SXSW blog: The Juggalos and branding for social change

Laura Muirhead explores what marketers can learn about cultivating community from, of all things, the Insane Clown Posse.

The DDB team is blogging for strategy from SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. For more on the team’s experiences at the festival, visit

By Laura Muirhead, community cultivation manager, Tribal DDB

I came to SXSW not really knowing what to expect from my experience. I figured I’d hear sales pitches from new players in the space mixed with a lot of digital “philosophy” from industry leaders, but instead I’m finding myself wholeheartedly believing in the power of community to inspire social change.

Well, that, and that the Insane Clown Posse has cultivated one of the strongest brands you’ve probably never heard of.

On Tuesday morning, Jenny Benevento, a self-proclaimed obsessor of weird things, led the solo discussion, “Juggalos: Rabid Branding, a Case Study,” for a full house. In case you aren’t familiar, Juggalos are what you call fans of one of the most critically lauded and surprisingly best-selling independent bands of all time, the Insane Clown Posse. Spanning a career of 20 years and 23 albums, ICP has cultivated one of the strongest communities surrounding a musical brand ever, rivaling that of Jimmy Buffett and even the Grateful Dead. From having the longest running hip-hop album on Billboard even with no radio play, to inspiring over 100,000 people to travel to the middle of nowhere each year for their fan festival, the Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse has more fans now than ever.

So how have a couple of wrestler wannabes from Michigan been able to amass a fan base that’s inspired to consume literally everything that the Posse creates (even their own line of wrestling videos and energy drinks)? Benevento discussed some things to consider in efforts to create Juggalos for your own brand and make a community that people want to be a part of:

  • Stand for something. Something specific and something obvious. Unlike a lot of traditional rap, ICP is strongly against bigotry, wife beating, rape and murder, and their fans rally behind these ideals. Have a mythology for your fans to believe.
  • Be something that’s not for everyone. Dare to be different, but inspire others to be a part of your something. Believe in something that’s unlike anything else, and emphasize the weirdness to the alienation of some.
  • Find an enemy. Haters reinforce your community’s strong ties, and cause them to embrace being underground. Inspire potential fans to pick your side.
  • Don’t bust your community, help them. Brands want to control everything that gets said about them, but an empowered community will often say the things you’d want to say but that you might not be able to.
  • Be one of them. A self-directed community is far more powerful than being told to do something. Inspire, and don’t squash what the community puts in themselves. Give your community members places to meet and inspire one another.

But what’s most interesting to me during this SXSW experience is taking what I learned in Benevento’s session and relating it to what I heard the day before, in Al Gore and Sean Parker’s conversation on inspiring social change. While Gore and Parker largely spoke about the difficulties in inspiring the internet generation to bring about social change in opposition to the current political discourse in the US, it struck me that there are some lessons to be learned about how the Insane Clown Posse has been able to get people to buy into them, and ultimately their community, and how this can be applied to mobilizing Americans to care about their country’s larger issues.

To Gore and Parker, modern political discourse is driven by so many exaggerations and half truths that passivity and apathy by the voting majority has reigned for the last few decades, and ultimately lacks inspiration for action of any kind. And in the online space, where connecting with a large population is the name of the game, Gore and Parker pointed out that just because there’s a lot of people present in the space doesn’t actually mean that they’re using their connectivity to inspire actual change.

On seemingly the other end of the spectrum, ICP is truly motivational to its followers. ICP’s brand stands on the tenets of family, home, and acceptance, and ICP inspires fans’ coming together and taking care of one another. (The song “Homies” even says, “We worldwide, we’re homies around the planet.”) Through these ideals, Insane Clown Posse has been able to create a fan-led movement that runs so deep and inspires anything but armchair participation.

The lesson here is that people really do want to come together, be behind you, connect with you, and identify themselves through their relationship with you. You just need to give them something that they’re proud to be a part of.

Perhaps we can all learn something from the Juggalos.