Interview: Are brands guilty of misappropriating working class culture?

An interview with Amplify's Head of Brand, Krupali Cescau...

First published as part of Campaign's coverage of Young Blood: The Formula is Fucked. Read the original articles here and here, published August 2018.

More than half of 18- to 30-year-olds believe brands are glorifying elements of their identity and sanitising their culture to appeal to mainstream audiences, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people.

Brand-experience agency Amplify’s second Young Blood survey explained that this point of view is "gathering momentum" – with 57% of men and 51% of women agreeing with the statement.

The report’s author, Krupali Cescau, brand director at Amplify, said that two years ago, when the agency first carried out its research in this field, it noted a "continuation of high fashion being driven from the street".

She added: "There was a power shift from brands telling young people what was cool to young people reclaiming, reworking and dictating what they should wear and how. Brands were forced to take notice and young people were excited about what that meant for them.

"What we’ve seen over the past couple of years is a growing realisation among young people that this phenomenon has actually become an appropriation of working-class culture that has yielded very little benefit for them."

The report also revealed that today’s youth are reevaluating consumerism. While it may not stop them from buying certain products, brands will have to work harder to connect with them.

With the focus for retail shifting back to price, quality and design, brands will need to find genuine needs to fill. There will be a greater emphasis, therefore, on telling stories compellingly and providing opportunities for young people to engage with products and brands in real life.

Happiness is also still an overriding theme and is seen as the most important measure of success, as the first Young Blood report discovered in 2016.

Campaign asked Cescau about how youth culture has changed over the past two years.

Campaign: The theme of working-class culture being exploited has emerged strongly in the report. What is prompting this reaction?

Cescau: When we spoke with our audience, we heard about the real struggle versus the catwalk version of people's lives. They spoke about upcycling not being a trend but a necessity; the re-use and re-wearing of clothing not being an environmental statement but an economic reality and working-class jobs still being derided. They talked about fashion shoots in locations such as graffiti-ridden alleys and council estates, advertising high-end products they would probably never afford.

At the same time, they are seeing elements of their fashion and music – their identity – being glorified and sanitised for a mainstream audience. They see brands jumping on a bandwagon they have no right to.

What can brands and the government do in response to this attitude?

We need to ensure we start and finish with authenticity. Governments can’t control who gets involved in sub-cultural movements but brands can be mindful of their own behaviour.

Aligning yourself with a cultural touchpoint has to come from a genuine place in your brand’s make-up. We have to encourage clients not to jump on to trends but to really consider if they should be involved at all. If so, what they can add to the culture and how they can move it forward to leave people feeling enriched rather than robbed.

Among the respondents, 43% think brands being involved in culture is a good idea, so the door is definitely open for companies to prove they can be trusted with something so precious.

Can you expand on the main findings with regards to race and explain the implications for brands?

We were surprised by some of the conflicting findings: 72% of respondents think that most people are unconsciously biased against those who aren’t like them. This is a huge statement. Only 7% across all the ethnic groups we spoke to disagree.

This acknowledgement shows a progressiveness in the thinking of our young audiences and an understanding of human nature that is certainly more advanced than in previous generations. Alongside their generally more liberal values, we have seen a real desire to make a positive impact on race relations.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Although 77% think it’s important to be sensitive to the feelings of those around them, almost 60% also think political correctness has gone too far. These two statistics seem completely at odds with each other. It appears our respondents don’t want to be told what they should and shouldn’t say, they want to be trusted to use their best judgment and to sensibly assess where the lines of appropriateness lie.

What were your findings around the term "white privilege"?

The survey found that 39% feel that white people have an unfair advantage in the world, rising to 41% among the youngest group (aged 18 to 21). Delving deeper into these findings through one-to-one interviews, there is a general sense of despondency toward the white male figure that young people feel has ruined the world for them, and an acknowledgement of how unfair the balance of power and wealth has been thus far.

For brands, it’s simple. Young audiences want to see progressiveness, they want to see diversity and they want it to be genuine, not just a token. Brands shouldn’t shy away from the conversation either. It’s a hot topic on the lips of their audiences. Help them fly their flags where they align with your beliefs.

Only a third of young people feel advertising represents them and their communities accurately; what challenge does this present for brands?

If advertisers truly want to be part of young people’s worlds, they must show an appreciation and understanding of them. That means working a little harder to ensure the context in which their products are set is given as much forethought as the products themselves.

The use of lazy shortcuts, stereotypes and traditional gendered roles could do more harm than good. There will always be the conservative vocal minority that will criticise [progressive approaches] but with giants such as Apple and Google – and British darlings Marks & Spencer and John Lewis – leading the way, the rewards are greater than the risks.