“If you want your brand to stand out, you need the guts to rock a (metaphorical) mohawk instead of a man bun like every hipster at your hangout.“
How to Use Your Human Instincts to Rebel Against BS, Stand Out From The Crowd, and Be More Creative.
This is the first ‘episode’ of our new interview series: CREATIVE ATTITUDES.
With these interviews, we’ll be delving into the minds of those who are thinking and living a little bit outside the box and embodying the attitude required to push the envelope on human creativity whilst still being very real and getting results. For this first interview we spoke with Bradford Goodwin of Malcontent.agency.
Malcontent is a marketing agency based in Vienna that has taken inspiration from punk rock to inform their approach to creativity, standing out, and getting their rocks off to take a truly human-centred approach to marketing.
Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us a little bit about “Punk Marketing”. How did you come up with the idea, what is it, and why does the world need it?
We discovered punk rock in our youth and our brains have been marinating in it ever since. It gave us a set of tools for transforming our world – the same way a trampoline changes a gymnast’s relationship with the air. It has two aspects: practice and product.
On the practice side, punk marketing is about values – how we tick, how we live, and how we work. That means applying the good things we took from growing up punk – values like non-conformity, autonomy, honesty, creativity – and applying them to our craft. Our craft is marketing, and we champion it as one of the most potent and liberating forms of direct action. Does that sound like a walking contradiction in 16-hole Doc Martens? We used to think so. In our early careers we struggled to reconcile the anti-consumerism of punk with the mercantile entanglements of our day jobs.
After all, how do you harmonize the worldview of a David Ogilvy (‘The more you tell, the more you sell’) with that of the band Fugazi as exemplified by their song ‘Merchandise’?:
Merchandise, it keeps us in line
But common sense says it’s by design
What could a businessman ever want more
Than to have us sucking in his store?
It might seem impossible to marry these two universes. But when you look at them more closely, you find commonalities.
Ogilvy preached honesty to marketers: “Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating”. His thing was to just be interesting because “You know you can’t bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them into buying it”. Granted, Ogilvy sold a lot of horseshit, but he also deconstructed a lot of bullshit that was in vogue in his time.
And Fugazi? They famously never sold band merch. But they built their distribution, reputation, and (to some extent) sustenance on the back of Dischord, the record label that bandmate Ian Mackaye co-founded and has operated for 40 years. They are nothing if not a successful business model – the business element reflects the self-reliance of punk and is at least as influential as the band’s music. They set an example that said: you can make music on your own terms and pay artists royalties and also buy your employees health insurance and no one can stop you. Dischord has run plenty of ads in their day. But they ran them in Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll. They set the terms.
So there’s no conflict between business and punk per se, but it took years of being the wisecracking loner in the back of the class to teach us that punks are better marketers. And the best marketing is rebellious. Now we embrace our otherness and use it to work in an intelligent, measured, courageous, and resourceful manner.
That’s the practice side of punk marketing. On the product side – the services we provide for our clients – punk marketing means radical differentiation. The market is very crowded now – particularly for tech startups, but really for all but a few big players. If you want your brand to stand out, you need the guts to rock a (metaphorical) mohawk instead of a man bun like every hipster at your hangout. If you want to engage your audience, you have to knock them out with creative, courageous content – not bore them to death with best practices (eh, Mr. Ogilvy?). Most importantly, you need to embrace what makes you unique – to find your singular voice and express your essence through compelling content. This is where we come in.
What are some of the values behind punk rock that modern brands can take on board if they wanna create something meaningful? For example, you’ve spoken about the whole ‘DIY’ approach and analogue ways of doing things back in the day; what might we need to consider bringing back for a more ‘real’ future?
I touched on some of this above. Being self-sufficient, questioning authority, and fighting bullshit are positive actions in a world that’s permanently digitally autoeroticizing. We’re already all creating our own reality within our bubbles at every second, and it’s delivering mixed results, to say the least.
So instead of focusing on what we should try to revive, I’d point to what punk marketing can help us destroy: mediocrity. That, more than anything else, is what’s killing marketing and failing brands.
Marketing right now is similar to music in the mid-70’s: the revolutionary power of ’60s rock has been replaced by bland, over-produced, one-size-fits-all practices that only benefit the industry heads who control the system at the top. The crushed-velvet-suit-wearing Tony Defries of today could be Tony Robbins or Gary V. or whoever offends your sensibilities most, or perhaps a trend or tendency rather than a persona.
Whoever or whatever your enemy is, just have one and be the opposite of that. That’s how we’ll create meaning.
“Whoever or whatever your enemy is, just have one and be the opposite of that. That’s how we’ll create meaning.”
Let’s talk about rebellion. Do you think that do many people try and rebel against the status quo just for the sake of it? What’s the difference between ‘real rebellion’ and the off-the-shelf Hot Topic version?
First, rebellion needs no justification. It just is, and it demands your attention. There’s certainly a difference between rebellion as a fashion show (‘Anarchy: Shop the Look!’) and as a deep-rooted self-expression. But rather than say what is and isn’t rebellion, it might be more productive to describe rebellion in context and by degree and say: the more risk something entails, the more rebellious it is.
In the small southern U.S. town where I went to middle school in the late 1980s, dying your hair cherry red, donning combat boots, and strutting down Broad Street could get you killed. Spending your lunch money at Hot Topic might be the closest you can come to starting a riot where you live.
At some point, you realize that appearance is no longer the essence of rebellion, and then rebellion becomes more about pursuing authenticity within a given context. Does rebellion mean smearing peanut butter on your chest? Maybe. Draping yourself in meat and going to a Discharge show? It was in 1977. In 2021, not owning a smartphone might be the most rebellious thing you can do. True rebels will always find new ways to rebel.
When we spoke on the phone, you said that “Rebellion can be shutting the F up”. What’s the main lesson here for other marketers and brand designers?
That the loudest voice in the room isn’t always the one that has the greatest impact. Some spaces and markets are already so crowded that brands need to dial down the volume to be heard. Nothing pierces a scream-off quite like a whisper. Conversely, if you want to get attention at a Boy Scout Jamboree, you’ll have to channel Sid Vicious.
What would you say is the link between rebellion and creativity?
Creativity is always about disruption. It means shattering the status quo and forming something new from the rubble. To go to the root of the word ‘punk’, it comes from an Algonquin term for ‘material for starting a fire.’ To be punk, and to rebel, is about burning things down to their essence and sculpting something new from the ashes. So there is no creativity without rebellion.
There’s an upside to this creative destruction that is instructive for brands. When you burn something, the fire gives off light. That glow is a is beacon – a signal to your audience. So creativity enables others to find and connect with you.
Do modern brands have a responsibility not to contribute to the BS in the world? How do they live up to this as much as possible (guess there’ll always be some BS…)?
The question is a little like asking ‘Should people be interesting?’ Some are, some aren’t. Otherwise no one would be. The only responsibility brands have is to be themselves, and that’s hard enough. Bullshit is a form of waste, so brands that generate bullshit are ultimately doomed.
Brands that are able to turn a profit by doing something unique and valuable are the ones that people truly fall in love with. They can be a source for good – but there are plenty of examples where they aren’t.
I would differentiate marketing from brand here in the sense that marketers do have more of a responsibility not to spew BS into the world, because BS makes for bad marketing and there’s already so much marketing that we have to deal with. But then: who decides what’s bullshit?
“The more risk something entails, the more rebellious it is.”
When we choose to rebel against BS as individuals and brands we’re ultimately screaming out “NO” to anything that goes against our core essence. How can brands find their core essence without being too cheesy about it? How can they use marketing in a ‘non-evil’ way to connect this essence to the essence of their communities?
They can start by embracing the concept of voice. To go back to the practical side of punk marketing, brands – starting with the individuals who make them up – can embrace punk and rebellion as a mode of being. They can take the good from this, values like autonomy and direct action, and channel that positivity into creating more compelling content that is afraid neither to ruffle feathers nor smooth wrinkles. Good marketing starts with how you conduct yourself. It needs to not be precious, to be hands-on and all hands on deck – creative and constantly seeking to connect meaningfully with people.
How can brands find a personality whilst being real about it?
Get positioning right. Figuring out just what it is that makes you ‘stand out like a mohawk in 1977’ requires talking to your customers, doing quantitative and qualitative research, and also embedding personality in the essence of your company from a very early stage. Branding should be part and parcel of product development, not something that’s tacked on afterwards. Otherwise marketing’s power to influence a product will be haunted by limitations. As for ‘being real’ – for us that means being honest about your purpose. Don’t be coy. If you’re just trying to sell shit, say it already. Whatever you do, just don’t take yourself too seriously.
Something really interesting you’ve mentioned on your site, is that punk rock is about “dissolving the distance between audience and creator”. Can you explain what you mean by this but also how modern brands can take this and apply it to what they do?
In punk, there was zero separation between artist and audience. This lack of distance imbued early punk with a sense of boundless possibility. Suddenly anyone could form a band and contribute something, often in spite of their technical ability as a musician. Knowing how to play scales was not the point – the point was creativity, having something to say. So much for virtuoso guitar noodling.
Modern brands and the marketers who speak for them, can take a lot from this. They can speak to and learn from their audiences like never before. They can stop being precious, put themselves on the same level as consumers, and finally empathize. The can do what bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash did when they first exploded onto the world stage: show that charisma, not elitism, is the key to connecting with audiences and making an impact.
How do we create “common energy” with our marketing stuff?
Sometimes marketing needs to be like a punk show. You have to get as close to your audience as possible, play hard, and blast them into oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll spit on you.
Is rebellion really just an act of communication and connection?
That’s a complicated question. Just to start with the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings or more recently, in global protests against police violence, rebellion and mass action can be forces for connection. But connection is always just one bit of disinformation away from becoming disconnection. So yes and no.
What’s the greatest marketing insight you’ve had recently?
Stop judging the quality of your work by whether you would want your parents to see it.
“Stop judging the quality of your work by whether you would want your parents to see it.”
What’s your vision for your work at Malcontent over the next few years?
We want to function more like an independent record label than a traditional agency. Except that unlike Dischord, we will sell merch. And we won’t stop until everyone has a mohawk.