In 2019, many brands such as WeWork, Uber and Huawei were faced with challenges that impacted how they were perceived by consumers (CMO, 2020). The Chief Marketing Officer Council put together a list of these brands in an infographic titled Bruised, Battered and Embattled Brands in 2019. According to the CMO Council, one of the factors that affected brand perception in 2019 was hype and unmet expectations (Bizcommunity, 2020). Many brands created an infectious buzz around their products and services but did not deliver as expected. So, what exactly is hype and how have brands used it to generate sales? Moreover, is it a sustainable marketing tactic?
Supreme is a well-known American streetwear brand that is—in the words of comedian Hasan Minhaj—“a cultural phenomenon built on hype”. The brand is much-celebrated even here in South Africa, despite not having a single store in the country. Supreme is valued at $1 billion, with only 11 retail stores worldwide. So, how does a brand like Supreme make such an inconceivable profit and amass so great a following from something as abstract and unquantifiable as hype? What lies behind the beguiling nature of hype? Before answering these questions, we need to consider what exactly hype is.
Hype is about excitement, novelty and, most importantly, exclusiveness. Deloitte specialists describe the pop culture marketing tool as “publicity, especially promotional publicity, of an extravagant or contrived kind”. Brands use it to sell their products to a large market in a very short space of time. Hype mostly appeals to customers between the ages of 18 and 25, or anyone who identifies as a hypebeast: a collector of the latest sneakers or t-shirts, a follower of trends; basically, anyone who is in constant pursuit of cool and will spare no expense in doing so.
Hype marketing is a multi-pronged approach to generating sales and growing revenue without spending much time and effort on traditional marketing strategies and campaign messaging. Like many brands, the founder of Supreme, James Jebbia, understood that not all consumers are too concerned with functionality but more with how certain items make them feel and appear to others. He noticed how much young people, hypebeasts, were willing to pay to look cool; he essentially commodified cool and capitalised on what American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”: buying to impress others. Jebbia found ways to create a high demand for Supreme-branded products, this is evidenced by the number of people willing to stand in long queues outside Supreme stores, for hours, to get their hands on the latest “drop”.
In addition to monetising the “dope factor” that is associated with skate culture and hip hop, Jebbia used the drop strategy, which was founded in the 80s by Nike and has become a common tactic for brands trying to reach and entice a younger market. A critical aspect of hype is creating anticipation, particularly on social media. As noted in an article in Fashion United, a drop is a sales tactic that entails “releasing a limited-edition product or collection in small quantities at select retail locations, without much advance warning. The basic idea is to create a sense of urgency and the illusion of scarcity among consumers.” Supreme is known for leveraging drop culture and has done so with brands such as Rimowa, a German luggage manufacturing company. The two brands collaborated to sell a Supreme-branded suitcase collection, which sold out within 16 seconds, despite the fact that the starting price was $1600 (approximately R23000). Using mystery, anticipation and the illusion of scarcity is how brands convince the consumer that they need to have a particular product. Understanding consumer psychology, especially as it pertains to Millenials and Gen Z, is crucial to utilising hype as a mechanism to drive sales.
One can say that brands such as Supreme are ultimately selling confidence and a sense of belonging; whether something is cool is determined by how others perceive it or how closely aligned to a prevailing trend it is. Moreover, influencer marketing also plays a role in the amount of hype a brand will get; if Kim Kardashian or Rihanna have Supreme in their sartorial repertoire, the hypebeasts are bound to follow suit. Hype works because brands exploit the consumer’s “need” to own a certain product or item, which they feel will gain them acceptance into a certain group within society. Brands also take advantage of the “now economy”, in which consumers are convinced that they have to purchase something urgently, lest they miss out (Hogan, S., Lucker, J. & Sniderman, B, 2018), what is popularly known as FOMO.
Once there is hype, or consumer hysteria, around your brand, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling—as long as you’re selling it, loyal hypebeasts will buy into it, which explains why Supreme, a streetwear brand, can successfully sell branded bricks, crowbars and bolt cutters to anyone but construction workers.
For brands such as Supreme, hype works because there isn’t much expectation, except for being and feeling cool. However, hype as a marketing strategy will not work for many brands, especially those that offer services or experiences because the expectations are much higher.
While it has proven to be effective for Supreme and brands such as Vans and Bape, one must wonder: is hype sustainable as a sales generating tactic? Hasan is of the opinion that “Hype has a shelf-life”; this is quite true. As with any other marketing trend before it, hype will, in the future, be replaced by a new and faster way of getting the consumer’s attention and money. Consumers are fickle and their needs and demands change rapidly, and what is cool today will not be as cool tomorrow. We’re literally waiting for the next hype to come along before hype becomes obsolete.
Agee, M. (Writer), Minhaj, H. (Creator) & Preuss, R. (Director). (18 November 2018). Supreme. In N. Agostini (Producer), Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. New York: Netflix.
Chief Marketing Officer Council (2020). Top 20 Bruised, Battered And Embattled Brands in 2019. Retrieved from https://www.cmocouncil.org/media-center/press-releases/top-20-bruised-battered-and-embattled-brands-in-2019
Hogan, S., Lucker, J. & Sniderman, B. (2018). Fooled by the hype: Is it the next big thing or merely a shiny new object? Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-23/hype-innovation-inflated-expectations.html
Sullivan, R. (2017). Charting the Rise of Supreme, From Cult Skate Shop to Fashion Superpower. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.com/article/history-of-supreme-skate-clothing-brand
Ufford, L. (2018). The Art of the Drop: How Retailers Flash Sales Use Hype to Move Product (and Fast). Retrieved from https://www.shopify.co.za/retail/flash-sales-and-drops-for-retail
Van Elven, M. (2018). The Business of Hype: Why So Many Fashion Brands Are Now Doing “Product Drops”. Retrieved from https://fashionunited.uk/news/retail/the-business-of-hype-why-so-many-fashion-brands-are-now-doing-product-drops/2018101739501