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Staying Supreme, Staying Alive

No matter how feverishly industry experts study trends, dig into data and pour dollars into promotion, the elusive thing that makes something a hit and something a miss will always have elements of mystery.

Marketers lie awake wondering how to make something go viral. Is there a formula, a structure, a sequence of steps? Take Pokémon Go. The lightning rapidity with which the game swept across the globe was as much of a shock to game developers and consumers alike.

Supreme Takes the Streets

Pokémon, of course, has a long base legacy that gave it name recognition. But how does a company continue to chart and encourage its viral spiral without getting in its own way, whether by oversaturation or falling off brand? The clothing company Supreme is a case study in action, because they are still on their ascendancy.
One factor that could be an influence in Supreme’s status is scarcity, a tactic that marketers have employed seemingly forever: “Available for a limited time!” “Once sold, not to be manufactured again!” There are only 10 Supreme stores across the US, Japan and Europe, and on the scheduled days they release their collections, the lines are blocks long. Thus the releases are an event, an “I was there—were you?” phenomenon, not greatly unlike when Apple first released its iPods or iPhones, and people lined up overnight at its stores.
This MarketingProfs article discusses a like phenomenon for the fashion brand Zara: “…Zara no longer updates its collection quarterly. Instead, it keeps up with the constantly evolving tastes of fashionistas by bringing new products into its stores twice a week.”

The Growth Spurt of (and Within) Subcultures

There’s a good discussion of the Supreme fan as a subculture unto its own in this Vice article, where “In this group, you’ll find the many denominations of Supreme devotee, from aging hype-beasts and 13-year-old rich kids to skaters, Insta-celebs, and the stamp collectors of the streetwear generation: the guys—and they are always guys—who’ll buy up every color of one specific cap, or the full set of Supreme x Stone Island jackets, or each and every T-shirt featuring the brand’s iconic box logo.”
Active subcultures—at least for a time—have a microbial effect, of small dense patches of life multiplying and multiplying. In the texting/tweeting/Snapchatting species of a subculture, what is cool and where to get it can travel at Pokémon Go speeds. And as the Vice article suggests, “old” (very much a relative term in regards a company that’s not that old) Supreme clothing can go for a premium on places like eBay—shades of paying $800 for a release of Michael Jordan’s original basketball shoes. There’s legacy (think Pokémon again) and buzz: you can’t discount the power of hype combined with an in-group sense to sustain interest.
That the first Supreme store in New York was associated with the skater crowd didn’t hurt either. However the brand has evolved to sell high-end goods, the original outlier authenticity of the skateboard crowd was part of its legacy. And having an instantly recognized logo is a pulsing plus as well. This Racked article even puts the logo in psychological terms: “Red thus makes perfect sense for Supreme. It’s the latest in a long line of chromatic nods to power and authority…Supreme red was rare thanks to the limits of its natural sources; scarcity creates value. But now it is artificial and universal. Supreme red is both a middle finger to subtlety and the most generic hue possible.”
Of course, the middle finger might be given to authenticity itself, since the logo is starting to adorn many more products than just clothing, including basketballs, punching bags and camping chairs. Street cred has its own scarcity factor, which would likely approach a saturation limit in the wake of endless variants on the theme. Does anyone remember what happened to Classic Coke? That lost its carbonation without getting a chance to ride a viral death spiral.

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