What Punk Culture Can Teach Us About Effective Marketing
As a self-proclaimed punk, marketing tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. An overwhelming amount comes off as manipulative, over-sanitized, and greedy, which is about as far from punk values as you can get. However, I’m a member of the marketing industry myself, so it can’t be all bad…right?
Many businesses will do anything to make a quick buck, but my existence as a punk marketer proves that effective marketing doesn’t need to focus purely on profit or rely on unethical practices to drive sales. “Effective” is a subjective term, with as many meanings as there are people in the world, but I believe there’s more to effectiveness than financial gains alone. Truly effective marketing is able to connect with its audience on a genuine and personal level, building a rapport that fosters long-term loyalty and support.
This is no easy task, but looking at marketing through the lens of punk culture can make the feat much less daunting. Personally connecting with your audience requires a level of humility and authenticity, which is the bread and butter of punk culture. At its heart, punk is about staying true to your core identity, so understanding the culture’s root principles is invaluable to creating an effective marketing strategy that resonates with your audience.
The Foundation of Punk Culture
“Punk” isn’t the most well-defined term, and there are a lot of misconceptions as a result. One of the most common assumptions about punk is that its members are aggressive, destructive, and rebellious, but that’s an inaccurate representation. Punk culture was founded on the idea of injecting passion and authenticity into everything you do; core values that still define the culture today.
Punk music emerged during the 1970s, in direct opposition to the overly-manicured, generic, and increasingly corporate mainstream music of the time. Punks disapproved of the shift from passion to profit, hating how the industry had started pandering to the masses, and aimed to maintain a sense of authenticity in their own music. To distance themselves from the marketability of mainstream music, punk was grounded, passionate, and a little rough around the edges, and this naturally led to a tight-knit community culture. Musicians were connected with their music, listeners were connected with the musicians, and punk culture as a whole was connected by a distaste for an otherwise hollow-feeling industry.
Over time, the newly empty nature of corporate culture spread, and it was infuriating. The focus on money above all else was becoming near unavoidable, so punk culture adapted accordingly. What started as a small community of musicians and their fans slowly grew into a united group that refused to be treated as a dollar sign, and the seeds of distrust towards corporate culture grew alongside it. Punks never did, and still don’t, hate capitalism at its core. They’re simply frustrated with what business has become, longing for a sense of connection and belonging in a world that’s otherwise purely transactional.
Are the pieces coming together yet?
Punk Marketing is Effective Marketing
Punk is ultimately a culture formed for authentic connection, so building a marketing strategy around punk values is a great way to make this same kind of connection with consumers. Punk is a never-ending rabbit hole of expansive and nuanced beliefs, but the vast majority of these beliefs fall under three issues with corporate culture: exploitation, inauthenticity, and mass pandering. Understanding and avoiding these elements won’t necessarily guarantee effective marketing, but they’re a great place to start. Below are a few important rules to remember when developing punk-style marketing to connect with consumers.
Don’t Prey On Your Audience
Believe it or not, consumers aren’t stupid. Even if they fall for a marketing trick, they usually know they’re being manipulated, and that’s no way to earn their trust. But what counts as “preying” on an audience? Where’s the line between harmless influence and malicious persuasion? Punks have developed a particularly keen eye for exploitation to keep their culture pure, so looking through the lens of punk culture can make it much easier to spot.
When it comes to marketing, one of the biggest red flags is unnecessary and overwhelming negative emotion. Negativity isn’t completely off-limits in effective marketing – even punk bands use feelings of anger and disappointment to make their point – but that negativity needs to have a clear purpose. This purpose can take any number of forms, but it needs to be enough to offset the negativity and leave your audience with a feeling of satisfaction. In the case of punk, that means using anger as a way to inspire listeners and leave them with an underlying feeling of hope, as opposed to riling them up just for the sake of it.
In contrast, consider how the beauty industry approaches negativity. Much of beauty marketing relies on feelings of shame and inadequacy, framing a purchase as the only way to solve a problem. Embarrassed by aging? Buy our anti-wrinkle cream. Horrendous acne stunting your social life? Just use our product for a few years. Even makeup is marketed as a cure for ugliness, rather than a way to enhance your look. Beauty marketing doesn’t aim to inspire the consumer and earn their support, like effective marketing should. Instead, the industry preys on their audience, intentionally stirring up negative emotions to compel a purchase. And without anything to offset the crushing weight of insecurity, this is the epitome of audience exploitation.
If you want to connect with your audience, take the punk approach and treat them as something more than a means to an end. While working on your own marketing strategy, think about the emotions you’re trying to evoke. When negative feelings are unavoidable, make sure your audience feels something else to overwhelm that negativity. If a consumer feels worse after viewing your marketing, then you’re doing it wrong. An unhappy audience is an exploited one, and that’s no way to form lasting relationships.
Show Off Your Passion
Punks want to support people who care about their work beyond a financial incentive, and effective marketing works off a similar idea. Think about the businesses you’re personally most loyal to. Chances are you’d support them even if their prices went up or their services changed, but why? Quality products and constant deals are great for fostering transactional relationships, but effective marketing needs a little something more. If you truly want to connect with your audience, they need a reason to stick around other than your product, and letting your passion show is a great way to start.
But how do you actually do that? The most effective way is to focus your marketing strategy on the “why” of your brand over the “what,” giving your passion the space to naturally shine through. The objective facts about your business are good for pushing sales, but the emotional “why” is what an audience will really connect with. Apple is a company that does this really well. Historically, Apple fans have been far more loyal than those of other tech companies, and this is largely due to the way they frame their company. Instead of focusing on their products, Apple has positioned itself at the forefront of technological progress, and this passion for innovation is what draws in their loyal audience.
However, there’s another lesson to learn from Apple’s marketing – If your passion is inauthentic, then it’s worthless. There are still plenty of Apple purists out there, but the fanbase isn’t nearly as solid as it used to be. More and more Apple fans have left for other companies over the years, and that loss of loyalty can be directly tied to Apple’s loss of passion. The company is no longer pushing the envelope or advancing the industry in any way, so their claims of innovation have become meaningless. Apple’s advantages have slowly shifted down to the product level, the “what” of their business, so it’s no surprise that their audience is starting to lose interest. This transactional appeal leaves nothing for consumers to connect with on a personal level, making it much easier for Apple fans to justify leaving.
No one feels connected to a purchase on its own. It’s the surrounding circumstances that make buying something special, so effective marketing requires something beyond transactional appeal. Advertising your product or service in some capacity is important, but it’s even more important that you don’t get caught up in it. While the financial aspect of a business can’t be overlooked, it shouldn’t be the main focus of your marketing. Leave some breathing room for your identity to shine, and the core passions of your business will show through. Let your audience see what really makes your business tick, and they’re sure to respond.
Punk is often dirty, raw, and unsanitized, but that’s not for the sake of it. The world is a little grimy and imperfect, so embracing these elements of life helps to ground punk in reality and makes the culture easier to relate to. Naturally, then, imperfection is also a key element of effective marketing. It can be tempting to cover up every tiny blemish with a picture-perfect, cookie-cutter brand, but perceived flaws can actually give your business a sense of humanity that’s far more conducive to audience connection.
It’s understandable why so many businesses aim for a squeaky-clean brand image. Consumers can be touchy, and they have the potential to run at the first sign of anything negative. Perfection is a way to minimize that danger, by covering up anything that might drive away a customer. However, this risk-averse strategy can feel very empty to your audience, making it difficult to form a real connection with them. The key to effective marketing is walking the line of desirability, effectively working to find the sweet spot between risk and audience connection. This ideal balance is slightly different for each business, but it generally means acknowledging your flaws and actively working to improve them, while avoiding the temptation to sweep everything under the rug and pretend your problems don’t exist.
Starbucks is a business that does this really well. They own up to their imperfections – be it lackluster diversity, deceiving drink names, controversial holiday imagery, or anything in between – and this is why so many people feel personally connected with the brand. Their transparency shows that the business isn’t afraid to lose a few bucks here and there in the interest of improvement, giving Starbucks a relatable sense of depth that would otherwise be absent. It’s an excellent show of good faith, and this kind of non-transactional, genuine relationship with their audience is exactly what’s so attractive to their loyal fans.
Every business has flaws, and it’s pointless to cover them up. Perfection is unattainable, so a flawless business often feels fake and empty. To give your audience something real to latch onto, it’s vital you acknowledge your imperfections. Don’t deny your weaknesses, and be sure to address any issues that may come up. If you embrace your flaws and learn from your mistakes, your audience will thank you.
Learn To Love “Failure”
In an industry that speaks in numbers, punk-style marketing might seem like a failure.
And that’s okay.
Shifting your focus away from pure profit could potentially decrease short-term revenue, and that might seem like an immediate red flag. The marketing industry is built around quantitative statistics, so it’s natural to worry when your numbers start to drop. However, it’s important to recognize the trade off and stand your ground. A decrease in revenue doesn’t have to mean a net loss, since you’ll more than make up for it with a growing audience of dedicated consumers.
If your marketing is a “failure” in traditional terms, that’s okay. Punk-style marketing has a different goal, so its measurement of success is different, too. It all comes down to what you consider “effective” marketing and where you place the most value. If you want your marketing to work, step back and assess your priorities. Financial gain is great, but is it your only metric of success? Is it really worth giving up on personal connection just to make a few extra bucks?
If you’re ready to embrace effective, punk-style marketing, it’s time to love “failure.” Because punks know it better than anyone – some things just can’t be measured in cash.