A Band-Aid or a million tiny billboards angled across the scratched and scraped arms, legs, knees, and elbows of the entire nation’s skate community? You tell me, Supreme.
Today, consumers are seeking authenticity more than ever. Brands are working harder to convince consumers that they stand for something, have a heritage worth sharing, or a story worth telling. Brands capable of more deeply connecting with their consumers know that understanding their values is no longer enough. To better connect, brands must prove they understand their value system. Brands taking action to tactically showcase how their values align with those of their consumers are creating more compelling activations by driving brand loyalty. This idea can best be depicted in the brand behavior, and corresponding success of the cultural enigma that is underground New York skate brand Supreme.
Supreme started out in 1994 as a small skate store in Manhattan. The brand has since developed a cult following and has had their finger on the pulse of skate, hip-hop and all-around counter-culture for the last 25 years. Today, Supreme has reached luxury streetwear status with their products reselling at sometimes twenty times the original asking price. Supreme has also collaborated with the likes of Nike, The North Face, and Louis Vuitton among others. How did this small skate shop elevate to iconic streetwear status? In part, the very target demographic they were striving to reach was the exact type who comprised the company at its conception. Supreme’s consumer was, essentially, Supreme. But, as Supreme has shown us, it takes more than a common mindset to encourage and sustain 25 years of growth.
Supreme knew that to become culturally relevant, it must engage with its core community in an authentic way. Looking at Supreme’s core consumer, they are first and foremost skateboarders — a subculture that says “I’m going to skate wherever I want, whenever I want.” This is an attitude that is inherently subversive and counter to common culture. As a brand, Supreme’s use of pop-culture imagery (often illegal and unlicensed) on their graphic tees and box-logo hoodies is reminiscent of similarly illegal activities tied to the New York skate scene, such as graffiti, ripping-off posters, and stealing signage meant for public spaces. The idea that the brand can simply place whatever it wants onto their clothing, without permission, is effectively the same skater mentality manifesting in rebellious brand behavior. Behavior that ultimately put Supreme at risk, but, more importantly galvanized their authenticity among rebellious youth everywhere. So, what might be viewed as the very antithesis or branding best practices ultimately wove urban skate culture into the very fabric of the brand’s identity, creating a deep and meaningful connection with their audience at the brand’s onset.
Supreme continued to surprise its consumers by turning up not just in unexpected ways, but unexpected forms. Though a skate brand at its inception and at its core, Supreme has branded everything from espresso makers, crow bars, ash trays, carabiners, step ladders, Everlast punching bags, inflatable kayaks, and even bricks. Many of the items are seemingly unrelated to skateboarding but one could argue that this is intentionally so. Much like the urban skate community, Supreme has always been pushing the boundaries — whether it be with the law after their relentless pursuit of pop-cultural relevance, (stolen images which led to cease and desist letters from the likes of the NHL, NCAA, and even their later collaboration partners Louis Vuitton), or with the lengths to which they extend their brands’ logo to unlikely items. Most recently, the skate brand has been trying their hand at luxury porcelain with the Supreme x Meissen collaboration. This brand extension has delivered fans an exquisite porcelain figure of Cupid piercing two hearts, while wearing a Supreme T-shirt. And with a price tag of $4k, no less. Why? Because no one saw it coming. Like that extra set of stairs below the railing they just lined out.
Supreme’s attitude and never-ceasing desire to push the envelope has built the brand to iconic status. And with limited productions and releases amidst all this hype, Supreme has created an exceptionally high demand, basically engineering exclusivity. Not only are Supreme products selling out their entire season, but are also going for resale at exorbitantly high prices to the point that an entire industry has been created out of “flipping” Supreme. The outcome? Superfans get rewarded for their commitment to Supreme – be it standing in a line that runs around the block on Fairfax Ave, or a graphic tee for the cost of five fully custom skate decks.
As the community might agree, attitude is everything. And the confident rebellion rooted in the larger cultural phenomenon behind “I can do whatever I want” keeps Supreme’s fans begging for more.