the constant act of trend spotting. The hipster effect means new targets constantly appear to those who know how to be in the know now…

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