‘Eff you’ pendulum has swung: conservatism is the new cool

At a time when individualism reigns supreme, big brands are losing clout with youth, writes Conversion SVP Mike Farrell.

By Mike Farrell

Brand affiliation trends, on both a mainstream and bubbling-under level, are often great indicators of sociocultural mores.

A recent study of young Canadians that Conversion just wrapped in partnership with SPC Card and strategy displays this in spades. The upshot is that brands, like any other currently demystified cultural entity (celebrities, politicians), continue to exert influence, but are increasingly under the microscope and laden with ongoing expectation.

Our fresh numbers indicate that, as has been the case with this generation for years, lending brands a sense of primacy is seen as negative and non-aspirational. Close to two thirds (62%) of young Canadians agree that “people place too much importance on brands.” More a comment on not wanting to be seen as a slavish adulator of a certain brand than a subconscious indictment of modern corporate consumer culture (for some, I’m sure it’s both) this remains a very telling perception.

On the flipside, an almost-identical percentage (61%) agreed that “I will purchase a brand if it stands for something I believe in.”

It’s that “stands for something I believe in” part of the equation that we must place ongoing focus on as youth continue to expect their favourite brands to be transparent, honest, socially and environmentally responsible and generally culturally aligned. Apparently, generational maturity and the recession have not entirely dimmed the brand-busting fervour that was part and parcel of youth culture attitude as Millennials entered the scene back in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Also worthy of consideration is the percentage of young people (close to four in 10, at 37%) that mentioned a brand no other person surveyed had mentioned as one of their favourites.

This is a fantastic reflection of the modern media landscape that this generation has been crucial in forming – things are highly niched-out and diversity reigns supreme. There are more opportunities for success in whatever game you’re playing, but gone, in many ways, are the glory days of the monster mega-brands.

This all sounds like a bit of a consumer revolution and this is an apt description when looking at the more active role the new generation continues to play in choosing brands, compared to consumer culture pre-Windows 98.

However, this “revolution” isn’t necessarily translating to a sense of rebelliousness amongst this generation on a mainstream level – at least for now.

There has been an ongoing hypothesis that I, and many others, established back at the start of the millennium (and all the Vice magazine, open source, “eff you” attitude that went with that time) that some cultural counterbalance would follow in the form of conservatism. Many would agree that we’re seeing quite a lot of this today on the socio-political level alone.

This study reflects that something similarly conservative is happening with brands that are performing relatively well today; the attributes associated with top brands in our study are highly pragmatic and traditional. “Comfortable” is the number one brand attribute for youth today, followed closely by “fun,” “high quality,” “athletic” and “fashionable.”

The top brands themselves – well, at least the top 10 (in order: American Eagle, Bench, H&M, Nike, Forever 21, Aeropostale, Adidas, Lululemon, Converse and Hollister) echo back these attributes through different slices of the same universal pie of non-confrontational design based around basics and casual style. Largely gone, on a mainstream level, are fashion brands that, circa the
early- to mid-2000s, used to rank high due largely to a stated sense of individuality, creativity and rebelliousness.

In the ceaseless and cyclical point and counterpoint between extremes that advances culture ever so slightly, the 37% with their own individual favourite brands – who are now not a part of this mainstream picture – are, again, where the action is.

Mike Farrell is SVP, research & strategic insight, at digital consulting and communications company Conversion.