It’s funny how hipsters can be simultaneously objects of ridicule and desire, associated with the new and hip, and also with the most absurd form of consumerism. Have you ever wondered why do we call them hipsters? The earliest known uses of the word are often mixed with a very similar word – hepster. The hepster began appearing in the mid-to-late 30s, and was primarily used to describe a person who is knowledgeable about jazz. According to Oxford the first known use of this term can be found in 1938, when Variety published an article about Cab Calloway’s book, which was referred to as a hepster’s dictionary. Later that year, the New York Amsterdam News referred to “Cab Calloway’s Hipster Dictionary”, and the word began appearing in newspaper on its own the next year.
At the time, hipster and hepster were so interchangeable partially because they came from near-synonymous words (hip and hep), which mean “knowledgeable” and “in-the-know”. The word has obviously come a long way; today, it is mostly used to describe, young Caucasian males in skinny jeans, who sometimes hold a pencil-sharpening class.
While the earliest millennial hipsters rejected mainstream fashion and standards, in the mid-00s, retailers like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel successfully commodified the look and the culture. These retailers gave a chance to suburban teenagers and young adults to pick up outfits that looked vintage, but have never been worn before. 2006 was the definitive breakthrough year for the hipster-centric aesthetic. That year, American Apparel was bought for $382.5 million by an investment company that launched it into the mainstream; Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (the so called “nectar of the hipster gods”) surpassed Coors in sales and Urban Outfitters saw a 44% increase in profits.
Nerds vs Hipsters
We cannot talk about the hipsters, without mentioning the rise of the nerd subculture, because both have dominated pop culture in recent years, and brands have exploited the two personas. Just take for example the Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign from ten years ago, that depicted Mac fans as hipster-types and PC users as boring, suited nerds. While the image of the nerd has since evolved from an old-suit-wearing weakling to an informed tech savant, both personas are very popular with marketers. Just take a peek at Jeep‘s Renegade commercial for the hipster persona, and General Electric’s recent Hammer ad for the nerd. Even though the nerd culture shows no signs of stopping (just look at Marvel’s box office numbers), brand messing based on the hipster persona has been impactful.
The hipster persona is not only facing competition from the nerd, there are other “trendy personalities” competing for the same demographic. Take, for instance, normcore that represents the complete opposite of the hipster, and is characterized by its complete lack of coolness. Aside from fashion, there are other industry segments where hipster messaging has an impact on buying decisions. Dating app services thrive on this, like Tinder – the app that introduced us to swiping left and right. It definitely wouldn’t infiltrate millions of phones if it wasn’t marketed as being cool and accessible.
Being Labeled as Hipster
Now, how do consumers today cope with the idea that some of their favorite products have become labeled as hipster? Well, not so well actually. According to a study published in Journal of Consumer Research, many consumers will abandon brands once their associated meanings are no longer positive. The problem is, the hipster image has evolved from its trendsetting roots to be aligned more closely with trend seeking. The hipsters of the 50s were viewed as counterculture trendsetters who defined the norms of the middle class. On the other hand, modern hipsters mostly are seen as mere trend-followers, and a gullible target demographic that consumes cool, rather than creating it.
Furthermore, a report from the University of South Wales discovered that the “standard” hipster is simply no longer “hip”. The notion is simple – the more commonplace the trend (let’s take beards for example) the less attractive it is perceived to be. However, the hipster culture is not dying – it is simply evolving. And while the “proto-hipsters” may be turned off by the commercialization of their culture, they have inspired a new generation of young urban and suburban teenagers who represent the biggest consumer demographic.