THE MERCHANTS OF PARADOX

Photo of Clyde Zhang
Date: 2018-06-20 18:28:51
By: Clyde Zhang
Date: 2018-06-20 18:28:51

“When the fringes get more and more crowded, people turn toward the middle. Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness.”
—K-hole

In 2001, “The Merchants of Cool,” a PBS documentary, raised the question of whether marketers were reflecting teens’ desires or manufacturing new desires. While many marketers were confident that they curate what consumers eat, wear, and want, Douglas Rushkoff, a New York columnist, thinks otherwise. “The paradox of ‘cool hunting’ is that it kills what it finds,” he says, “Trendsetters move on to the next trend the second their hidden gems went mainstream.”

Normcore, a term first coined in 2014, is the latest episode of this on-going hide-and-seek between brands and consumers. It is an anti-trend that rebels against the oversaturated consumer culture through embracing sameness. Normcore encourages people to defy social (media) expectation of uniqueness and instead find freedom by being nothing special.

In 2018, in tandem with other socioeconomic changes — Gen-Z becoming increasingly conservative, millennials regressing back to their Americana identities — normcore is making a huge comeback in all aspects of consumer culture. In fashion, we saw the rise of “dadcore,” an evolved form of normcore that is defined by bleached-out jeans and defiantly ugly “dad shoes”; in IEO, the most popular product of 2017 was not avocado toast but a traditional American burger; in radio, Nielsen reported that classic rock was the fastest growing radio format for a second year. “Personality starts where brands end.” So, as they predicted.

For many marketers, it’s hard not to feel confused by this trend. It seems the more they curate consumer taste on a granular level, the further they are pushing consumers away to a brandless attitude. How can brands respond to consumers’ increasingly paradoxical desires? Here are three rules of engagement for retailers who want to attract a new generation of normcore consumers:

Uniqueness is dead; long live local roots
Normcore is about escaping the illusion of uniqueness and embracing one’s roots. For retailers, this translates to connecting with consumers on an authentic, local level. Amazon continues to expand in surprising ways, yet many local businesses still managed to grow faster than ever, thanks to a shop-local mentality.

Shifting from algorithm-generated categorization to human-created mood curation
Consumers tolerate E-commerce companies harvesting user data to recommend genres of “unique” products, but what they truly long for is an “algorithm-free” retail experience that is nuanced and meaningful. Spotify has capitalized on this trend and gained significant traffic by incorporating human music tastemakers to create genre-nonspecific, mood-based playlists.

Forget personality marketing; think situational marketing
The new social currency is “the freedom to be with anyone.” Consumers expect brands to help them handle whatever life throws at them, and early adopters such as Balenciaga and Patagonia have responded by creating “provocatively bland” products that open up disparate social circles to users.

Normcore is a cultural shift led by a new generation. Unlike their internet-less predecessors, Gen-Z grew up with instant access to every form of cultural subversion, and how they went mainstream. Therefore, they took ownership in the least original, yet most basic things, things that are human, local, and functional. Brands that can hack this paradox will be the winner in this new consumer landscape.

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