Supreme Case Study: The urban skate gallery

In the past 20 years, it has become apparent that consumers are now desensitised to the traditional methods of ‘who can shout the loudest’ marketing, instead requiring brands to reach out and “give back” (Smilansky, 2009) in some way to the customer.Director and founder of experiential marketing agency Blazinstar Marketing, Shaz Smilansky implores her readers to embrace a new form of marketing which “builds a real relationship” with consumers and “adds value to target audiences in their own environments”(2009). This case study focusses on a brand who has fostered a highly curated mix of both experiential marketing and public relations which has in turn created a unique brand personality. Supreme first opened in the Spring of 1994 and soon became established as the home of New York skate culture; since this point, through numerous celebrity/artist collaborations and guerrilla marketing techniques the brand is now acknowledged as the definitive “aesthetic of an era of rebellious cool” (Rubinstein et al.).

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Cultural x Emotional Branding

Douglas Holt, leading expert on branding and innovation supposes in his book ‘How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding’ (2004), that there are four main branding models and companies follow: cultural, mindshare, emotional and viral. He argues that to become an iconic brand, a company must fall into the ‘cultural’ strand of marketing. However, it could be supposed that Supreme’s branding strategy is actually a unique synthesis of both cultural and emotional which is what gives the brand it’s competitive edge. In this, we see Supreme as the needle in the haystack, it presents the “myth” (Holt, 2004) of a brand delivering ‘supreme’ quality goods, high-profile artist collaborations and quite frankly, a very unusual sales style in conjunction with it’s secondary function as a social hub where people would “just hang out” with no pressure to actually buy anything. By doing this, Supreme managed to both portray the image of being the “author” of an authentic product and a “friend” to the customer. One important element to highlight is that Supreme as a company has “never sought mainstream relevance” (Welty, 2012), but instead always strived to be authentic and provide good value. This is where the brand draws on emotional branding strategies; as described by Holt, key words associated with this form of branding are: Brand personality, experiential branding, brand religion, experience economy. How does Supreme tap into this strategy?

Cultural x Emotional Branding 1. Brand Personality

Brand Personality, as described by Aaron Bondaroff, former employee at Supreme and “counter-culture muse”:

“race wasn’t an issue, money wasn’t an issue, we were all one colour and that colour was character”

“we really created a fucked-up shopping experience”

“a lot of attitude”

“if a customer touched the display the staff barked at them, fuck you”

“pretty heavy for an outsider”

The personality that Supreme puts forward is reminiscent of that one unapologetically blunt friend, they say it how it is, they are unpretentious and “don’t waste fabric or words or attitude” (O’Brien, 2010).

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Cultural x Emotional Branding 2. Experiential Branding

Walking into supreme’s heavily curated stores has been likened to walking into a gallery, as is the fact that before a new collection drops, the store will be closed for installation, and will reopen with new items. Similarly, customers are encouraged to look but not touch merchandise unless they fully intend on buying.

In the introduction of ‘Supreme: Downtown New York Skate Culture’, American writer and editor Glenn O’Brien reflects “eventually I learned that there was something analogous to art sales going on here; the cats in the queue were there to get limited-edition merchandise. But I couldn’t recall anyone ever camping out for the release of a lithograph” (2010). Furthermore, Supreme has a long history of using celebrity endorsements and sponsorship as an experiential branding technique; unlikely muses such as Mike Tyson, Lou Reed and Kermit the Frog all contribute to the underground, gritty image that the brand puts forward. Rather than paying extortionate fees to advertise, Supreme’s campaigns are often very lowbudget, frequently employing illegal tactics such as flyposting or hijacking and appropriating other companies posters with their stickers. The posters have become so iconic to the brand image that in London in 2015, the day after their poster campaign had launched, not one poster could be seen around the city as ‘fans’ of the brand had taken down every single poster to keep as a collectable.

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Cultural x Emotional Branding 3. Brand Religion

In this phrase coined by Holt (2004), brand religion describes the process whereby an organisation is able to cultivate a brand spirit which is expressed “in everything that they do”, and that both employees and customers start to “treat the brand as a religion”. To a certain extent one could consider Supreme to possess “at least some qualities of a cult” (O’Brien, 2010). Take the queues that form outside their stores every time a new line is released, a sight that has been witnessed on multiple occasions, they have customers camping outside the store whatever the weather. Founder of the company, James Jebbia said of the phenomenon “they’ll see the lines at the store and say: ‘Those kids are crazy. What are you guys selling, crack?’” (2012) but he argues that “there’s no tricks or gimmicks. It’s all about good product”. Holt suggests that although peculiar, this devotion is not uncommon if a brand is “communicated with supercharged emotion” (2004). It is also argued that Supreme manages to draw in these crowds due to the short runs of each of their products – they have receive criticism that they purposefully create this uneven supply and demand chain to appear more exclusive, however Jebbia claims “the main reason behind the short runs is that we don’t want to get stuck with stuff that nobody wants” (2010)

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Guerrilla Marketing Strategies

Well known for their thrifty advertising techniques, Supreme have, over the past two decades, managed to assert themselves as “the holy grail of high youth street culture” (Hawgood, 2012) through subversive and underground methods of marketing. In the early days, in an era of “no internet…no money for advertising… no magazines to advertise in”, the brand made the decision to use the lowbudget option of stickers at a way of “getting [their] name across”. Although it may not seem like an obvious way to market themselves, as New York-based artist and designer KAWS points out in an interview with Jebbia, “stickers were the most common sort of communication tool for skaters”(2010) at the time and therefore made perfect business sense as it was speaking directly to their target audience. With their bold look, the stickers became somewhat of a trademark for Supreme and can now be found plastered in obscure nooks and crannies in almost every city. Stickers could also be considered a basic form of experiential marketing, as it allows “the consumer to live, breathe and feel the brand through interactive sensory connections and activities” (Smilansky, 2009). Experiential marketing is especially useful for a small scale business like Supreme because it promotes word-of-mouth better than any other type of branding. According to Shaz Smilansky, consumers often “aspire to lifestyles that their favourite brands portray”, which leads them to wanting to “immerse themselves in the brands they love”(2009) and therefore they start to do the marketing for the brand through word-of-mouth.

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The Logo

In addition, one cannot talk about the visual identity of Supreme or it’s many artist collaborations without addressing the elephant in the room: the logo. The brand has a reputation for appropriating various graphics and hijacking adverts, but nothing is quite as obvious as their Barbara Kruger-esque logo. It’s there, the same Futura Bold Oblique, the same white on red. Owner Jebbia doesn’t see the duplication as an issue however, he just saw that it was perfect for his store and a compliment to Kruger, “I gave him [his friend] a Barbara Kruger book I had and asked him to place ‘Supreme’ over the images in a similar style…the actual Supreme graphic that he had done just looked really bold and simple, kind of like the store itself” (2009).

In terms of semiotics, one could suggest that by appropriating the appearance of Kruger’s work, supreme is inextricably linking itself and embedding itself within the art world. A link which is reinforced further by their numerous collaborations with infamous artists such as Jeff Coons and Damien Hirst.

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Artist Collaboration: PR

Here are just a few examples of the many collaborations that Supreme has engaged in since opening in 1994. In her book on experiential marketing, Smilansky explores the notion of sponsorship and it’s impact on brand image, she asserts that “sponsorship aligns the brand directly with people’s current perceptions of the company” therefore a brand must be totally invested in the visions of the artists and celebrities that they choose to associate themselves with. As Glenn O’Brien points out, Supreme are by no means the “first commercial venture to enlist artists to create merchandise, but it is the first to offer the artists’ merchandise at a regular price”(2010). By pricing these limited edition decks at the same price as all of their other boards, Supreme are essentially making a creative statement- they “refuse to sell out” (O’Brien, 2010) and they aim to democratise the otherwise elite art world. Furthermore, O’Brien makes an astute observation in that “Supreme is redeeming art from it’s own worst tendencies by making it available to the people who would probably appreciate these artists more profoundly than their typical collectors do”. In a cruel twist of fate, one gallery took it upon themselves to collect these limited boards and display them in glass cases, defeating the purpose of the projects entirely.

“What makes Supreme different from any other skateboard brands is how [they] brought contemporary art over to skate culture” Fujiwara, H. 2014

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What can we take from this case study? Supreme is a great example of how clever targeted marketing can be super effective; by using it’s own fan base do the majority of it’s marketing through stickers and more recently, social media, they continue to grow a dedicated army of likeminded followers. They don’t necessarily appeal to the mass market, but that has never been their intention; they are very content with delivering consistently good quality designs to their niche circle. Perhaps this is the most important thing to take away from Supreme’s example – pick something that you are good at, build up a great reputation through effective/relevant collaborations and good PR, and stay true to your design aesthetic. Be authentic and “refuse to sell out”. Their nonchalent attitude towards business and their refusal to ‘go mass-market’ are not the tradtional paths that lead to a ‘successful brand’, yet somehow Supreme has done it. They prove that you don’t have to go to business or marketing school in order to create a successful, authentic brand- you just need a gut feeling and the nerve to say ‘fuck you’ to the mainstream.

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