I got a few pretty interesting responses on my recent e-mail on branding and marketing.

I was discussing some of the differences between “branding” and “direct response marketing” as it relates to small businesses and some of the misconceptions that occur when people attempt to take principles of branding that apply to large corporations and apply them to their small businesses.

In thinking through this further, I think it’s important to distinguish another layer of signaling behavior that may be very relevant to “success” for entities operating in smaller markets or subcultures where identity becomes a massive part of how consumers interact with an entity.

I’m thinking of things like music subculture, tattoo subculture, or competitive CrossFit subculture.

In each of these arenas, identifying as “the type of person who [listens to Rudimentary Peni (see below)][gets tattooed by Tim Biedron][follows Invictus programming]” is a significant component of why someone may choose to engage with a specific entity.

These environments are a bit tricky in that the degree to which a punk band or a tattoo artist is engaging in conscious “branding” behavior may not be significant, but – within the larger subculture – fans create an environment in which it means something to wear certain t-shirts or to have certain types of traditional flash tattoos.

Is this a branding environment, persay? I’m having a hard time parsing this out, but it seems to me that success in creating a “brand” in these environments has something to do with capturing a latent swell of enthusiasts in a given subculture (ie people tired of the overblown theatrics of 80s hair metal -> cut off t-shirts, blue jeans, and big sneakers for late 80s death metal) as well as a sound or iconography that these individuals can use within that subculture to identify themselves as belonging to a specific group (ie Misfit Athletics’ distinct purple gear at CrossFit competitions).

So, rather than attempting to globally create a signaling environment in which you can say something about yourself through the shoes that you wear or the beer that you bring to a party – which is the game that Nike and Corona are playing – entities in subcultures instead seek to create symbols and ideology that appeal to a specific “in group” within that subculture.

Then, the acolytes and enthusiasts then use those specific symbols to identify themselves since they want to express that “people like us think things like this and wear these kinds of symbols” – which then creates the larger environment within the subculture such that others start to recognize that they too can say something about the type of person that they are by wearing a Bolt Thrower shirt to a hardcore show, having safety pins covering their denim jacket, or painting their fingernails black.

So, rather than a top-down attempt to create a signaling environment as done by large brands and corporations who have already created distribution for their products and are fighting at the margins for marketshare, smaller entities operating in subcultures are instead creating symbolism and ideology that is ideally picked up by a latent group who then latches onto that symbolism to further their movement. Or, there is a group looking for a leader and they then rally around a specific focal point or individual – which can than result in some top down prescription in terms of the types of symbols that a group should use or how they behave.

As Seth Godin says, “The Beatles didn’t invent teenagers.”