Following the publication of Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro" in 1957, the term "hipster" has become part of the American lexicon. The image of hipsters has changed in fundamental ways since that time, though, and marketers interested in this segment are therefore faced with some significant challenges in fine-tuning their marketing mixes to appeal to young adults who define themselves as hipsters or who are attracted to the image for other reasons. This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning hipster consumer behavior, including a background, a description of the lifestyle branding theoretical foundation that can be used to formulate marketing initiatives, and the findings that emerged from the research. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.
Although adults of any age may be regarded as "hipsters," this category is commonly regarded as being of primary interest to younger adults. Young adults in any country comprise an enormous market, of course, and marketers are keen to segment this market effectively in order to make their marketing mixes more appealing and effective. Companies that are interested in the so-called "hipster" consumer behavior will therefore require a careful breakdown of the factors that characterize this market segment. As originally conceptualized, "hipsters" were black and were fond of pot. In this regard, Weinstein (1999) reports that, "The hipsters emerged in the 1920s from Black urban communities of northern U.S. cities. Marijuana, which was legal at that time, was their drug of choice" (p. 215). This fondness for pot became inextricably associated with early hipsters as a result of the actions by a white man. According to Weinstein, "Interestingly, a White Jewish jazz musician named Mezzerow introduced marijuana to Black hipsters of Harlem in 1929. By the mid-1930s, Mezzerow's sales activities had woven marijuana into the fabric of the hipster lifestyle" (p. 215).
Although there is no universal definition for "hipsters," some indication of what the term originally meant in the years following Mezzerow's interventions in the black hipster community can be discerned from Osgerby (2001) observation that, "During the 1950s, in its esteem for all that 'straight' society considered deviant, the Beat movement eulogized the hipster as a free-wheeling outsider unfettered by the conventions of society" (p. 187). Likewise, in his 1957 essay, "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," Vettel (1997) reports that Norman Mailer proclaimed that the hero of the so-called Beat generation was "the 'hipster,' an 'American existentialist' composed of a 'menage a trois: the bohemian, the Negro, and the juvenile delinquent" (p. 70). According to Levine (2003), Mailer's essay was just one of the numerous expressions of 'generational rebellion' during the 1950s that "appealed to the presumed authenticity of blackness to deliver white hipsters from the bleak conformity of the nuclear age" (p. 59).
The "bleak conformity" that existed during this period in American history is attributed to the so-called "silent generation," "Matures" or "traditionalists," who won World War II and saved the world for democracy and the so-called "Baby Boomer" generation that followed (Verhaagen, 2005). Hipsters and aspiring hipsters in the Millennial generation include those individuals born between the years 1982 and 2000 (Verhaagen, 2005). This assertion is congruent with the dictionary definition for hipster, which states, "Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter" (Hipster, 2012, para. 1). These young people comprise a substantial percentage of the U.S. population as shown in Table 1 and depicted graphically in Figure 1 below.
Current Estimates of Multigenerational Percentages in the U.S.
Source: Fabre, 2007, p. 55
Figure 1. Current Estimates of Multigenerational Percentages in the U.S.
Source: Based on textual data in Fabre, 2007, p. 55
A growing body of research confirms that these young people are engaging in consumer behaviors that reflect their differences with previous generations. In this regard, Hamilton (2005) notes that, "Young adults, determined to reject their Baby Boomer parents' era of conspicuous consumption, have for some time been practicing selective consumption. Now many are engaging in conscious consumption, making brand choices that offer meaning and substance" (p. 189). Likewise, emphasizing that the Millennial generation represents a $170 billion-a-year market segment, Bielski (2007) reports that, "If, as a boomer parent, you have the sneaking suspicion that your millennial -- or echo boomer -- children are an altogether different breed in their purchasing, consuming, and living habits, you'd be right. You should take that knowledge to reach that segment" (p. 46). Therefore, in the case of hipster consumers, a lifestyle branding approach may be the most appropriate and these issues are discussed further below.
A useful theoretical foundation for evaluating hipster consumer behavior is lifestyle branding because it provides a relational framework in which those factors that contribute to a product or service being regarded as "hipster" can be identified and then used to formulate marketing messages. According to Clark (2007), "Lifestyle branding refers to products and services that allow consumers to purchase an emotional attachment to an identity. Products with identical uses may be branded with various lifestyles" (p. 69). This means that companies can use different marketing methods for different target markets for identical products or services. In this regard, Clark advises that, "For instance, an Apple iPod functions in the same way as other mp3 players (e.g., it allows one to store and transport music), but it connotes an urban hipster lifestyle, unlike similar products by other brands, such as Sony and SanDisk" (p. 69). On the one hand, this also means that the hipster segment may be attracted to certain product features and attributes that reflect their lifestyle. On the other hand, though, brand loyalty among other market segments might be adversely affected if a brand strays over the line and assumes negative qualities by becoming "too hipster" and these issues are discussed further below.
Some authorities maintain that the hipster lifestyle is a relatively transient phenomenon, while others argue that it remains a significant influence on consumer behavior. For example, Hamilton and Denniss (2005) report that, "For the first time in their lives, young Americans are faced with international criticism of the United States for its 'wasteful and self-indulgent' way of life. In response they are becoming less concerned with maintaining their 'hipster' lifestyles and more focused upon what is truly meaningful to them and to the world at large" (p. 189). Conversely, writing several years later, citing the growing snowboarding phenomenon, Maltbie (2010) emphasizes that, "The boarders' flare, hipster lifestyle, and impressive displays of speed, technique, and control have won the sport fans from around the world and helped to make the snowboarding events among the most popular of the [Olympic] Winter Games" (p. 37).
Clearly, the hipster lifestyle can connote positive features, but there are also a number of negative attributes associated with the hipster lifestyle that border on the gangsta which can likewise contain both positive and negative images. In the case of hipsters, though, there are mixed signals, with the "White Negro" remaining salient, but with a tendency towards redefining the concept in ways that will be of interest to marketers seeking to reach this market segment. According to a report from Greif (2010) concerning New York's Lower East Side, "The hipster subculture was pro-consumer, amoral, pro-lifestyle. It credentialed itself as resistant because its pleasures were supposedly violent and transgressive and also what was then foolishly called 'politically incorrect,' such that the hipster's primary means of self-authentication were white hetero masculinity [and] tattoos" (p. 39). Noticeably absent from this assessment of the "White Negro" in recent years is the "Negro." In this regard, Greif adds that, "The uncanny thing about the early-period white hipsters is that symbolically, in their clothes, styles, music and attitudes, they seemed to announce that whiteness was flowing back into the inner city" (p. 39).
In this dynamic white and black, negative and positive assessment of hipster lifestyles, it is apparent that there is much involved in formulating effective marketing messages, especially for conventional brands that appeal to this market segment.
For instance, other authorities have investigated the impact that the hipster label can have on consumers who do not tend to identify themselves in this fashion, but who want to remain loyal to the brand. In this regard, a recent report from the University of Chicago Press Journals (2012) asks, "What happens when the products you love become labeled as 'hipster'? Consumers who identify with these products find creative ways to remain loyal and elude derision" (Who are you calling 'hipster'? Consumers defy labels and stereotypes, 2012, para. 2). This report cites the results of a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Zynep and Thompson (2012)…