Marketers sometimes sound like parents. "This next generation -- they are not like us. They're on their iPods (AAPL) and IM-ing each other all day. Then they're text-messaging each other while they stay out all night. They've tuned us out."
But consider the case of Marisa Brickman. "When I was younger, I was, like, `oh, [expletive] Corporate America. I can't be marketed to,"' says the music-obsessed 27-year-old. "I'd rip the tags off my clothes. I didn't want people to know what brands I was wearing." Today, Brickman is director of event marketing and public relations for Cornerstone Promotion in New York.
Cornerstone is a new-school marketing firm with many tentacles, virtually all touching on music of the moment and its fans. It manages and promotes artists. It digs up music for ads and movies. It publishes a glossy music magazine, The FADER. It works with established brands such as Xbox (MSFT), Sprite (KO), Adidas, and Red Stripe on strategies to reach young consumers. And it deploys a loose network of local influentials to do so -- down to cool kids on college campuses -- winning favor by, say, setting up Xboxes at the hip local record store. Cornerstone and Brickman are very good at "product seeding" among tastemakers within its 18-to-34 target audience. It helps that Brickman knows practically every DJ and underground rock band within a 1,000-mile radius, so Cornerstone's overtures are more palatable "than if some brand was just cutting a check," she says.
IT ALSO HELPS THAT BANDS AND AUDIENCES within a formerly contemptuous subculture now sing along. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Brickman's job couldn't have existed. A once-ubiquitous bumper sticker from a noted underground record label bluntly declared: "Corporate Rock Still Sucks." Back then, bands that cozied up to advertisers "were often ridiculed and hung out to dry," says Gerard Cosloy, co-president of New York-based Matador Records. "It's a different world now."
Product seeding is a way to get marketing messages out as traditional ads lose traction, and nowhere are they losing more traction than among peripatetic twentysomethings who hardly stay put for any traditional media experience at all. So companies plant wares in the hands of influential individuals in hopes that their cool or cultural celebrity will lead others to the goods. Malt liquor Sparks recently underwrote a tour of three bands on the ultrahip Vice label. It provided 10 cases of Sparks for each show, to be drunk by the bands or sold at a discount. One quid pro quo: Band members had to photograph one another swigging the bright orange drink.
At last March's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Brickman set up the Levi's-FADERS Trading Post, an invite-only tent with free music and free beer for scenesters and swag for a clutch of chosen bands. "We booked all the bands and scheduled [them] to get outfitted in Levi's," says Brickman.
These deals can come cheap, but they add up -- Cornerstone co-President Jon Cohen says annual billings are around $20 million. The payoff for clients such as Levi's: hitting a hard-to-find audience in a decidedly captive state. (It's hard to be distracted by other media noise when the Levi's-clad band onstage is blazing away at 120 decibels.) The Levi's tent -- the third the jeans giant has sponsored -- is a notable inroad into a festival initially conceived as an antidote to the overt commercialism of other music gatherings. But then, the cultural landscape changed. Now, muses an underground rocker who has begun accepting sponsorships, "the only qualm I have is I usually don't like the stuff I get." A parallel is extreme sports, a subculture that also originated with an intensely anticorporate ethos. Now its stars sport nearly as many logos as NASCAR drivers.
Marketers, like parents, might spend sleepless nights worrying about not understanding youth. But they miss the bigger story. Formerly hostile subcultures -- yesteryear's punks and hippies and snowboarders -- now welcome them. Whether they've noticed it or not, marketers have won. Like Brickman, the hipsters are all buying in.
By Jon Fine