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The Death of Subculture part 8: conclusions and what they mean for marketers?

This is the eighth article in a series that aims to explore how subculture has changed in the last 30 years. Navigate the articles in this series using the list on the right.

Individualism and the subculture of the self

The growing individualism of the last 100 years has taken western society from a ‘mass society’ to a divided society, to a fragmented society and, now, to a society that has as many ‘fragments’ as there are people. As neotribal theory suggests, society now accepts ‘all’ types of people, so you don’t even need a group to belong to. The most important identity is your individual identity, group belonging or identity comes second.

Individuals create a unique collage of interests and values, behaviours and modes of self-expression that slots directly into mainstream culture.  

“The internet has meant that subcultures are now bespoke, made-to-measure, precise representations of an individual’s tastes”

Tim Mosley

Subcultures have changed: causes and catalysts

The causes for decline/change in subcultures have been:

  • Decline in absolute poverty in western society
  • Increased individualism in society (identity based on the individual, not group or group membership)
  • Increased fragmentation of society (social mobility, diversity)
  • Increased equality and representation (civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights etc.)

The catalysts have been

  • The commoditisation of subculture
  • Promotion of individuality by media and marketing
  • Increased options for self-expression
  • The internet
    • and the decreased role of mass media
    • Free access to information
  • Social and private media (exacerbated by always-on mobile culture) 

40s-60s advertising that used to TELL you what do/feel/think, and modern advertising focused on what YOU think/feel/want.

What does this mean for marketers?

To assess this, we need to look at how marketers and advertisers reached audiences and what messages they chose:

  • Before late 20th-century subcultures
    • Products were marketed to broad/mainstream audiences
    • Before nudge theory infiltrated the advertising industry, products were more commonly promoted by focusing on a product’s qualities/benefits, not their emotional role.  
  • Late 20th-century subcultures
    • Mainstream groups (‘normal people’) still predominated
    • Subcultural tropes, memes and symbols were often used by brands to identify with certain groups/emotions/lifestyles.
    • In reality, only a small number of brands really aligned with subcultures, only using references in campaigns.
    • In the early internet age, marketers were able to infiltrate and market to niche groups by framing conversations and their messaging around their interests/opinions/values and placing them in front of them for the best response.
  • After late 20th-century subcultures
    • If no one is creating new and meaningful memes, they will use old tropes as long as they remain relevant.
    • In lieu of these symbols (and the ability to convey meaning using them) marketers may have to use more direct ‘language’. In reality, this will probably only affect a small number of brands.
    • If niche groups disappear, become increasingly ‘shallow’ or fragment further marketers will probably use more and more data and automation to deliver messages tailored for individuals, not even groups. Data will define exactly who a person is – what they like, what they need, what they respond to – and marketing messages will be framed around this.

Caption: count the number of punk/alternative symbols and motifs in this Jeep ad – from dyed hair, guitars and skateboarding to ‘throwing the horns’ and a song called ‘Renegades’.  

Just as subculture becomes less and less to do with groups and more to do with individuals, so too marketing will become less and less about groups and more and more about messages tailored for individuals.

It is not beyond the realms of imagination that artificial intelligence or other software will become sophisticated enough to tailor the language and imagery of marketing messages for individuals – matching photography, content formats, graphic styles, language, sentence structures and attention span. Just as some brands created marketing messages for different audiences, soon everyone will receive unique content and advertising, specifically designed to get the best response, based on extensive data about that individual gathered from social media, web usage, Google, government bodies, biometric data and the internet of things.

Caption: will increased individuality lead to more personalised marketing as this amazing/terrifying video suggests?

While many of its champions enjoyed subcultural membership, it seems that the death of subculture will not be mourned by the marketing industry.

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While many of its champions enjoyed subcultural membership, it seems that the death of subculture will not be mourned by the marketing industry.

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