12 min read

Mainstream pop culture is over.


Or so says 91% of 18 to 25-year-olds. A study by media agency Horizon Media and its social content agency Blue Hour Studios found that Gen Z consumers are instead embracing subcultures —from gamer girls and streetwear to retro revival and Y2K thrifters. 


I’m an ancient Gen Z-er (25) and, like Jimmy, I grew up as a Mod. Much of my teenage years were spent researching, painstakingly trawling the internet to understand the sartorial rules of the original Mods. Is it the first, second, or third, jacket button left undone to be a ‘proper’ Mod? For the curious, it’s (from the top down) sometimes, always, never. Is it having your hair in a perfect bob, while avoiding the classic motorcycle helmet vibe? Is it an original 1964 suede jacket, found at a flea market in London? My questions were of course born from a desire to be an authentic mod, but more crucially, they were born from a desire to be different. And as we know from the figure above, this desire to be different is all to familiar to Gen Z. 


The splintering of social media platforms in recent years has allowed Gen Z to tailor their marketing experience—as digital natives, they’re experienced in adapting algorithms to access highly curated rabbit holes of content that’s personalised to their interests, no matter how niche. The result? A demographic that’s less concerned with brand equity and verified influencers than we might think. Instead, Gen Z are an audience with increasing power in a consumer market who seek connection through shared interests and subcultural content.

Screenshot 2023-02-08 at 16.36.47.png


For graphic designers and marketers, subcultures provide a rich resource of inspiration. 


Logos, record sleeves, stickers, Letraset posters, t-shirts, buttons, patches sewn together in bedrooms, stolen safety pins, handmade zines shoved through photocopiers again and again—a bricolage of anything and everything you can get your hands on. Tat? Maybe. But only to those on the outside. To those in the know, this tat takes on the role of a stylistic signifier—intentionally communicating subcultural membership. Subculture communities are not brand affiliated by default—they thrive off a shared understanding of symbols built on a desire to differentiate.


It's key to consider however, that not all subcultures are created equally—the hipster subcultural movement of the 2010s was globally branded as arrogant and cringy. Hipsters failed to capture the ‘cool’ that so many other subcultures do, because there was a lack of understanding in how subcultures use stylistic elements and rules. Style in revolt—a term coined by sociologist Dick Hebdige in his 1976 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style—is a term that describes how these rules form an active rebellion against the status quo. Punk, for example, used safety pins and ripped fabric as these are clearly differentiated from the societal norm—described by the late Vivienne Westwood as motifs of rebellion. The Hipster style in comparison is more a pastiche of subcultural pasts… a satirical collage.

The goal, therefore, is to equip brands with the ability to capture Gen Z’s interest by communicating these distinct subcultural values, whilst also remaining authentic to the core brand—and for Gen Z, authentic-ness is next to Godliness.


Gareth Leeding, creative director of We Are Social Sport (the agency behind a viral Adidas campaign with grime MC Stormzy and ex-Manchester United player Paul Pogba), describes subcultures as a source of “raw energy” with the ability to breathe new life into a brand—if done successfully.


It’s this understanding of subcultural bricolage and adherence to particulars that allows for assertion of authenticity. Creativity can only flourish once the designer or marketer fully understands the paradigm within which they must work if they wish to engage with a particular subculture—because we can only play with rules that we understand.

But this understanding of subculture in isolation won’t drive your brand’s engagement or growth. 


It must be in tandem with awareness of how people engage with your brand in the real world to prevent conflict between your desired market and existing subcultural consumers. Nike created Air Force 1s in 1982 as a performance shoe for basketball, and yet their advert celebrating the shoe’s 40-year history featured exactly zero footage of basketball. Not a player or ball in sight. Instead? A focus on the real audience for the Air Force 1—dancers, music artists, everyday kids in London, New York and beyond. It would be wrong for Nike to ignore this far more valuable demographic in favour of their original target audience of basketball players because the Air Force 1’s status as an undeniable cultural symbol is a result—not of its relationship with basketball—but of its relationship with music, sport, and streetwear. Nike knows who is really celebrating the anniversary of their trainers—and celebrates it with them.


So revered is the Air Force 1, that streetwear bible High Snobiety claimed there’s nothing more painful than a pair of creased Air Force 1s—a sentiment echoed by Hip-Hop artist Dr. Dre who owns a pair for every day of the week purposely to avoid the dreaded creases. The benefit of the Air Force 1’s transformation from basketball shoe to icon? The shoe and subculture are now so closely interlinked that Nike’s brand is elevated to the same level of ‘cool’ as key members of the subculture themselves —and now free to market the rest of their products to this demographic. At the same time, they’re able to acknowledge their brand’s prominence in sport alongside this new audience. Their viral Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign—in partnership with grime artist Skepta—featured more than just the Air Force 1, and in contexts beyond London and the football field.

Grime artists working with Nike is a perfect partnership as their Air Max (again, created for athletes, specifically runners) were adopted by the subculture.


Grime—a scene born from UK garage sub-genres in the early 2000s—shares a defiant nature in medium of expression that’s not too dissimilar from punk. Grime’s position as the voice of a generation in inner-city London alongside the Air Max’s pre-existing relationship with London ravers (sticky club floors are no match against Air Max) made it the perfect choice for a subculture so heavily focused on music. As Grime inevitably spread into public knowledge, brands leapt to profit from its ‘cool’ credentials, with companies such as Mercedes, HSBC, and Superdry using Grime in their campaigns. Superdry? Grime? It was only 3 years ago that Grime artist Dave mocked the brand for becoming the unofficial uniform of plain clothes police officers. 


Simply dipping your toes into a subculture to experiment with edginess and authenticity will leave you with a brand that falls flat—shunned by the subculture for lacking authenticity and rejected by an unengaged mainstream who were only ever really half-heartedly the target audience. You might’ve seen the recent Nike and Tiffany campaign… a triple black Air Force 1 with a swoosh in the delicate, Parisian Tiffany blue shade. Compared to their successful collaboration with Skepta, the limited-edition shoe feels devoid of any real personality or substance. 


The power of understanding how subcultures buy into a brand is exhibited by London-based streetwear brand Corteiz, who subvert the over-used drop tactic which has become synonymous with streetwear culture. Harnessing the subculture’s ethos of rebellion and distinctiveness, Corteiz’s Da Great Bolo Exchange in particular signalled an innovative approach by encouraging customers to swap high-end coats for a limited Corteiz Bolo jacket. 16k worth of jackets handed in later, Da Great Bolo Exchange generated the type of online (and offline!) engagement that marketing managers can only dream of. 

So, what advice is there for brands considering harnessing the power of a subculture? 


Most importantly, there needs to be a reflection of a subculture within your brand. Whether this is accidental or intentional, this allows for a positive platform to be established that is symbiotic with the culture itself. For example, Fred Perry’s Fred Perry Subculture website is a dedicated aspect of their brand that nurtures their relationship with subculture through content on music and fashion—and is incredibly future-focused through the promotion of subculture news and events. 


Courting subculture comes with its own risks, but this is where an understanding of how and where your brand is being used is key. After the American far-right group Proud Boys adopted Fred Perry’s famous yellow twin tipped black polo shirt, the company responded by pulling the design from the US and Canada. Developing a brand strategy that informs how your business connects with audiences is key for keeping your subcultural audience not only engaged but keeps the right kind of consumers closely aligned as ambassadors for the brand.


As Gen Z become ever more influential on the consumer market, their ‘I don’t live to buy’ philosophy will have a huge impact on how we market and create brand strategies for this demographic in the future. A generation of young people who cannot be defined by one singular personality, the best way to tap into their desire for intimate, connected communities—is to create brands that are intimate, connected communities.