I used to be a brand philistine. For me, a brand was a basic signal of quality and nothing else. There were cost-conscious brands like Kroger Basics for groceries and Sketchers for shoes. If you wanted to get fancy, you could upgrade to Erewhon or Lacoste, buy a Mercedes rather than a Honda, or shop at Saks on Fifth rather than Nordstrom. Does Erewhon mayo taste better than Kroger mayo? Probably a little. Is a Mercedes overall a better car to own than a Honda? Sure. So concludes everything interesting I could say about brands. The rest was an exercise for marketers.
But this attitude was inappropriate. Brands might be these nebulous, socially constructed things, but they’re still important. It took Toby Shorin’s “Life After Lifestyle” to convince me as much. A brief history of culture, technology, and macroeconomics is traced in our brands if you know where to look. Recent brand history also rhymes with ancient human development, or so I claim.
Here’s my plan for the piece. In the first section, I’ll walk us through Shorin’s account of the cultural and economic forces behind the rise of D2C brands. Afterwards, I’ll relay how Shorin believes brands are making a subtle shift from ingratiating themselves with subcultures to creating them. As a parting gift, I’ll get speculative. There are, I think, parallels between the brand landscape Shorin describes and a proposed paradox of prehistory.
Shorin’s saga starts in the 2010s. Following the Great Recession, D2C brands peppered upper-middle class America. Think Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Birchbox, Quip, Glossier, Peloton. Most were aspirational. Buying their wonderfully advertised, perfectly packaged products allowed young people in the wake of a financial crisis to imagine a better lifestyle than what a slow recovery granted. In a similar vein, anti-corporate sentiment still lingered. D2C brands, in addition to selling aspirational eyeglasses and shoes, could claim to “cut out the middleman” and pass on savings to the consumer.
If the early 2010s provided an ideal cultural environment for brand profusion, the business environment was just as fertile. Interest rate in the 2010s were at all-time lows. Money, in an effort to find reasonable returns, flowed into VC, which funded D2C brands with a vengeance. They also funded tools to create D2C brands. Regular people could build a store with Shopify, handle payments with Stripe, and use a dropshipping service so you never had to touch inventory. Facebook, Instagram, and Google could serve ads to your target demographic — down to their ZIP codes— and you could spruce up your aesthetic with Canva.
The technology to launch a brand was, more or less, standardized. Now, the primary challenge was convincing customers. Marketers and designers, rather than software engineers, were the constraint on growing a D2C company. Shorin mentions D2C startups sucking talent from the software world and to build conversion-maximizing landing pages and sophisticated marketing departments. As far as I know, this is still true. I recently talked to a leader at a large D2C brand. He proudly prefers to think of his company as a tech-enabled performance marketing agency that happens to sell mattresses, rather than a mattress company with a marketing division.
Subcultures were the final catalyst for the D2C brand explosion of the 2010s. Most entrants were so-called lifestyle brands that marketed to an existing subculture. They did this by framing their product as necessary for admission. Every subculture has rules to get in. For a tennis player, you’re not part of the “in” group unless you’re good. “Real” fans of an artist are distinguished from “fake” fans by discographical knowledge. A lifestyle brand wants to make their product the cover charge to a subculture. In some marketer’s wet dream, you’re only outdoorsy once you own a pair of Chocos, or part of the tech class on purchase of Allbirds. Vineyard Vines is a recent example of a brand that is synecdoche for its subculture. If you don’t own a long sleeve shirt with that little whale on it, are you even in a frat?
The number of subcultures exploded in the 2010s, and brands, according to Shorin, capitalized. The internet made it easier than ever for obscure groups to have their own websites and publications. Shorin lists “art, sport, travel, climbing, photography, football, skate, [and] gamer” as separate subcultures. Beyond that, he also mentions “furries, indie music, “cores,” “waves,”” and, apparently, subcultures that spring sui generis from Tumblr feeds like “techwear, bloghouse, cottagecore, daddy’s girl, pro-anorexia girls [?] witch girls…” I’m not familiar with half of these subcultures, but I’ll take Shorin’s word for it. The internet teems with niche interests.
In short, the 2010s were a perfect storm, according to Shorin. People were hungry for aspirational, beautifully presented brands, and the shipping, billing, and advertising infrastructure was in place for entrepreneurs to make them. Subcultures were springing up overnight, providing new target demographics. Brands proliferated accordingly.
But trends and infrastructure are not enough to sustain a brand. Distribution was now a company’s largest problem. Presumably, advertising solved this to a degree, but banner ads cannot make your product a subcultural prerequisite. Brands subsequently turned to influencers. For every subculture, there is an influencer, and those influencers can be sponsored or collaborated with. Shorin points out this is how you get Levi’s working with Snoop Dogg, or a sheets company doing profiles of an artist loft in Bushwick. More and more of an artist’s work, Shorin claims, existed to insert a brand into an existing subculture. This arrangement, with influencers creating cultural products for brands, constitutes what Shorin calls the “Cultural Production Services Economy.” It is an arrangement where cultural items — what I take to be images, music, general aesthetics, etc… — are produced by “creatives” and then coopted by brands to hawk their wares. The Cultural Production Services Economy is also, according to Shorin, what we should invoke when explaining why there are so many vaguely aspirational brands, or why the 2010s felt “sophisticated but empty.”
Now things get weird. At this point, Shorin looks like he’s going to condemn the Cultural Production Services Economy. “The current state of affairs,” he could say, “diminishes real cultural items. We should be creating culture for its own sake, rather than in service of another D2C brand.” In fact, he even invokes Naomi Klein to explain how cultural products created for brands are empty and somehow harm the individual. But Shorin hesitates before passing judgment. If cultural items created for brands are so vapid, why, he asks, do we like them? Why do we indulge in “branded experiences” and buy their products?
Shorin’s answer is, roughly, our communities are crumbling. Voluntary associations have all but disappeared in America, religious participation is at an all-time low, we bowl just as much, but more people are bowling alone, etc…. The institutions our grandparents found their friends and spouses in limp along, emaciated, if they remain at all. To find community, we turned to online subcultures and their associated brands to fill the void. But this is not enough. Shorin rightly recognizes these brands are a poor substitute. Purchasing a product does not bring a rich sense of belonging. The necessary practices of a subculture are often several steps beyond just buying or using something. Getting running shoes does not make you a runner, nor does having a substack make you a writer.
Now here’s the twist. Perhaps, Shorin wonders, brands don’t confer a rich sense of belonging because they don’t go far enough. We already gravitate towards brands and subcultures, even if we find them empty on average. Why not take it all the way? Shorin claims “branded subculture is not only possible, not only inevitable, but in fact preferable to the status quo.” I take this to mean there’s a palatable world where all our community involvement happens under the spectre of brands. Maybe when someone asks “where do you hang out with friends?” your answer would be “Soulcycle and Blue Bottle Coffee.”
However, in order for brands to make the sort of communities Shorin envisions, they need to change. Rather than commissioning cultural products from influencers, they need to “create culture” themselves. What Shorin means by culture is something like a collection of beliefs and norms which shape peoples’ behavior. This cashes out to creating communites with common goals and interests. A basic example Shorin gives is the Triple Sphere Hiking Club in France. It organizes excursions and embodies hiking values, but also sells t-shirts and water bottles. Ostensibly, the main product is the community, with the apparel as a way to monetize it.
We can also see Bitcoin and Ethereum subcultures as arenas where the community is the product, and the currencies are secondary. Shorin points out you can join almost any crypto subculture imaginable, from “Bitcoin Christians to Bitcoin carnivores, from Ethereum permissionless free market maxis to Ethereum self-organizing collective decentralized coop radicals.” Holding a certain currency is the price of admission to a community, and the more people join, the more valuable that currency becomes, somehow sustaining the community. I remember a fun piece in Palladium about a reporter going to NFT New York. She spoke to many who described their membership in NFT communities as something that had “transcended their financial interest and become part of their core identities.” One vignette, forever symbolic of the crypto craze for me, is of a drunk man slumping his way through a party for NFT owners. He owned — and I shit you not — a “Cool Cat” NFT which had apparently changed his life. “Before this cat, I was a loser,” he said in earshot of our reporter. “But now,” he claimed, “because of this community, my life means something.”
You may scoff at branded communities. They, you reason, can never provide the kind of belonging, or rich “meaning,” traditional institutions have. Shorin may convince you otherwise. The founders of Soul Cycle have a new company called Peoplehood, which is a subscription psychotherapy service. Given the emotional charge of a Peoplehood meeting, I suspect the organization can cultivate some strong sense of belonging among their members. Shorin also cites The Nearness, which hosts online spirituality seminars. They take members on weeks-long spiritual excursions meant to inculcate religiously-inspired, but secular, values. I have no doubt people have, and will, find these groups meaningful. Corporate communities, despite your intuitions, are not bound to become thinly veiled sales pitches.
Branded communities, according to Shorin, are what’s next. There’s a vacuum where traditional institutions stood, and brands are stepping in. This is fortuitous from the brands’ perspective. As goods and services standardize, organizations need to differentiate themselves. Leaning into ideology, beliefs, and community solves the problem. Of course, Shorin also mentions the risks. Companies exist to make money, not administer communities. (One of my favorite quotes is “The business of business is business”). Even well-meaning people with the correct incentives can abuse their standing. Communities shape people, and it’s our responsibility to shape them well.
At first, I was almost dismissive of “Life After Lifestyle.” It’s written in an idiom I didn’t like. I didn’t think it was useful to think of the world in terms of “brands” or “communities” in the loose senses they’re commonly used with. Shorin’s account of the 2010s and the transition from commissioning culture to “creating culture” also left some to be desired. Were brands really taking advantage of the explosion of internet subcultures? Was some marketer really trying to sell shoes to “pro-anorexia girls” or “cottagecore” adherents? Why does Shorin think branded communities are better than the status quo? Does Shorin equivocate between “culture” meaning “cultural items” in the first half of the essay and “community” in the second? Due to these, I almost put “Life After Lifestyle” down.
But I didn’t. Despite my prejudices, Shorin explained something I could only grasp at. Why — I would have asked myself — was the world being overrun by brands? Big company brands, brand-building, personal brands, protecting the brand? And why is everything becoming a community? There’s the crypto community, tech twitter community, community this, community that, community-led growth, etc… The shallow answer would be to attribute it to trends and nothing more. Sometimes, I’d say, we arbitrarily fixate on a concept until the next one comes. “Life After Lifestyle” knocked me out of this intellectual indolence. Even in the world of twitter, hype, business neologisms, and spin, there are good explanations.
Shorin’s explanation also goes deep. It makes sense in a Freudian narcissism-of-small-differences-way that most of our creative energies go into marketing, buzz, and distribution, because we are all the same. We source the same products from China, use the same platforms to ship them, and use the same payment processors. As Shorin has it, we have the same Liberal Arts degrees and sell the same services. When we can’t differentiate the physical product or how much it costs the consumer, our only choice is to differentiate in the social world.
“Creating culture,” or, community, is supposed to be the next step of differentiation in Shorin’s “Cultural Production Services Economy,” but it’s possible to see it as a step backwards. When brands create communities, they’re differentiating on ideology and practices to sell their products, but they’re also tapping into something primal. Community allegiance is now reckoned with. In addition to buying Triple Sphere Hiking Club’s merch because they jive with its values, members do it because it’s their community. We have a reflexive urge to help the groups we’re part of. This is why we donate to local charities and our alma maters. The community being ours is a strong enough reason to help, even if other groups need it more. If your brother-in-law is an accountant and you need one, you use him. In the same way, if you need an undifferentiated service, you turn towards your network. Once brands achieve community, there’s even less need to differentiate. Social ties make the sale.
An extreme version of Shorin’s community-led world might look like Erik Hoel’s gossip trap. Hoel is not concerned with brands or ecommerce, but the Sapient paradox. The issue is this: humans, despite being roughly physically and genetically unchanged for the last 100,000 years, only started doing interesting things 10,000 years ago. For the first 90,000 years, we were trapped in prehistory without agriculture, complex cultural practices, or, walls. Only relatively recently did the trappings of civilization appear. If we were evolutionary prepared to create civilization long before civilization came, what took so long?
Hoel points to social power. According to him, in lieu of impersonal institutions, we relied on charismatic leaders and gossip to govern ourselves in prehistory. This worked, but was chaotic. Gossip acted as an equalizer, cutting down the ambitious and potential dictators. Tribes adopted, then abandoned, agriculture as they cycled through leaders. They would experiment with patriarchy, matriarchy, egalitarianism, and aristocracy, sometimes alternating between the forms as the seasons did. This is why, according to Hoel, we saw humans living in so many different political arrangements throughout prehistory and tribal chiefs that are “powerful in so far as [they] are eloquent” since there are no formal laws, policies, or institutions that would support or curtail them. Gossip and charisma ruled. When this is the case, all energy goes into reputation management, and none to new things.
The dominance of social power ties Hoel’s gossip trap to Shorin’s Life After Lifestyle. In one, prehistorical humans use charisma and social coercion to rule their small tribes. In another, brands share the same sourcing and supply chain infrastructure, so are forced to differentiate via marketing and community. Both cases involve using social force in the absence of other avenues for influence. Branding, with slick visuals and discount codes, is awfully similar to a Northwest Coast Native American donning colorful garb and throwing a potlatch. Brands and people both have reputations to grow and protect.
I acknowledge there aren’t exact similarities between a theory of prehistory and D2C brands, but I think the comparison is apt. Both point to worlds where, in the absence of an impersonal substrate humans can use to gain advantage, whether that’s via institutions or improving product quality or the supply chain, people turn to the social sphere. Unfortunately, directing our energies toward gaining influence is not always productive. Hoel claims our reliance on charisma and gossip to organize society delayed humanity’s civilizational development. In the same vein, I personally I have trouble seeing what the nth D2C brand contributes. Post-lifestyle brands, as Shorin describes, that create “culture” and community may create some sense of belonging, but they don’t make people materially better off. Make me the D2C brand czar and I’d make the differentiators between D2C brands technological rather than their marketing budgets. To be clear, sales and marketing are important. Better mousetraps do not sell themselves. However, companies competing along social influence alone does consumers a disservice. I want a world where organizations fight to offer better products rather than tie us into their orbit.