The inevitable death of punk: Brands can’t be pirates forever
From challenger companies to rebel firms, edgy start ups to industry disruptors, for more than a decade now we’ve been told the most exciting businesses are those rejecting mainstream thinking, and striving to be rule-breakers. But I say their days are numbered from the start.
Those who disagree should probably take one look at the evidence. Facebook, for example, was originally an alternative to MySpace, which, by the time Mark Zuckerberg launched his social network, had already been bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation- a media giant which is as establishment as they come.
Skip forward to today, and Facebook itself is no longer the cool, young, alternative brand it was. Falling new user numbers amongst high school and college kids is proof of that, as is the $10.6billion it made in profit last year alone.
Staying with tech, Apple is another prime example. Back in 1984 we were promised that George Orwell’s dystopian vision would not come true because- in contrast to the grey, dull, robotic world of Microsoft- there was a bright, exciting, human-first future in Steve Jobs’ Mac.
It took a while to get here, but these days thanks to iPhones and iPods, the firm is now the most valuable brand on the planet, and whilst we still prefer it to anything Windows-related, you can hardly argue this behemoth is anything other than the market leader. By selling up, some could argue, it has sold out.
In both cases the companies were launched as counterpoints to what was already there, a rejection of what their founders saw as broken approaches to delivering a product or service. They looked to provide something that was more in touch with what people really wanted. And the examples don’t end there.
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Not caring is not sustainable
BrewDog is another case in point, and one that hits the punk nail on the head. I love their marketing stance, the way in which representatives speak out and put their head on the chopping board, often for the sake of publicity. From Putin’s ‘rainbow beer’ in the Sochi Winter Olympics, to directly taking aim at commercial beer giants, the idea is that they don’t give a shi!t about conforming. Yet, with nearly 30 outlets up and down the UK, the company is both highly visible, and- when all is said and done- a fully fledged chain bar, with 27% of the company sold to a private equity firm earlier this month.
When it comes to throwing caution to the wind, it’s impossible not to talk about Ryanair. Those who remember the cheapo-carrier’s inaugural years will know only too well that the airline had an unwritten mantra- ‘We’ll get you there for next-to-nothing, on time, but don’t expect anything resembling good customer service, or a comfortable journey’. From wipe clean seats that have had stow-pockets removed, to check in processes that involve jumping through flaming hoops, the model somehow worked. Nevertheless, times have changed.
So, even though your average take off with Ryanair still makes you feel like cattle en route to market, the out and out disdain for ‘idiot passengers’- something bossman Michael O’Leary has regularly referred to in interviews- has waned significantly. Meanwhile, a mobile app cuts out the hassle of printing boarding documentation, and in 2015 the firm credited rising profits with ‘being pleasant to customers’, making it clear this wasn’t a priority in the first place.
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Cutting to the chase
The references could go on, and on. Uber opened for bookings as an exciting, fresh-faced challenger to expensive black taxis and unreliable minicabs, placing power and choice in the hands of drivers and passengers. Now it is being accused of staff exploitation, whilst cementing itself as one of the most popular ways of getting a lift in Europe and the U.S.
Netflix is currently challenging Hollywood for new movie rights after beginning life with the proposition of not being a major broadcaster, producer, or distributor. And this is all before anyone mentions the music world, where goliath organisations such as Glastonbury, Cream, and Ministry of Sound have moved from counterculture to multi-million pound ventures, alienating their original crowd in favour of global recognition and success.
So what’s my overall point? Well, firstly, you can’t stay young forever- that’s a given in life. Secondly, in order for a brand and company to continue growing there has to be a tipping point, which isn’t to say vibrancy will always be lost, more that it’s important to accept business punks are limited- you can’t have mainstream success when everything you offer is specialist, and vice versa. Ultimately, then, it really depends on how far you want to go, and where you want to end up.
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