(Bloomberg Opinion) — Earlier this summer, two fashion drops illuminated the curious power of the authentically amateur vernacular.
In May, Nike launched the NikeCraft × Tom Sachs General Purpose Shoe:
“Your sneakers shouldn’t be the most exciting thing about you. They are tools, and what matters about your tools is that they work. They do their job so you can do yours. You put them on and forget about them.”
Sensing that such laudable prose might seem laughable from a brand that spends billions promoting the transformative magic of a swoosh, Nike depicted its “ordinary” sneakers scuffed and headlined them “boring” — a nod to the iconic self-deprecation of Volkswagen.
In July, the ballyhooed collab-à-trois between Yeezy, Gap and Balenciaga stepped out of the internet and into the real world. First, it took over the GAP Store in Times Square, where hundreds of Yeethians queued round the block to enter a monochrome retail dystopia:
Days later, ominous black vans swarmed into parking lots in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles where cos-play Squid Game goons dumped industrial sacks and garbage bins crammed with the latest apparel:
In each location, fashion’s first adopters were obliged to scrabble through jumbles of clothing to find the right style, color and size:
Driving these stunts is the desire to have it both ways: to be a fighter in the streets and lover in the spreadsheets.
So, while the “boring” sneakers may claim to be grounded, they still cost $109.99 and share a swoosh with Nike’s Airs. And while Kanye West is eager to distance Yeezy from GAP’s cheesy past, he still needs to shill his $1 billion collab.
Such cynicism is inherently dissonant. If the General Purpose Shoe is an “understated do-everything shoe created to work with every possible scenario,” why buy any other Nikes? And where is the humanity in “dumpster diving” for $240 hoodies and $140 tees, when Everests of clothing rot in landfills to be scavenged by the poor?
Yet dissonance is not a bug, but a feature — one that explains why corporate giants hijack the look, feel and tactical impact of vernacular minnows.
What is Vernacular?
Vernacular buildings are:
- designed without professional oversight
- constructed with at-hand materials
- driven by functional need
- styled by cultural tradition
- constrained by the local environment
Think of log cabins, dry-stone walls or wool-covered yurts:
Vernacular branding operates in the same homespun fashion — as can be seen down most main streets, or in any souk on earth:
For millennia, vernacular branding was the norm — and it still is across much of the world: from street vendors branded by location and personality to small businesses branded by hand.
In recent years, the ubiquity of design technology has empowered even the smallest enterprises to leapfrog the handmade and develop either semi-professional identities …
… or vernacularized versions of corporate giants, as KFC mocked in its 2019 campaign:
Yet for all their aspirations, most amateur brands only emphasize their vernacular standing by falling short of corporate polish in a myriad of ways. Professional branding, like an upper-class accent, contains a multitude of traps and is tricky to fake and sustain.
Once in a while, a genuinely vernacular brand is plucked from its locality and spun out at scale. Take the London delicatessen Lina Stores, a culinary oasis for “homesick Italians” since 1944.
In 2017, the “hospitality development platform” White Rabbit Projects spotted the vernacular charm and scalable potential of this Soho favorite. And now there are five Lina Stores restaurants across London, and one in Tokyo, all of which pay detailed homage to the deli’s original aesthetic — from functional signboard typeface to pistachio-green accents and stripes.
Several of our current megabrands began life with amateur identities, which became increasingly corporate as the stakes (and stocks) rose:
Indeed, a deliberately “boring” and unambitious “corporate vernacular” now exists for mass-market brands like Verizon, Walmart and Spectrum that see no upside in alienating the mainstream:
The power of corporate vernacular to present an unthreatening “value” proposition is illustrated by the discount chain Payless Shoe Source, whose classic 1978 Cooper Black logo was given a generic makeunder in 2006.
In 2018, Payless created a fake luxury boutique in Santa Monica — branded Palessi — where they persuaded dozens of “fashionistas” to pay $200-$640 for kicks worth just $20-$40.
Although the purpose of Palessi was to garner press by trolling shoe snobs, the stunt neatly showed how presentation alters consumer perception at either end of the economic spectrum, and in the middle.
The most glaring examples of vernacular exploitation are evident with own-label “value” packaging which is traditionally amateurish and austere — even to the point of resembling army rations.
Under the guise of “smart” and “essential” value, economy consumers are humiliated for their thrift while they shop. At the same time, premium customers are reassured that paying extra is worth it — not just to “taste the difference” but to be seen to be tasting it, also.
Should you doubt the punitive motives behind such ration-pack austerity, consider that a booming sector of direct-to-consumer blands deploys the plainest designs without for a moment appearing cheap.
In recent years, value packaging has become significantly less spartan — a response to rising consumer sophistication, and to the remarkable success of discount brands like Aldi and Lidl, which have fattened their market share by stealing middle-class hearts. However, in a curious inversion of value branding, both these chains have developed their own luxury-packaged premium lines — Deluxe × Lidle, Specially Selected × Aldi — recognizing there may be limits to the ironic austerity of the affluent “Lidle class.”
Although some 80% of Trader Joe’s products are own label, the grocery chain takes a different approach to “value” and “premium.” Eschewing the tropes of austerity and luxury, Trader Joe’s entire brand proposition is colorful, lively and eccentric — from the Hawaiian shirts of its nautical “crew” to the pun-laden fun of its products:
By incorporating elements from across the vernacular/professional spectrum (market stall > corner bodega > boutique grocery > big-box store) Trader Joe’s earnest amateurism has earned a cult-like following. Of course, the trick only works because the company’s “own-brands” lines (Trader Jose Mexican, Trader Joe-San Japanese, Trader Jacques French, etc.) are often so good they spark endless speculation as to which “big name” manufactures anonymously supply them.
From Anarchism’s hand-scrawled “A” to the retrofitted “Z” of Putin’s Ukraine invasion, the power of the vernacular to subvert the status quo extends effortlessly into politics.
Indeed, the most consequential vernacular branding of recent times may be that which elevated Donald Trump to the presidency. From his bizarre descent down the “golden escalator” on June 16, 2015, everything about Trump’s presidential campaign was vernacular — or, as his former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway put it, “ragtag, underdog, underfunded, understaffed, underestimated.”
Take, for example, the campaign logos of Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg, which combined professional design with user-generated engagement …
… and compare them with Trump’s logos, which were not just homespun by any standard, but seemed to mock the Madison Avenue mindset.
Just as Trump’s logos echoed the amateur branding of small businesses across America, so too did his red “Make America Great Again” cap: Everything about it was vernacular, from the item itself (which echoed the kit of corporate events and local teams) to its mall-machine embroidery (all-caps, crudely stitched in a generic serif font).
Fatefully, the red MAGA hat (unwittingly) referenced not just the semiotics of hometown little-league America, but also that of the “American outsider,” as depicted in movies from “Forrest Gump” to “Paris, Texas”:
It’s improbable that even Trump predicted the MAGA cap’s Rorschachian power to provoke love and loathing with equal ferocity — especially as he likely donned it to safeguard his combover. But alongside his baggy suits, pendulous ties, word-salad rhetoric, off-prompter ravings, Twitter incontinence, juvenile dance moves and a dozen other oddities, the MAGA cap cocked a vernacular snook at the buttoned-down, on-message pros in politics and the media.
All of which is reminiscent of another vernacular politician who thumbs his nose at convention, wears ill-fitting clothes, deploys a unique rhetorical style, rides roughshod over propriety and musses his hair before appearing on camera, the better to cloak his dagger.
The Perfection Trap
The Sisyphean pursuit of “brand perfection” is not just complex and expensive, it can also be alienating.
One reason why populists like Trump and Johnson are popular is that their personal chaos mirrors the chaos of voters. So long as vernacular politicians don’t patronize the electorate (or ever apologize) they can escape any number of political gaffes (and actual crimes) that would immolate their Peter Perfect opponents. As Johnson admitted in 2018: “My strategy is to litter my career with so many decoy mistakes, nobody knows which one to attack.”
The use of the vernacular by professional brands is, likewise, a kind of pressure release; an acknowledgement that seamless polish can be off-putting. For obvious motives of self-preservation, serious commercial concerns can’t stray too far from convention (Elon Musk aside) and so the vernacular tends to be deployed at the edges — for example:
- Pinterest’s use of collision and collage “to create an eclectic, optimistic and vibrant visual world that encourages users to imagine and define their own future”:
- Twitter’s new “imperfect by design” branding which is “ripped. Torn. Bold. Digital. Layered. And courageous” for the “uncut, unfiltered me”:
- Sweetgreen’s celebrity “green teeth” campaign, which borrowed the “faux-pas” vernacular of the Got Milk? mustache:
URL / IRL
The internet poses a challenge for the vernacular. Not only is the Web inherently constrained by technology and usability, but genuinely amateurish websites don’t seem charming so much as unsafe. This doesn’t stop brands vernacularizing themselves online — most notably Gen-Z adorkables (like Nooch, Supermush, MrBeast and Plink!) whose low-fi aesthetic owes much to the amateur enthusiasm of early computer games and Web 1.0:
Of course, OGs like The Drudge Report, Craigslist and Berkshire Hathaway have been defiantly vernacular decades before cutting-edge brands like MSCHF adopted the style:
The rise of social media has allowed big brands to sandpit a vernacular voice, via snarky tweets and hijacked memes. Sometimes this strategy succeeds (Denny’s well-judged wit) and sometimes it stumbles (Radio Shack’s mid-life crisis). But it’s always problematic to dovetail a brand strategy with a social platform — especially those like TikTok and Snapchat that have such a specific look, tone and pace.
Finally, there is the irksome trend of brands (and politicians) “shitposting” deliberately poor content, believing (perhaps correctly) that there’s no such thing as a bad retweet. For example, Vodaphone has just released a (deliberately?) feeble ad campaign based on “Hide the Pain Harold” — a stock-photography meme that went viral in 2011.
Because even the best content can be drowned in the internet’s noise, C-suites are increasingly seeking vernacular kudos (and social media virality) via IRL “guerilla” activations, including:
- “Wild-posting” ads like the indie brands do — on actual hoardings (Herman Miller), or licensed sites (Hulu):
- Collaborating with up-and-comers at the cutting edge — like Calvin Klein commissioning “four pioneering, multi-faceted artists” to reinterpret its monogram logo:
* * *
Taken too far, corporate attempts at unspun vernacular can be inane, or even offensive.
Recently, the homeware bland Parachute was ridiculed for its Spring 2022 catalog cover that featured a woman repotting plants at the end of her bed:
The jewelry brand Mejuri was mocked for adding its earrings to a bowl of Lucky Charms:
And Balenciaga was castigated for claiming to be “committed to the sustainable and ethical management of our operations” while releasing a poverty-LARPing calfskin “trash pouch” (“inspired by a garbage bag”) that costs $1,790.
Yet even the most absurdly vernacular stunts seldom lead to brand immolation — instead they add amateurish grit to the oyster of professional commerce.
In the face of relentless cultural churn, constant competitive disruption and a fragmented media landscape — to say nothing of widening financial inequality — big brands are searching for ways to loosen their corporate carapace, if only for a moment.
And so, by co-opting the tropes of the amateur vernacular, big business can access not just the charm of the low-fi and hand-spun, but its associations with authenticity and sincerity. And if you can fake those, you’ve got it made.
–With assistance from Lara Williams.
To contact the author of this story:
Ben Schott at [email protected]
© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.