From Coke's 'Hilltop' to Sex Pistols credit cards – the highs and lows of brands cashing in on counterculture

From punk rock credit cards to Etonian Jam fans, aligning your brand with music and rebellious youth movements continues to prove all too attractive for some. But is it OK for brands to cash in on counterculture, or should they leave well alone? Rebecca Stewart takes a look.

In 1971 Coca-Cola’s ‘Hilltop’ campaign brought hippie culture to the small screen. Set to the sound of ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’, the spot captured the innocence of the flower power revolution and struck a chord with viewers; recently returning to the fore thanks to HBO’s Mad Men finale. Ever since, brands have tried to appropriate counterculture in the quest for cool, and not always to the same critical acclaim.

In June, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols’ artist Jamie Reid expressed his “complete disgust” at Virgin Money’s line of Sex-Pistols-inspired credit cards. “It seems typical of the times we live in,” he said, adding that the concept was “so removed from the original 1977 spirit” of the punk outfit.

Adidas provoked a similar reaction in 2011, when it decided to paint over a free art wall in Warsaw with its own ads. In response, graffiti artists set up a Facebook group titled ‘Adisucks’ which quickly amassed over 25,000 followers. They said the brand was trying to destroy “a very important place for the Polish hip-hop scene,” as well as “the living history and a heritage of many generations of graffiti artists”.

From punk to grunge and beyond, movements that contest mainstream ideology are typically associated with youth rebellion. On top of this they ride the unpredictable fashion cycle, becoming trends in their own right. It’s easy to see the appeal of counterculture for advertisers, but does that mean they should try to cash in on it?

Toby Southgate, worldwide chief executive at Brand Union, says it’s a thorny issue. “The critical question is always one of relevance and authenticity. The experience of a brand is both rooted in and consistently connected to cultural elements – wherever they may sit on the scale from counterculture to mass audience to passé.”

Permission is key for brands looking to benefit from these kinds of associations. And while legal consent is essential, approval from fans, consumers and artists is even more important. In June, Neil Young supporters took to Twitter to vent their frustrations following Donald Trump’s unauthorised use of Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World to launch his presidential campaign. “I make my music for people, not for candidates,” said Young. And it wouldn’t be the first time a politician had upset a musician either. When David Cameron was on the campaign trail he told Radio 4 that his favourite song was the Jam’s Eton Rifles, in response to which Paul Weller asked: “which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”

Ogilvy & Mather’s chief strategy officer Rebecca Moody concurs that appropriation can’t be “off territory”. Recalling the Times’ 1999 ‘Dury On Life’ spot she says: “I remember we were in the cinema and it came on. The audience was gripped because it was Ian Dury, but then everyone groaned when the Sunday Times flashed up at end. It’s not about the subject matter, it’s about the fit with the brand.”

According to Moody, there are “ingrained cultural codes, which brands have to be mindful of” before taking the leap. “Richard Branson can get away with it… but maybe only just.”

Of course, despite Reid’s protests, Virgin did have the rights to feature the band’s album art on its products. But was it a smart move? Jacques de Cock, a faculty member at the London School of Marketing, thinks so. “Over the last 20 to 30 years Virgin has become very mainstream. It used to be this young, vibrant, challenger brand.

“What they’ve tried to do is reinforce Virgin Money as an experimental game-changing bank. For the first time in a long time it has brought itself very close to the original brand.”

Ogilvy’s Moody agrees. “I thought it was spot on. Virgin gave birth to the Sex Pistols, Branson gave them his label. And at the very heart of Virgin at its best is this sense of rebellion and agitation.”

There’s no denying history has an important role to play – the more natural the association the less likely it is to irk, but Southgate says this connection can’t be artificial. “Vivienne Westwood is part of punk history because she was a punk, embedded in the culture as it emerged. She made clothes for Malcom McLaren’s London boutique, and was closely connected to the Sex Pistols. That’s real.

“Mods wore Dr. Martens and Fred Perry because they were stylish, a little different, accessible – a uniform. These associations are natural, they emerged together – they couldn’t have been faked or forced through endorsements or advertising campaigns.”

Dr. Martens’ long-running appeal does transcend various fashion conscious countercultures. Having been adopted by skinheads, goths, punks and Britpoppers alike, the bootmaker was snapped up by Hugo Boss owner Permira for $485m (£300m) in 2013. It has since outlined a $600m growth plan and even made a foray into the world of pop, with Miley Cyrus and Rihanna sporting the shoe. The challenge going forward will be how it adheres to its motto, ‘we stand for nonconformity’, and how it holds on to its roots while expanding. “Losses can happen far more quickly than the gains. It can take years to build reputations that can be destroyed in minutes,” says Southgate.

Red Bull is another brand success borne out of subculture. Upon its launch, the energy drink restricted supply and refused to advertise, instead paying students and DJs to host parties and serve the beverage. It soon built an extreme sports following which paved the way for a sponsorship deal with BMX, its very own Air Race World Championships and a partnership with freestyle footballer Séan Garnier.

It’s “the granddaddy of alternative advertising,” says De Cock. “Red Bull has become synonymous with partying, extreme trends, fun and adrenaline, and it has executed it masterfully and beautifully.”

Although Red Bull has monetised on non-traditional pastimes, it is keeping pace with its aging core customer base through its Formula One team. With 30 per cent of revenues reportedly spent on advertising, the privately-owned energy drink’s countercultural ethos may seem financially risky, but it appears to have paid off. The brand’s worth is now estimated at $7.6bn, and its highly lauded 2012 ‘Stratos’ space jump mission has been watched by over five million people online to date. Despite the large following, Red Bull is still dedicated to allowing its fans to contribute ideas via its culture sponsoring scheme, be it music, art or breakdance.

“The very best creatives propagate counterculture,” says Moody. She observes that prior to Coke’s ‘Hilltop’, the images in advertising were underpinned by conformity and complacency, and some of the most iconic advertising (including Volkswagen’s ‘Lemon’ and Apple’s ‘1984’) owe their success to the emergence of counterculture.

“Beforehand, there was no sign of petty frustrations, or what was actually going on behind the scenes in everybody’s lives. It was an abstractly glowing vision of the world, and of life, and perfection.”

Southgate likens subcultures to tribes. He says they are naturally protective of what sets them apart, whether they identify as a surfer, a musician or something else entirely. The test for brands, he says, is how to adopt these cultures independently without the need to borrow or “bastardise” things they didn’t create or can’t credibly claim to have been a part of.

While distinct, each branch of counterculture is characterised by an unwillingness to conform to mainstream societal rules, but for the brands appropriating it, the rules are very clear: authenticity is key, don’t capitalise on something you had no hand in creating, and never mind the bollocks.

This article was first published in The Drum's 19 August issue.

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