When a forest reclaims lost ground, poplars are often the first trees to prosper. They grow quickly, hold the soil together so other things can grow around them, and look fetching from a distance. They don’t last very long, as trees go, but they do an indispensable job in nature. They give a forest a second chance. In this poetic metaphor, in case you were wondering, the forest is marketing. And the poplars are the excruciatingly hip borough of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The phenomenon of Brooklynization has officially reached the point where the cool kids who couldn’t shut up about it 10 years ago now dismiss it as fad. Punditry is thick on the ground. Even as its groovy formula for urban renaissance is repeated in cities around the world—often with explicit reference to the original—the back-to-basics affectations of Brooklynization verge on cliché. The same hand-wringing commentators who were themselves drinking artisanal beer out of mason jars only yesterday now bemoan Brooklyn’s discovery as if the tanks had just rolled into Prague.
I’m not usually one to miss out on a snark-fest, but I think those pundits might have this one wrong. The spread of Brooklynization has manifestly been good for lots of things, from inner city real estate to indie music. And if we let it, it will be transformationally good for marketing.
To understand why, you first have to get past the facial hair, the plaid shirts and the skyrocketing rents and consider how consumerism has been reimagined, there, in the shadow of Wall Street. There’s no doubt that the people who planted the first seeds of this cultural phenomenon were rejecting something, but it wasn’t consumerism. Far from it. They buy things, these people, in moderation, sure, and sometimes oddly, but they buy things. Consuming is specifically part of the deal, even if it’s only on Etsy. No, what they were rejecting was globalization.
The awesome part is, this rejection was not some empty political gesture. It was specifically a commercial one. Brooklynized consumption wanted to be closer to the provenance of its stuff. Wanted it to have a redeeming story. Wanted to display its choices as a form of self-expression. And when the world’s hippest consumers are willing to make consumerism personal again, marketing gets a second chance at relevance.
Marketers are paying attention. Made-here has become the next big thing in brand assets, heralded perhaps by Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” cri de coeur at last year’s Super Bowl. You have to hand it to Whole Foods for including a commercial-scale greenhouse in its new Gowanus, Brooklyn, location, even if it seems like a bit of a stunt. And Levis’ domestically produced jeans are surely a step in the right direction, even if they do cost $130. It’s suddenly becoming fashionable to think about who made your stuff and how. That’s the kind of fertile ground branded marketing hasn’t seen in a long time. And exploiting it would make for better corporate citizens in the bargain.
As with every second chance marketing gets, of course, there are those who will drive it straight into a ditch. False claims of organic ingredients are already common. Invented histories are everywhere you look, from coffee to pickup trucks. And let’s not even talk about the word “artisan,” which has become the “new and improved” of our age. I enjoy a Tostito as much as the next guy, but putting that word next to the pork rinds makes it smell of freshly jumped shark.
Still, the Brooklynization of marketing feels like it needs to stick. It would have been understandable had people just thrown their hands up in disgust and given up on branded consumerism after the mess over the past decade, and we’d be screwed if they had. Instead, they want to give it a mulligan. At the centre of it is an urge to connect with the people behind the things they buy. If that connection isn’t the very soul of marketing, I don’t know what is. Marketers need to rediscover this for themselves, while they’ve still got the protective cover of fashion. Those hipsters won’t last forever.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award