News & Views

Opinion / Streets Ahead

by Contagious Contributor
Alan Bryant, strategist at Livity, on how all brands can benefit from adopting a youth state of mind

Photo / Warren Wong

Connecting with the younger generations is (still) the golden chalice for many brands and when you look at young people’s growing influence on consumerism and culture, it’s easy to see why. Such a shame, then, that so many brands are still struggling to connect with them.

We’ve all seen this lead to brands taking an ill-fated scattergun approach, desperately churning out messaging and hoping something will stick or worse, creating something that does stick but for all the wrong reasons (mentioning no names, ‘that’ Pepsi ad).

So is anybody winning at life with this audience? Well, while most have failed to crack the code of youth engagement, one sector has been getting it right for decades. And the writing is – plain and simply – on the wall.

Streetwear brands have managed to consistently play an important part in youth culture for more than twenty years. They are the real superstars when it comes to creating their own culture and engaging with young people. But there are some key points that all brands can learn from these masters. And it’s all about adopting a youth state of mind.

1. Make friends
Influencers are hot property in marketing right now – and for good reason. Young people seriously value authenticity and transparency. Streetwear brands are the experts when it comes to building relationships with influencers, but they do this by nurturing friendships with influential people. This is a small but key difference – a difference that allows a brand like Palace to have Hollywood A-lister Jonah Hill taking a leading role in its promo videos. The pair have built a true friendship over time; a relationship based on mutual support, shared values and collaboration.

Photo / Sean Stratton

2. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion
Time to get off the fence; youth audiences expect brands to have an opinion. Streetwear was borne out of people having an opinion and needing a way to share it. From a simple joke like the ‘Pharrell can’t skate’ tee to Obey’s Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ portrait of Obama, it’s ok to be opinionated. What is your opinion and how are you expressing it? It doesn’t have to be divisive, but you’ve got to stand for something.

3. Be curious, there’s a big world out there
It’s easy to get tunnel vision: to only take inspiration from your sector or tackle challenges in ways that your sector has in the past. But it’s important not to get stuck with one inspiration point. Streetwear is an industry that has always brought together inspiration from various sources – skateboarding, politics, hip hop, high end fashion. Just like youth audiences are no longer defined by tribes and instead celebrate their fragmented selves, in order to connect with a youth audience brands need to consider the convergence points between different cultural verticals and not just focus on what people come to them for.

Redd Angelo

4. It doesn’t have to be dog eat dog
Collaborations are huge in the business of streetwear. Supreme alone has collaborated with Fila, Nike, Neighbourhood, The North Face and Visvim, to name a few. Brands in streetwear work together to have a slice of a bigger pie – rather than just a bigger slice of the original pie. Working with other brands inside and out of your industry can allow you both to grow. It doesn’t always have to be dog eat dog.

5. Know the part you play in culture
Streetwear is much more than the product; it’s the style, the music, the art, the sports that surround it. It’s a culture in its own right. Not all brands are going to be able to make that kind of impact on youth culture, but they all have the opportunity to play their part. Maybe your part is just to be useful, maybe it’s to inspire, or maybe there’s room for you to play as large a role as streetwear. Whatever it is, you need to get to grips with what your role is, and how you are adding value and meaning to this generation, beyond just your product. Then play that role well.

Photo / Clem Onojeghuo

6. Be willing to fail
To be successful with a youth audience, you need to be bold and you need to be happy to make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Youth audiences want transparency; it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes as long as you’re trying. Patagonia embodies this approach by showing where the issues are in its production lines, but also showing how it is improving them. Don’t be afraid to take a risk – as long as you are transparent and trying to do better, this generation will respect you.

Six simple points, but when applied properly we’ve seen these be transformative for brands.

To quote Bobby Hundreds of epic Californian streetwear brand The Hundreds’ fame:

‘Young people are irrational and invincible. With their entire lives before them, they see opportunity for change and revolution, outside the borders of reason, financial sense, or cynics. Grown-ups are chained to responsibilities and doubt. They’ve been told “no” too many times.

‘The youth stoke culture and everything that’s cool. But here’s the rub: “Youth” is an attitude, not a number. Stay young, stay ignorant. Surround yourself with positive people and encourage them. Be childlike in wonder. Be romantic in revolt.’